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The spiritual significance of baptism

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been going through a book called ‘Confessing the Faith’ by Chad Van Dixhoorn. This book is a commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith, which was written by a group of pastors in the mid-1600’s as a summary of Christian doctrine.

A specific text from the Westminster Confession regarding baptism says:

28.1 “Baptism is a sacrament of the new testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, not only for the solemn admission of the party baptized into the visible church; but also, to be unto him a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ, of regeneration, or remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life.”

The following is an excerpt from the commentary by Chad Van Dixhoorn, expanding on the five-fold spiritual significance of baptism.

 

“Baptism is a marker for entry into the church, but it is not only that. As the chapter on the sacraments in general would lead us to expect, baptism has gracious significance, and the Westminster assembly mentions five facets of that significance here.

The first thing that baptism points to and validates is God’s gospel. To the person being baptised, and to all who witness or experience the event, or to all who even consider the symbol, baptism testifies to the truth of an enduring promise which God himself made, which he continues to proclaim, and which he continues to honour: it is the promise of redemption for all who trust in Christ alone for their righteousness.

As the previous chapter stated, the action or event of baptism does not contain ‘power in itself’ (WCF 27.3). Nonetheless, by the Holy Spirit, and with the interpretive word of institution which explains what baptism means and which sets it apart from being an unusual shower or bath, this sacrament is a powerful, ‘sign and seal of the covenant of grace’.

Baptism preaches to Christians in the same way that circumcision preached to the patriarchs: it is a sign and seal of a righteousness that is ours by faith, to paraphrase Paul in Romans (Rom. 4:11). But in fact Romans should be read alongside Colossians, because in the latter Paul explains that baptism pictures salvation in a way similar to circumcision. Circumcision’s cutting off of the flesh symbolised the removal of our sin by Christ, who was himself completely cut off in the flesh: he was killed.

And Paul says we benefit from this work of Christ because we are ‘in him’ (Col. 2:11). Baptism’s washing with water symbolises the removal of our sin by Christ, who was completely covered by our sin and then cleansed in his resurrection: he was buried and raised again to new life. And Paul says we benefit from this work of Christ because we are ‘with him’ (Col. 2:12).

Every sacrament has a primary reference to that which is always true, and a secondary reference to that which is often true – a reference to that which is, and a reference to that which ought to be. Baptism is most basically and universally – just as circumcision was – about the works and the righteousness of Another, and not about the righteousness of ourselves. It is primarily about the person, promises and actions of God and not about us – not even about the righteousness which we have in Christ as Christians. The enduring importance of baptism rests in what it always says about God and his gospel, and not what it sometimes says about the person who is baptised.

Nonetheless, baptism is, in the secondplace, a sign and seal not only of redemption promised, and redemption accomplished, but of redemption applied. It signifies and seals a person’s ‘engrafting into Christ’. It is because baptism points us to and validates a vital connection to the Saviour that in Romans 6 Paul employs a baptismal analogy, and in Galatians 3 states that ‘as many of you were baptised into Christ have put on Christ’ (Rom. 6:5; Gal. 3:27).1 The Westminster assembly aims in this paragraph to simply set forth biblical teaching rather than to qualify these statements. The assembly explains neither why some baptised people do not appear to be united to Christ nor why some people are to be baptised before they are united to Christ. The Scriptures present a strong connection between baptism and union with Christ, so that is what is presented here.

So too, in the third and fourth places, the Scriptures draw baptism into close proximity to regeneration and the remission of sins – it points and testifies to these saving realities too. When Paul speaks of the washing of regeneration he may be referring to baptism (Titus 3:5). And if the baptism of John and his disciples can illustrate aspects of the baptism of Christ and his disciples, then there is also such as thing as a ‘baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin’ (Mark 1:4).

Lastly, and most familiar to evangelical Christians today, baptism is a sign and seal of a life given up to God, through Jesus Christ. It points to, and testifies to, a dedication to God, and a ‘walk in newness of life’ (Rom. 6:3-4). Baptism preaches the gospel promised and accomplished. But because it also depicts that gospel applied, it includes a call to be what we are in Christ: it calls us to surrender our lives to God, through Christ. After all, ‘Do you not know that all of us who are been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life’ (Rom. 6:3, 4).

It is no doubt because baptism is so rich in its significance and is so clearly a pointer to Christ himself, that our Lord appointed it to be continued in his church until the end of the world. And by his Spirit, and in our teaching and in our baptisms, he will be with us ‘always, to the end of the age’ (Matt. 28:19,20).”

 

Want to read more? Buy the book here.

With Paul’s words ringing in our ears, Christians also know that not all baptised people have in fact been savingly united to Christ. Just as not all who were of the circumcision were truly circumcised in the heart (Rom. 2:28, 29), so too not all who are baptised are baptised in the heart. The functions of a sacrament (WCF 27.1) – the ‘spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified’ (WCF 27.2), the ‘engrafting into Christ’ – these are not events guaranteed by God, let alone events worked by the power of the sacrament.

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