Counseling and Baptism

I had originally planned to blog on the foundations of Biblical Counseling this week, but Sunday changed my plans.  This week I was blessed to perform my first baptism.  I want to thank Pastor Alan for trusting me with this privilege while he and Kathrine are away at GA.  I want to thank Justin and Cami Goss for agreeing to let me fill in.  I want to thank Jim Eaton and Tim Habecker for their invaluable participation in the event.  So with my mind on that this past week it seemed timely to talk about the connection between counseling and the sacraments, especially baptism (if we have time, we'll talk about counseling and communion later on in the summer), so I'm going to jump ahead of myself and do that and then we'll rewind and fill in the blanks 

One of the flagship churches of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, did a congregational survey several years ago covering a variety of topics.  For the most part they found that there members were in agreement, but there was one subject on which there was either significant disagreement or simply confusion and that was the practice of Paedo-baptism (infant-baptism).  This is, in large part, because most people becoming Presbyterian are coming out of some sort of non-denominational or Baptist background* and so this concept is at best foreign; at worst it has been badly represented to them (I heard a very popular reformed preacher say in a sermon a few years ago that everyone who believes in infant baptism is superstitious).

I will not attempt to provide a biblical or theological defense of infant baptism in this blog (though such defenses are quite possible, despite arguments to the contrary).  In fact, I'm not going to defend the practice at all.  Instead, I want to simply explain what I understand to be a Presbyterian view of baptism and consider some of the benefits this practice offers for those in need of and providing soul care and spiritual direction (biblical counseling).

For the sake of transparency let me briefly share my own experience.  I was baptized as an infant in the Lutheran Church and later rejected infant baptism.  As an adult I was re-baptized by immersion in the Colorado River by my mentor and Navigator staff worker John Voss.  So no matter who's right I'm covered!  While the latter experience was quite meaningful and certainly exhilarating (the water was numbingly cold!) it is my first, and I would suggest only true baptism which I now find most meaningful and from which I derive the most comfort and encouragement in my walk with Christ and this has come only as the result of painful wrestling and study.

What Is Baptism?

To begin with I want to provide an explanation of how I understand Presbyterian teaching regarding the baptism of infants.  First, as I said Sunday, "The New Testament sacraments of baptism and communion are signs and seals of Christ and all his benefits."  This is almost verbatim out of the EPC Book of Worship, but what does it mean?  In short it means that we believe that something actually happens in baptism!  It is more than just symbolizing something that has happened; it actually effects what it signifies.  Think of it in terms of traffic signs and signals.  A stop sign or red light does more than communicate information, it actually communicates (that is it "effects" or creates), for most people, an act -- stopping.

What does baptism signify?  

Again, as I said yesterday,

 "The sacrament of the sign of inclusion, for believers and their children, into the covenant community, the visible church.  It signifies the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the God's seal upon believers guaranteeing our inheritance. Like its Old Testament counterpart of circumcision, baptism does not save the one to whom it is applied, but just as we will pray to set apart this common element of water for sacred purposes, it sets apart the recipient for God's holy purposes."

There are three things I want to highlight here.  1) It is a sign of inclusion in the covenant community, 2) It does not save, 3) It is a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit.

I usually use the term covenant community in order to emphasize the importance of the concept of covenant.  Part of the reason for this is that the New Covenant sacraments have Old Covenant counterparts - in this case circumcision.  Paul makes it clear in his letter to the Colossians that circumcision is the Old Testament counterpart to baptism (Col 2.11-12), and it performed the same role of inclusion into the covenant community then as baptism does now.

This is important because of the second point – baptism does not save.  Baptizing our children no more saves them than circumcision saved Ishmael or Esau or Absalom.  While it does not save them, it does, however, actually do something as I said earlier, which brings us to the third point – it represents the work of the Holy Spirit.  In the Old Testament circumcision represented, primarily**, God's act of choosing Abraham and his decedents to be set apart from among the nations to be his special people (Gen 17.10-14 note the emphasis on God's end of the covenant: "my covenant" "between me and you).  

This is part of the reason it was applied to infant males then.  It was not the child’s choice as to whether he would be included in the covenant people of God – he was a descendant of Abraham.  What was his choice was whether he would walk in that covenant or not.  The rite of circumcision communicated certain privileges and obligations to those who received it.  Likewise, the sacrament of baptism communicates to those to whom it is applied, privileges and obligations, which is one reason why it should not be entered into lightly.  I won't go deeply into what those are here, but I will touch on them as we go.

Whose Work Does Baptism Represent?

At some point virtually every believer has heard it said that baptism is "an outward expression of an inward commitment."  What is meant by this?  Essentially what we're saying (I say we, because I once held this perspective) is that this ordinance is something I do to display to everyone else something that I did in my heart.  My question would be: is this really what baptism is about?  Furthermore, I would pose this question: is this approach sufficiently robust to meet the needs of believers in all facets of their experience?  (In case that bothers anyone, think about it – God doesn’t need these signs, we do.  They were given for our experiential benefit as we’ll see later).  

I would suggest to you that the answer to both question is no.  While, again, I do not have the space in one blog to provide a detailed scriptural bibliography, I would simply state that nearly everywhere the bible gives any explanation of the meaning of baptism the emphasis is on the work of God in saving, not the work of man in believing, and then point you to the Bible to do your own study.  As regards the second question, I would simply put this to you: in a moment of doubt regarding the sincerity of your faith or the assurance of your salvation, how does looking back to your commitment provide encouragement?  The whole problem is that in your soul that commitment has come into question!

May I propose what I think is a more "Presbyterian" perspective on this?  How about the next time someone asks us about our practice, we tell them that baptism (especially of infants) is "an inward expression of an outward commitment."  Does that sound strange?  Let me explain.  

First, the only people who ever see any baptism are the members of the congregation or other group of (normally) believers present at the time.  After that, no one, including the applicant, can see any evidence of their baptism (setting aside pictures and videos which most believers in history didn't have access to).  No one knows you’re baptized when they meet you on the street any more than they would know if an Israelite was circumcised!  At least with circumcision the person it had been applied to saw evidence of it, for us, it's basically done and gone as soon as the water evaporates (that alone provides a disturbing picture in my mind).  So it seems to me to be a pretty poor external sign if that's what God intended for it.  Maybe a tattoo, or an earring like for Old Testament slaves would have been a better idea.  In fact, it seems that the sign was intended for the believer; to be God's inward expression and reminder to the soul that we are his.

Second, as I've already tried to convey, baptism isn't primarily about our act, but about God's act.  This should be evident to anyone who has read what the Bible says about baptism, but for Presbyterians it should be all the more obvious.  We claim to believe that it is God who does the initiating work in salvation.  Not only does he initiate it, but he provides the responding work in us!  He brings us into contact with the gospel, he regenerates our hearts, he empowers our wills, he produces faith in our souls, so that we respond as he originally designed us to – as Augustine said, "you have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless till the rest in thee."  Does not infant baptism far more clearly represent the utter dependence of the believer and the utter independence of God in the act of salvation than believers only baptism?

So this is not primarily about our commitment to God, but about God's commitment (an external commitment) to us! Consider passages like Jn 1.12-13, "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God," or Rom 9.16, "So then, it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy" or again, Php 1.6 "...he who has begun a good work in you will carry it on to completion at the day of Christ Jesus." Does not infant baptism most clearly represent this reality?

The Intersection of Baptism and Counseling

So how could we use a person’s (infant) baptism in a counseling encounter?***  Consider four brief encounters between spiritual friends (in later weeks we'll see how biblical counseling can be broken down into two overarching categories and then further into these four subcategories).

•    A friend is experience a season of grief due to the loss of a spouse or child, a job or lifelong dream: As we strive to show compassion to the suffering soul and assure them that they are not alone we can point them to their baptism as the evidence of God's commitment to never leave them or forsake them and as a reminder that Jesus underwent his own baptism at the Jordan River to identify with his people and moreover at the cross to experience our suffering to a degree he will never require of us, and so understands our sorrow fully. 
•    A friend is informed she is barren, suffers from chronic pain or experiences medical depression: As we attempt to comfort the struggler with the hope that God will not only bring them through their trials but will bring them forth as gold refined in the fire, we can encourage them to appeal to their baptism as the evidence that God has made a commitment complete the work he began in them so long ago.
•    Our children wander from the faith: As we speak into their lives we can impress upon them the urgency of responding to the gospel because of the grace God has already shown them by setting them apart at their baptism because of the special love that he has for covenant children. 
Or perhaps a weary one despairs of God's grace for a grievous sin of the past.  We can ease the overactive conscience by likewise reminding them of their regeneration, the faith produced in them by the Holy Spirit, the cleansing of their sins through faith in Christ and the sealing of their adoption all clearly signified and sealed to them in their baptism.
•    We are walking alongside a younger believer in the process of discipleship.  As we guide growing saints down the paths of righteousness we can encourage them that the process of sanctification is possible and their success is guaranteed because of the power of God bestowed upon them through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, whose work was begun in them even at their baptism.
Can we do all these things without baptism?  Yes, but the point is that the sacrament makes it more visible, more existential, more tangible and so more real for the weary believer.

Final Thoughts

John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, that God gave us the sacraments as visible words because of our "ignorance and sluggishness and infirmity" and because our faith is so "slender and weak" that it needs to be "propped up on every side and supported by all kinds of means."  He goes on to say that God "accommodates himself to our capacity" in the sacraments because we are so tied to the flesh that we need "fleshly" mirrors of spiritual blessings (Institutes 4.14.3).  

Such a perspective paints the sacraments as God's own counseling illustrations.  Here God comes alongside the weak and props them up, sympathizing, comforting, reconciling and guiding the fleshly creature to his heavenly Father.  Indeed, "this is my Father's world!"  What a comfort in sorrow, what support in battle, what joy in trial and power in perseverance this sign and seal of our adoption as sons and daughters of the heavenly Father and King of creation may be!

*I do not use these terms pejoratively, my wife comes from a Baptist background and would in fact be more of a reformed Baptist than strictly speaking Presbyterian.  In other words, we don't see eye to eye on this, so let that be evidence that this is not an issue that has to divide the family of God.

**There were then and are now other, secondary, things that baptism represents, such as the faith of the applicant.  This is especially evident in the baptism of adult converts, while what we are discussing here is especially evident in the baptism of the children of believers.

***All of the things we have talked about are true of believers baptism as well, though perhaps not as evident on the surface.  Therefore, those who have not had this experience need not feel as though they are without its benefits.