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07 June, 2008 / theexpositor

What is the significance of baptism?

by R.C. Sproul

Just as an aside, the word significance has as its root the word sign. A sign is something that points to something beyond itself. We all recognize that whatever baptism signifies, Jesus obviously thought it was very important because he gives a command to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Whatever else it is, baptism is the sign of the new covenant that God makes with his people. We do have the clear mandate in the New Testament that Christians are to be baptized. 

I personally do not believe that baptism is essential for salvation. If I believed that, I would think that the thief on the cross who was promised paradise with Jesus would have been disqualified because he obviously didn’t have an opportunity to get baptized. But I do believe that baptism is essential for obedience because Christ commands it. It’s just the same thing as when people say, “Do you have to go to church to go to heaven?” I would say, “Obviously not.” But do you have to go to church to obey Christ? Yes, you do. And if you are not inclined to obey Christ and have no inclination to follow his mandates, that may be a sign that you are not headed for heaven. So church involvement becomes a very serious matter of obedience. 

I would say the same about the sacrament of baptism. It’s a sign of the new covenant. It’s a sign of our participation in Jesus, of being partakers in his death and resurrection, which are at the heart of the gospel. It’s also a sign of our cleansing from sin and guilt by the work of Jesus and the washing of regeneration. What we do outwardly with water, the Spirit does inwardly with his grace. So it’s a sign of our cleansing. It’s also a sign of our sanctification. It’s a sign of our baptism of the Holy Spirit. It’s a sign of our being set apart from the world and given the holy task to fulfill the commission that Christ gives to his church. 

So there are several things that baptism signifies. I think one of our tendencies is to reduce those to one—making it merely a cleansing rite or merely a sign of empowering by the Holy Spirit—when in fact it is a sacrament that is rich and complex with meaning and significance. 

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4 Comments

  1. cogitatetheology / Jun 7 2008 2 51

    Thanks for the post. I agree that Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant. One comment caught me off guard though. Going to church is necessary to obeying Christ? Clearly this wasn’t the point of your post, but I couldn’t get past that statement. Will you please show me the Biblical Mandate that states that? Thanks!

  2. theexpositor / Jun 7 2008 3 00

    By his statement, Sproul is not saying that attending church saves you, but once you are converted, then you are commanded to commit yourself to a local assembly of believers. In Hebrews 10:24,25, Paul writes,”And let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near”.

    I like the way John MacArthur puts its:

    “It is only in the local body to which one is committed that there can be the level of intimacy that is required for carefully stimulating fellow-believers “to love and good deeds.” And it is only in this setting that we can encourage one another.

    The New Testament also teaches that every believer is to be under the protection and nurture of the leadership of the local church. These godly men can shepherd the believer by encouraging, admonishing, and teaching. Hebrews 13:7 and 17 help us to understand that God has graciously granted accountability to us through godly leadership.

    Furthermore, when Paul gave Timothy special instructions about the public meetings, he said “Until I come, give attention to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation and teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13). Part of the emphasis in public worship includes these three things: hearing the Word, being called to obedience and action through exhortation, and teaching. It is only in the context of the local assembly that these things can most effectively take place.

    Acts 2:42 shows us what the early church did when they met together: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” They learned God’s Word and the implications of it in their lives; they joined to carry out acts of love and service to one another; they commemorated the Lord’s death and resurrection through the breaking of bread; and they prayed. Of course, we can do these things individually, but God has called us into His body-the church is the local representation of that worldwide-body-and we should gladly minister and be ministered to among God’s people.

    Active local church membership is imperative to living a life without compromise. It is only through the ministry of the local church that a believer can receive the kind of teaching, accountability, and encouragement that is necessary for him to stand firm in his convictions. God has ordained that the church provide the kind of environment where an uncompromising life can thrive.”

    Thank you for your comment.

  3. Daniel Coteanu / Aug 11 2009 10 28

    Hello!

    I would say that I did not get the answer to the question by reading this short article. It seemed to me that the article should be continued.

    Actually I found the IMPORTANCE of the baptism and EXCEPTIONS.

    I saw no verse from Bible to support the answer.

    So, in a sentence “What is the significance of baptism?” Are there multiple answers or there is only one meaning but more aplications and interpretations.

    I emphasized this question because I really want to know the answer.

    Thank you very much!

    Blessings!

    Daniel

    • theexpositor / Sep 8 2009 15 18

      My pastor, Scott Reiber of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg, MS offers the following response:

      Mike thanks for the opportunity.
      What I gather to be Daniel’s allegation concerning Dr. Sproul’s short article is that it does not “answer” the “question” with which it is titled: “What is the significance of baptism?” In addition he sees no Scripture. Dr. Sproul can answer for himself. This is a very short and concise and popularly written piece in which he does allude to Scripture and does answer the question, albeit in a short span.
      What is the significance of baptism?
      1. Immediately he tells you in the first paragraph as he notes that “the word significance has as its root the word sign. A sign is something that points to something beyond itself. What is the significance of baptism? Baptism is a sign.
      2. Dr. Sproul then alludes to, but (as Daniel notes) does not quote Matthew 28:18-20: “Jesus obviously thought it was very important because He gives a command to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Dr. Sproul says that Christ commands it and thus it is an important sign. What is the significance of baptism? It is an important sign commanded by the Lord Jesus, a New Testament mandate.
      3. Then Dr. Sproul flat out states the answer: “…baptism is the sign of the new covenant that God makes with His people.”
      4. This of course must be clarified because there are loads of folks that think that somehow, because Christ commanded baptism, because it is a New Testament mandate, that baptism is essential to salvation. That is, Dr. Sproul answers the question: Is baptism’s significance such that without this Christ commanded sign, one cannot be saved? Dr. Sproul answers No. We ought to be baptized because Christ commands it just as we ought to obey everything else Christ commands, but salvation is not so tied to baptism that we cannot be saved without it. Dr. Sproul then alludes to, but (as Daniel notes) does not quote Luke 23:39-43/Mark 15:32/Matthew 27:38,44: “I personally do not believe that baptism is essential for salvation. If I believed that, I would think that the thief on the cross who was promised paradise with Jesus would have been disqualified because he obviously didn’t have an opportunity to get baptized.” Surely Daniel can see that this is sound and biblical argument about the extent of the significance of baptism. Very often it is helpful in drawing the parameters of the answer of a question to say what is not the answer. What is the significance of baptism? Very importantly, baptism’s significance is not such that without it one cannot be saved.
      5. In the third paragraph Dr. Sproul states very clearly the answer to What is the significance of baptism? “It’s a sign of the new covenant. It’s a sign of our participation in Jesus, of being partakers in His death and resurrection, which are at the heart of the Gospel. It’s also a sign of our cleansing from sin and guilt by the work of Jesus and the washing of regeneration.” This sign language comes directly from the Apostle Paul when he by the Spirit speaks of Abraham: Ro. 4:11, “And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of faith….” This is of course directly from Genesis 17, where Moses by the Spirit writes of Abraham who has believed (but struggled in the previous chapter with the infamous Hagar move) so God gives the Old Testament sign of the covenant of grace, circumcision: Gen. 17:10, “Every male child among you shall be circumcised; and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Now remember what Dr. Sproul said about baptism being a sign (again with allusions to Scripture if not outright quotes): It is a sign of participation in Jesus (Gal. 3:27)….a sign of being partakers in His death and resurrection (Ro. 6:3,5; Col. 2:11,12)…a sign of cleansing from sin and guilt by the work of Jesus and the washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5; Acts 2:38). What is the significance of baptism? In a summary way Dr. Sproul enumerates the blessings of the covenant of grace which baptism signifies.
      Perhaps it would of further help to think about how a covenant sign works. I like Dr. J. Ligon Duncan’s helpful insight as to how a covenant sign works expounding upon Genesis 17: “A sacrament is an action designed by God to sign and seal a covenantal reality communicated by the Word of God. The weakness or the frailty of human faith welcomes an act of reassurance. Understand again that the signs of the covenant all function to reassure believers of the promises that God has made to them in the covenant. Nowhere in the Bible will you find a covenant sign which effects a relationship. A covenant sign always reflects a relationship…..” Thus as Dr. Duncan goes on to say, “God was in relationship with Abraham and in order to reassure Abraham of the promises that He had made to him, He gave him the covenant sign to confirm that promise.” Notice that the sign acts to reassure “the frailty of human faith.” Baptism is a covenant sign which “functions to reassure believers of the promises that God has made to them in the covenant.” The promises themselves and all they contain are received by faith.
      6. In the last paragraph of Dr. Sproul’s article he notes a very important matter in explaining What is the significance of baptism? He speaks of the outward sign and the inward spiritual reality which the sign signifies: “What we do outwardly with water, the Spirit does inwardly with His grace.”
      It is important to point out that the covenant signs are very closely related to the covenant promises, the covenant relationship, covenant blessings in Christ (ie. Gen. 17:9,10), but the signs are not the actual spiritual reality of the promises or relationship. So the reason why we can use water in the Name of the Trinity and then the bread and the cup with these meanings in these ordinances is because Christ has ordained them. At the same time we ought to realize that the Spirit’s work is not so tied to baptism that everyone who is baptized is at that moment born again, washed from sin, united to Christ as a part of the spiritual body of Christ — as if the Spirit’s work was tied to the hands of a man. The Spirit is free and sovereign (John 3) to act when He wills. What is the significance of baptism? It is an outward sign administered with water signifying what the Spirit does inwardly with His grace.
      7. Immediately Dr. Sproul speaking of the inward operation of the Spirit and grace reminds us that baptism is a sign of our sanctification. One can immediately think of Romans 6, as we are united to Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection, so we are set free from the dominion of sin in order to live new resurrection lives of holiness to Christ. As a sign of our engrafting into Christ and entrance into His church it is a sign if being set apart to holiness and the service of Christ (Gal. 3:26,27; I Cor. 12:13; Ro. 6:4). Very essentially sanctification is to be set apart so Dr. Sproul points out What is the significance of baptism? “It’s also a sign of our sanctification. It’s a sign of our baptism of [by] the Holy Spirit. It’s a sign of our being set apart from the world and given the holy task to fulfill the commission that Christ gives to His church.”
      As the relationship and blessings of the covenant of grace in Christ Jesus are rich, so to is the significance of baptism. I pray that this will fill out a bit more of what Dr. Sproul has set out in a very short and effective way.

      In the service of Christ the King,

      Scott Reiber
      Pastor, Westminster Presbyterian Church

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