Proposition 1: The FV, the Lutherans, the Anglicans, the Roman Catholics, and the Reformed all agree that the structure of circumcision is basically the same as that of baptism. Yes, there are differences in the recipients (males and females for baptism versus only males for circumcision), and in the mode (bloody forward-looking sign in circumcision versus backwards-looking bloodless sign in baptism). However, for our purposes, it is the similarity of its sacramental meaning that is our concern. As sacraments, circumcision and baptism function analogously among all these groups (though these groups do not all agree on how they work).
Proposition 2: The main difference between the FV/Lutheran/Anglican/RCC view of baptism and the Reformed view of baptism is that, for the former group, the rite of baptism conveys something beyond sign-ness and seal-ness. The language of sign and seal is therefore (usually) interpreted by the former group to mean “convey what it signifies.”
Proposition 3: We must be careful in how we use the term “baptism.” The way we normally use the term is when we use it to refer to the rite of a minister administering the sign of water in the name of the Triune God. However, the term “baptism” can also refer to the entire sacrament. If we remember our definition of a sacrament, we remember that there are three parts: the sign, the thing signified, and the sacramental union between the two. In the case of baptism, the sign is water, the thing signified is the cleansing blood of Christ, and the sacramental union between the two is the Holy Spirit working faith in the individual, thus connecting the sign and the thing signified. So the term “baptism” can be used to indicate the whole kit and kaboodle, including salvation, though not implying by this that the sign causes the thing signified. The sacramental union of the Holy Spirit working faith in the individual is what causes the thing signified to be present. However, this is not the normal usage of the term, and it is not how I am going to be using the term in this post. I will be using the term in its more familiar usage of the rite of a minister administering the sign of water in the name of the Triune God.
The question before us, then, is not whether baptism has any efficacy. All agree that it does. Where we disagree is in the nature of that efficacy, and the relations of the sign, the thing signified, and the sacramental union, specifically, what causes what. It is the thesis of this post that the sign/seal does not cause the thing signified/sealed. This is proven conclusively by the passage mentioned. I will post it in Greek and in my two favorite translations.
Romans 4:9-11, Greek:
ὁ μακαρισμὸς οὖν οὗτος ἐπὶ τὴν περιτομὴν ἢ καὶ ἐπὶ τὴν ἀκροβυστίαν; λέγομεν γάρ, Ἐλογίσθη τῷ Ἀβραὰμ ἡ πίστις εἰς δικαιοσύνην. πῶς οὖν ἐλογίσθη; ἐν περιτομῇ ὄντι ἢ ἐν ἀκροβυστίᾳ; οὐκ ἐν περιτομῇ ἀλλ’ ἐν ἀκροβυστίᾳ: καὶ σημεῖον ἔλαβεν περιτομῆς, σφραγῖδα τῆς δικαιοσύνης τῆς πίστεως τῆς ἐν τῇ ἀκροβυστίᾳ, εἰς τὸ εἶναι αὐτὸν πατέρα πάντων τῶν πιστευόντων δι’ ἀκροβυστίας, εἰς τὸ λογισθῆναι καὶ αὐτοῖς τὴν δικαιοσύνην.
ESV: 9. Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. 10. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. 11. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well.
HCSB: 9. Is this blessing only for the circumcised, then? Or is it also for the uncircumcised? For we say, “Faith was credited to Abraham for righteousness.” 10. How then was it credited—while he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while he was circumcised, but uncircumcised. 11. And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while still uncircumcised. This was to make him the father of all who believe but are not circumcised, so that righteousness may be credited to them also.
The most important point to notice here is that Abraham had both faith and righteousness before circumcision. If this is true, then circumcision could not have brought about either faith, or the righteousness that comes by faith. The next most important thing to notice here is that both “sign” and “seal” are present in this passage in verse 11. Therefore, neither the sign-ness nor the seal-ness of circumcision brought about the faith or the imputed righteousness. Instead, it was the Holy Spirit working faith in Abraham, which constitutes the sacramental union between sign and thing signified. So, given proposition 1 above, baptism works the same way as circumcision. Therefore the sign-ness and seal-ness of baptism does not bring about faith or the righteousness of faith (imputed righteousness). Rather, it is the Holy Spirit who connects the sign to the thing signified in the believer by bringing about faith. It is faith that is instrumental for bringing about imputed righteousness for the believer.
I can hear the retort already: aren’t you then a Baptist in saying this? On the contrary. I have been seeking to prove that the sign does not bring about the thing signified. I have not been trying to argue that the thing signified has to come about before the sign can be given. I have been arguing instead that the thing signified comes at the time-point of faith, whenever that is. It can come before, during, or after baptism, whenever the Holy Spirit chooses to give it. My target here is those groups of people who want to say that the sign-ness and seal-ness of baptism is instrumental in bringing about what it signifies. I would argue that saying this usurps the position of faith in being instrumental.