In its most basic sense, baptism has to do with washing by water. The washing by water signifies an internal washing by the blood and the Spirit of Christ. There is in baptism a double washing: an external washing with water, and an internal washing with the blood and Spirit of Christ.
Jesus added His promise to this washing: just as the water externally washes our bodies from filth; likewise, the blood of Christ washes our souls internally from the filth of sin, and by the Spirit we are renewed to new life when we accept this promise by faith. This internal washing by Christ’s blood and the renewal by the Spirit are conditional. They are received only by faith.
The spiritual blessing received by faith is signified through the holy visible sign. Just as water is sufficient to wash away dirt and filth, likewise the blood of Christ is sufficient to wash away the pollution of sin from our souls, and the Spirit of Christ is sufficient to renew you and set you apart as member of Christ.
The Sign of Baptism
Jesus Christ instituted baptism as a sign in Matthew 28:10 “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” The words of institution testify that the individual being baptized belongs to the Father, the individual is received into favor by the Father on account of the Son, and the individual is sanctified by the Holy Spirit. By the act of baptism an individual is given over to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and declared to be God’s property.
In the garden, Adam named the animals as an expression of his authority (dominion) over the animals. Likewise, God’s name is expressed over the baptized in its Trinitarian form, as an expression of God’s authority over the individual being baptized. The baptized bear God’s name; they have been marked out as God’s possession. Through the act of baptism an individual is identified as holy; he has been set apart for God.
Water baptism replaced circumcision as an identifying mark of church membership. Of the two New Testament sacraments, water baptism is the sacrament that initiates one into the church. For this reason Jesus specifically refers to baptism in the context of making disciples. Water baptism is the mark that all disciples bear as a mark that identifies them as a disciples of Christ and as members of His church.
The testimony of the apostles validates baptism as the mark of church membership. “Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.“ Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:38-41).
If baptism identifies us as the property of God, then it is not hard to see how baptism is a declaration of our duty to God. As members of the church, through baptism, we are obligated unto faith and repentance.
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). The external washing of baptism alone does not save, faith is required. God has declared that he will save everyone who believes and is baptized. Through baptism you are identified as a disciple of Christ, and true disciples believe in the one that they follow. The benefits signified through baptism are yours only by true faith.
The Seal of Baptism
As a covenant sign, baptism declares the gospel promise; it signifies the substance of this promise. The outward washing by water signifies the internal washing by Christ’s blood and the internal renewal by the Spirit. This internal washing is again two-fold; it includes a washing with the blood of Christ and a washing with Christ’s Spirit. Both, the washing by the blood, and the washing by the Spirit are mentioned in the Catechism.
“And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). In this passage baptism signifies the washing away of our sins. “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away.” This is in reference to the washing that takes place by the blood of Christ.
“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3). In this passage baptism signifies the death of our old man. Just as Christ died on the cross, likewise we died on the cross with Him. This is a spiritual reality that is applied to us by the internal work of the Spirit. This death is pictured through baptism; this death is spiritually applied to the believer by the Spirit of Christ. “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death.”
‘In Him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead’ (Colossians 2:1112). The same idea of being buried in baptism is repeated in this passage. This time the idea is connected with the spiritual application of circumcision. In connection with the covenant established with Abraham, there was an external circumcision that was limited to the flesh, but there was also an internal circumcision that resulted in the putting off of the sinful nature. According to Paul, this internal circumcision was performed by the hands of Christ; it was performed internally by the Spirit of Christ.
“A man is not a Jew who is only one outwardly nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.” In this passage Paul makes explicit reference to both the external and the internal. There was an external circumcision performed by the hands of men; it was outward and physical. Likewise there was an internal circumcision performed by the Spirit; it was inward and spiritual. The same is true of baptism; there is a baptism that is outward and physical, a baptism performed by the hands of men, but there is also a baptism that is spiritual; this baptism is performed by the Spirit.
The outward physical reality of both circumcision and baptism signify a deeper internal reality accomplished by the Spirit. The outward reality pictures the internal reality. Circumcision and baptism both picture the cutting off of the old man, or the burial of the old man, but baptism extends the image to include the resurrection. “Having been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through your faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead.” The imagery of baptism is fuller and richer than that of circumcision, because it signifies not only the death of Christ but it also signifies in a fuller and richer way, the new life associated with the resurrection.
Both the death and the resurrection of Christ are signified through baptism. Baptism signifies the work of Christ in its redemptive historical fullness, picturing both His death and the resurrection. Added to baptism is the promise that, if you believe, then that which is pictured through baptism is yours by faith. The outward reality is internalized by faith. The work of Christ that baptism signifies is received by faith through the working of the Spirit.
“He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of His mercy. He saved us through the washing of (regeneration) rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit’ (Titus 3:5). This verse makes reference to the two-fold internal washing. It refers to the second internal washing of the Spirit; it refers to the new birth that is associated with the washing of the Spirit. The Spirit produces the miracle of regeneration, which is described as a new birth. This new birth is defined by a complete reorientation. There is a change from evil inclinations to those that are good. The Holy Spirit continues to work in the believer a hatred of sin and a desire to live according to the will of God.
This double washing from sin is signified by the sacrament of baptism. The Scriptures verify this view.
John’s baptism and the baptism that Jesus instituted are similar in substance with one difference. John’s baptism looked forward to the completed work of Christ; in contrast our baptism looks back at the completed work of Christ. There is also a difference in that we are baptized according to a trinitarian formula.
The baptism of John anticipates the work of Jesus, whereas the baptism of the apostles looks back to the work of Jesus. Both the baptism of John and the baptism that Jesus instituted signified the work of Christ. One could argue that the baptism of Jesus is fuller and richer than the baptism of John, but this is largely due to their place in redemptive history. The baptism of John took place before Pentecost and the giving of the Spirit. The baptism that Jesus instituted includes the washing of the Spirit.
This double washing is made explicit in Romans 6 whereby the believer is dead to sin, but alive in Christ.
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been freed from sin. Now, if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. (Romans 6:3-8).
Baptism is, therefore, the sign of both these forms of washing, which include the forgiveness of sin and the renewal of our nature. The washings are interconnected. It is impossible to have one without the other. To be baptized into Christ’s death is to partake in all the benefits of His death and resurrection, just as if we ourselves had died and been raised to new life in Christ. This death includes a death of the sinful flesh and its lusts. Just as we died with Him we have also been raised with Him to new life. As a new creation in Christ we have been accepted into His body. For this reason baptism is to be the sign of our entrance and reception into the visible church. It is for this reason also that the Lord’s Supper is given only to such as are baptized: for they alone have been received into the church. The fellowship meal is reserved for the members of the body of Christ.
Therefore, baptism is a covenantal sign and seal that identifies an individual with the covenant community, the visible body of Christ (the church).
Rev. Mark J. Stromberg is the pastor of the United Reformed Church of Belgrade, Montana.