What does baptism do?
There are many verses that define what baptism is and does. These verses are where this post will begin.
And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”6:3-5
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience 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, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Each of these verses clearly proclaim that baptism actually does something. These verses state that in baptism there is not only the gift of salvation through forgiveness of sins, but also the gift of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is pure gospel plain and simple. It is not something that I do. It is something done to me. I cannot baptize myself, as I must to be baptized. I cannot remove my sins, only Jesus’ death and resurrection can. I also cannot circumcise my heart (without hands) as the Colossians passage says. No one can circumcise my heart (without hands) apart from God Himself. So where do I go to have my heart circumcised? The waters of baptism.
It’s just water though right?
Yes. It is just water, but the water isn’t the active ingredient; the word is. The 1 Peter passage says that baptism is not for removal of dirt from the body but for true salvation. What makes the water efficacious is the word of God. Scripture. When the water is combined with the word, baptism is efficacious. Promises are made by God through the means of baptism and we receive the gifts of that promise upon coming in contact with the water because the word is tied to it and the word never lies. Interestingly enough, American Evangelicals who discount efficacious baptism as salvivic, have no problem when salvation comes by the professed word. Romans gives a clear look at how the process of hearing the word is a means of grace as it gifts faith. Romans 10:17 says…
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Now combine what was read in Romans 10:17 with what is said in Matthew 28:19-20…
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
So one disciples are made by teaching and faith comes by hearing. That is extremely clear and is generally agreed upon across denominational lines. The question is how is this different from baptism? The words I teach are just words right? I speak words everyday and they do not contain life. My words are no different than water. What gives my words life and efficacy to instill faith is the promise found in these two verses. God’s promise that faith comes by hearing the word professed is a means of dispensing grace just like God’s promise that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins and the installation of the Holy Spirit is a means of dispensing grace. The promise is faith and the means is teaching as confirmed by the Word. Likewise, the promise is forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit and the means is water in the name of our triune God as confirmed in his word (Matthew 28:19-20). As this thought is carried forward throughout scripture, it becomes rather clear that God has always worked this way.
In Genesis 6:14-22, God attached His word to a coffin shaped boat known as the Ark…
In Exodus 30:17-21, God attached His Word to a bronze basin and water…
In Exodus 12:1-20, God attached His Word to the blood of a lamb wiped on a door post…
In Exodus 14:15-16, God attached His Word to the staff of Moses…
In Levitcus 13:6, God attached His Word to water applied on the 7th day…
In Levitcus 16:20-28, God attached His Word to water…
In Numbers 19:11-13, God attached His Word to water applied on the 3rd & 7th day…
In Numbers 21 God attached His Word to a bronze serpent…
In 2 Kings 5 God attaches His Word to the Jordan River where Naaman bathed 7 times to be healed.
God attaching His Word to a material object as a means of grace isn’t a novel idea. It doesn’t mean the object holds any power, only that it has power because of what God’s word says. When these Old Testament verses are studied, it is discovered that each of them either deal with purification or salvation (It could be argued that the Ark and high priest purification could be representative of both purification and salvation). For the purification verses, did the water cleanse or did God’s word combined with the water cleanse? For the salvation verses, did the Ark, lamb’s blood, staff or bronze serpent save or did God’s word combined with them save? The promises were always transferred to the recipient because God’s word described how his promises were to be received. Therefore, if Moses held up a wooden serpent instead of a bronze, the healing effects wouldn’t have been available because God’s instruction for receiving the promise was not provided. We are not in the position to override God’s methods for delivering his promises (for more on this click here).
There is another place where God attaches his promise to a material object. That place is the Garden of Eden. In Genesis 3:17, God attached His Word to the fruit of the tree “in the midst of the garden.” The promise attached to eating this fruit is death and thus when Adam ate, sin entered the world and condemned all mankind. This one act is a means of destruction that ushered in the reign of sin, death and the devil. But as our God is a loving God, from which his mercy and justice flow, a gospel promise is made several verses later in Genesis 3:15. Therefore, all of the means of grace that follow are types of the final means of grace that comes through the promised seed of the woman, which is Jesus Christ. Thus the salvation texts point to Christ saving us through his death and resurrection by the gifting of forgiveness of sins by faith through grace and the purification texts speak to Christ purifying us through gifting us the Holy Spirit. The prophecy in Ezekiel 36:24-27 brings this all together showing that through the means of Holy Baptism, God will gift His promises of forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. This will be fulfilled through the person, work and office of Jesus Christ. When this is understood in light of the New Testament passages at the top of this post, there is no room for the position that baptism is a mere act of obedience (law) that is symbolic (not efficacious). The history of the means of grace, as laid out above, point to the true work that is done in baptism by the hands of God.
Baptism is gospel, not law.
The above New Testament verses clearly display this good news of promises gifted in and through baptism. The word gospel literally means “good news.” One cannot “do” good news, one can only “receive” good news. Baptism is where one receives these gospel promises which truly are the best news anyone could ever receive; the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. Baptism also points to a objective event. When the devil or our conscience question our faith, all that must be done is to point to our baptism to know the gifts were received. This is a blessed gift of assurance when darts from the enemy pierce the sub conscience with questions like “How do you know you are really saved?”, “You don’t really believe!” or “Are you sure of your faith?” The objective act of baptism is a gift in and of itself to us to thwart Satan and our sinful nature against these attacks. When these questions come (and they will for every believer) the answer is found in your baptism which is the very place the gifts were received.
To further support these assertions about baptism, I began to research what the church fathers believed and taught. They all believed the literal passages. This line of thinking is not new. I am not the originator. It has been the standard position of orthodoxy throughout church history. All of the historic church fathers from the time of the Apostles into the 16th century collectively believed and confessed this through their writings. In addition, all of them baptized infants.
That leads us to Part 6 – Should Infants be Baptized?
Click here to go to “Christian Baptism Series – Part 4 – Why Was Jesus Baptized?”