The Historic (Reformed) Theology of Baptism & the Lord’s Supper in Baptist Confessions & Catechisms

The following examples demonstrate that the historic Baptist position on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper was essentially a credobaptist version of the Reformed view. This contrasts with the views of many Baptists today who conceive and speak of the ordinances as mere acts of the believer (e.g., acts of remembrance, public declarations of faith) as opposed to also being signs and confirmations of God’s promises to us, and thereby means of his grace in the life of the believer.

The Belgic Confession and The Westminster Confession (to be clear, neither of which are Baptist) can be cited as representative of the Reformed view:

“Our gracious God, taking account of our weakness and infirmities, has ordained the sacraments for us, thereby to seal unto us His promises, and to be pledges of the good will and grace of God towards us, and also to nourish and strengthen our faith; which He has joined to the Word of the gospel, the better to present to our senses both that which He declares to us by His Word and that which He works inwardly in our hearts, thereby confirming in us the salvation which He imparts to us.” (Belgic)

“Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him.” (Westminster)

Even The Augsburg Confession (not Reformed, but Lutheran) overlaps with this Reformed view on at least this point: “[The Sacraments] were ordained, not only to be marks of profession amongst men, but rather that they should be signs and testimonies of the will of God towards us, set forth unto us, to stir up and confirm faith in such as use them. Therefore men must use Sacraments so, as to join faith with them, which believes the promises that are offered and declared unto us by the Sacraments.”

So our church, CrossWay Milwaukee (Reformed Baptist), expresses our convictions this way in our statement of faith: “We believe that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordinances instituted by God for the Church as signs to represent Christ and His benefits, and pledges to confirm believers’ interest therein. In this way, they serve our spiritual nourishment when received in faith—the signs themselves not to be confused as actually becoming those things signified nor as having any saving effect in and of themselves. We believe that Christian baptism is the immersion of a professing believer into water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and is properly connected to conversion and inclusion in the church. We believe the Lord’s Supper is a memorial administered with bread and wine designed to commemorate Christ’s death and exhibit believers’ communion with Him as well as each other.”

The First London Confession of Father (1644)

“To this Church He hath made His promises, and giveth the signs of His covenant, presence, acceptation, love, blessing and protection. Here are the fountains and springs of His heavenly graces flowing forth to refresh and strengthen them.”

“That the way and manner of dispensing this ordinance, is dipping or plunging the body under water; it being a sign, must answer the things signified, which is, that interest the saints have in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ: And that as certainly as the body is buried under water, and risen again, so certainly shall the bodies of the saints be raised by the power of Christ, in the day of the resurrection, to reign with Christ.”

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The Church’s Exercise of the Keys of the Kingdom: What Sort of Authority Does the Church Have?

God has created various institutions within creation. To each one he gives particular domains of authority (e.g., parents/fathers over the home, elders the church, the government the state, etc.), and particular ways of enforcing their authority fitting to their particular type of authority.

In other words, not all institutions exercise or enforce their authority the same way. For instance, God has authorized the state to wield the sword (Rom 13). In other words, the state can coerce its citizens by threat of material punishment. The church however is a voluntary society. It doesn’t coerce; rather it persuades. People willingly believe and join, submitting to Christ’s rule.

But Christ did not leave the church without a means of exercising and enforcing its authority. Whereas he gave the state the “sword,” he gave the church the “keys of the kingdom” by which to state who is in and who is out of Christ’s kingdom (see Mt 16:18-19; 18:15-20; Jn 20:23).

The church is like an embassy of heaven that issues passports declaring who belongs to Jesus. Word (teaching, preaching) and sacrament (baptism, Lord’s Supper) are the means by which the church positively exercises this authority, persuading people to believe and obey (Word) and then marking off those who do (sacrament). And church discipline is the way the church negatively exercises this authority—declaring that one in fact is not a citizen of Christ’s kingdom.

But the church can’t make anyone believe and obey. The church doesn’t possess that sort of authority. We can only persuade (Word). And when persuasion fails and someone is unrepentant, which is characteristic of an unbeliever, we declare them so (church discipline). That’s the only authority we have; more importantly, the only authority Christ has given us, and so we dare not overstep those bounds.

Marks of a Church (Diagram)

The following is a chart that seeks to capture the logic of the following confession from Article 29 of The Belgic Confession:

The true church can be recognized if it has the following marks: The church engages in the pure preaching of the gospel; it makes use of the pure administration of the sacraments as Christ instituted them; it practices church discipline for correcting faults. In short, it governs itself according to the pure Word of God, rejecting all things contrary to it and holding Jesus Christ as the only Head. By these marks one can be assured of recognizing the true church—and no one ought to be separated from it.

Marks of a Church

Preaching the Gospel – What creates the church, a community of those who believe the gospel.

Administration of the Ordinances – What marks out and makes known the boundaries of that believing community.

  • Baptism = the initiating rite to mark off those who belong to Christ and his church.
  • The Lord’s Supper = the ongoing rite which continually marks off those who constitute the church.

Exercising Church Discipline – What maintains the proper boundaries of the church, i.e., those who demonstrate lives consistent with their profession of faith in Christ.