Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Meaning of Baptism
He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit. Titus 3:5NKJV
This morning we look at Question 165 of the Larger Catechism, which asks, “What is Baptism?” It gives the answer, “Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself, of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life; and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church, and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s.”
As we saw previously, Jesus instituted only two sacraments in order to show forth and say something about the salvation He had accomplished for His people. The sacraments are signs of the work of salvation as it is applied to each person in the covenant, symbolically picturing to our senses what God really does in the soul of everyone who believes. And likewise they are seals of God’s promise and assurance that this salvation really is mine if I believe. I can know that it is mine for God has applied His own seal to it.
Question 163 taught us that there are two parts to every sacrament. First, there is the outward and sensible sign. Second, there is the inward and spiritual grace. The outward and sensible sign in baptism is the washing with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is what God gives us to do in the church. We administer the water and we say the words. We take care of the sign part, and it is an important part! God made mankind body and soul. We cannot know or believe anything that does not first come through our senses. So God in His mercy gives us a sign that we can see, hear, and feel in our bodies, in order to appeal to our souls that His salvation is for each one of us personally, and that we can trust Him to keep His Word to us, as He in the sacrament swears that He will.
Also, baptism is the sign of admission into the visible church. Thus, Jesus in the Great Commission commanded that disciples are to be baptized in the name of the Triune God. We do not baptize anyone to make them a member of Christ’s body, for that happens only by faith. But baptism is the sign given by God to mark off His people from the world even as circumcision identified the people of God in the Old Testament. Abraham became a child of God by faith. Only later did God give him circumcision as the sign of being in God’s covenant. But even though salvation is only by faith, God commanded Abraham to give the sign of the covenant to everyone belonging to him. The visible church, and the sign of belonging to it, always included the children of believers. This is why we baptize our children, not because we think they are saved or will be saved, but because we recognize they are too are included in God’s covenant even as Abraham’s children were. Baptism is not only God’s promise to us, but it includes our promise to be “wholly and only the Lord’s.” And if we have children, to raise them to also be the Lord’s and to personally affirm the covenant for themselves as soon as they are able.
The inward and spiritual grace signified by baptism is identified as “ingrafting into [Christ], of remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life.” This is what the Holy Spirit promises to do to each person who will believe and what He assures us He has done to each one who does believe. In this way baptism is both a sign and a seal to everyone in the covenant. It is all pictured for us in the symbolism of water washing down the head of the baptized person. God promises to wash away our sins. He assures us that we have the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit applied to us. If we believe in Christ, not in our baptism, but in Christ’s work, we have the reality of the sign and the seal. May God grant us a right us of His sacraments, that we would be grateful to Him for giving us such helps to our weak faith!