Spiritual vs. Water Baptism: A Reformed Distinction?

Heidelberg Catechism & Zacharias Ursinus

Q. 72. Is then the external baptism with water, the washing away of sin itself?
Answer. Not at all, for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Ghost, cleanse us from all sin.

“The same division which we made when speaking of the sacraments in general, is also true of baptism, that there are some forms of speech which are proper, and others which are improper. These forms of speech are called sacramental. It is a proper form of speech when those who receive the sign are said to receive the thing signified, as “he that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved.” The same is true when the sign is said to signify the thing, as when it is said, “baptism is the sign of the washing away of sin.” “He gave unto them circumcision to be a sign of the covenant.” Improper or figurative forms of speech are when the sign is said to be the thing itself, as “Baptism is the washing of regeneration;” and when the sacrament is said to confer the thing, or things pertaining to that which is signified, as when baptism is said to save us. All these forms of speech may be said to have this one signification: Baptism is a certain sign of the remission of sin, and of everlasting life to them that believe: for the figurative speeches which are used in reference to the sacraments are to be interpreted in the same manner as the figurative speeches in reference to sacrifices. Sacrifices are often called expiations for sin, and yet the apostle Paul affirms that the blood of bulls, and of goats, cannot take away sin. So when it is said, “Baptism saves us,” is “the washing of regeneration,” and “the washing away of sin;” it is the same thing as to say, Baptism is the sign of all these things.” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 364-365).

“4. There is, therefore, in baptism a double water; the one external and visible, which is elementary; the other internal, invisible and heavenly, which is the blood and Spirit of Christ. There is, also, a double washing in baptism; the one external, visible, and signifying, viz: the sprinkling and pouring of water, which is perceptible by the members and senses of the body; the other is internal, invisible, and signified, viz: the remission of sins on account of the blood of Christ shed for us, and our regeneration by the Holy Spirit and engrafting into his body, which is spiritual, and perceived only by faith and the Spirit. Lastly, there is a double dispenser of baptism: the one an external dispenser of the external, which is the minister of the church, baptizing us by his hand with water; the other an internal dispenser of the internal, which is Christ himself, baptizing us with his blood and Spirit.” (ibid., p. 372).

“6. When baptism is, therefore, said to be the laver or washing of regeneration, to save us, or to wash away sins, it is meant that the external baptism is a sign of the internal, that is, of regeneration, salvation and of spiritual absolution; and this internal baptism is said to be joined with that which is external, in the right and proper use of it.” (ibid., p. 372).

Lucas Trelcatius

“The efficacy of [baptism], is not ascribed to the outward baptism, or the elements of water, but to the blood of Christ, and the inward baptism of the Spirit, which by a hidden operation conferreth that invisible Grace, which is signified in the outward baptism.” (A Brief Institution of the Common Places of Sacred Divinity, ch. 12, p. 342).

William Ames

Doctrine 7. The outward baptism doth not save us of itself, but the inward. This is gathered from verse 21, “Not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience.Reason 1. Because outward baptism is common to the hypocrites as well as to the faithful. 2. Because it comes not unto the soul. 3. Because it hath no saving power in itself. Use. This may serve to admonish us, not to put too much trust and confidence in the outward Sacraments, or to rely thereupon, that we are baptized and partake of the Lord’s Supper, but  always to seek the spiritual grace of the Sacraments. (An Analytical Exposition of Both the Epistles of the Apostle Peter)

Hungarian Confessio Catholica (1562)

Concerning Twofold Baptism

Inward baptism is the washing of the blood of Christ, by the grace of God in the righteousness of Christ through the Holy Spirit renewing, cleansing, and destroying our sins and regenerating us by the Spirit giving us a new heart. This is called fire and Spirit (it is spoken of in Ezek. 16; Isa. 4, 12; Zech. 13). “We are saved by baptism” (1 Peter 3:21; Gal. 3; Augustine, Book 2, 6; Lombard, Book 4, Dist. 4; Cyprian, on baptism; Chrysostom).

Outward baptism is a washing of water, being consecrated in the name of the Trinity. This is the sign of the remission of sins and of inward baptism. By this baptism, we are baptized into the sign of the remission of sin, i.e., in witness of the remission of sin and heavenly benefits. The sacraments are not applications of the objects of the sacrament or of the things signified. For the application is the work of the Holy Spirit through faith in the promise. The Word is the instrument of the application of salvation. The sacraments are the witnessing seals of the application of grace, salvation, and remission of sin through faith (Basil, On the Holy Spirit, chap. 15; Jerome, on Isaiah 12, Jeremiah, Ezekiel 16, Zechariah 13). (Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries, vol. 2, p. 512).

Westminster Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645)

When administering baptism “the minister is to pray to this or the like effect:”

“That the Lord, who hath not left us as strangers without the covenant of promise, but called us to the privileges of his ordinances, would graciously vouchsafe to sanctify and bless his own ordinance of baptism at this time: That he would join the inward baptism of his Spirit with the outward baptism of water; make this baptism to the infant a seal of adoption, remission of sin, regeneration, and eternal life, and all other promises of the covenant of grace: That the child may be planted into the likeness of the death and resurrection of Christ; and that, the body of sin being destroyed in him, he may serve God in newness of life all his days.”


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