Second Helvetic on Baptism
For the most part, I have not read the Second Helvetic Confession. Not because it is not beneficial but because it has been buried as of late. Few people quote or reference it and my copy has gone unread. I began to fix that a couple weeks ago and was taken back by the section on baptism. This section is particularly interesting because it defends the idea that John the Baptist and Jesus' disciples practiced the same baptism (following the opinion of John Calvin). It also, perhaps unintentionally, introduces no distinction between water and Spirit baptism. These two things made my interest in the section grow.
I quote the entire first part in full,
WHAT IT MEANS TO BE BAPTIZED. Now to be baptized in the name of Christ is to be enrolled, entered, and received into the covenant and family, and so into the inheritance of the sons of God; yes, and in this life to be called after the name of God; that is to say, to be called a son of God; to be cleansed also from the filthiness of sins, and to be granted the manifold grace of God, in order to lead a new and innocent life. Baptism, therefore, calls to mind and renews the great favor God has shown to the race of mortal men. For we are all born in the pollution of sin and are the children of wrath. But God, who is rich in mercy, freely cleanses us from our sins by the blood of his Son, and in him adopts us to be his sons, and by a holy covenant joins us to himself, and enriches us with various gifts, that we might live a new life. All these things are assured by baptism. For inwardly we are regenerated, purified, and renewed by God through the Holy Spirit and outwardly we receive the assurance of the greatest gifts in the water, by which also those great benefits are represented, and, as it were, set before our eyes to be beheld.
Let it here be stated the Second Helvetic Confession affirms that baptism does something. Without any later distinction between Spirit/Water baptism, the confession asserts a strong doctrine of Reformed baptism. Water does nothing. But combined with the Spirit it does. Though controversial to some, there are Reformed thinkers who believe only Spirit plus Water is Christian baptism (e.g. Peter Leithart's The Baptized Body) - while still disagreeing with the Lutheran understanding of baptismal regeneration. Baptism does not regenerate in that sense. And yet even Richard Baxter can speak of being "sacramentally regenerate in baptism" (A Christian Directory, I.I.I.II).
It is the Reformed distinction to say that baptism never makes an individual one of God's elect. It does not provide that type of regeneration. And yet, it is Scriptural, and thus essential to confess, that baptism does, in fact, work in an individual that which is promised. Or as the Second Helvetic Confession states, baptism is "to be enrolled, entered and received into the covenant." Some might say that this is a covenant other than the covenant of grace which is only made with the elect. But this type of language is foreign to this confession. This covenant is to be reunited with God's people such that "in this life [we are] called after the name of God."
Baptism is no individual sacrament. It ties us to the historical redemption of God such that it "renews the great favor God has shown to the race of mortal men." It is "by a holy covenant [God] joins us to himself" that Paul has in mind throughout Ephesians 2 & 3. "All these things are assured by baptism" while rightfully assigning the "regenerated, purified, and renewed" life to the Holy Spirit's inward activity.