Summary: An introduction to the theological meaning of baptism.


In the church spiritual health survey that was taken last March, you will recall the first section of questions addressing doctrine. The result was rather impressive. All the subjects received no less than 92% agreement with the church, except for one – infant baptism, which 64% affirmed. And so that is my purpose for preaching on the subject of baptism these two Sundays. Today I will be giving a general introduction to the sacrament of baptism. It is next Sunday that the specific subject of infant baptism will be addressed.

I should make two comments before we get started. One, the elders of Tenth do not measure spiritual health by one’s view of infant baptism. Commitment and spiritual maturity are not equated with this doctrinal position. Finally and most importantly, let us remember that this morning we have gathered to worship God. And I am called of God to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and that is what you are to be listening for.

Let’s begin with the morning text:

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38 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. 39 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." 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Surely this text shows the importance of baptism in the life of the church. The first instruction given to those who would turn to Christ is “Repent and be baptized.” What then is the meaning and role of baptism?

The Sign

Baptism signifies the gospel. This is the promise for you. Though it is a simple act, it communicates the comprehensive message of the gospel. There is the washing away of sin through the atonement of Christ, our union with Christ, our entry into God’s covenant, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

The Atonement of Christ

First, there is the washing away of sin through the atonement of Christ. This is the clearest message conveyed in this sacrament. The answer given to Question 69 of the Heidelberg Catechism expresses this well: “Christ appointed this external washing with water, adding thereto this promise, that I am as certainly washed by his blood and Spirit from all the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.”

This concept of washing or cleansing from sin originates in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 36, God promises the house of Israel that he will restore the exiles, bring them back to their land, and…I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you (25).

This concept of sprinkling was ingrained in the Jewish conscience as a symbol of cleansing or sanctifying. Worshippers bringing a sin offering would be anointed with the blood of the sacrifice to make atonement for sin and the altar sprinkled with that same blood (Leviticus 4:6, 17; 14:16, 27). When Aaron and his sons were set apart as priests of the Lord, they were sprinkled with blood (Leviticus 8:30). When David prayed to God in Psalm 51:7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” he was thinking of the ritual of being sprinkled with the sacrifice’s blood by use of a hyssop branch. Sprinkling with water was also known. When the tribe of Levi was set apart for the Lord, the Levites were sprinkled with water (Numbers 8:7).

Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 shed light on connecting these rituals with the cleansing work of Christ’s blood.

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (9:11-14).

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