We’ll be taking this week & next to look a little more closely at the two signs & seals of the Covenant which our God has made with us. There are two common mistakes when it comes to these signs. On one hand, Christians have come to attribute to them a sort of superstitious magical potency, while other Christians have robbed them of their potency making them little more than spiritual sticky notes. Our aim is to accompany the sacraments with the Word preached. After all, that is what the church is: those who have heard and believed His Word preached, and are marked out by these signs as His people.
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.Romans 6:1-4
What Baptism Is & Isn’t
This text offers us as clear a definition of baptism as we could wish to have. Paul introduces an absurd question of having received God’s forgiveness through Christ whether it would be permissible to continue in sin? Sin is always absurd, but it is more absurd for the Christian, and this is because of what their baptism is. Your baptism into Christ is a baptism into His death. Baptism is a union with Christ, and consequently His death to sin & resurrection to glory is a part of the deal. The sign of baptism forms a true union with Christ.
But we need to be abundantly clear on what we do and don’t mean by that last statement. First, baptism truly uniting someone to Christ does not mean it is a magic wand which causes the regeneration of the individual baptized (Heb. 4:1-2). To exemplify, putting on someone else’s wedding ring does not cause you to be married to their spouse; using someone else’s credit card does not turn you into the lawful possessor of their wealth.
Secondly, we must avoid the resentment of the created world which pervades much evangelical thought. The administration of the sign of water baptism really does something (Gal. 3:27). It sets apart the one who receives it as covenantally identified with the mysteries which had been hidden for ages and generations but which God has now revealed through the redeeming work of Christ. This sign affirms the goodness of God’s creation, while also indicating to us the need for Spiritual new birth (Cf. Rom. 6:12).
Thirdly, the sign doesn’t point to the genuineness of the recipient, but to the sure promise of God to wash us by His Spirit, that we might live no longer to our sin, but to righteousness. As Paul says elsewhere, “Let God be true, and every man a liar.” Someone might be baptized and not “mean it”, but God means it, for it is a sign of His Word.
Lastly, the sign of baptism is not necessary for salvation, but what it signifies is necessary for salvation. Faith in Christ, which comes about from the washing of the Spirit’s regenerating power, is what is necessary for our salvation. Baptism unites you to the great & precious covenant promises extended to you in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; but faith lays hold of them.
Signs & Seals
This is one of those messages which is full of theological terminology. Often the objection is raised regarding extra-biblical, theological terminology, especially when it comes to a word like sacrament. “Where’s that word in the Bible?” someone might ask. The early church borrowed the word from the oath by which a soldier in the Roman military would come under the service of a specific general. Each Legion had it’s own ensign as well, which would be the sign the soldier was obliged to follow to either death or glory.
So the early church said, “thank you we’ll take that” to describe the two signs which Jesus instituted for His church. As Latin became the dominate language, the term sacramentum became the word used to translate the Greek term mysterion. Paul refers to ministers as “stewards of the mysteries (1 Cor. 4:1);” while the term mysteries may not be restricted to referring to just baptism and the Supper, it certainly includes them.
The term sacrament is helpful, and is a good example of making use of terminology not found in Scripture to describe Scriptural truths. The Bible does however use the terms signs and seals (Cf. Rom. 4:11, Eph 1:13, 2 Cor. 1:22). Romans 4:11 explicitly describes Abraham’s circumcision as a sign which he received which was a seal of his faith.
The external sign, then, is a seal of a spiritual glory. In ancient times, an authority would seal a message with his signet in order to authenticate the content of his message. When we describe the sacraments as signs as seals we are asserting the authority of the Ascended Christ. He has taken up the government of the world, and He is marking those who are His. He marks them with water, to be a seal to them of their inward cleansing & union with His conquest of sin & death.
A moment ago I referenced circumcision being the sign & seal given to confirm the righteousness of Abraham’s faith. Paul points out that Abraham’s faith preceded the sign, and so our Baptist brothers argue that this should exclude infants from receiving the sign & seal of baptism. This objection plays into an argument for paedobaptism, which is that there is a clear continuity between the OT sign of circumcision and the NT sign, given by Christ, of baptism. Paul makes this explicit in Col. 2:11-12.
So then, if Abraham’s faith preceded the sign and seal, what about Isaac’s faith? Isaac received the sign & seal in infancy, but his faith is demonstrated (Cf. Heb. 11:20) when he blessed Jacob & Esau in his old age. So then, the timing of the sign doesn’t confine the potent work of the Spirit to bring about what the sign signifies. The Spirit, as Ezekiel prophesied, was coming to sprinkle God’s people with clean waters, cleansing us from all our filthiness (Ez. 36:25-27). God’s deliverance of His people has always included the children, and Paul plainly states that the deliverance from Egypt through the Red Sea was a baptism of the entire nation, and the wilderness provision was a feast of Christ (1 Cor. 10:1-4).
Died in Christ
By baptism you are bound to One who died to sin so that you might no longer live in sin. The overwhelming point which the Apostles make about baptism is that you died to sin when Christ did. Baptism washes you clean, because Christ’s Spirit washes you clean.
So, what should be your response to all this? It is to believe. Baptism is not a sign about your faith. Baptism is a pledge from Jesus to you to give you everything needed for your salvation. Forgiveness, removal of guilt, clothing in righteousness, power to trample over your sin, and one day, everlasting glory.
Charge & Benediction
Matthew Henry’s father famously used the phrase “grab them by their baptism” to describe how he would emphasis his children’s union to Christ in disciplining them for sinful behavior. This only works if baptism is an objective sign, instead of a subjective one. Baptism isn’t a certain word about uncertain & unstable sensations in your inner life; rather, baptism speaks a certain word from God to you: you belong, body & soul, in life and in death to your faithful savior Jesus Christ.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord; and the blessings of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be upon, and remain with you always. Amen.