Baptism is one of the central practices of the Christian life. With the Lord’s Supper, it is one of two sacraments (“oath, sign, or symbol”) that our Lord himself instituted, and in which God has promised to confirm and strengthen our faith.
Yet, both surprisingly and sadly, baptism has been and is now one of the most divisive issues inside the Christian church. Such questions as, “How should we baptize?”, “Who should we baptize?”, and “What does baptism accomplish?” tend to divide evangelicals rather quickly.
I’m under no illusion that we can answer all those questions easily or without much deep reflection and conversation. However, I would like to submit that perhaps the main reason that this secondary issue has been so divisive for so long is that we tend to focus on baptism’s secondary issues (“What does baptism mean for us?”) rather than on baptism’s primary issue (“What is God doing in and through our baptism?”). So what I would like to do here is recast our thinking about baptism primarily in terms of what God is doing and only secondarily in terms of what we are doing.
Christians are well-accustomed to thinking about baptism in terms of what it means for us, and we are right to do so. The Bible tells us that baptism is a sign and seal through which we experience the gospel. In other words, baptism is a physical sign of our death, resurrection, and union with Christ (cf. Romans 6:3-4). Baptism gives us a picture of what has happened to us in conversion: we once walked according to our sinful flesh, but now we have been buried and raised with Christ to new life.
We would do well to meditate on the reality that our identity is now fully rooted in the person and work of Jesus Christ and that we have been united to him through faith alone. Such meditation will produce humility and boldness: humility, for we know that we are not saved according to any work we have done, but solely because of the work that Christ has done for us; boldness, for we know that nothing can change our new identity or separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ.
But Scripture also talks about baptism in terms of what God is doing. Drawing on this biblical teaching, we confess that baptism, along with the Lord’s Supper, is “God’s pledge to us, [a] divinely ordained means of grace.” When we think of baptism, then, we should think of it primarily as God’s promise to us to be our God and to make us His people (cf. Jeremiah 31:33).
If we do a little bit of work, we can see this to be the case in the New Testament. In Luke 24:49, just before Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, we read: “Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you, but stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Then, in Acts 1:4-5, we find out what that promise is: “While staying with them [Jesus] ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” So the promise to which Jesus refers is the Father’s promise to send the Holy Spirit, who will empower the disciples to be Jesus’ “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
Peter then, after his Spirit-empowered sermon cuts men to the heart, commands his audience to “repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of 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” (Acts 2:38-39). Thus, the Father’s promise to send the Holy Spirit is intimately connected to Peter’s command for Christians to be baptized. In a special way, we receive the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5) at conversion, when “the Lord our God calls [us] to Himself” (Acts 2:39). Baptism, consequently, is a physical sign or picture of the Father’s promise to send us the Holy Spirit (i.e., to be God to and with us) and to make us His people (i.e., to call us to Himself).
When we are baptized, we receive God’s promise and ordained sign that He will send us the Holy Spirit when we repent and believe (cf. Acts 2:38). Thinking about it from another angle, God is at work in our baptism, promising to be our God and to make us His people by sending us His Holy Spirit. This does not mean that baptism works ex opere operato (“from the work worked”), as though baptism itself were the thing that saves us, unites us to Christ, or causes the Father to send us His Holy Spirit. But it does mean that baptism is God’s ordained means through which He gives us a physical picture of His promise to be our God and to unite us to Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit. Let us rejoice then, that our God is at work in our baptism, confirming and strengthening our relationship with Him!
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