Your Baptism – What Does it Mean? (2)

Complying with It request. and because of the importance of the matter, THE OUTLOOK is publishing a series of three articles on Baptism in general and Infant Baptism particularly. To appreciate our baptism it is of the utmost importance to know what it means. Accordingly, in this second article in his series, Rev. Henry Vanden Heuvel, pastor of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church of Sioux Center, Iowa, addresses himself to the significance of this important sacrament.

In the previous article I set forth the authority for baptism as taken from the institution of baptism found in Matthew 28:19, 20. In the present discussion, I would like to look at the meaning of baptism as found in Scripture.

The relevancy of this question is clear, it seems to me; for unless we take seriously the Scriptural teaching on baptism in general, we will have no reason to insist on the necessity of infant baptism. If, for example, baptism is no more than an external sign that a person is a member of a certain church, then it would not make any real difference whether a child were baptized or not. Indeed, if baptism had only an external meaning of membership in a church, then why be baptized at all? Then it would make good sense for all of us to be perfectly content with only the preaching of the Word of God for the assurance of salvation. Then we would not be wrong in encouraging the members of our churches not to insist on baptism because it would only cause them to lean on something that has only external meaning, and would certainly lead to false security. If baptism had only an external meaning, how weak a crutch it would be for parents who might otherwise rejoice in the baptism of their children!

Now I maintain, of course, that baptism is by no means such a weak crutch that it will break under the weight of a believer’s faith. I maintain on the contrary, that when Cod in Christ commanded that the disciples and therefore the church, go into all the world to make disciples and to baptize them, He knew full well what He was doing. And what He was doing was not to weaken the faith of His people, but to build it up. That building up of faith can happen only when a proper understanding of the meaning of baptism is known and appreciated. In this discussion, I want to point out from Scripture what that meaning is.

Union With Christ – Baptism signifies first of all our union with Christ, and therefore with the Father and the Holy Spirit. We saw how the Lord Jesus emphasized this in the Great Commission when He instituted baptism. He said, “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” One who is baptized into the name of God enters into a relationship with God as a disciple. He is united with God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The fact that Jesus in the institution of baptism indicates that baptism means a union with God ought to be seen in some of the references to baptism that are found in Scripture.

The Bible brings out this meaning of baptism in several passages. Listen to the apostle Paul in Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore with Him through baptism into death,” Paul very clearly states that our baptism united us with Christ in His death and burial. He goes on in verse 5, “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection.” Again the very statement of union with Christ is made with a view to baptism.

Now it is Paul’s expressed teaching that we were united with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection when we were baptized. It is baptism that signifies and seals this union with Christ. Baptism cannot mean merely an external rite that speaks of one’s entrance into a given church. It means far more than that! It has reference to a deep spiritual truth which is found in Scripture throughout: namely, the Christian is united, is one with Christ Jesus. That oneness is signified by baptism.

This truth of the union with Christ as signified and sealed by baptism is so important that I cannot base it on just one Scripture reference. Galatians 3:27 is a cardinal passage that teaches the same thing: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ.” In the verses surrounding verse 27, Paul is pointing out one of the purposes of the law. He says that the law was as a tutor or schoolmaster for the people. It served to bring them to Christ so that they might be justified by faith. Now, says Paul, since you have come to faith in Jesus Christ, you don’t need that tutor any more. You don’t need the schoolmaster because you are all sons of God through faith in Christ.

But how does Paul know that they are all sons of God through faith in Jesus? Well, the answer is given in verse 27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ.” When you were baptized, Paul says in effect, you put on Christ. Baptism means the putting on of Christ. But what does it mean to put on Christ? Well, the references to the Old Testament which are so often apparent in Paul’s epistles are certainly apparent here too. The Old Testament speaks of the robes of salvation, the robes of righteousness which believers are given to cover the nakedness of their own sinfulness. Listen to Isaiah 61:10, “I will greatly rejoice in Jehovah, my soul shall be joyful in my Cod; for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of righteousness.”

Zachariah 3 speaks the same kind of language. Joshua the high priest is seen clothed in filthy garments and standing before the altar. Satan, the accuser of the brethren, is right there ready to paint the finger at Joshua because of his lack of fitness for the work of the Lord. But then the Lord intervenes and commands that the filthy garments of Joshua are to be taken off, and he is to be clothed in the rich apparel of righteousness. Certainly then when the apostle Paul speaks about baptism as a putting on o. Christ, he means what the Old Testament speaks of in rich and vivid language. To put on Christ is to be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. It is to be covered with His righteousness and thus to be justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Now that is done, says Paul, when the Galatians were baptized. The reason is obvious: baptism signifies the putting on of Christ, the union with Christ. It is clear that baptism means much more than merely an external act which speaks of a child, or anyone, becoming a member of a certain church. Baptism signifies and seals our union with Christ.

Forgiveness of Sins – Next, baptism signifies and seals the forgiveness of sins. In Acts 2:38 we read, “And Peter said unto them, Repent ye, and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Notice a few things about this statement of Peter. You recall, of course, that this text appears at the end of Peter’s discourse to the crowd of people who came together on Pentecost. Peter set forth to them the heinous act of crucifying the Lord of glory, whom God had set forth as Lord and King. When the people heard that, Luke says, they were pricked in their heart, and cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Then Peter spoke the words of verse 38. He told the people to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of sins. It is of extreme importance that we notice that Peter called for repentance prior to urging baptism upon them. Remission of sins cannot ever be experienced apart from repentance. That is precisely why it is so noteworthy that Peter relates repentance with baptism in connection with remission of sins. Apart from repentance, baptism would indeed be only an external sign with no meaning at all. But with repentance, baptism becomes the glorious and assuring sign that it does signify forgiveness.

Repentance is a deep sorrow for sin and a fleeing from it. I don’t have to belabor this well-known doctrine. Our Catechism clearly expresses the necessity and meaning of repentance in Lord’s Day 33. The point that must be understood is that repentance here in Acts 2:38 immediately precedes the call to baptism unto the remission of sins. And it is because of that close proximity that I emphasize it here. Having called for repentance from the sin of crucifying the Lord of glory, Peter follows with the comfort of baptism in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of sin. And this, of course, is the crucial point of this discussion.

Baptism here is in the name of Jesus Christ. This is nothing new; we have seen this emphasis in the “institution of baptism” too. The important thing that Peter intends by this statement is that it is the same Jesus whom the people crucified, who Himself grants through baptism the remission of their sins.

Now that is a wonder of grace! The people were pricked in their hearts because they had crucified the Lord. Now Peter tells them that if they repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus by the invitation of Jesus, by the authority of Jesus, then He Himself will grant them the remission of sin. Jesus gives the assurance of the remission of sins by means of baptism. That is clearly what Peter is saying. Isn’t this what our form of baptism says too? “Baptism signifies and seals unto us the washing away of sin through Jesus Christ.”

But there is more. Peter says that baptism is itself the sign and seal of the remission of sins. Nor is this an isolated instance in Scripture where baptism is so closely related to the forgiveness of sins. There is a remarkable text in the book of Acts. It is found in Acts 22:16. It was a defense of his position, and a recounting of his conversion. In vs. 16 he quotes the prophet Ananias whom the Lord used to open Paul’s eves after his blindness. Ananias said, “And now why tarriest thou? arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on His name.”

The amazing character of this statement is that baptism appears to be given an efficacy that many people are most reluctant to give it, namely the ability to wash away sins. Ananias says, “Be baptized and wash away thy sins.” Now it is indeed true that baptism washes away sins? We must be careful here to avoid falling into the error of Rome with it teaching of ex opere operato. This doctrine teaches that the sacrament itself confers the grace of forgiveness. Thus baptism itself takes away sin regardless of the faith or lack of it by the recipient of the sacrament. This is repudiated by Scripture in the passage of Acts 2:38 where Peter closely ties baptism with repentance.

But this doctrine of Rome finds no support here in Acts 2:38 either. Notice, for example, that the Bible says, “Arise and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on His name.” The washing away of sins does not take place ex opere operato, but rather through the calling upon His name by Paul. Certainly the rest of Scripture amply teaches that “calling on the name of God” refers to faith, to prayer, to repentance, and the like. So there is no real difference at all between this text and Acts 2:38.

What is clearly taught, however, in both passages is that baptism is a sign and seal of the washing away of sin through Jesus Christ. Both passages teach that baptism is the guarantee of the remission of sins. It is the proof that God graciously uses to give the assurance of the washing away of sins. This proof comes by way of faith and obedience, to be sure. But the sacrament itself is the means by which the Lord gives the assurance of the remission of sins to His people. Baptism then means the remission of sin for those who receive it in faith and repentance.

Spiritual Renewal – Finally, baptism signifies and seals our spiritual renewal, regeneration, and sanctification. The form for baptism found in the supplement of the Psalter Hymnal, and used by Christian Reformed Churches, puts this beautifully: “Likewise, when we are baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit assures us by this sacrament that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, imparting to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins, and the daily renewing of our lives, till we shall finally be presented without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.”

The Bible speaks of baptism as a sign of spiritual renewal when it unites baptism to the burial and the resurrection of Christ. In Romans 6:4 Paul speaks of this: “We were buried therefore with Him through baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life.” Again in Colossians 2:11, 12 this same relationship between baptism and the burial and resurrection of Christ is made: “In whom ye were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” The burial of Christ as related to believers means the death of the old man, the old nature. Our sinful, corrupt nature was crucified and buried with Christ. And baptism signifies that. Then in Christ our new nature is born; it is recreated by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bible relates that to the resurrection of Christ, in that, being united with Christ’s resurrection, Paul can say that the same power that raised up Christ, also raises us up to newness of life. Baptism also means that new life of regeneration.

Further this new life which we have through the resurrection of Christ enables us to walk in newness of life too. Baptism also signifies that fact. Baptism means the spiritual renewal of the Christian—the death of the old nature, the regeneration of the new man, and the daily sanctification or walk in that new life. All are related to baptism. All are signified and sealed by baptism.

Baptism then means much more than merely an external rite performed in a church. Baptism also means much more than just the first act that a child born into a Christian home undergoes. Baptism speaks to us all our lives—for, so long as we need the forgiveness of sins, so long as we find comfort in our union with Christ, so long as we are called upon to walk in newness of life, baptism calls us to think on these things. It has tremendous meaning and comfort for the child of God. Let us never think that baptism is just a once-far-all act performed on a child, never again to have significance for his life. Let us not think either that baptism covers a person until he makes profession of faith, when the Lord’s Supper takes over. Baptism is for all of life. It has a lifetime of comfort for the Christian.

In the next article, I hope to consider the mode of baptism and the matter of infant baptism itself.