What does baptism do? Does it infuse us with faith, hope, and love? That’s what some churches believe. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, believes in what’s called baptismal regeneration: Through the washing of water in baptism, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, a person is undoubtedly born again.
Does baptism really do that? Does baptism save us?
For Christians living under the New Covenant, baptism is a sign. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the sign showing that you belonged to God’s chosen, covenant people. Circumcision was a type, or foreshadowing, of baptism, which is the sign that shows you have become part of the new covenant community of faith.
So the children of believers—even babies—are the proper recipients of baptism. And, of course, adults who become Christians but didn’t grow up in the church receive the sign of holy baptism when they join the church.
But what does baptism do? Does God’s grace work by giving people new life when the waters of baptism wash them?
That’s not my position. Baptism is a covenant sign and seal of the promises of God. It’s where the promises of the gospel are exhibited to us. Baptism shows God’s goodwill and love toward his people.
A child who is baptized might be born again. It’s the Spirit of God who gives us new birth in Christ, and he can do that whenever and to whomever he wants. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound of it, but you do not know where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). God’s Spirit is sovereign.
But it could also be that a child who’s baptized doesn’t come to faith until much later in life. That doesn’t invalidate his or her baptism; the promises of baptism—the promises of the gospel—are still real, even when God works later in someone’s life.
So the grace of baptism isn’t necessarily tied to the moment of baptism. That’s a key point. But there are a couple of ditches to avoid. If you’ve been baptized, it doesn’t mean you’re undoubtedly born again. But God does use the holy sign and seal of baptism to communicate his grace to his people—to “speak” his gospel promises visibly. So it’s not that baptism does nothing. It’s a real means of grace. But the promises of God in the gospel exhibited in baptism are received by faith alone.
I believe this view of baptism makes sense of many passages in the New Testament that talk about the power of baptism. If you look at Romans 6, for example, Paul points believers to their baptism to remind them of their union with Jesus Christ and their identity as those who belong to God. So baptism is a real gift that God gives us. It reminds us of who we are in Jesus. The old man—our sinful nature— has died and been buried under the baptismal waters, and we’re alive from the dead in Christ. We were crucified with him, if one sense, in baptism. And so we follow him and live for him in our lives.
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