Holy Baptism is one of the two sacraments which the Lord Jesus Christ instituted in the church at the end of his earthly ministry. After his resurrection and just prior to his ascension he gave commandment to his disciples, saying, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matthew 28:19, 20). Ever since that day the church of Jesus Christ has baptized both believers and their seed.
However, as with almost all of the doctrines of Holy Writ much controversy has surrounded not only the truth of the sacraments in general, but of baptism in particular. In this short article we will not go into all the different controversies, but will deal with one in particular, that concerning the false, superstitious view that baptism literally washes away sin. This doctrine was held very early in the history of the church when it was said that the sacrament of baptism was effective ex opere operato. This is a way of saying in Latin that grace is conferred upon him that is baptized through the act performed, that is, through the rite of baptism administered in the church. One of the early church fathers, Augustine, held to this view for he believed that baptism was absolutely necessary unto salvation because it removed the guilt of original sin. This was later adopted by the Roman Catholic Church.
As a result of this false theory there arose yet another evil idea and practice. Since it was believed that the water of baptism literally washed away original sin as well as all actual sins committed prior to the administration of the sacrament of baptism it was a common practice in the third and fourth century for men to put off their baptism until they thought that death was at hand. In doing so they would guarantee to themselves the washing away of all sins committed before they were baptized. In this way they were prepared for death and heaven. We can immediately see that this doctrine is a denial of Christ’s satisfaction for all of our sins by his death on the cross.
Because of this view the Roman Catholic Church insists that an infant be baptized as soon as possible, especially so if there is a danger that the infant might die. An infant not baptized will not experience the anguish of hell, but only natural happiness. However, the joy and happiness of heaven it will not experience. Therefore, because the rite of baptism has within itself the power to regenerate the infant must be baptized in order to be saved and enter heaven.
What we have just stated leads us to see another error, that of baptismal regeneration. According to this view baptism has within it the power to confer the grace of regeneration after which one can believe. One does not have to be a believer to receive what is signified in baptism, but one only has to receive the physical element, in this case, the water of baptism. Neither is there a need for the operation of the Holy Spirit because the water has power in itself apart from the Spirit.
All of this makes the Roman Catholic Church an easy church to be a member of. One need not faith, one need not daily struggle to put off the old man of sin. No, one only needs to partake of the sacraments by means of which in a physical way he will receive forgiveness of sins and entrance into heaven. This physical relationship applies to all the sacraments in the Roman Catholic Church, seven in number.
The Reformed churches have always condemned this false doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, insisting that the relationship between the water in baptism and the grace signified by that water is a spiritual relationship rather than a physical relationship. This is in the very nature of sacraments. Sacraments are signs and seals. Therefore, if, according to Roman Catholicism, the effect is present in the water, then the water is no longer a sign or a seal. Herman Hoeksema in his Reformed Dogmatics gave this definition.
Sacraments therefore are holy, visible signs and seals, instituted by God, through Christ, administered by the church, received by believers and their seed, whereby God in Christ obsignates visibly the invisible grace of His covenant and seals it unto the believers, and whereby He gives unto His church ensigns and banners of His covenant, to separate them and distinguish them from the world.
The water in baptism, then, is first of all a sign. It is a physical, visible reality in our everyday life. In our daily life water washes away the filth of the body. Water as such can only wash away physical dirt and filth. On the other hand, there is the blood of Christ. By the grace of God this blood of our crucified Savior has cleansed us from our spiritual filth, namely, our sin and guilt. We can not see the blood of Christ nor God’s grace. Christ is in heaven in his new heavenly body. God in His grace teaches us what He by His grace has done in the blood of Christ as it was shed on the cross. He uses a picture from daily life. He instructs us that just as physical, visible, earthly water washes away physical, visible, earthly filth, so also does the blood of Christ wash away our sin and guilt. The water, then, as a sign points to the invisible grace of God whereby He saves us through the blood of the cross. Roman Catholicism would have us believe that the water has the power to confer the grace by which our sins are taken away. A sign is meant to point to something which you can not see, but Roman Catholicism says that the sign is that something, thereby confusing grace with things.
Secondly, the water in baptism is a seal, a sign of the authority of its author, a sign that can not be violated or broken. Just what is it that is sealed in baptism? That the believer by faith is righteous before God in Christ. That is also one of the Reformation principles, justification by faith only.
By now we should be able to see the whole picture concerning baptism. Christ died on the cross and shed his blood, which he did in order that he might pay for all the sins of his people. When all his suffering was over, and his blood shed, he had taken all the sins of all his people away. Then he went into the grave in order to rise again by overcoming death so that he might go to glory where he is highly exalted. To be baptized is to be immersed in his blood, to die with him, to be buried with him, and to be raised with him again. All, that we may follow him to heaven where we shall live with him forever.
Thus all the blessings of the cross are signified in baptism. On one side of the blood of Christ is the world with all its lusts. We are part of that world by nature, born into it, corrupt and depraved, under the wrath of God and condemned for all our unrighteousness. All the sins and transgressions which belong to us by nature stain and blot our souls.
But baptism is a sign of how God takes us through the bath of blood, the blood of Christ. By baptism we pass through the bath of the blood which Christ shed on the cross. We follow him into his grave that we may be raised with him. The result is that we stand on the other side of his grave, with his blood having cleansed us from all our sin, perfectly redeemed and glorified. We are cleansed from all the filth of our souls, purged by the Spirit of Christ, sanctified and renewed, enabled to walk more and more according to all the demands of God’s covenant and law. Moreover, we are separated from the world so that we can fight the good fight of faith and persevere to the end and fasten our attention upon our home above where Christ has gone before us. All this is implied in baptism which is rich in spiritual significance.
The sovereign God is the author of this salvation, the blessings of which He applies to our hearts by faith. Therefore, our partaking of the sacrament of baptism is by faith. Literally we are not dipped into the blood of Christ. No, faith alone is the power whereby we are buried with Christ into his death and raised again with him to heaven. Faith is that power which God implants within our hearts and the hearts of those for whom Christ died. Therefore, by faith the elect people of God are planted into Christ as a tree planted into soil. By that same faith all the elect become members of the body of Christ and live in Christ to receive all the blessings of salvation from him. And by faith they are baptized into the name of the triune God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, by faith, as a gift of God, the elect receive all the blessings of the cross of Christ and are saved by the power of God and the grace of the cross.
Seen this way baptism, then, has rich practical significance. Not so for everyone, but only for those whom God has chosen to be His people. The sign is clear to them. When the sign of baptism is given in the church of Christ, then the believers by faith lay hold on all the blessings of the cross. They see with their eyes the sign which God has instituted and ordained. They lay hold on the cross of Christ by faith as the only rock of salvation in the midst of all the turmoil and unrest of sin in the world in which they live and which still is in their own flesh. They appropriate the blessings of that cross for their own as they are signified and sealed in baptism. And they believe the forgiveness of all their sin, and look beyond this life and see their heavenly home which lies at the end of their life’s journey.
And finally, while on earth they assume their obligations which are given them by God’s grace as privileges that they may have as covenant people. They bear the mark of the cross, the ensign of their faith, the banner of God’s party, the standard of soldiers of the cross of Jesus Christ. Thus they live in this life, daily striving with the weaknesses of their flesh, fighting the good fight of faith against sin and the world, clinging to their God in Christ, and confidently expecting the final victory over death and the grave. ♦