The Sign and the Thing Signified: Can You Tell Them Apart?
In Reformed debates about baptism (especially when Federal Visionists are involved), the biggest issue that arises is the degree to which we can echo the New Testament’s language concerining the sacrament’s efficacy, and how much qualification we need to offer when we do it. Ironically enough, I was recently accused of sounding like a Federal Visionist because of an article I just wrote for Tabletalk in which I said things like, “Baptism accomplishes this” or “Baptism produces that.”
Consider these exerpts from Calvin’s Strasbourg and Geneva catechisms:
Question: How do you know yourself to be a son of God in fact as well as in name?
Answer: Because I am baptized in the name of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
Question: Is baptism nothing more than a mere symbol [i.e., picture] of cleansing?
Answer: I think it to be such a symbol that the reality is attached to it. For God does not disappoint us when he promises us his gifts. Hence, both pardon of sins and newness of life are certainly offered and received by us in baptism.
Now, everything in us is screaming that such language sounds way too Catholic (or Moscovite), but we must also admit that it also reflects the language of Scripture itself. Paul says that baptism unites us with Christ in his death and resurrection, Peter says that baptism saves us, and Ananias says that baptism washes away our sins.
How, then, are we to talk about the efficacy of baptism?
I maintain that the answer is found in properly relating the sign to the thing signified. If we can remember to carefully distinguish the outward sign whereby water is sprinkled on a person’s head, and the inward reality of the sinner being cleansed by the blood of Christ, then we can go ahead and speak of the one as if it is the other.
There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other (WCF xxvii.2).
Think of the sign and the thing signified like you would twins: It’s only after you’ve learned to tell them apart that it becomes safe to put them together.