The Significance of Baptism
The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are gifts from God that we receive. He is the giver. We are the receiver. God is active in the sacraments. Our part is to receive the sacraments, believing in what these physical signs signify to us. In catechism question 47, we ask, “What does baptism signify?”
Baptism signifies that as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly the blood of Christ and His Spirit washes away all our sins.
Baptism Signifies That We Are Dirty
As we ponder the significance of baptism, let’s not make too much or too little of this sacrament. We make too much of it when we forget that it is a sign. The act alone, of being washed with water, can do nothing for us. As Baptists, we usually get this point. A physical bath is not what we need because the stain from which we need to be cleansed is the stain of sin. Our sins cannot be washed away by physical water any more than a debt can be forgiven by a check from an empty bank account. The water of baptism possesses no power in itself. It is a sign.
Baptism signifies that we need a bath, that we need to be cleansed. The filth from which we need to be cleansed is not physical but moral and judicial. Sin is a pollutant; it must be dealt with. And the only sufficient cleansing is found in the death of Christ in place of our own death. So the cleansing-agent we need is not water. “What can wash away my sins?” asks the hymn-writer, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” The blood of Christ stands for all that Christ achieved for us by his substitutionary death on the cross. By faith in Christ, his atoning death meets the demands of God’s justice and our sins are thereby cleansed, pardoned, forgiven.
Baptism Signifies That We Cannot Cleanse Ourselves
So let’s not make too much of baptism. If we are baptized but do not believe in, trust in, and hope in the cross of Christ, the act of baptism does nothing for us. If we are baptized but do not believe that we are sinners who need the forgiveness of God, or if we think God has forgiven or will forgive us because we have repented and started behaving better, baptism will do us no good. If we are baptized and believe that the act of baptism is what washes away our sins, rather than the soul-cleansing power of the Savior’s blood, then we are still in our sins.
It is also important, however, that we do not make too little of baptism. When asked why it is that one ought to be baptized at all, the usual answer is, “Because Jesus commanded us to be baptized.” That is, of course, true. But can we see why he commanded us to be baptized? Is there any benefit to be received from it. If God is the giver of baptism, then what is it he is giving and what is it we are receiving?
Baptism Signifies Salvation by Grace
Because of the connection between the sacraments and salvation, we ought to have no difficulty seeing that it is nothing less than salvation that God gives us in baptism. It is not that God sees us as “unsaved” before we are baptized and then “saved” immediately afterward. This makes too much of baptism, making it the basis of our justification, which it absolutely is not. Rather, a genuine believer is saved before he is baptized, since evidence of justifying faith must precede his baptism, we Baptists believe. But we should have no problem seeing that a justified believer also receives salvation in his baptism, since salvation is more than justification. It is an ongoing gift of God’s saving grace toward his chosen ones. Whenever anyone receives this grace, believing in the achievement of God’s crucified and risen Son, he is receiving salvation. He is not justified again; justification is a once-for-all declaration of pardon by God. But the results of justification, the entire, unbroken chain of redemption, include all the saving benefits that come from faith in Christ.
This is why the Bible can say that baptism does in fact save us (1 Pet 3:21). Baptism, when it is “an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,” saves us, not by the act itself, but by the thing signified in the act. When we believe the cascading water of a shower will make us physically clean, we are sure to receive a benefit from participating in it. In the same way, when we believe the blood of Christ, applied to us by the Holy Spirit, will clear our conscience, we can be sure it is so. The waters of baptism tell us that the blood of Christ is able to do for our souls what water is able to do for our bodies.