When you are on vacation, you are always looking for the right signs. “Where do we get off in order to get to our destination?” When you see the sign, you cannot help but be excited about the destination. How about this, you are heading to church on a Sunday. Of course, you know where you are; you have been to your church before. But, when you round the corner, you see the sign. The sign indicates you are in the right place. People look for signs in order to tell them something about where they are, where they are going, and what to expect when you get there. But, in both cases above, and in every case in which you look for a sign, the sign is not the destination. The sign is important but it points to something else, something greater than itself.
Our Lord Jesus Christ gave two signs to His church to be symbols of our union and communion with Christ and each other. The Lord’s Supper is a continuing sign meant to remind us of our communion with Christ and each other; we do it as often as we can to remember and participate in Christ. Baptism, on the other hand, is different. If we are on the road and the Lord’s Supper is the sign that continues till we arrive at the destination, then baptism is the first sign on the road; it is the first exit on the journey begun.
You have probably heard, or personally stated, that baptism is “an outward act of an inward change.” This is a true statement. Those baptized are active participants in the act of baptism. And, it is a symbol of what Christ has done in the heart of a new believer. Remember the time when you heard the gospel and the Spirit changed your heart; maybe it happened immediately and you can recall that moment, or maybe you do not remember a time when you did not have faith in Christ. Both happen to God’s people. Sometimes the change is sudden; there is an explosive reaction to the regenerating work of the Spirit. But, sometimes it is slow; maybe you were raised in a believing family and Christ granted faith at a young age. In either case, both are important. When the Spirit does this, and you respond in faith and repentance for the first time, you probably wondered what the next step in obedience to Christ was.
Baptism is the first step in outward obedience to the Spirit’s inward work of regeneration (the Spirit changing the heart and giving the gift of faith). Therefore, it is the outward action. After someone turns to Christ in faith, they see Christ’s command to be baptized; they approach the pastors about getting baptized; they sit through a class for some time about what it means to be baptized, and then they actually step into the baptistry. Siting with the pastor, they are asked to publicly confess their faith. Then, the pastor baptizes the new believer, as the church has since the begging, “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). An outward act of an inward change indeed. But, what if I told you that was not all it was. Baptism is no less than that, but it is far more than that as well.
In the words of the Baptist Confession of Faith 1689, “Baptism is an ordinance of the New Testament, ordained by Jesus Christ, to be unto the party baptized, a sign of his fellowship with him, in his death and resurrection; of his being engrafted into him (Rom. 6:5-7; Col. 2:12; Gal. 3:27); of remission of sins (Mark 1:4; Acts 22:16); and of giving up into God, through Jesus Christ, to live and walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).” You got into the water for baptism, but the Lord has done all the work to which baptism points! It cannot be understated! Baptism is a sign of all these incredible graces! But, not only that, baptism is a seal as well. Those baptized are marked out, sealed, as one who received all that the sign symbolizes. Baptism is a seal in the sense of a royal seal. King Jesus, upon baptism, stamps His redeemed person with His royal seal; you belong to the King and are an heir of all His benefits. In an ultimate sense, it could not be any sweeter than that. But, in a temporal sense, baptism has at least one more benefit.
When one is baptized, they are making a public profession of faith. However, the person baptized is not the only participant in the baptism; the church is participating. When someone is baptized, the church plays the role in affirmation. Baptism is meant to come after a credible profession of faith and repentance. Therefore, when a person makes it to the baptismal waters, they have undergone some level of examination. When someone is being baptized, the church is saying to that person: “we accept your profession of faith and welcome you into the fold of the local church through the waters of baptism.” Baptism is an initiation into the covenant community, the church. This is an incredible blessing. Often, Christians struggle with assurance of salvation. So, if you are looking for a sign that you belong to Christ, remember your baptism and the things it signifies. If you are continuing in faith and repentance in the life of the covenant community, let your own baptism be a reminder that Christian life is not an isolated thing; baptism is a sign and seal of Christ’s promises and benefits for those whom He has saved to be a part of His covenant community.