It is not uncommon for Christians to ask: “What does baptism actually do?” Often this question comes in the context of other questions such as: “Do I have to be baptized?” or “Should I have my children baptized?” In this article I will attempt to explain briefly what it is that baptism does, showing that baptism identifies, signifies, seals, offers, and applies.
Baptism identifies Christians. It is a mark of membership in the visible church, a designation for disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Disciples are enrolled in the school of Christ, and baptism is the emblem of their enrollment. Francis Beatie, a 19th century Presbyterian pastor, called baptism “the badge of solemn admission” because it marks our admission into the church. The public ceremony of baptism places a visible distinction between Christians and pagans. The apostle Paul said, “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Baptism shows outwardly that which the Holy Spirit works inwardly. There is only one institution for the gathering and perfecting of saints: the Christian church. The Christian church has only one initiatory rite: Christian baptism (Ephesians 4:4-6).
Baptism signifies and seals grace. To signify is to point to, indicate, make known. Words point to things. A road sign points to a place. A name points to a person. Baptism points to the benefits of Jesus Christ in the Covenant of Grace. The rainbow signifies God’s promise to the earth. Baptism signifies God’s promise to the church. To seal is to confirm, ratify, guarantee. Ancient kings sealed their edicts with wax in order to guarantee their authenticity. Christ seals the gospel promises with baptism. Abraham received circumcision to seal the righteousness he had by faith (Romans 4:11). Christians receive baptism to seal the righteousness they have by faith (Colossians 2:11,12). Following are some particular graces signified and sealed by baptism: ingrafting into Christ, also called union with Christ (Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:4); regeneration, also called the new birth (Titus 3:5 cf. Ezekiel 36:25-27); remission of sins (Acts 2:38); and engagement to the Lord (Matthew 28:19, 20; Romans 6:4).
Baptism offers and applies grace. The Westminster Confession says that baptism offers, exhibits, and confers grace (WCF 28.6). To offer is to promise. To exhibit is to hold forth. To confer is to give or grant. In the sacrament of baptism, God not only promises grace, but also really holds forth and gives the grace that he offers and holds forth (Acts 2:38; Ephesians 5:25-26; Titus 3:5). For this reason, we call baptism a “means of grace”. A means of grace is an objective instrument given to the Church, by which the Holy Spirit communicates the benefits of Christ (WLC 153). This means that baptism (the washing with water in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) is something that God uses to bless His people, just like He does with preaching, prayer, and the Lord’s Supper.
To summarize: (1) baptism identifies Christians; (2) signifies and seals the benefits of the covenant of grace; and (3) offers and applies the grace of God. How does baptism do all these things? That’s a worthy question, but one that will have wait for another article. For now, let me challenge you to consider the significance of the things that God accomplishes by means of the simple sacrament of baptism.
Soli Deo Gloria!