I grew up in a church where I was baptized as an infant. I remember looking at my old personal album and seeing a picture of me as a young baby being carried by my Mom in front of the altar where I was baptized. With us then was my Dad and my grandfather who was the minister, as well as my “ninongs” and “ninangs” who witnessed the event. And while I do have some proof that indeed I received the sacrament of baptism, I have no direct memory of it. I may have experienced it but I don’t have a personal or first-hand knowledge of it.
Growing up in the church did not remedy my lack of understanding either. I have witnessed several baptisms in all shapes and sizes performed in the church. I grew up thinking that it was a mere ceremony we conduct in order to “Welcome the baby in the Christian World!” or a good excuse to celebrate the 3 months birthday of a cute infant. In a way, it was either done as a cultural tradition or a family celebration.
To make matters worse, I have come to consider my own baptism as something of least importance. Taken only as a mere ceremony, I have come to accept that my own personal act of “accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” was the basis of my acceptance before God. Obviously, there was a serious lack of doctrinal guidance and understanding at this point in my life. And while I can always put the blame on others, I think I was old enough to take responsibility for my life and actions. I had to seek answers and clarity on the matter.
You may have felt the same way about your own experience in the church. You may have received baptism without any formal explanation or proper instruction about it. We may have come to understand own baptism as something we do in order to “dedicate our lives” to the Lord. We may have considered the act of baptism as a ceremony to initiate new members into the church.
The sacrament, together with the Word, is part of the marks of a true church. As a means of grace, it is essential for any Christian to have a proper understanding of sacraments in order to benefit from the grace it bestows. Which why we labor in our preaching and teaching to ensure the church will be properly instructed on this matter.
Baptism is a personal sign we as believers are called to receive in faith. As a sign and a seal, baptism shows us the double benefits we receive in Christ namely, our justification by the blood of Christ and our regeneration, as well as our sanctification, by the Spirit of Christ. Finally, our baptism was given to us as a sign of the promise of God in which He signed, sealed, accomplished and applied to his people.
We will continue with our study of the sacrament. We will begin with the sacrament of baptism taken from the Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 26, Questions 69 to 71. It is divided into three questions so I decided to divide them into three major topics: (1) Baptism as a personal sign; (2) Baptism and its two-fold benefits; and (3) Baptism as a sign of the promise.
Baptism as a personal sign
When the catechism asked this question: “How does holy baptism signify and seal to you that the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross benefits you?”, notice the way the author asked this question. It was addressed personally to every reader. There is a certain expectation that as a believer, we should understand the meaning and significance of baptism. Either we were baptized as an infant or we received it as an adult, our duty remains the same. We should be able to know the reality that our baptism points to.
This is where understanding baptism as a sign helps. I did not know this distinction growing up because it was confusing enough to relate my baptism to the time I “accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior”. However, when I learned about the baptism being a sign and seal, I began to see the difference between the sign that comes with the water and the thing signified. The reality accompanying the sign was spiritual nature which why we need the see the sign. The sign personally seals it for anyone who believes. Those who were able to receive the sign in faith possesses the reality that accompanies it.
What is this reality? The catechism explained: “In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it gave the promise that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and Spirit wash away the impurity of my soul, that is, all my sins.” This means that the act of washing comes in two ways, the first is external and the second is internal. The first washing comes with the visible water that either poured or sprinkled over our heads then the second washing comes with washing our sins by the blood of Jesus and the washing of all our impurities by the Spirit. As we can all see, the sign points to the reality.
Can we see from Scripture the distinction between the sign and the reality? The concept and term can be found in Romans 4:11-12. Let us read first the passages:
“He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believes without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised (verses 11-12).”
We will not be able to go through the entire argument of Paul here but suffice to say that he was trying to make a case for a righteousness that comes with faith. He pointed to Abraham being justified by faith which was an inspired interpretation of Genesis 15. Under the same event, Paul also pointed out the sign Abraham received which is the sign and seal of circumcision. Simply put the reality (being justified by faith) accompanies with it the sign (circumcision).
Now you might answer back, but that pertains to the Old Testament, we are not anymore required to circumcise in the New Testament. Yes, we know. We are simply pointing out the truth that when God justifies by faith, he also appoints a sign and we at the New Testament were also justified by faith right but by what sign? It is by the sign of baptism. In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul sets the parallel between circumcision and baptism. Let me read the passages:
“In him, you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead (verses 11-12).”
Do we see our own baptism this way? Does it point to what we have done or what the Triune God has done to accomplish and apply the work of redemption in our own lives? Whenever we witness the baptism of others, are we looking at the reality of the blood of Jesus and the washing of the Spirit? If so, then that external washing you received becomes a reality that you now possess. Why? Because the sign is always accompanied by the thing it points to and you as a believer is personally served by it as a visible means of grace.
Baptism and its two-fold benefits
It is rather unfortunate that nowadays baptism is viewed either as our pledge of membership or commitment to discipleship. Stripped of any divine involvement except for the ability that made it all possible, renders baptism as a mere human activity. However, when viewed properly as entirely a work of God, makes it of sacramental importance. Which is why the author of the catechism made sure that those who will read them will understand the double benefits of baptism. The next question reads: “What does it mean to be washed with Christ’s blood and Spirit?”.
The catechism answered by referring to the two-fold benefits of baptism: “To be washed with Christ’s blood means to receive forgiveness of sins from God, through grace, because of Christ’s blood, poured out for us in his sacrifice on the cross. To be washed with his Spirit means to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ so that more and more we become dead to sin and lead a holy and blameless life.”
The first benefit is the washing of justification. It comes with the washing of blood Christ which means to receive the forgiveness of our sins. We who are sinners was declared righteous because Christ died for our sins. His death procured life for us. We are no longer under God’s wrath but are received as God’s sons. We were justified by his blood. This truth was basically a paraphrase of this passage from Ephesians 1:7, “In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.”
The second benefit is the washing of regeneration. It comes with the washing of the Holy Spirit. It is the renewing and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a believer. We know that the Holy Spirit plays an important role in the application of God’s redemptive work. We are not only justified but also sanctified.
“And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Cor 6:11).”
In sum, the visible sign of the water reflects the invisible work of God. Those who are saved by it understand the spiritual significance that it portraits. Sadly, not all have a high view of baptism. Many perform it as a duty without really understanding its reality. As a result, they either neglect it all together or replace it with other means of receiving grace. Ray Orlund put it this way when he wrote:
Dear Friends, If we long for our churches to experience more of this awakening power in the gospel, the remedy is not to invent our own delivery systems for God’s grace. The remedy might be found in correcting our neglect or misuse or corruption of God’s age-old means of grace. We do not need to improve on God’s methods. We might need to engage with God’s methods more reverently and humbly than we ever have before.
Again, baptism is a sign that comes with an external and internal washing. The washings point to the reality of the two-fold benefits that Christ procured for us namely, the washing of justification and the washing of regeneration.
Baptism as a sign of the promise
Lastly, a proper understanding of baptism sees it as a sign of the promise of God rather than a man-made pledge or human commitment. Baptism is a sign that comes with the promise of God through the words of institution written in Scripture. This is what our last question for the day tried to address, “Where has Christ promised that he will wash us with his blood and Spirit as surely as we are washed with the water of baptism?” The author based his answer using several verses. These are the verses often referred to as the Great Commission verses in Matthew 28:18-19 and Mark 16:16.
Answer: In the institution of baptism, where he says: Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mk 16:16).
The words of Jesus are clear and the promise he gave his disciples were fulfilled according to Scripture. None of the things he promised were in any way did not happen. We can surely rely on the promise because the one who made it is steadfast and trustworthy. When Jesus said, whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. And we can take those words to the bank. Every time we witness the sacrament of baptism, we are encouraged by these words. At the same time, as surely as the water being poured over one’s head, we are assured by the promise of salvation and our faith is confirmed. The proper use of the sacraments is vital to the life of a believer.
But we may ask to clarify, are we saved because we received the water of baptism? Well, no. In spite of our high view of the sacrament, we know none of it saves. Only faith saves. Faith is the instrument upon which we receive the benefits of Christ. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16). There is an asymmetrical relation being revealed here. While baptism comes after faith, only faith and not baptism that saves or not condemned. However, properly viewed, the sacraments which seal for us the promises of God encourages our faith. Instead of looking at it from our perspective, we are taken up to view it from the eternal perspective of God. Dr. Sinclair, I believe, rightly observes:
“Baptism is often viewed as though it were primarily a mirror of our spiritual experience of conversion, and as though its core significance were a testimony to our faith in Christ. It is thus interpreted as a sign of our response to the gospel in conversion. But this is not the New Testament’s perspective, and it minimizes the illuminating ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to baptism, not to mention the corresponding minimizing of the blessing of baptism since all the individual tends to see in it is the reflection is his or her own faith commitment.” ~ Sinclair Ferguson (The Holy Spirit, p. 198)
Before we end, I would like to address the question about the inclusion of the children of believers in the sacrament of baptism. Our catechism today may not have addressed it on this specific portion but I would like to remind everyone that the application of the promises of God is extended to our children. Back in Acts 2 when Peter concluded his address to people in Jerusalem, he gave them this admonition which I believe also extends even now to us. He said, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:39).” The promise of salvation extends not only to us who believes now but also to those God gave us as children under our care. Our gracious and loving Father calls us to faith and we are also called to extend the sign to our children. This is what the household of faith practices since the beginning of the church so this is what we also believe that the Scripture teaches.
ZCRC(Imus), baptism is a personal sign we as believers are called to receive in faith. As a sign and a seal, baptism shows us the double benefits we receive in Christ namely, our justification by the blood of Christ and our regeneration, as well as our sanctification, by the Spirit of Christ. Finally, our baptism was given to us as a sign of the promise of God in which He signed, sealed, accomplished and applied to his people. May we attend to the proper use of the sacraments in our church. Let us encourage each other to use it to strengthen our faith in the promises of God. Amen.
Rev. Lance Filio is a minister of the Word and Sacraments at Zion Cornerstone Reformed Church (Imus). He finished his Bachelor Degree in Electronics Engineering at Mapua Institute of Technology and He is currently taking his Master of Arts in Theological Studies (MATS) at MINTS. He lives in Taguig City, Philippines with his wife and three children.