Q: How does holy baptism remind and assure you that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross benefits you personally?
A: In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it promised that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, that is, all my sins. (Heidelberg Catechism, Day 26)
What a shame that not every Christian is instructed by a formal catechism, and what a shame that a Baptist didn’t write the Heidelberg (one did alter it for Baptist purposes in 1680, but the original credit for such an elegant work is a covetous thing). I myself am a member of the Baptist tradition, and as a child, the practices of confirmation and catechism were unfamiliar (and in my mind, exclusively Roman Catholic). For many of today’s Baptists and those of other low-church evangelical traditions, catechisms aren’t to our taste. However, they are truly a wonderful means by which theology can be explained to the Christian, and you’ll find they are often beautifully written. Of late, I have found comfort in the Heidelberg Catechism’s assurance to us that ‘as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly His blood and spirit wash away my soul’s impurity.’
Baptism, what an exceptional doctrine! But my, how complicated it can become. I have met few Christians who try to downplay the glory seen in a new believer proclaiming their trust in Jesus. Yet few care to treat baptism as much more than a formal, public profession of faith. Increasingly, I am losing confidence in myself when I say that I do not believe baptism is ‘necessary’ for the Christian. I fear that incessantly questioning the necessities of salvation leaves a streamlined yet insufficient soteriology that neglects the commandments of God. For Scripture does not teach ‘repent and be baptized to publicly affirm that repentance,’ but rather, ‘repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins’ (Acts 2:38). But am I not a reformed man? And here I am insinuating that baptism is in some way salvific!
If I advocate for a higher view of the ordinances, have I begun assaulting the doctrines which form the foundation of Protestantism, those of Justification Sola Fide and Sola Gratia? Not so! As another Baptist by the name of C.H. Spurgeon says, our salvation is all of grace, and even the ordinance of baptism is included in this grace. In the First Epistle of Peter it is written:
The longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (Emphasis mine)
Here the doctrine of Baptism and the Flood story are explicitly united. Both are founded upon three things: the faithfulness of God (Gen. 8:1), the faith of the Believer (Heb. 11:7), and the grace of God (Gen. 6:8). As with the Flood, baptism of the faithful (‘in which a few persons are brought safely through water’) involves a tangible aspect alongside a spiritual one. The Ark saved Noah and his family physically from the floodwaters, and this physical act proved to them their eternal salvation. Baptism now corresponds to this! As we who are baptized undergo a physical washing, we are given tangible assurance that the grace of God will save us from spiritual death. Water baptism has thus two purposes. Not only does it represent our spiritual washing (justification by grace), but it also provides a source of assurance (justification by faith): ‘as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity.’
What taints many a conversation of baptism is the habit of seeing this ordinance as a ‘work’ to be celebrated, but treating it with suspicion as to its place in our salvation. Thus, my hope has become that we would render back to God the credit for this work, recognizing that the whole of baptism is extra nos – ‘outside ourselves.’ The ordinance of physical water baptism is as much a gift from God as is the Baptism of the Spirit, for the one reminds us of the other. External water baptism washes our bodies in unity with Christ’s blood washing away our sins, and the two baptisms are not intended to be made separate. Even in the book of Galatians, perhaps Paul’s harshest polemic against the righteousness of works, the example of Baptism is how Paul assures the Galatian church of their salvation by grace through faith: ‘in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.’ (Galatians 3:27).
Still, there are the ‘what ifs’ that seem to contradict my beliefs. What if a man only receives the gospel on his deathbed, or what if a woman is prevented from being baptized despite her desire? We know from scripture that we are justified by the grace of God apart from anything else. We also know from Scripture that our Lord commands us to be baptized. No, ‘exceptions’ to this do not constitute precedence for our doctrine of Baptism, but they point all the more to the vastness of the grace of God. For the thief on the cross was given a promise from Christ, that he would see paradise, which is the same promise given to us in baptism: brought safely through the water, we join Christ in his death and will join him in paradise.
‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized 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 the newness of life.’ (Romans 6:3-4)
Collins, Hercules. An Orthodox Catechism. London, 1680.
Ursinus, Zacharias. “Heidelberg Catechism.” Christian Reformed Church, 1563, http://www.crcna.org/welcome/beliefs/confessions/heidelberg-catechism.
The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Gordon Review, editorial staff, or its members.
I personally have struggled with this as well Thomas. It is similar to our works after being saved. By our works we shall be known.
“In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
Baptism and our works give God glory which is our ultimate purpose in life (classic catechism right there!)
Like a wedding ring symbolizes and a ceremony and certificate completes the process of marriage, baptism reflects the process but doesn’t do the saving. Simply saying I Do should be the clincher but yet there is ceremony. Hmmm it is still a mystery to me but this I know, Jesus saved me by the washing of His blood on my sinful heart and this fact should cause me to strive for good works to please Him and to ceremonially proclaim it publicly! And then remember my salvation through communion! But thats a different subject…
Thank you Thomas for your eloquent article.