On the Needful Duty of Improving Our Baptism

The Westminster Theological Society is a group a ministers in the EPC who are striving to keep the denominational discussions and priorities centered around scripture. In 2017 they began publishing the Westminster Society Journal, which is aimed at EPC ministers, ruling elders, and interested lay people. I contributed an essay to the 2018 volume, ‘The Needful Duty of Improving Our Baptism’. A copy of the journal can be found here.  The opening paragraphs of my essay are below.

“How is baptism to be improved by us?” This, along with the opening words in Westminster Larger Catechism (WLC) 167’s answer, “The needful practice…” are fascinating and provoking, and themselves raise a number of other questions. How baptism is ‘improved’ evokes a number of responses, but within the confession it has a primary meaning: to build upon and complete in purpose. This definition excludes the misconception that the baptism instituted by Christ can be perfected by his disciples. It also excludes the idea of merely “using” baptism being the full scope that improving it entails. Baptism is not just something to be wielded, but something to which we must respond and advance. Carl Trueman puts it this way, “[The WLC] seems to imply that baptism is somehow lacking or can be ‘improved’ in the common sense of ‘being made better,’ but that is not what the catechism means to convey. To improve baptism means to take the reality of baptism seriously and to bring to fruition what it represents.”1

The practice of improving baptism is also not solely a call to remember it, as a memorial to spur us on in sanctification. In his commentary on WLC, Johannes Vos states, “By ‘improving’ our baptism, the catechism means using it to good purpose in our daily life; thus it means experiencing its meaning, and working out its implications, in actual life…this question of the catechism is intended to guard against the all-too-prevalent tendency to regard baptism as a mere rite or ceremony, something to be attended to and then forgotten.”2

Both ideas, using and remembering, are present in the practice of improving baptism, but are inadequate descriptions of it in action. Improving baptism is fundamentally about recognizing what baptism is, and living our lives in light and power of that reality. This requires an understanding of what baptism actually is. As Vos observed, the tendency even among the Reformed is to treat baptism as a ceremony with little meaning following its administration. This is a functionally memorialistic approach to baptism, rendering it in our understanding a bare sign without meaningful connection to what is signified. To truly grasp what it means to improve baptism requires a recognition of what it is that baptism accomplishes. The sacraments possess by divine establishment a spiritual union between themselves, the sign, and the reality signified. The sacraments are often described in terms of what is that they signify and seal.3 Baptism is one of the means by which Christ communicates the benefits of his mediation through the working of the Holy Spirit.4 This often leads to the sacraments being called a means of grace, that is, a means by which Christ communicates his redemptive grace to his people…

1 Robert Kolb and Carl R. Trueman. Between Wittenberg and Geneva: Lutheran and Reformed Theology in Conversation. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2017), 168.
2 Johannes G. Vos, and G. I. Williamson. The Westminster Larger Catechism: A Commentary. (Phillipsburg, N.J: P&R Publishing, 2002), 480.
3 WLC 163, WCF 27-29.
4 WLC 154, 161, WCF 28.6.