A Baptism Q&A

You are on your way home from church one Sunday after witnessing a baptism. It is always a joy to witness a baptism, and you take the opportunity to express this to your family: “I love being present for a baptism, don’t you?” Besides a general agreement, your comment raises a number of questions:

  • “Why do we baptize people?”
  • “Is it really all that important?”
  • “Where in Bible does it say that we should baptize people?”
  • “My friend’s church doesn’t baptize babies, so why does our church?”

Moments like this are a valuable opportunity to teach important truths about the Bible and the Christian faith. In this way, we make good use of the sacrament, since one of the reasons Christ gave it to us was to provide a “teaching tool” that communicates Gospel truths by visible object lessons.

The following questions and answers on baptism are intended to provide a brief guide to a conversation like this, equiping us for opportunities to benefit spiritually from our own baptism and from witnessing the baptism of others.

What is a good Scripture text to begin thinking about baptism?

“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6)

Why is baptism included in this list of great spiritual realities?

Though it is a simple and humble washing with water, baptism is included in this list of great spiritual realities because it is a sign and seal of God’s covenant promise, to save us from our sin through his Son Jesus Christ.

What do we mean by calling baptism “a sign of God’s covenant promise”?

We mean that God has given baptism so that we may see with our eyes the meaning of the promise that we have heard with our ears. ​​Moses tells us in Genesis 17, and Paul confirms in Romans 4, that God gave circumcision to Abraham as a sign of his covenant promise, to send a savior through his family line. We apply this idea to baptism because Paul teaches in Colossians 2:11-12 that baptism is the new covenant fulfillment of the old covenant sign of circumcision.

How has baptism come to replace circumcision?

First, by Christ’s example. ​​He was not only circumcised on the eighth day, in keeping with the old administration of the covenant of grace, but he was also baptized at the beginning of his ministry, when he first began to fulfill the old covenant types and shadows in new covenant realities. In this way, the old and new covenants meet in him personally.

Second, by Christ’s command. ​​He instructed the Church, starting with his apostles, to make disciples of all nations by baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and then instructing them in all of his commandments. In obedience to this command, the apostles taught clearly that circumcision is no longer a requirement for entry into the covenant. Instead, they called people to enter the covenant by repenting and being baptized.

Third, by Christ’s fulfillment of the old covenant. Circumcision and baptism both point to the blessings that come to us from Christ’s death for us on the cross. The bloody sign of circumcision was especially appropriate to Israel, though, since their worship centered on constantly repeated sacrifices. The unbloody sign of baptism is especially appropriate for the Church, since Christ has ended all sacrifices with his perfect sacrifice on the cross.

Who should receive the sign of baptism?

Everyone who has a share in God’s covenant promise, that is, his covenant people. This means that all who convert to the Christian faith from another religion should receive baptism upon profession of their faith in Christ. For example, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized by Philip when he professed his faith (Acts 8).

This also means that the children of believers should receive baptism at their birth. God’s promise in the old covenant was: “I will be a God to you, and to your children after you.” The apostle Peter repeated this same promise at Pentecost, but extended it to the Gentiles (Acts 2:39). This is also why the apostles baptized entire households when household heads put their faith in Christ (Acts 16:15, 33).

What does baptism, as a sign, say about the covenant of grace?

That God promises to save us by washing us from our sins. Zechariah prophesied about this washing, which would come from Jesus’s death and resurrection: “On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (Zechariah 13:1).

Paul says that this washing is the difference between the ungodly and the believer: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Corinthians 6:11). When Paul himself became a Christian, Ananias told him to “rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).

What is the washing that God promises in the Gospel?

First, he promises to wash believers with the blood of his Son, for the forgiveness of their sins. This is what Paul means when he says that being washed means “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” This is also what Peter means when he says that “Baptism…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” (1 Peter 3:18).

Second, he promises to wash believers with the Holy Spirit, for the purification our lives. This is what Paul means when he says that being washed means being “sanctified … by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 1:30). It is also what Paul means in Titus 3:5, when he says that God has “saved us … by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”

Why is the washing of baptism performed in the name of the Triune God?

Because God washes us from our sins in order to bring us into the full blessing of eternal life, which is to have God as our God, so that he belongs to us, and we belong to him (John 17:3). Baptism “into the name” (Matthew 28:19-20) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, shows us God’s promise to unite us to his Son, and so receive us as his children, and give us the gift of his Spirit.

What do we mean by calling baptism “a seal of God’s covenant promise”?

We mean that God has given baptism as a means of strengthening our faith, by impressing upon us that his promise applies to us personally, and that we are personally obligated to walk worthy of our calling.

Does baptism automatically give the benefits of the covenant of grace?

No. In itself, baptism is helpless to give any spiritual benefits. So we may not rest in our baptism itself as a guarantee of our salvation.

Still, God promises to give the benefits of the covenant of grace to all who believe in Jesus Christ, and he has appointed baptism as one means of giving these benefits. So, as we receive baptism and use it in our Christian life, we may rest by faith in God’s promise to save all who repent of their sin and put their faith in Jesus Christ.

​​How does baptism seal the benefits of the covenant of grace to us?

First, because baptism is performed on us as a particular individual, it impresses upon us that the blessings of salvation must be applied to us personally, if we are to enjoy eternal life; furthermore, it impresses upon us that the duties of the Gospel apply to us in a special way, because we are God’s people. This means that we should make use of our baptism by...

  • ...remembering that we desperately need to be washed from our sin;
  • ...continually putting our faith in God’s promises of salvation, and growing in assurance of salvation;
  • ...continually repenting of sin and endeavoring after Christian obedience;

...which, together, strengthen our hope for our inheritance in heaven.

Second, because it is the sacrament of entry into God’s covenant people, it admits us to the privileges and benefits of Christ’s ordinances: The Lord’s Table and the ministry of the visible Church. This means that we should make use of our baptism by holding membership in the Church, and by walking in love with other Christians.

Calvin Goligher is the pastor of First OPC in Sunnyvale, California. He and his wife Joanne have four young children.

Related Links

Podcast: "From Shadow To Substance" (with Sam Renihan) 

"Improving Your Baptism" by Ryan McGraw

"Calvin and Baptism" by James J. Cassidy

Pastoral Perspectives on Baptism by Brian Cosby and Sam Renihan
[Download]  | [Booklet]

The Christian's True Identity by Jonathan Landry Cruse