The Significance of Christian Baptism

The Great Commission of our Lord recorded in Matthew 28:18-20 is a mandate not only to proclaim the Gospel and make disciples, but also to baptise them. The apostles clearly understood this threefold emphasis when they began carrying out the commission shortly after Pentecost, for after Peter preached his inaugural sermon, he urged the people to "repent, and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). But why is baptism so important that a right administration of it is regarded,—as we have seen,—by the Reformed church as being a mark of the true church? The answer, I believe may be found in first understanding what the significance of baptism is.

One of the most comprehensive and biblically accurate answers to this question is found in the Westminster Larger Catechism, question 165 which answers: "Baptism is a sacrament of the New Testament, wherein Christ hath ordained the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost (Matt. 28:19), to be a sign and seal of ingrafting into himself (Gal 3:27), of remission of sins by his blood (Mk 1:4; Rev 1:5), and regeneration by his Spirit (Tit 3:5; Eph 5:26); of adoption (Gal 3:26–27), and resurrection unto everlasting life (1Cor 15:29; Rom 6:5); and whereby the parties baptized are solemnly admitted into the visible church (1 Cor. 12:13), and enter into an open and professed engagement to be wholly and only the Lord’s (Rom. 6:4)." A full exposition of this magnificent statement is clearly not possible in this short article, but a few helpful points must be highlighted.

Firstly, we note that baptism is instituted by Christ as a symbolic ritual which points to several spiritual realities in a new convert. Following, Romans 4:11, the catechism uses the words ‘sign’ and ‘seal’ to describe the relationship between what is ritual and what is real. It is a ‘sign’ because it outwardly, visibly and tangibly portrays what is inward and spiritual and so invisible. It is a ‘seal’ because when a person is baptised, the ritual symbolically ratifies God’s pledge to bestow grace upon faith and obedience, while at the same time, the person being baptised, if he is an adult, testifies publicly his resolve to bind himself to Christ and to actively engage in all that is required of him in the new covenant relationship with God. It must be noted that this does not at all mean that every person who is baptised is therefore recipients of the grace which baptism symbolises. Simon Magus was said to believe (Act 8:13) and was baptised by Philip, but later when Peter arrived, Simon sought to purchase the power of the Holy Spirit and so proved himself to be yet in unbelief (Acts 8:18-23). Thus, if a qualifier is to be attached to adult baptism, it should be professors’ baptism, rather thanbeliever’s baptism which Baptists insist. Though ministers of the Word have the responsibility to screen baptismal candidates, there is no guarantee that all who are baptised are genuine. Indeed, it should be carefully noted that baptism is not a sign and seal of faith, but of inward grace or in the words of Paul, "the righteousness of faith" (Rom 4:11). This is why ministers may baptise anyone base on credible profession,—since it is impossible for ministers to know for certain if inward grace has begun. This is also one of the reasons why infants of believing parents may be baptised though they are incapable of believing. Infants in covenant families are covenantally holy (1 Cor 7:14). While we must not presume that they are all regenerate before they are able to understand the Gospel, we must also not swing to the other extreme to say that God must regenerate them only after they come to rational faith. In fact, the Scripture suggests that …Cont. p. 3 John the Baptiser was regenerated while he was in his mother’s womb (Lk 1:15, 44).

Secondly, we see that baptism symbolises cleansing or washing from sin. This is clearly seen in Ananias’ instruction to Paul: "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Ananias, of course, must not be understood as telling Paul a theological fact that his sins are washed away when he is baptised, but that he should be baptised to symbolise the washing away of his sins. Washing from sin, or justifica-tion, is after all entirely by grace through faith (Rom 3:24). Now, since the symbolism of was-hing lends itself to the idea of renewing what is old, Paul speaks also of "washing of regenera-tion" (Tit 3:5) and that we who are baptised "should walk in newness of life" even as "Christ was raised up from the dead" (Rom 6:4).

Thirdly, baptism not only symbolises washing but our identification and union with Christ. Paul was alluding to this aspect of baptism when he says that the Jews who passed through the Red Sea "were all baptized unto Moses" (1Cor 10:2), meaning they were identified with Moses. In the same way when a believer is baptised, he is identified with Christ. But unlike the Jews’ identification with Moses which is representative and external, the believer’s identification signifies our vital, mystical, spiritual union with Christ. This is hinted by John the Baptizer when he said, "I indeed have baptized you with water: but He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mk 1:8). Since our baptism with the Spirit unites us to Christ (cf. 1Cor 12:13), our sacramental baptism points to that union. Thus Paul says, "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal 3:27). It is on the account of this union that Paul says that believers are baptized into Christ’s death (Rom 6:3). Christ represented us covenantally and spiritually in His death. (Note that Paul is not saying that baptism symbolises Christ’s death, as Baptists who insists on immersion would have us believe. Christ’s death is symbolised by another sacrament, namely the Lord’s Supper. Baptism represents our union of Christ, and immersion is no better than sprinkling or pouring as a symbol for it). Moreover, the Westminster divines astutely observes that it is also because of this union with Christ, that believers may participate in resurrection and everlasting life (see WSC 37; 1Cor 15:29; Rom 6:5).

Fourthly, it must not be forgotten that baptism is also the divinely instituted rite to admit a credible professor of faith into the visiblecovenant community, namely the church (Acts 2:41; 1 Cor 12:13). Note that this is the only non-symbolic purpose of the ordinance of baptism. But it may be asked: What if the person who is baptised is not born-again? Would he still be a member of the church? My answer is: Yes, unless and until his unregeneracy becomes so obvious that the church excommunicates him. But how can a church be called "the people of God" (see 2 Cor 6:16) or "the body of Christ" (see 1 Cor 12) if there are are unregenerate people within? The answer is to be found in the fact that God views his people covenantally and organically. This is why Israel of old was called God’s people though a great majority of the people were unbelievers and unregenerate. And this is why Christ said: "I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned" (Jn 15:5-6). How can a branch that is in Christ (v. 2) ever be cast away when Christ said "they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand" (Jn 10:28)? The answer lies in the fact that Christ is referring to His external covenant people rather the redeemed or those who are mystically united to Him. The fourth function of baptism is to incorporate a person into the covenant community in this sense. Once he is baptised into the body, he seen as being part of the external covenant community by God, and he is to be viewed by the rest in the church as a believer, unless his testimony testifies against him, in which case the church must excommunicate him before regarding him as an unbeliever. The situation is the same in the case of infants who are baptised into the church. For all intends and purpose, they are to be treated as believers, apart from participation in the ordinance that requires self-examination, namely the Lord’s Supper. Thus, young covenant children, being treated as believers, are taught the catechism, how to pray and allowed to sing the songs of Zion. This does not mean that covenant infants must be presumed to be regenerate. No, they must still be exhorted to repent and believe and warned that if they disbelieve and live in sin that they will perish in their sin.

CHRISTIAN BAPTISM… We shall have occasion to examine the doctrine of infant baptism in greater details at a later stage, but for now the significance of the baptism gives us the reason why the proper administration of baptism is a mark of a true church. Firstly, since baptism is a sign and seal of inward grace, a church which does not practice baptism deprives itself of the only divinely appointed means to outwardly distinguish believers from unbelievers. Secondly, since baptism is the means to admit members to the covenant community, a church which administer baptism careless may eventually be filled with unbelievers, which may lead to the situation of the Church of Sardis. Thirdly, a failure to understand that baptism signifies the union between Christ and his children gives rise to the possibility of the members in the church viewing the church as a social club with baptism as merely an initiatory rite. What this happens, the church would be no more a church of Christ. Let us therefore take heed to have a proper understanding of baptism, so that it can be administered truly and meaningfully in our church.