What Is the Relationship of Baptism and Election?

Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002

The Question…

Dear Rev. Schlissel,

We confess in the Heidelberg Catechism that the baptism of our covenant children seals to them the washing away of sins through Christ’s blood and Spirit. We also confess that God preserves His elect. How is it then that some of God’s children reject Him and break covenant? Can God break His promise to preserve His elect? What is the relationship between being a member of the church and covenant and being one of God’s elect?


The Answer…

Dear JB,

I have asked my colleague serving in Lethbridge, AB, Rev. John Barach of Trinity Reformed Church (URCNA), to answer your question. Though you and he have the same initials, that is not why I asked him to answer you. Rather, I have found JB of AB’s approach to this topic stimulating, faithful, practical and productive. His approach stands in stark contrast to many others’, which tend to be insipid, shy of the Biblical mark, and mere bones for contention. Rev. Barach’s answer to this question needs a wide hearing among God’s people. Here it is:

The issue you raise, JB, is important because it has everything to do with our comfort as God’s people and our responsibility to *live* as God’s people. Many people struggle with the doctrine of election. How do you know you’re really one of God’s elect? How do you know if your children are?

And what about those who stray? Did God really make a promise to them? Was their baptism real or was it nothing more than water being spilled?

But God didn’t reveal His election in order to make us unsure of our salvation. Just the opposite: God’s election guarantees our salvation. Nothing can stop God from doing what He chooses to do, and if He’s chosen you, then nothing can separate you from his love.

That’s the comfort we read about in Ephesians 1 where Paul tells us that God chose us in Christ before the creation of the world. Your salvation isn’t rooted in your own choice (you tend to be fickle) but in God’s choice long before you were born.

But how do you know that God chose you? You can’t climb into heaven to see if your name is written in God’s book. God doesn’t reveal it by some special revelation apart from His Word. Rather, He gives assurance of our election through His promises (CD, V.10).

That’s how it is with *all* of your salvation. You’ve never seen your salvation. You’ve never seen election or the forgiveness of sins or your future glorification. But God hands you all of His salvation in the form of a promise. We know we’re elect only because God promised it to us.

Deuteronomy 7 is crucial for our understanding of election. Moses says to Israel, The LORD your God has *chosen you* out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people. That’s election! And every individual Israelite ought to have applied those words to himself: I’m one of God’s chosen people. I’m part of this chosen nation. I belong to the LORD!

And every Ephesian church member hearing Paul’s letter should have said the same thing. Even the children are included in the us there in the first chapter. Paul’s writing to them, too (6:1). God sends preachers to proclaim the promise of His election to His church every Sunday.

But how do you know that promise is really for you and not just for other people in the church, people who’ve advanced further in their sanctification or who’ve had some special experience that convinced them of God’s love?

The answer is that you’ve had the special experience. You’ve been baptized. All God’s salvation — from election to glorification — is found in Christ. And when you were baptized, God promised to unite you to Jesus Christ. That’s what it means to be baptized into Christ. You’re united to Jesus and all His salvation is for you.

At baptism, God promises that you’re really one of His elect: I will be your God and you will be my child. And God never hands out counterfeit promises. If He made that promise sometimes but not all the time, then you could *never* trust the promise. But God’s Word is true and you must trust Him. Doubting your election when God has promised it to you is sin.

But a promise is not a prediction. God never promises that you will be saved regardless of whether you respond to Him in faith and love. His promise always makes you responsible.

Over and over again, the Bible warns about covenant breaking. Not everyone who heard Moses’ words in Deuteronomy 7 believed and lived as God’s people.

And that’s true in the New Testament, as well. Hebrews 10:26-31 warns us not to break covenant with God. Jesus warns His disciples in John 15 that they must remain in Him — with a living, working, fruit-bearing faith — because if they don’t bear fruit they’ll be cut off from Him.

We need to take that warning to heart and impress it on our children. Covenant life is never simply automatic. If your heart doesn’t beat with faith toward God, if you respond to the promise by yawning (Promise, schmomise. When’s the sermon going to be over?), then you will be cut off from Christ and from God’s promise.

But that doesn’t mean God didn’t make a promise in the first place. He did. His promise to you is as real as the water that trickled down your forehead and by that water He was saying that His promise is really for you. And there’s only one appropriate response: He chose me — me, of all people! — and I’m going to live for Him.

When you stray, you can turn back and plead His promise of forgiveness. When you’re weak, you can cry out to Him to give you the Spirit as He promised so that you’ll stand. And when you’re assailed by doubts, you can turn to Him and call Him your Father and know that He really is: He chose you. He said so.

John Barach (403) 317-1950
Pastor, Trinity Reformed Church (URCNA)
113 Stafford Blvd. N.
Lethbridge, AB
T1H 6E3

Dear Rev. Schlissel:

Greetings to you from me and blessings to you from the Lord. In reply to your Good Question column dealing with baptism and covenant, I believe that Mr. JB’s question is incorrectly stated. He asks How it is then that some of God’s children… That’s the wrong premise; God’s children do not reject Him nor break covenant, the elect are God’s children. Amen? If that is our starting point (and it should be) the remaining questions fall apart.

Rev. JB’s answer: The answer is that you’ve had the special experience. You’ve been baptized…And when you were baptized…That’s what it means to be baptized…At baptism, God promises that you’re really one of His elect… Wow! Rev. JB continues: But a promise is never a prediction. God never promises that you will be saved regardless of whether you respond to Him in faith and love. Another Wow! Does the Rev. JB not know that the ability to respond to Him in faith and love is packaged in the promise? And the promise is to His elect. Amen?

I can honor your suggestion that Mr. JB’s questions be submitted to Rev. JB for answer, but I cannot find reason why Rev. Schlissel did not submit the answers.

Blessings to you in all your labors.


Rev. JB Replies to HD:

A brief response to HD’s post. It seems to me that he’s starting from the wrong view of the covenant, namely, that the covenant is made with the elect only. He says, The elect are God’s children. And later on, The promise is to His elect.

But that is not the view of the covenant taught in the Bible or in the Reformed Confessions. The Reformed Confessions explicitly indicate that the covenant is made with believers and their children. We read that in Q&A 74, for instance, as well as in BC 34 and CD 1.17. And that’s grounded on the covenant promise God made with Abraham, which included all of Abraham’s children.

At every baptism, God really makes a promise to the person baptized: I baptize you into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. To be baptized into someone’s name is to be placed in covenantal union with that person. Hence, baptism into Moses in 1 Cor. 10 is union with Moses (see John Murray, Christian Baptism).

If the bank warned you that there were a lot of counterfeit $100 bills out there, you’d be reluctant to accept a $100 bill from anyone. You’d be afraid that it might be a counterfeit. You certainly wouldn’t want to go shopping with it!

And that would be true, too, if God didn’t make a real promise to every person who is baptized. If God doesn’t make a real promise to everyone, if His real promise is only for the elect, then you could never trust the promise He made at baptism. You couldn’t look back at your baptism for assurance or for comfort, because maybe it wasn’t a real baptism after all. Maybe it was only a spilling of water (to use Abraham Kuyper’s words).

But thank God, He never gives out counterfeits. When He speaks, He means what He says. And He meant His promise when you were baptized. And that would be true even if you were later on to reject His promise and break covenant with Him and perish eternally. Even then, it would still be true that God had promised to be your God forever and that His promise was real and really for you.

So, yes, Mr. JB was correct when he spoke about these covenant breakers as God’s children. They were! They received the promise of adoption. To use the language of Scripture, they were bought by the Lord (2 Pet. 2:1) and they were sanctified by the blood of the covenant (Heb. 10:29) and they tasted the heavenly gift and shared in the Holy Spirit and tasted the goodness of the Word of God (Heb. 6:4ff.).

I can agree with HD that at baptism, God promised the ability to respond to Him in faith and love. That’s why I tell my congregation not to sit back and say, Well, I guess I’ve just got to wait till the Spirit gives me faith. After all, I can’t believe on my own, can I? I tell them that the Spirit has *promised* to give them faith — and then I command them to respond to the promise and to believe.

But not everyone who receives that promise — even the promise of faith — will respond to the promise. Some to whom God promises faith will perish in their unbelief. That’s the clear testimony of Scripture.

The promise is to believers and their children, not just to the elect. That’s why it’s a comfort to us: the promise is really for me; I know it because I’ve been baptized. But that comforting promise makes us responsible.

And now I see that my brief response ain’t so brief. That’s what you get for e-mailing me when I’m in the middle of writing a sermon!

Rev. John Barach
AB, Canada

Rev. Barry Beukema responds to Rev. Barach:

Election and Baptism

After reading and speaking with my colleague (Rev. John Barach) regarding his response to JB about baptized children who fall away from the faith, I am constrained to offer a few comments as a minister in the URC.

First, I believe it is exceedingly misleading to say that God promises the election of every baptized member. What God promises is salvation to every baptized member who believes what baptism signifies. By equating the promise of salvation with the promise of election, the eternal and unchangeable decree of God is made conditional upon the faith of the one baptized (contrary to Canons I: Art. 7) and effectually makes the promises of the covenant unconditional. Quite to the contrary, God’s election is unconditional and the promises held out in the covenant sign and seal of baptism are conditional upon faith. As our baptismal form rightly states, “Because all covenants have two sides, baptism also places us under obligation to live in obedience to God. We must cling to this one God . . . We must trust Him and love Him with all our heart . . . We must abandon our sinful way of life, put to death our old nature, and show by our lives that we belong to God” (p. 126 of 1976 Psalter Hymnal, Form #2 Baptism of Children).

To be sure, this condition must be met by God who works such faith in all those whom He has elected to life eternal, but the promises of salvation are conditional upon faith nonetheless.

Assurance of our election, then, springs not from God’s promises held out to us in baptism alone, as Rev. Barach states, but “from faith in God’s promises, which He has most abundantly revealed in His Word for our comfort; from the testimony of the Holy Spirit, witnessing with our spirit that we are children and heirs of God; and lastly, from a serious and holy desire to preserve a good conscience and to perform good works” (Canons V: Art. 10).

Second, to equate Israel’s election as God’s covenant people with the election of everyone within that covenant is grossly inaccurate. In fact, this is precisely the error the Apostle Paul combats in Romans 2 and 9. For “A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit . . . (Rom. 2: 28-29). Contrary to the mistaken presumption of the unbelieving Jews of Paul’s day and of the many unregenerate in the church today, “not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children . . .” (Rom. 9: 5b-7a). Yes, in one important sense all legitimate recipients of baptism are elect: they have been chosen to be included among the covenant people of God. And that is no small privilege! (see Canons III/IV: Art. 7). But, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice of sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” Such “a man deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God under foot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that has sanctified him, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:26, 29).

Third, to declare that at baptism God promises that you are really one of His elect (elected in Christ to life eternal) is contrary to what God Himself says about certain individuals who have received the sign and seal of the covenant. Judas Iscariot was certainly one of these. Without any doubt he was privileged to receive the sign of circumcision and as Peter says “he was one of our number and shared in this ministry” (Acts 1: 17). Yet, as Jesus prays in John 17, “I have revealed You to those whom You gave me out of the world . . . . None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that the Scripture could be fulfilled (vv. 6, 12b: see also Acts 1:16). Furthermore, what about all those who stumble over the stumbling stone of Christ? Peter says, “They stumble because they disobey the message— which is also what they were destined for” (1 Pet. 2:8). Do we dare restrict the number of those destined to disobey the gospel to those outside of the covenant community? How is it possible then, that God can really promise to such people that they are really one of His elect? That would be a counterfeit promise indeed! Make no mistake about it, God really did promise Judas and all the baptized reprobate all the blessings of salvation signified by circumcision and baptism. That is what makes their unbelief doubly reprehensible. That they choose to reject that promise makes them covenant breakers and worthy of the covenant curse. On the Last Day they will not be condemned because they were not elect. No one will. They will be condemned because, like Esau, they were godless, rejected the promise of God, and sold their inheritance rights for a bowl of soup (see Heb. 12:16).

I appreciate Rev. Barach’s desire to instill confidence and assurance in the hearts of those who are baptized. But if God has promised an election that He has not decreed, even in one case, then you could never trust any of His promises. We are not called to put our faith in our election, but in God’s promises to us in Christ, in Whom our election is sure (2 Peter 1:10).

Barry Beukema
Smithers, BC

Rev. Barach replies:

I agree with my colleague that “God’s election is unconditional and the promises held out in the covenant sign and seal of baptism are conditional upon faith.”

God really makes promises to every person who is baptized, but those promises are not predictions (“This will happen no matter whether you believe or not”). Rather, the promises are pledges from God (“This is who I am for you in Christ. These are the riches you have in Christ. This is what I have done, am doing, and will do for you in Christ”).

It’s true that not everyone in the covenant is elect, and that there is such a thing as covenant breaking. Rev. Beukema rightly points to the warnings found in Scripture (e.g. Heb. 10). Some who received the promises of the covenant perish in unbelief. Covenant and election are not identical.

But that isn’t all there is to say about the relationship between covenant and election.

We confess that God saves only those whom He has chosen. But if God then promises you salvation, that promise must necessarily include the assurance that He’s chosen you. If all the riches of His salvation are found in Christ and God has promised to unite you to Christ, then as you believe that promise—which is signified and sealed in baptism—you can be assured that you really are elect.

In the Baptismal Form, we state that when someone is baptized into the name of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit promises to present that person “among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” Since God’s election is unchangeable, the promise that you’ll be among the elect on the day of judgment is a promise that you are elect right now.

The Canons of Dort also link election with covenant. Canons I.17 states that believing parents “ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy.”

Why not? Because God has said in His Word that these children are holy— set apart for Him—”in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended.” These children are in God’s covenant. They are God’s children, and therefore their parents are obligated not to doubt that these children are elect. That isn’t a matter of presumption; it’s a matter of trusting God’s promise.

Rev. Beukema writes: “If God has promised an election that He has not decreed, even in one case, then you could never trust any of His promises.”

But couldn’t you say exactly the same thing about salvation? And yet, as Rev. Beukema says, God has promised salvation to some whom He has not decreed to save. Can we still trust God’s promises then? Of course, because those promises of salvation are conditional.

We must distinguish between the promise and the thing promised. God promises salvation to every baptized person, but not every baptized person enjoys that salvation. Why not? Because not all receive the promise in faith.

And so it is with the promise of election. The election itself is unconditional. God didn’t choose us based on anything in us. Nor did He save us because of anything good in us.

But the promise of election, like the promise of salvation, is conditional. You can live in the comfort of God’s election, you can enjoy God’s salvation, and you will end up among the assembly of the elect in life eternal only if you respond to God’s promises with faith.

God makes a conditional promise of an unconditional election. That shouldn’t seem strange to us. That’s how it was with the promise of election in Deut. 7. God told Israel there that He choose them not because of anything in themselves, but simply because He loved them. His election was unconditional.

And yet that promise could be enjoyed only by faith. Individual unbelieving Israelites were cut off from among God’s people. Later, the kingdom was taken away from Israel and given to another nation who would bear fruit (Matt. 21:43; Rom. 11).

The election was unconditional, not based on anything in Israel. But the only ones who enjoyed the blessings of being God’s chosen people were those who received the promise in faith.

In short, God’s promise of salvation includes the whole of salvation, everything from election in eternity past to glorification for all eternity. But all those riches are found only in Christ. Paul makes that point repeatedly in Ephesians 1. You’re elect in Christ (Eph. 1:4,11), redeemed in Christ (1:7), sealed with the Spirit in Christ (1:14).

In baptism, God promises you that you’re united to Christ. He promises that you share in all Christ’s riches. But in the Baptismal Form, right after we list those promises, we say that all those blessings are enjoyed only by faith.

When you trust in Christ— who is promised to you in baptism— then your election is sure. You can be confident that you are elect because you belong to Christ and you trust in Him. There’s no room for presumption (“I’m elect and therefore I can sin all I like and get away with it”). But there is comfort for those who respond to the promises in faith.

John Barach
Lethbridge, Alberta


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