The Significance of Baptism
Part Two of the study of the Sacrament of Baptism
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 94-95)
by Bob Burridge ©2011
The Significance of Christian Baptism
In this era of the history of God’s people, believers in Christ are marked out by Baptism. When people come to believe the gospel, they should be Baptized with water in the name of the Triune God. This is one of the things Jesus commanded his disciples to do in the great commission in Matthew 28:19-20.
The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines baptism in its answer to Question 94:
Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.
God has always marked out his people by an outward sign ever since he constituted them as a covenant people in the time of Abraham. The sign he commanded in that era was circumcision. That practice continued until the Apostolic age when the New Testament church became established as the earthly representative of God’s continuing covenant people. The continuity of God’s church in both eras was dealt with in detail in previous studies. (See our syllabus notes on chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession about God’s Covenant With Man, and chapter 25 of the confession about the nature of The Church.)
The changes that took place in the covenant community after the coming of the Messiah were massive and dramatic. The old symbols of redemption were fulfilled and replaced by a new system of practices that looked back upon the finished work which the earlier system prefigured. The change is well documented in the New Testament so that the church would have an authoritative record of them. God alone has the right to direct his people to stop doing what he had formerly commanded, and then begin doing something different. The new system does not indicate a change in God’s plan of redemption. It reflects a completion of many of the promises made in his continuing covenant.
A major change was how members of the covenant community are to be marked out as belonging to the people of God. Circumcision was no longer to be required. Instead the ancient concept of baptism would be used, but with deeper meaning attached. Yet its root meaning continued the primary symbolism it always carried. The practice of baptism would still illustrate washing and purification from moral impurity.
Obviously such a dramatic change would have to be explained. It is not surprising that the New Testament addresses this issue in several places. It was important that the church in its new form should understand this revised requirement. The change of initiatory practice impacted the life of every family among God’s people.
The change in the sign and seal of the covenant involved fulfillment of what the old sign and seal prefigured. The finished work of Jesus Christ as Savior by his death in the sinner’s place changed the practices that represented God’s dealing with the guilt and pollution of sin. The new sign also shows how the redemptive benefit of the atonement is applied by the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the sinner to regenerate him, to bestow upon him a righteousness that was not his own, and to give him spiritual life where before there was death.
The change from circumcision to baptism is much more than just modifying the outward practice. It represents the change brought about by the ending of the era of symbols where the physical nation of Israel represented the church of Christ. To understand this change it is important to briefly review the significance of circumcision.
1. Circumcision was a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community. It marked out the visible church of God at that time. It did not mean that every person circumcised, or every family member represented in the circumcision of the male head of the home, was chosen for redemption before the foundation of the world. It marked the recipients as part of the visible church, not as part of the invisible church which is made up of (and only of) the elect of God.
2. Circumcision was a bloody ritual representing the cutting away of sin and its pollution in the soul. Before the shedding of the blood of the Messiah God used bloody rituals to prefigure what had not yet taken place. It was still future by his promise.
3. Circumcision could only be administered to those outside the covenant community upon a credible profession of faith in, and submission to, the promises of God regarding redemption and his covenant. Believers’ circumcision was mandated in Israel. A person could only receive this sign and be grafted into the visible body of the covenant people if the Elders believed his professed trust in the prefigured gospel was informed and unfeigned.
4. Circumcision was a representation of an invisible and spiritual reality. Moses and the prophets repeatedly told the people they need to be circumcised in their hearts, not just in their bodies (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6, Jeremiah 4:4, etc.). The church was never to be imagined as being made up exclusively of the truly redeemed. There were provisions for removal from Israel of those circumcised members who showed by their rebellion or unbelief that they were not circumcised in the heart.
To see the changes in the New Testament along with the continuity of the underlying meanings, baptism can be described by similar statements.
1. Baptism is a sign and seal of membership in the covenant community, the visible church in this era. It does not mean that every person baptized was chosen for redemption before the foundation of the world. It marks the recipients as part of the visible church, not as part of the invisible church which is made up of (and only of) the elect of God.
God’s earthly representation of his kingdom was expanded after the resurrection of Jesus Christ. It no longer would be seen in just one nation, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That nation prefigured the New Testament church (Galatians 3:14,16, Ephesians 1:12, etc.). The male representation of the family prefigured the federal headship of Christ. This is what male headship over the home was designed to communicate (Ephesians 5:25-31). This limitation of the initiatory ordinance was eliminated in Christ’s fulfillment so that wives and female children would receive the sign and seal of the covenant also.
2. Baptism is a non-bloody ritual representing the washing away of sin and its pollution in the soul. After the shedding of the Messiah’s blood God rescinded the use of all bloody rituals. What they prefigured had been fulfilled.
3. Baptism is only to be administered to those outside of the covenant community upon a credible profession of faith in, and submission to, the promises of God regarding redemption and his covenant. Believers’ baptism is mandated for all those becoming members of the New Testament form of the church. A person could only receive this sign and be grafted into the visible body of the covenant people if the Elders believed his professed trust in the prefigured gospel was informed and unfeigned.
4. Baptism represents an invisible and spiritual reality. Jesus warned that in the New Testament church the tares and wheat are to grow together without attempts to judge the heart.
Excommunication recognizes that the visible church includes some baptized members who come to show no evidences that they are regenerated members of the invisible church of the redeemed. We cannot judge the heart. We only remove those who openly deny the grounds upon which they were admitted in the first place. Baptized believers are reminded that it is the purifying of the heart, not of the body that is important in the eyes of God.
The spiritual import of the sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace continued even though the form of the initiatory rite changed. The connection is clearly referenced in Colossians 2:11-14.
11 In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,
12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,
14 having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
The outward acts of circumcision and baptism are not the issue here. Paul shows that they both relate to an inner change by which we are identified with Christ as our Sin-bearer. This atonement and its application to the believer is what the physical signs and seals represented in both eras.
Many clear references in the New Testament show that membership in the church after the time of Christ is a continuation of the same covenant and promises made to Abraham (see Acts 2:38-39; Romans 3:21; 11:16-17; Galatians 3:14,16,29; Acts 26:6,7; etc.).
Baptism represents the union of the believer in Christ’s victory over sin and its judicial effects. Since the true believer is identified with Christ who is his substitute, he is considered to be free from the penalty of sin which is death, the separation of the offending soul from the presence of God (see notes on the Work of Christ section of our syllabus notes on Jesus Christ, the Mediator, from the Westminster Confession chapter 8).
Sadly, many have missed the main point of Paul’s argument in the previous passage of Colossians 2:12 and Romans 6:3-5 to hijack the words “buried with Him in baptism” as an argument to support the mode of total immersion in baptism. A reading of the context shows that the manner of how water is applied neither supports that view, nor does it have any place in the Apostle’s line of reasoning. In reality the Apostle presents baptism in a sense that is most consistent with the covenantal view presented here.
The reference to being baptized into the death of Christ (Romans 6:3), and to being buried with him in baptism (Romans 6:4) is certainly not represented in immersion under water. Jesus was laid in a tomb, not buried in the ground. The concept that submerging a person under water and his emerging up as if coming out of a grave does not picture at all what Jesus did in his being laid in a tomb with a rock over the door and his coming forth from that tomb. The argument falsely imposes our modern idea of burial upon the actual facts of how the body of Jesus was handled upon his death.
Another serious problem with that argument is that it isolates one image from other similar images in the New Testament. We are also said to be “crucified with Christ” and to “put on Christ”. Neither of these images supports immersion under water and emersion from it. They are not promoting a mode of baptism. This is an inconsistent approach to exegesis and is transparently invalid.
The point the Apostle is making here is that by our baptism into Christ we show our identity with his full and complete work as our Savior. Primarily that work is the purifying of the soul from sin and its pollution. Baptism represents the washing away of the offense of sin, and the removing of the penalty of sin which is death. That debt was paid for in our place by the Savior. His resurrection ensures that we will be raised with him to walk in newness of life. The passage in Romans deals with the results of the applied work of Christ as the believer is given spiritual life in him by purification from sin. It has nothing to do with how water is to be applied to the believer when he is physically baptized into the church.
Water baptism is a symbolic act which in itself washes away nothing. It is a ritual cleansing with promises and conditions attached by God in his Covenant. Ritual cleansings all through the history of God’s people up through the time of the New Testament were commanded in the law of Moses to be done by sprinkling or by pouring.
Baptism then is an initiatory rite of membership in the visible covenant community. It represents our union with Christ for the purification of the soul by his shed blood. It is also God’s covenantal seal upon all who rightly receive it. It does not certify their election and certain salvation. It seals them as part of the covenant community, and as recipients of the promised blessings or cursings of that covenant depending upon the disposition of God’s redeeming grace.
Water baptism also represents another kind of baptism mentioned in the New Testament, the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This shows the coming of the Spirit upon a person to apply the work of Christ in cleansing them from sin. The presence of the Spirit imparts the life which is restored when our separation from God is repaired by the removal of the barrier of our offenses.
This was the promise of John the baptist (Matthew 3:11, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, John 1:26, Acts 1:5). In Titus 3:5 Paul mentions this as “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” Again, the mode is in most proper agreement with sprinkling and pouring since these are the terms that describe what this baptism of the Holy Spirit represents. It is the coming of the Spirit upon the believer. He is said to be “poured out,” “shed forth,” to have “fallen upon” God’s people. Even the symbolism of the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost is that of flames coming upon the people, not of immersing them in fire.
For such reasons we say that baptism, considering its import and meaning, is best represented by sprinkling and pouring rather than immersion under water.
This important topic will continue in one more installment. The next lesson will be about who should be baptized, and how baptism becomes effective.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)
Baptism is the initiatory rite into the visible covenant community. It represents our union with Christ for the purification of the soul by his shed blood. It is also God’s covenantal seal upon all who rightly receive it. It does not certify their election and certain salvation. It seals them as part of the covenant community, and as recipients of the promised blessings or cursings of that covenant depending upon the disposition of God’s redeeming grace.