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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:We are washed clean of sin by Christ's blood and by the Holy Spirit
Text:LD 27 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 4

Psalm 105:1-3

Psalm 71:1-3

Hymn 1

Hymn 8

Scripture readings: Exodus 4:18-31, Titus 3

Catechism lesson: Lord's Day 27

* 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 the Lord Jesus,

I first heard the expression “slip, slop, slap” in Canada.  It wasn’t an expression we ever used.  I heard it from Aussies, other guys from Down Under studying at the seminary.  But it’s what we did too during the summer.  Especially slopping on the sunscreen.   No one in the world wants to get a sunburn.  So you slop it on, and then you go about doing whatever you’re doing on that summer day.  Then what do you do at the end of it?  You want to have a shower, don’t you?  For some reason, sunscreen always leaves your skin feeling kind of gross.  A nice fresh shower will clean it all away.

Baptism can be described as a kind of washing.  Our Catechism calls it an “outward washing with water.”  Water is a cleansing agent.  Yes, when we’re baptized it’s usually just a small amount of water, but it’s enough to be described as a washing.  The Bible itself refers to baptism in this way.  In Acts 22, Paul was describing his conversion to a crowd in Jerusalem.  He says that Ananias told him to be baptized and have his sins washed away.  So, there we see those two concepts connected with each other:  baptism and cleansing. 

Baptism is the sacrament of washing and cleaning.  And so, this afternoon we’ll see that we are washed clean of sin by Christ’s blood and by the Holy Spirit.  We’ll learn about:

  1. The reality of this cleansing
  2. The sacrament of this cleansing
  3. The recipients of the promise of this cleansing

At first glance, QA 72 of the Catechism may seem to be an unusual question.  How could anybody think that baptism itself washes away our sins?  Yet in the history of the church there have been those who thought exactly that.  In fact, today we still find people around who hold to that position.  The Roman Catholic Church has taught for several hundred years already that baptism is the washing away of sin.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church says as much:  “By baptism, all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin.” (1263).  Of course, the washing away of sin is the same thing as the forgiveness of sins.  The Roman Catholic Church teaches that baptism washes away all sin.  That’s the background to the first question and answer in this Lord’s Day. 

Well, then what about it?  What does the Bible say?  What is it that cleanses us from all sin?  According to 1 John 1:7, it is the blood of Jesus.  John says, “...the blood of Jesus...purifies us from all sin.”  You could also translate that as “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.”  The blood poured out from Christ at Golgotha is what makes us clean before God.  It washes away all our filth and impurity.  We have forgiveness and atonement through the shed blood of our Saviour Jesus.  That means our sins are wiped away and we’re provided the payment that brings us into a relationship of fellowship with God.    

Scripture also speaks about the Holy Spirit as someone who would clean God’s people.  That language appears in Ezekiel 36.  There are a number of things mentioned there that God promised to do to restore and renew his people.  They all run parallel with one another.  So, we find in verse 25 that God will sprinkle clean water on them.  That runs parallel with verse 27 and his putting his Spirit within them.  The Spirit is compared to water that cleanses.  When he makes us his temple, he cleans out all the dirt and grime.  Because of his work, when God looks at us, he sees a beautiful building that’s perfectly clean inside and out.  Not only is it clean, it’s also been refurbished.  In God’s eyes this building is in immaculate condition inside and out. 

Now the question is: how do those two things relate to one another?  Is the washing by Christ’s blood something separate from the washing by the Holy Spirit?  No, the two belong together.  You can’t have one without the other.  The cleansing power of Christ’s blood is applied to us by the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit is the instrument or the tool God uses to bring the washing of Christ’s blood to us.  The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts, so that we take hold of Christ and all his benefits and are washed of all our wickedness. 

That’s really the key here.  Baptism doesn’t wash away our sins.  We’re not saved because we are baptized.  We’re only saved through the redemptive work of Christ applied to us by the Holy Spirit.  For this reason, you can see people in Scripture saved without baptism.  Think of the criminal on the cross.  He went to be with Christ in paradise the very day he died.  Going back further in history, think of Abraham.  Sure, he wasn’t baptized because that was in the Old Testament.  But he was circumcised and circumcision was the Old Testament equivalent of baptism.  And what does God say about Abraham before he was circumcised?  “He believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness.”  That means Abraham was justified.  In other words, he was saved apart from circumcision.

All of that reminds us not to rely on our baptism for salvation.  As we’ll see in a moment, our baptism is important and we should never minimize it or neglect it.  But on the other extreme, we should never trust it to save us.  All of us, young and old alike, have to find our salvation and well-being only in Jesus Christ.  We all need the washing of Christ’s blood and of the Holy Spirit.  We have this when we rest and trust in our Saviour alone for our well-being now and for eternity. 

Baptism isn’t our salvation, but it is the sacrament of the cleansing found in our salvation.  Here we have to review what a sacrament is.  It’s a sign:  it points to something else.  It points to God’s promises.  It’s a seal:  it guarantees that the promises of God are genuine.  As a sign and seal, the sacrament of baptism is distinct from, yet connected to the reality it portrays. 

That brings us to that crucial passage of Titus 3:5, “...he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.  He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit...”  Some have thought that this passage teaches that baptism is the washing away of sins.  That’s why QA 73 alludes to it.  But does Titus 3:5 really say that?

Let’s look at it.  Titus 3:5 doesn’t actually mention baptism as such.  It mentions what baptism signs and seals and alludes to baptism by mentioning washing.  So, we have to go back again to the nature of a sacrament.  A sacrament isn’t magic.  Rather, a sacrament is a visible preaching of the gospel.  We can see water taking away dirt from the body.  Get dirty, take a shower and that’s what happens.  Baptism is a kind of washing and just as water takes away dirt from the body in the shower, so also the blood and Spirit of Christ take away our sins.  The physical points us to the spiritual, the external washing points us to the internal washing. 

But more importantly, there’s the matter of assurance.  Baptism is a pledge from God.  It’s a guarantee from God that all who believe in Jesus Christ are truly cleansed from their sins.  It’s just as real and certain as the water you can see and touch.  We’re reminded of this whenever we witness a baptism.  You see, it’s not only the parents and the child who are participating whenever a baptism is administered.  In fact, all of us are participants.  We’re all being reminded and assured that as surely as the water being sprinkled is real, so truly and really have we, the congregation of believers, we have been cleansed from our sins spiritually.  Baptism is a pledge of salvation for believers.

It’s also a sign.  And of course, remember again that there’s a difference between a sign and the thing being signified.  If we were to head over to the highway and find that big sign that says “Hobart – 195 km,” no one would in their right mind would say that the sign is Hobart.  Rather, the sign points to Hobart.  The sign is the sign, Hobart is the thing being signified.  The same is true with baptism – baptism is the sign, the washing with Christ’s blood and Spirit is the thing being signified.  In baptism God wants to assure us by pointing us to the reality of what Christ has done for us.  God is signing and sealing his promises. 

But then the next question needs to be:  who are the recipients of those promises for cleansing by Christ’s blood and Spirit?  Of course, different answers have been given to that question.  In the sixteenth century, there were the Anabaptists who said that only committed disciples should be baptized.  Similarly, many today say that only those who have made a credible profession of faith in Christ should be baptized.  Of course, with both the Anabaptists of ages past and many today there is a different view of what happens in baptism.  For them, it is not so much a sacrament pointing to what God has done, but an act undertaken by the person being baptized.  It’s his or her testimony.  In fact, many Christians today don’t even like the word “sacrament.” They think it’s Roman Catholic.    And they not only toss out the word, but also the concept.  For them, what we call sacraments are called ordinances and they have more to do with what the believer is doing and what the believer has done than with God and what he is doing and what he has done (and will do).  This is often connected with the drift towards man-centered Arminian theology and worship.

So, who should be baptized?  There are different ways we can answer that question.  This afternoon, let’s take our starting point with Colossians 2:11-13, where baptism and circumcision are connected with one another.  Let’s read those verses together.   There baptism is called the circumcision done by Christ.  Circumcision existed as the sacrament of covenantal initiation in the Old Testament and it’s been replaced by baptism in the New Testament.   We can draw a direct line between the two. 

Doing that brings us to that unusual passage we read from Exodus 4.  Moses had been appointed by God to bring the people of Israel out of Egypt.  While in Midian, Moses had married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and he had two sons with her:  Gershom and Eliezer.  Jethro gave Moses permission to go back to Egypt.  As he was on his way, we have this surprising thing happen:  God was about to kill Moses.  Something happened.  The details aren’t exactly clear.  But obviously, one of Moses’ sons wasn’t circumcised when he should have been.  Moses had failed to do it and God was getting his attention.  With Moses incapacitated, Zipporah took the initiative, even though she found it disdainful.  She circumcised the boy herself. 

What this passage shows is that Moses had neglected to have one of his children receive the sacrament of initiation into the covenant.  God wasn’t pleased with this neglect.  God couldn’t have Moses lead the covenant people while this gross sin remained outstanding.  God’s command to his people was clear:  they were to circumcise their infant boys on the eighth day.  The children belonged to the covenant.  Because they belonged to God, they had to receive the sign and seal of God’s promises.  When God’s people failed to do that, it wasn’t an insignificant matter.  God took it very seriously.  Moses should have too.  And today, we too have to take the sacraments seriously.  Since baptism has replaced circumcision, that means we ought to take the sacrament of baptism seriously.  It’s not an optional add-on in the Christian faith.  As the Form for Baptism rightly says, “...infants must be baptized as heirs of the kingdom of God and of his covenant....”  They belong to Christ and so should receive baptism.

The teaching of Scripture is that our children truly belong with us in the covenant of grace.  Since they belong, they should be baptized.  In Acts 2:39, the apostle Peter says that the promise is not only for those who believe, but also for their children.  In 1 Corinthians 7:14, the apostle Paul says that the child of even one Christian is holy – there’s something different about that child, just as in the Old Testament.  The holiness of God’s people in the Old Testament was directly connected to their covenant status.  To be holy is to be a part of the covenant.  So, also 1 Corinthians 7:14 supports the assertion that the children of believers are members of the covenant, and if they’re members of the covenant, they ought to receive the sign and seal of the covenant in baptism.

In the time of the apostles, first century Jewish parents converting to Christianity would have been gobsmacked at the suggestion that their children were now outside of the covenant of grace.  Imagine saying to them, “Ten years ago they were included, but now that you believe in Jesus Christ, now they’re outside until they believe for themselves.  Sorry!”  As someone once said, if the apostles had ever made such a statement, the response of Jewish parents would’ve been, “I thought you were bringing us good news!”

But, brothers and sisters, the apostles did bring good news and that good news included the fact that children are included in the covenant that God makes with believers.  I mentioned Acts 2:39.  Peter said that the promise is also for your children.  Children were always included in the Old Testament and they’re still included in the New Testament. 

And so in Ephesians 6, Paul is writing to the children of believers.  He addresses them as members of the covenant of grace.  He says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord.”  He reminds them of the fifth commandment (one of the Ten Words of the Covenant) and in so doing he draws a line between children of the covenant in the Old Testament and children of the covenant in the New Testament.  They have exactly the same responsibilities and privileges.  They’re also to be raised as Christians, as disciples of Christ.  In Ephesians 6:4, Paul says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”  In other words, treat them for who they really are:  they’re the Lord’s children and they should be raised as the Lord’s children.  They belong to his covenant, and they should be raised as those who belong to his covenant.  And for our purposes, if they belong to his covenant, they should receive the sign and seal of the covenant in baptism.  For our children, baptism is the sign and seal of God’s promise to wash them with the blood of Christ through the Holy Spirit.

For many of us our first time coming to church was at our baptism as infants.  We were carried into church, we were carried to the front of the church, to the baptism font, and we had baptism administered to us.  That’s a powerful picture of God’s sovereignty in our salvation.  Every time a baby is baptized and we see it, we’re reminded that we are that helpless little child, totally dependent on God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  Not only baptism in general but also the baptism of infants in particular is a vivid preaching of the gospel of grace, and this is just one more reason why neglecting to baptize the children of believers is an impoverishment, not an improvement. 

Loved ones, baptism is an important subject.  Its importance is found in its connection to the gospel of our Saviour Jesus.  As we continue to witness baptisms and as we participate in the baptisms of our children and others, we can be sure that God will use this means of grace to strengthen our faith in Christ.  AMEN.


Heavenly Father, God of promise,

We thank you for washing us with the blood of Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit in us.  We thank you for the covenant you’ve made with us and with our children.  We acknowledge your grace and we praise you for it.  Neither we nor our children deserve this great blessing of being called your people.  We don’t deserve to have you as our God.  But Father, we thank you for your Word which proclaims this truth to us and for the sacraments which confirm it.  We especially thank you this afternoon for what you communicate to us and our children in baptism.  We pray that through our baptisms you would continue to strengthen our faith in the Saviour.  We ask that through baptism you would continue to impress us with the wonder of grace, with your great love, with your saving power. 


* 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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