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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:Holy baptism signs and seals the benefits of Christ
Text:LD 26 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2014 Book of Praise

Psalm 135:1-3

Psalm 33:1,2

Psalm 33:6

Hymn 1

Psalm 121

Scripture reading:  1 Peter 3

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Day 26

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ,

This afternoon we’re looking at the sacrament of baptism.  There are many wrong ways of thinking about baptism.  The errors tend to go in one of two directions.  In one wrong direction, people say too much about what baptism does.  We can think about the Roman Catholic Church here.  For them, baptism washes away all sins and puts one in a state of grace.  That’s saying far too much.  But there’s another wrong direction where people say too little about baptism and what it does.  For many Christians, baptism is just a statement to the world.  That’s saying far too little.  So there are these two wrong directions that one could go:  ascribing too much to baptism or ascribing too little.  Overstating it or understating it.

We want to avoid the extremes and find the biblical balance, saying just what God says in his Word.  Our Catechism helps us to do that.  It helps us by pointing out that baptism is a sign.  Like any sign, it points to something.  Right there you see that there’s a little warning against saying too much about baptism.  No one who understands what a sign is confuses it with what the sign points to.  No one would confuse a sign that says a certain city is 50 km away with the city itself – that would be foolish.  We say that there’s a difference between the sign and the thing signified.  But baptism is also a seal.  A seal is like a guarantee – it’s something you can count on, depend upon.  When a king puts his seal on a decree, you know it’s genuine and you know it can be trusted.  Right there you see that there’s a little warning against saying too little about baptism.  If baptism is a seal, there’s something very significant going on when it’s administered.  Someone is saying something weighty.

What baptism signs and seals are the benefits of Christ.  As a sign, baptism points to what Christ has done, especially in his death on the cross.  As a seal, baptism says that God makes certain promises in relation to what Christ has done – promises which are trustworthy and dependable.  This afternoon we’re going to explore all this further.  It’s important that we be clear about baptism and what Scripture says about it in general.   We’re going to see that holy baptism signs and seals the benefits of Christ.

We’ll look at baptism and:

  1. What it means
  2. What it doesn’t mean

One of the most important things to know about baptism is that it is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace.  Remember:  the covenant is the special relationship that God has with believers and their children.  Baptism points to this relationship and seals this relationship, guaranteeing that it’s real and dependable.  All believers and their children have been drawn into this relationship and baptism speaks about that fact.  It’s critical to realize the way in which baptism speaks about it. 

When someone from the world becomes a believer in Christ, God draws that person into the covenant relationship with himself from the moment of faith.  That typically doesn’t happen in a public way.  But when that new believer comes to church to be baptized, the reality of his or her covenant relationship with God is being publically announced.  With the water of baptism, God is proclaiming, “This person is mine – I have claimed this person and brought him into the covenant relationship with me.”  So, while the covenant relationship is established earlier, baptism comes later and makes this relationship official in a public way.

Of course, there’s another scenario, the one we’re most familiar with.  A child is born to believing parents.  It would be a mistake to say that the child is not part of God’s covenant or congregation until that child is baptized.  No, from the very moment of conception, every child of believing parents is included by God in the covenant of grace.  You can see proof of that in Psalm 139.  David speaks there of God’s watchfulness over his life.  This is a function of the covenant that God has with David.  David says that God’s watchfulness was there from the very beginning of his life, while he was still in the womb.  He was a covenant child from the moment of his conception – as are all the children of believers.  What happens at baptism is that God makes this reality public.  With the water of baptism, he officially declares before his people, “This child belongs to me.  I have claimed this child for my own.  This child is forever included in the covenant of grace.”  What a comforting thing to have your gracious God claim you as his own before you can even speak or act!               

So, baptism means in the first place a public proclamation of covenant membership. 

In close connection with that, it also signs and seals the extending of covenant promises.  God’s covenant of grace includes rich gospel promises, the benefits of Christ.  Our Catechism mentions two of them and they’re both connected with washing.  Baptism is a sacrament with water and in regular everyday life, we use water for washing.  Dirt is washed away with water, and similarly, baptism signs and seals a washing, promises a washing.

We are promised washing with Christ’s blood.  That refers to what Christ did on the cross for our salvation.  His blood was poured out for us.  His life was given up for us.  He endured the wrath of God which we deserved.  As a result, when we believe in Jesus, we receive the forgiveness of all our sins, past, present and future.  God releases us from the debt we owe to his justice.  He takes our offenses out of the way and throws them into the depths of the sea.  Baptism promises these wonderful benefits of Christ to us.  It’s a gospel sacrament.

But loved ones, the gospel not only includes what Christ has done for us long ago at Golgotha.  It also includes what Christ promises to do in us right now.  We’re also promised washing with Christ’s Spirit.  God promises to give us a new heart that wants to serve him.   God promises to set us apart from sin – to sanctify us to be members of Christ – and then lead us so that we grow in holiness.  He promises that we will be increasingly dying to sin and leading a holy and blameless life before him.  You see, baptism includes a promise of sanctification as well – sanctification being the process of growing to conform to the image of Christ.       

So, whenever we witness a baptism, we’re seeing God signing and sealing these promises which speak of the benefits of Christ.  We’re seeing him saying that to that individual being baptized.  But he’s also reminding all of us about our own baptism.  Every time we see a baptism he’s saying, “Remember what I promised you.  I promised you washing with Christ’s blood and with Christ’s Spirit.  Your name too was said out loud by one of my ministers.  You too were baptized in my Name and that was an official public declaration that all my gospel promises have been extended to you.  The water you see sprinkled today is as sure as my promises for you.”  You see, baptisms are not just for the benefit of the one being baptized at that moment, or for the parents or the family.  Baptism is done in a public worship service because it’s meant to speak to all of us as God’s covenant people, reminding us all of what God has promised so that our faith can be encouraged and strengthened.

That naturally brings us to the third thing that baptism means.  It not only speaks of covenant promises, but also of covenant obligations or expectations.  We know the well-known words of the Form for Baptism:  every covenant contains two parts, a promise and an obligation.  In baptism, God is calling us to respond to him.  The promises that he makes are wonderful, but only those who believe receive what is promised.  Think of Hebrews 3 and 4 and what it says there about the Israelites.  God had made them promises regarding rest in Canaan.  But most did not receive it.  Why not?  They didn’t receive what was promised because they did not believe.  Similarly, no one receives the benefits of Christ apart from faith in Christ.  So, when we speak about covenant obligations, we need to be clear that the first thing is always faith.  Our baptism means that we are each personally called to believe what God has said to us and about us.  He has said that we belong to him – we believe this and affirm it.  He has promised us all the benefits of Christ, washing with his blood and washing with his Spirit – and more.  We say, “Yes, Father, I gladly receive those promises in faith.  I believe in Christ alone for my salvation.”  This is something that every single baptized person is called to do first – all of us, young and old alike, children and adults.  Believe what your gracious God has said to you as a covenant member.      

From faith flow the fruits of faith in obedience and striving to live a holy life.  When you’re baptized, God is calling you to believe him, believe in Christ alone as your Saviour, and then also believe that his holy Will expressed in his Word is his Will for your life.  But one flows from the other – we can’t put the cart before the horse.  Obedience always follows faith.  But when we say we believe God and his promises, we’re also led to believe God and his will.  We trust not only in what he has proclaimed in the gospel, but we also trust that his law is his will for our lives.             

So we’ve seen that baptism means a public announcement of our covenant membership.  It means that God has publically announced covenant promises towards us.  Last of all, we saw that baptism means that we are called first to believe these gospel promises, and then bear the fruit of a growing sincere obedience to God’s law.

Let’s now shift gears and look at what baptism doesn’t mean.  There are a couple of common misunderstandings and when I say common, I mean that they can also sometimes be found among us as Reformed believers.

First off, there is this idea that baptism is about what we are doing.  In our churches, the idea can develop because, when a baby is baptized, the parents are asked some questions and then they answer.  So sometimes people get the impression that the essence of baptism is the vows that the parents make.  The baby is completely out of the picture, but even worse, God is almost completely out of the picture.  At the very least, God becomes a spectator, listening to the parents making their vows.  The vows are important, but they’re not the main thing. 

Elsewhere, in other churches, baptism often is meant to show that we really mean business.  Someone has become a Christian and now they want to make a statement – so they get baptized.  Baptism is the Christian announcing that he or she has become a Christian and is serious about it.  Here too, the focus is not on God and what he is doing in this sacrament, but on human activity.

As mentioned earlier, in its essence baptism is not a statement from us.  It’s not about the vows parents make and it’s not about a new convert making an announcement.  Rather, it’s something God does for us and to us.  When the minister baptizes, he does so as a minister of God, he is representing God at that moment.  God works through the hands of the minister to put water on the head of the one being baptized.  God speaks through the mouth of the minister as he says, “I baptize you into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  When it comes to baptism, the focus always has to be on what God is doing.                

But someone might raise an objection to this.  It comes from what we read in 1 Peter 3.  In verse 21, baptism appears to be an “appeal to God for a good conscience.”  Doesn’t that make it sound as if baptism includes us doing something?  No, what this passage is saying is that baptism must lead to a response.  The one baptized must call on God with faith in the risen Christ in order to have a good conscience.  The “appeal to God for a good conscience” in 1 Peter 3:21 follows from baptism, but is not part of the essence of baptism.

So baptism does not mean a statement from us, but rather from God.  I think that our second error is probably more common than the first.  Though I’m sure it’s found elsewhere, it seems to be particularly well-established in the Canadian Reformed Churches. 

This error teaches that because God has promised it and signed and sealed it in baptism, salvation is automatically ours.  Because God has promised us all the benefits of Christ, we have received all the benefits of Christ.  We can lose them if we are disobedient, but because we are baptized covenant members, we automatically have these saving benefits in our possession.  I recently encountered a related position.  The church is the assembly of the elect redeemed, I have been baptized and incorporated into the church, therefore I am one of the elect redeemed.  Salvation is all automatic and there is no personal responsibility to repent and believe the gospel.  In fact, some who hold these types of positions would go so far as to say that calling baptized people in the church to believe the gospel is Arminian or something like that.  I once heard an elderly brother somewhere say that even our Catechism is wrong for saying that we must accept the promise of the gospel as often as we hear it (in QA 84).  Baptized church members are already saved by virtue of the covenant, God has already given them salvation, so you don’t call them to believe or accept the promise of the gospel.  They just have to be taught how to be obedient in the covenant.  Brothers and sisters, this is a completely wrong and dangerous view of baptism and what it means.

A couple of places in Scripture will illustrate why it is wrong.  I already mentioned Hebrews 4 and 5.  God made promises, but those who did not believe did not receive what was promised.  We could also think of 2 Peter 3:9.  This passage is addressed to Christians, baptized members of Christ’s church.  It says, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”  The call to repent has to be issued in the church for covenant members.  They need to be called to a change of mind about sin, to turn away from sin, and turn to Christ.  Or you could think of Hebrews 12:2.  Keep in mind that Hebrews was probably an early Christian sermon, delivered to covenant people in the church.  In Hebrews 12:2, the writer encourages these covenant people to look to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.  He calls them to fix their eyes in faith on Christ.  So Scripture calls – God calls -- covenant people to repentance and faith.

Faith is the way in which we receive what God has promised in the covenant, and what has been signed and sealed in our baptism.  We receive the benefits of Christ when we rest and trust in Christ alone.  There’s a good illustration for this.  If I write you a cheque for $10,000, you can only receive that $10,000 by taking the cheque to the bank and cashing it or depositing it.  Similarly, in the covenant God has promised us the benefits of Christ – these are rich benefits.  But to receive what has been promised, you have to take the cheque to the bank.  You’re called to believe what your God has said, repent and believe in Jesus Christ.  As he says in John 14:6, he is the only way to the Father and you can only travel on his way through faith in him.                                

But then there’s 1 Peter 3:21 again.  It says that baptism saves us, doesn’t it?  “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…”  So there you have it – the Bible itself says that baptism saves you.  But does it?  We have all these other passages that teach us that salvation is only by faith in Christ alone.  But we have only one passage which speaks like 1 Peter 3:21 does.  That means we need to take a closer look at this passage.  After all, it can’t be contradicting all those other passages.  The solution is right there in the verse when it says, “not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”  Peter is saying, “Don’t get me wrong:  baptism doesn’t save through a physical pouring of water, like taking a shower that washes away dirt, but only as it leads to faith.  Baptism saves as you respond to it or continue responding to it by turning to God through the resurrected Jesus Christ.”  You see, baptism has a place in the scheme of our salvation, but it cannot be said that baptism all by itself is a sacrament which results in automatic eternal life for anyone who receives it.  The Bible doesn’t support that teaching, not here in 1 Peter 3:21 and nowhere else.

Like I said, this is a wrong view, but it’s also a dangerous view.  Why?  For one thing, it’s dangerous because it leads to presumption.  It leads to people not looking to Christ, but instead trusting in their baptism or covenant membership/church membership.  They’re sure they’re going to heaven, but for the wrong reason.  Listen:  if you’re not looking to Christ alone, you won’t be saved.  This teaching is also dangerous because it leads to cultural Christianity and nominalism.  It leads to people who are Christians in name only, but don’t rest and trust in Christ in a genuine and meaningful way.  Again, there’s no salvation for nominal Christians, people just along for the ride, just part of “the club.”  As baptized covenant people, all of us need to hear the call to repent and believe and all of us must respond to that call as often as we hear it. 

So to review:  baptism does not mean that we are making a statement.  It’s not about our vows or us saying that now we really mean business.  And it also doesn’t mean that salvation is automatically ours and there’s no personal responsibility to repent and believe. 

Loved ones, the sacrament of baptism is a precious gift from our God.  Most of us don’t remember our baptism.  Our parents have told us that we were baptized and we just grew up knowing that we had been baptized.  In this situation, it’s easy to take it for granted.  But, as we’ve learned again this afternoon, with the eyes of faith we see that baptism involves gospel riches – the benefits of Christ promised to us.  Let’s again each take hold of those riches, not only as we hear them proclaimed from the pulpit, but also as we see them proclaimed at the baptism font from time to time.  AMEN.


Dear Father in heaven,

We thank you for the sacrament of baptism.  We thank you for what it means.  When we were baptized, you called each one of us your own.  You gave us rich gospel promises – the benefits of Christ.  You promised us washing with his blood and washing with his Spirit.  Father, we are so grateful for your grace towards us.  We know that we are entirely undeserving.  At our baptism, you also called us to faith in you and in your Son, our Lord Jesus.  Father, this afternoon, we affirm or reaffirm our faith.  We believe what you have said.  We believe that we belong to you.  We believe that we receive forgiveness and sanctification through your grace.  We trust that your Word contains your good will for our lives.  We do want to live in a way that pleases you and honours you.  Please help us with your Holy Spirit.  We are so dependent on you.  Father, we not only need your grace at the baptism font, we need it every moment of our lives.  Please look upon us in mercy and be faithful to your covenant with us and our children.           

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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