Not New, but Improved
On one level, I'm glad you wrote with questions about what you're hearing in Christian doctrine class. But, on another level, I wish you hadn't written, because to hear what some professors say about Reformed theology is to hurt my jaw when it hits my desktop.
When your professor says that Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox who visit a Reformed congregation and participate in the Lord's Supper are "improving" our baptism and should be encouraged to do so, he is making a great error in judgment. In point of fact, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox should not be encouraged to participate in the Lord's Supper. When the Lord's Table is properly fenced, everyone should be kept away who is not a baptized member of a church that preaches the gospel and that disciplines its officers and members who depart from it.
But in your letter you raised questions about this language of "improving our baptism," because it sounds foreign and suggests that we can do something to add to what God does. This is a sound instinct. At the same time, the phrase "improving our baptism" is actually drawn straight from the Westminster standards. The Larger Catechism asks, "How is our baptism to be improved by us?" (Q. 167). Because all of our salvation comes from God, it does sound odd to imply that we can improve our baptism.
Now the answer to that question in the Larger Catechism is quick to correct any wrong impression. It is also rather long in its correction (which is why we call it "Larger"). It explains that we may spend our entire lives meditating on our baptismnot simply when we observe its administration, but also in times of temptation, when needing encouragement, and even simply when contemplating our belonging to Christ and his body.
This is not the place to try to explain all that is involved in baptism. Even then the nature and working of the sacraments is a great mystery. But I need to point you toward the Larger Catechism's explanation of baptism as the basis for the idea of "improving" it. Baptism is "a sign and seal of ingrafting into [Christ], of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life." It is also the initiation of those baptized into the visible church, when they "enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord's" (Q. 165).
Because of these realities, we may improve our baptism, for instance, by considering the "privileges and benefits conferred and sealed" in it. Baptism can also lead us to repentance by humbling us for our "falling short" of "the grace of baptism." We are also comforted and reassured "by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized." Baptism prompts us to live holy lives as those who have "given up their names to Christ," and have through the Spirit entered into the body of Christ, the church. All of these realities are related to "improving our baptism" (Q. 167).
In effect, baptism is something we carry around all the time, and the idea of improving our baptism suggests that we should think more about this mark that we bear. I often liken baptism to those old WWJD bracelets that some teens in our church were wearing when you were too young to get caught up in the hype. I guess today they have been replaced by bracelets of various colors, standing for certain matters of social concern or good will. I am still perplexed by the popularity of WWJD bracelets among baptized Christians. The reality of baptism was even more present in the life of a believer than the reminder of a bracelet. Granted, the marks of baptism are invisible, compared to the visibility of a band. But the reality of baptism is so much more engrossing and encouraging than a flimsy strand of plastic or leather wrapped around one's wrist.
In fact, the lesson of improving our baptism is much better than asking what Jesus would do. Much of what Jesus did, he did for us as our Redeemer, and so it is not something that we can repeat. To suggest that we could be like Jesus by emulating what he did is to lean strongly in the direction of the old liberal Protestant idea that Jesus is merely a moral example to be imitated by his followers. Better is the counsel to improve our baptism, because its reality reminds us of our sin, our need for a savior, and what he did to reconcile us to him, and also comforts us in times of doubt, encourages us when confronted by temptation, and points us toward a life a holiness.
So don't take issue with your professor for advancing the idea of improving our baptism. It's his theology of the Lord's Supper that needs work.
Reprinted from New Horizons, January 2009.