Baptism: Infant or Believers’? It may depend on your view of sin

Baptism is a function of the doctrine of sin. That is the point the Dutch Reformed theologian Oepke Noordmans makes in his book, Liturgy in the Reformed Tradition. Interestingly, he makes this point in the context of a discussion of liturgy. To wit, what is the role of the sacraments in the worship service? To discover this, he discusses the meaning of the sacraments, examining Luther’s and Calvin’s understanding of the sacraments as expressions of the Word. At bottom, he concludes, the sacraments communicate the reality of existence. And that reality is original sin and the need for sacrifice. 

This dynamic realism [of the modern liturgy], which has its origins in the Greek liturgy, should make way for another realism, the one the people understand when it calls things by their name. The sacrament therefore should not be included under the categories of life, strength, activity. It remains speaking, naming. In baptism, we receive our name. And in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus speaks to us in the words of institution. To this degree, it is good that we keep Word and Sacrament together. But we should not look for the difference only in the area of the senses, as if it only consisted in the Word speaking to the ear and the sacrament to the eye. The distinction in speaking is of a spiritual nature. The Spirit speaks in the sacrament realistically; He says things just as they are. Because of its creative function, however, one could yet bring the Word into connection with life and activity. With the sacrament, this is impossible. The realism that here comes forward lies entirely in the area of the name. Baptism calls the state of birth original sin, and the Lord’s Supper calls the state of death sacrifice, broken body and shed blood. Here there is no question of a breakthrough of life, but rather the contrary. The Roman Catholic church stands here with the Reformed on the right side, despite its errors in relation to the effect of the sacrament respecting this original sin and this sacrifice. Therefore, when we hear Calvin say that the sacraments herein differ from the Word by representing to us the promises ad vivum, this means the same thing as what I just termed realistic in the popular sense. The opinion of the Spirit about original sin and the sacrifice of Christ is given in the sacraments. Reality does not keep preaching in the sacrament; rather, reality is called by its names. And what philosophy and modern liturgy call reality, dynamic reality with its activity and forms, its liturgical life, is hard to find. Here we are in another world: the biblical world. Sin is pointed at with the finger, and the mercy of God is shown in the sacrifice of Christ.

To that degree one might say that the sacraments are yet more truthful than the Word. They are like the Amen after the Our Father, as the Heidelberg Catechism explains it, and where the Spirit elevates God’s promises “above the level of nature”[1] and above the psychological mediation of the Word. But at the same time, one would have to say they have less reality. They are, in an even fuller sense than is the case with the Word, promises. They are even more word, in distinction from life, reality, activity, than the Word itself. Original sin and the sacrifice of Christ signify that “the righteous scarcely are saved;” and the sacraments have reference to both of them. Therefore, God writes these promises for His children on the chalkboard, so that they, from fear and distress, can cast their eyes on them. Luther says: If our sin and our conscience accuse us, we must say to ourselves: I am still baptized.[2] The sacrament has a strong eschatological side. Here, hope takes its place alongside faith.[3]

This eschatological side also allows us clearly to distinguish the sacraments. No more than we may identify Word and Sacrament with each other, may we identify the two sacraments with each other. In modern liturgical circles we hear the rash assurance that there is really only one sacrament or, what boils down to the same thing, an infinite number. This is unbiblical. It is wrong to fade the sacrament symbolically into the “sacramental,” which then would include the entire worship service. Asmussen writes that in the Reformation, Christianity characterized this as a dead end.[4]

Under eschatological light we see that there can only be two sacraments, and we see the difference between those two. They relate to the extremes[5] of life: birth and death, original sin and the sacrifice of the body and blood. We may not identify these two with each other in the manner of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks. That is a pagan, dynamic realism, where life is born from death, so that they are two names for the same thing. The Bible is realistic in another sense. It calls things by their names, so that they can be distinguished. Original sin is called death, and the sacrifice of the body and blood is called life; and both stand in sharp contrast to each other, as evening and morning at the creation. It is impossible to mix them or equate them. “It shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” [cf. Genesis 3: 15]. And in Cain and Abel, original sin and sacrifice are already depicted.

Thus are the sacraments bearers of the mercy of God to the extremes, where “reason succumbs”[6] and where the Spirit can barely make Himself understandable to the soul.[7] They are torches in the night [pp. 43–45].


A child is carried into the church to be baptized, and thereby is withdrawn from the world of original sin into which it was born. Around the table of the Lord’s Supper, those are gathered who according to the High Priestly Prayer are given to Christ out of the world. The sacrament confirms that the righteous can scarcely be saved, and inclusion in the congregation here signifies that one is allowed into the ark of salvation and has found the circle in which one is safe from the daemonic in the world [p. 131].

Baptism is like the Ark, wrote the apostle Peter: “When the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3: 21).

An appeal for a good conscience…. The upshot is, infant baptism corresponds to a specific understanding of sin, the doctrines of original sin and total depravity – Augustinianism. The unspoken corollary is, believers’ baptism reflects an understanding of sin whereby choice remains paramount: one may choose to be cleansed of sin or not, baptism being the cleansing of sin. This understanding of sin, whereby sin is restricted to a function of the will, historically goes by the name of Pelagianism.

Ideas have consequences.

[1] See p. 37 above.

[2] Catechismus Maior, in Ausgewählte Werke, vol. IV, p. 492.

[3] In the Rapport of the Union for Church Renewal, the Christian hope waits for the fulfillment of the form that life has in the worship service. But the Christian hope expects the fulfillment of a promise, not of a form (cf. Calvin, Institutes, III. 2. 42).

[4] Op. cit., p. 35.

[5] τὰ ἔσχατα.

[6] Anna Bijns [1493–1575; Flemish nun].

[7] Asmussen (op. cit., p. 39) has a similar thought, but he also gets held up by the sensory distinction between the means of grace.