This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(69) Q. How does holy baptism remind and assure you that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross benefits you personally?
A. In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it promised that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, that is, all my sins.
(70) Q. What does it mean to be washed with Christ’s blood and Spirit?
A. To be washed with Christ’s blood means that God, by grace, has forgiven our sins because of Christ’s blood poured out for us in his sacrifice on the cross.To be washed with Christ’s Spirit means that the Holy Spirit has renewed and sanctified us to be members of Christ, so that more and more we die to sin and live holy and blameless lives.
(71) Q. Where does Christ promise that we are washed with his blood and Spirit as surely as we are washed with the water of baptism?
A. In the institution of baptism, where he says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”This promise is repeated when Scripture calls baptism “the washing of regeneration” and the washing away of sins.
Christian baptism is a beautiful symbol. Witnessing a baptism—even if you knew nothing about Christianity—might convince you that something significant was happening. But as with most actions, baptism requires explanation. What does it mean to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19)? To keep the ceremony from lapsing into a beautiful but empty or superstitious ritual, we must know why we do it.
What Is Baptism?
In baptism, a member of God’s covenant is sprinkled with or immersed in water in connection with God’s promise to wash away the sins of believers (Acts 22:16). But how do the action and promise relate?
Remember that baptism is a means of grace. “Our gracious God, mindful of our insensitivity and weakness, has ordained sacraments … to nourish and strengthen our faith.”[i] Baptism is one of the “ordinary, external ways Christ uses to bring us the benefits of redemption.”[ii] It’s a visible sign and seal which God uses to “more fully declare … to us the promise of the gospel” (Q&A 66), and to shower on us his gifts which “are found in Christ alone.”[iii] So baptism is both a symbol and a redemptive act. “Taken up by the Word and Spirit, baptism itself as ‘visible word’ is not merely representative or symbolic, but ‘living and active.’ Like preaching, it is the lively action of God’s energies.”[iv] God actually uses baptism to “confer” his promised grace[v] by “focus[ing] our faith on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as the only ground of our salvation” (Q&A 67). To better understand how baptism works, we should know where it came from.
While Christ instituted baptism in the New Testament, it’s rooted in the Old Testament. Noah’s flood symbolized the baptism of Christ that now saves us (1 Pet. 3:18–22). Later, God commanded Abraham to be circumcised as a token of God’s covenant promise (Acts 7:8). Circumcision symbolized spiritual renewal (Deut. 30:6) and threatened separation from God because of unbelief (Gen. 17:14). It looked ahead to Christ who was both circumcised and baptized to sympathize with sinners and to indicate that he would endure the covenant curse and baptize God’s children with his life-giving Spirit (Luke 3:16). Today, God’s people are circumcised in Christ, “having been buried with him in baptism” (Col. 2:11–12). Later still, the Israelites fleeing Egypt were united to Moses as their covenant mediator when they were baptized in the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1–4). By marking the beginning of a new relationship with God for his covenant people, the great flood, the rite of circumcision, and the crossing of the Red Sea all preview New Testament baptism. So is it surprising that the man who introduced Jesus was known as a baptizer? By baptism, John identified those who had changed their mind about sin and were beginning a new life of holiness in Christ (Luke 3:1–22).
Near the end of his ministry, Jesus commanded the baptism of all disciples. The apostles practiced baptism and explained its role in linking believers with Jesus’s death (Rom. 6:1–4). They help us understand baptism as a vital means of God’s grace. But understanding is not enough.
How Should I Use Baptism?
The catechism helps us honor baptism with three biblical applications:
Remember Christ’s Sacrifice
Baptism is a divine teaching tool; through baptism God “wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ take away our sins just as water removes dirt from the body” (Q&A 73). And, like learning a foreign language, effective teaching is repetitious. To rebellious sinners, grace is an unfamiliar language. So “holy baptism remind[s]” us (Q&A 69) of the truth we so often forget: God gives new life to everyone who repents of their sins (Acts 2:38).
Be Assured that Christ Died for You
Sometimes the gospel sounds too good to be true. All I must do to escape condemnation and receive salvation is to “accept this gift of God with a believing heart” (Q&A 60)? To encourage his hearers that salvation truly could be theirs so simply, Peter said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Baptism teaches the gospel; it also confirms God’s verbal promise with a visual pledge. God “wants to assure us, by this divine pledge and sign, that we are as truly washed of our sins spiritually as our bodies are washed with water physically (Q&A 73).
Commit to Holiness
Baptism warns against apostasy, of spiritually falling away. “To be placed into the name of someone else is to be brought into a special, close relationship to him.”[vi] So a baptized unbeliever literally takes God’s name in vain. And “[t]he Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Exod. 20:7). On Judgment Day, baptized unbelievers will be treated not like strangers but as traitors whom God will judge more strictly. Baptism warns us not to be like unbelievers who drowned in Noah’s flood, and in the Red Sea, or who were cut off from God’s people for having uncircumcised hearts. Baptism, like gospel preaching, must be combined with faith.
But to believers, baptism promises that “[t]he Holy Spirit has renewed and sanctified us to be members of Christ, so that more and more we die to sin and live holy and blameless lives” (Q&A 70). Jesus’s blood can wash away your “soul’s impurity” (Q&A 69). He can give you a new start every day. He can cleanse your mind and heart so that you begin to happily say no to sin and yes to righteousness.
Baptism is a beautiful mystery. As we come to better know it and live out its meaning, we will see it more and more as a priceless gift from our gracious God.
[i] Belgic Confession, 33.
[ii] Westminster Shorter Catechism, 88.
[iii] John Calvin, Institutes, 4.15.6.
[iv] Michael Horton, The Christian Faith, 792.
[v] Westminster Confession of Faith, 28.7.
[vi] Jason Van Vliet, Growing in the Gospel, 3:126. Cf. Horton, The Christian Faith, 788.