The Significance of your Baptism
What does your baptism mean to you? If you are a baptized Christian, having received the sacrament of Holy Baptism, either as an infant or as a professing believer, in (or “into”) the Name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) in a Christian Church, what is the ongoing significance of your baptism to your life as a follower of Jesus Christ?
As I look out onto the landscape of contemporary American Christianity, it seems to me that many professing believers give little, if any, thought to the significance of their baptism. This is alarming, and not a good sign for the spiritual health of the contemporary church, since the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are solemn practices that Christ clearly commanded as perpetual observances in His church.
Saturated with extreme individualism and under the sway of revivalist influences, much of contemporary Christianity places such a strong emphasis on the believer’s “personal relationship with Jesus” and on the presence of God allegedly being mediated through the well-staged, highly emotional “worship experience” of contemporary praise & worship music, that the sacraments which the very Son of God instituted for perpetual observance in His church tend to get marginalized into a category of secondary importance in the life of the church.(1)
From the standpoint of the Holy Scriptures and the Reformed Confessions, what, then, is the significance of Holy Baptism in our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ? Many things could be said in response to this question, but in this article I want to focus on just three aspects of our baptism which should make a powerful impact upon our Christian lives.
1. Your Baptism is a Divine Pledge of Grace
Due to the prevalence of Baptistic theology within contemporary evangelicalism, many Christians today view Holy Baptism as primarily an outward and public affirmation of their personal commitment to Jesus Christ. In other words, for them Baptism means “I have decided to follow Jesus.” In their view it is not primarily about what Jesus does for them, but about what they do for Jesus in committing their lives to Him.
Now, certainly, in the case of a missionary Baptism, where a previously-unbaptized adult from a non-Christian background is converted to faith in Christ, such a Baptism does indeed include the idea of a public testimony to their confession of faith in Christ. In the case of such adult converts their baptisms are accompanied by a public profession of faith. We see this, for example, in the Book of Acts, which provides a record of the missionary activity of the early apostolic church. However, from a broader biblical and confessional standpoint this is not the primary or central meaning of Baptism. Instead, as a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace in Christ (like its old covenant counterpart in the sacrament of circumcision – Romans 4:11-12), your baptism is not primarily about your commitment to Jesus, but about Jesus’ commitment to you!
Instead of meaning “I have decided to follow Jesus!”, your baptism is a symbolic declaration of the gospel (“good news”) of Christ to you personally. It is a “visible sermon” wherein the risen Lord Jesus Christ in essence says to you as a believer, “I wash you clean of yours sins by My blood, I renew you by My Holy Spirit.” In other words, it is an outward Divine pledge and promise in symbol form. It is the gospel message in sacramental form. Saving faith believes the good news conveyed by this Divine pledge in Baptism, while unbelief rejects the good news or replaces it with an emphasis on human works or human decision.
Of course, the act of Baptism does not in itself necessarily convey the grace that it signifies. The Holy Spirit must bless the use of this means of grace, and the baptized person must embrace the grace pledged in Baptism with a heart of true faith in Christ and repentance unto life, leading to a life of discipleship wherein the baptized believer walks in “newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4) as a committed follower of Jesus. However, the point here is that our Baptism does not picture us ascending to God by our own act of public commitment to Christ (a view that essentially turns Baptism into an act of works-righteousness); rather, it depicts God descending to us by His amazing grace in Christ and pledging His saving and renewing grace to the baptized person who (through grace) believes in Christ.
2. Your Baptism is a Mark of God’s Ownership
Right before His ascension into heaven our risen Lord Jesus Christ commanded His church (represented by the Apostles whom He addressed) to baptize the nations “into (eis in the Greek) the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). To be baptized “into” the Divine Name of the Triune God involves (among other things) being formally and officially brought under the sovereign Lordship and Authority of God. In other words, Baptism is a mark of God’s special ownership of the baptized.
Of course, as the Creator and providential King over all, God “owns” everything and everyone. However, by virtue of their Christian Baptism, the baptized belong to the Triune God in a special way. If you have been baptized with valid, Trinitarian Baptism, then you have been formally brought into special covenant relationship to God. God in Christ and by His Spirit is your covenant Lord and King, and you are a covenant subject. This means that your baptism places a special covenantal obligation upon you to repent of sin, trust in Christ alone for your salvation, and walk in newness of life according to God’s Word. If you break this baptismal covenant through persistent impenitence and unbelief, the fact that you were baptized will not help you on the Day of Judgment; instead, your baptism is a sign testifying that you will be drowned in the judgment of God (just as the impenitent in the days of Noah were drowned in the great flood – see First Peter 3:18-22). But if, by God’s sovereign grace, you respond positively to God’s baptismal covenant with you through trust in Christ and repentance from sin, then your baptism testified that you belong to God, both now and forevermore, and that He will never leave you nor forsake you! Dear reader, do you believe this good news signified by your baptism?
3. Your Baptism is a Summons to a Life of Discipleship in the Fellowship of Christ’s Church
For the vast majority of Christians throughout most of church history, Holy Baptism was viewed as the beginning of the Christian life and the gateway to discipleship. Baptism was a sign of initiation into Christ and His church, and thus of initiation into the life of discipleship.(2) That Christian life was further nurtured and strengthened through the ordinary ministry of the Word and the Holy Supper, and through spiritual disciplines such as prayer. In the words of The Westminster Confession of Faith: “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, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in newness of life. Which sacrament is, by Christ’s own appointment, to be continued in his church until the end of the world.” (Chapter 28.1; emphasis added) This confessional teaching is clearly based upon the truths revealed in the Scriptures (for example, Acts 2:38-39, 42; Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:11-14; etc.).
But in much of contemporary Christianity the biblical and historic role of Holy Baptism as the formal beginning of the Christian life, and thus as an ongoing summons to a life of discipleship, has been replaced by unbiblical revivalistic traditions such as the “sinner’s prayer” and the “altar call”.
In contemporary revivalist Christianity you become a fully initiated Christian when you make a “decision for Christ” by either going forward at the end of a service when the preacher calls people forward to the front of the auditorium (i.e., the “altar call”), or by praying in private a special formulaic prayer wherein one “invites Jesus into your heart” (i.e., the “sinner’s prayer”), or by a combination of the two. When a professing believer in the revivalist tradition who has already prayed the sinner’s prayer lapses or backslides in his Christian life, instead of repenting and seeking restoration to the church and comfort at the Lord’s Table, he is directed to express his repentance and receive renewing grace by going forward at the next “altar call” to “rededicate” his life to Christ. These innovative practices grew out of the Second Great Awakening, and were unknown in the Christian world prior to about the late-1800s. In essence these contemporary revivalistic practices have become the new sacraments, marginalizing if not replacing the “old” biblical sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Now, of course, I am not denying that we sinners must exercise personal faith in Christ and repent of sin in order to be saved. We indeed must “decide for Christ”, and we must publicly identify as followers of Christ through a public profession of faith if we expect to be saved (see Romans 10:9).(3) However, we must recognize that God promises to nourish and strengthen our faith through those means of grace that He has ordained, not through creative innovations of merely human origin. One of those means of grace is Holy Baptism, and through your baptism God summons you to a daily, renewed, ongoing repentance from sin and faith in Christ. Your baptism is not only a Divine Pledge of grace to you as a believer; it is also a Divine Summons for you to walk in newness of life as one who has been united to Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior, in His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5)! May you and I heed this summons to discipleship!
In conclusion, our baptisms have deep and rich spiritual significance in our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Whether you were baptized as an infant or received Baptism as a professing believer, your baptism helps to shape and define your identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ. You are baptized! You belong to Jesus, and He belongs to you! In a contemporary church culture which devalues the importance and significance of the sacraments that Christ has ordained for His church, let us swim against the contemporary anti-sacramental tide by treasuring this important means of grace and by seeking to live out the significance of our baptisms in the context of our daily lives and callings.
(1) I am given to understand that some contemporary mega-churches exclude the observance of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper from their main Sunday morning services, relegating them instead to either a Sunday evening service or a midweek service. What this likely means is that many members and attendees of such churches never observance sacraments like the Lord’s Supper. I understand the practical challenges of trying to administer the Lord’s Supper to a huge assembly of worshipers, but excluding these vital means of grace from the main Lord’s Day worship service sends the message that the sacraments are optional for the believer, and thus that Christians need not take seriously their Lord’s command to “Do this in remembrance of me…” And for individual professing believers to neglect the sacraments is to live in open rebellion against the Lordship of Christ, who commanded the observance of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as central, ongoing practices in His church.
(2) Likewise, while Holy Baptism was a sign of beginning grace, the Lord’s Supper (also called “Holy Communion” or “The Eucharist”) was viewed as a sign of continuing grace, as spiritual nourishment for the ongoing journey and pilgrimage of the Christian life.
(3) In churches like The Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) which practice infant baptism, provision is made for the baptized children of believers to publicly confess their faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by providing them with an opportunity to publicly confess their faith in Christ before the church. (Other traditions make provision for this need through the rite of “Confirmation”.) In the OPC, once a baptized covenant child is judged by the Session to be old enough and sufficiently catechized to make a credible, mature profession of faith in Christ, having been successfully interviewed for communicant membership by the Session, the young person’s profession of faith before the Session is approved and he or she is publicly received into the communicant membership of the church during a regular Lord’s Day worship service through public confession of faith. Once one is received into the communicant membership of the church, one is granted the right and privilege of receiving the Lord’s Supper, or “Holy Communion” (hence the status of “communicant” membership, “communicant” indicating “able to take communion”).