On the other side, Reformed theology understands the connection between baptism and grace in ways that distinguish it from those who identify divine grace too closely with the rite. In contrast to Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and a variety of Protestant churches that speak of baptismal regeneration or of the necessity of baptism for salvation, Reformed theology separates baptism from the bestowal of divine grace in certain respects.
To understand this dimension of Reformed theology, it helps to see how closely baptism is linked to the preaching of God’s Word. John Calvin identified two marks of the true church: the preaching of the Word of God and the proper administration of the sacraments.4 In many respects, these two marks comprise two ways in which the Word of God comes to his people: the preached Word and the visible Word. Because of this close association, Reformed theology has consistently defined the sacramental significance of baptism in association with the preaching of the Word of God.
In Reformed theology, the preaching of the Word in the power of the Spirit is the primary means by which faith and salvation come to those whom God has chosen. No rite may serve this primary role. As Paul put it, “Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
The Belgic Confession (article 33) reinforces the truth that the sacraments serve a secondary role in connection with the preaching of the Word: “[God] has added these [the sacraments] to the Word of the gospel to represent better to our external senses both what he enables us to understand by his Word and what he does inwardly in our hearts, confirming in us the salvation he imparts to us.” The visible rite of baptism is added to the preaching of the Word in order to confirm what is preached and what we experience through the inward work of the Holy Spirit in connection with preaching. As article 33 also declares, through this external confirmation, God “nourish[es] and sustain[s] our faith.”
The answer to Heidelberg Catechism Question 66 echoes this language, explaining that God ordained baptism in order to “make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel” and to “put his seal on that promise.” As the Westminster Confession of Faith (27.1) tells us, the sacraments “represent Christ, and His benefits” and “confirm our interest in Him.” It is in this sense that Reformed standards often speak of baptism as a “sign” and “seal” (Belgic Confession 33; Westminster Confession of Faith 27.1; 28.1; Westminster Larger Catechism 162, 165; Westminster Shorter Catechism 92, 94). As a sign, it visibly depicts the truth of the gospel, including among other things the blessings that come to those who exercise saving faith in the preached Word. As a seal, it confirms the truth that saving grace is found only in Christ.
In the Reformed view, baptism does not normally convey spiritual benefits apart from the preaching and reception of the gospel. Rather, it increases our understanding of the preached Word, nourishes and sustains us in our faith, and confirms the benefits that come through saving faith in the preached Word. Reformed theology’s emphasis on God’s sovereignty and freedom leaves room for the sacraments to work in unexpected ways, but Scripture establishes the norm that the sacraments work in conjunction with the preaching of the Word.
Further, like the preaching of the Word, the sacraments do not guarantee that their recipients will receive the blessings they offer. In this regard, the Westminster Confession of Faith (28.5) reads as follows: “Grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto [baptism], as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it; or, that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.” In this statement are three denials that distinguish the Reformed view from those that too closely identify baptism and salvation: (1) baptism and “grace and salvation” are not utterly inseparable; (2) it is possible for a person to be regenerated or saved without baptism; and (3) not everyone who is baptized is certainly regenerated.
Nevertheless, these denials are followed immediately in this confession (28.6) by an affirmation of the efficacy of baptism, but in terms of divine mystery: “The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, not withstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Spirit, to such … as that grace belongs unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.”
In the Reformed view, baptism is efficacious; divine grace is “really … conferred, by the Holy Ghost” through baptism. Even so, the confession declares that this bestowal is mysterious because it is ordered entirely by the freely determined eternal counsel of God. Grace is conferred “according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time.” The timing of the bestowal of salvation to those who have received the rite of baptism remains hidden in the mysteries of the divine counsel.
To sum up, Reformed theology holds that baptism is a sacrament and not a mere symbol. At the same time, it distinguishes itself from traditions that too closely associate the rite and divine grace.
Baptism as Covenental
A second major dimension of the doctrine of baptism in the Reformed tradition is its covenantal character. The theology of covenant went through significant developments in the first centuries after the Reformation, but a fuller and enduring version appears in the Westminster standards. In the theology of Westminster, “covenant” denotes the manner in which God condescends to human limitations. The Westminster Confession of Faith (7.1) observes that “the distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.” Here “covenant” is a categorical term describing the full breadth of God’s revelation of himself to humanity. In this broad sense, there is nothing in the Christian faith that is not covenantal, defined in terms of God’s revelation to humanity.
To understand how baptism relates to covenant, we must delve further into Westminster’s theology. Divine condescension through covenant takes two basic forms: (1) before the fall into sin, God entered into the “covenant of works” with humanity in Adam (the Westminster Larger Catechism Question 20 refers to this as “a covenant of life”); and (2) he entered into the “covenant of grace” with humanity in Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith (7.2, 3) declares that “the first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam.… Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace.”