Before our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, he left his disciples with the following command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20) Based upon these words of the Great Commission, it is now the mission of Christ’s church to go into the world, preach the gospel and make disciples of all nations. How do we make disciples? We baptize them in the name of the Triune God.
Although many professing Christians today are strangely indifferent to the sacraments in general and baptism in particular, the New Testament knows nothing of someone who comes to faith in Jesus Christ but who is not baptized. While the exception to this is the thief on the cross for whom baptism was not possible (cf. Luke 23:40-43), the New Testament is very clear about the necessity of baptism as the sign and seal of one’s profession of faith in Jesus (cf. Romans 4:9-12). Not only does Jesus command his disciples in the Great Commission to make disciples of the nations by baptizing those who believe in Jesus, the Pentecost sermon preached by Peter ends with the following charge–“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:38-39). Throughout the Book of Acts, heads of households are baptized upon a profession of faith in Christ, but these same individuals also present their entire households, including their children, for baptism (cf. Acts 16:14-15; 31-33; Acts 18:8).
There are several important reasons why all those who come to faith in Jesus Christ are baptized. First, baptism is the sign and seal of the new covenant, and as such replaces circumcision which was the sign and seal of the old covenant (Genesis 17:1-14; Colossians 2:11-12). But even as the covenant sign changes from circumcision to baptism, the thing signified does not change–God’s covenant promise to be our God, and that are we his people (Acts 2:39; Galatians 3:14). This is why Reformed Christians contend that children of believers are to be baptized, since the children of believers too are members of the covenant of grace, along with their parents (1 Corinthians 7:14). If our children are indeed members of the covenant of grace, how can the sign and seal of that covenant be denied to them? This fits with Jesus’ attitude toward children as members of the kingdom of God (Luke 18:15-17), and explains the presence of household baptisms in the New Testament (cf. Acts 16:15; 33, 1 Corinthians 1:16).
Second, in baptism, we are identified with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. In Romans 6:3-5, Paul writes, “do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Similarly in Galatians 3:27-28, Paul ties baptism to our identification with Christ. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” To be baptized is to put on Christ as one puts on new clothes, and baptism unites us to Jesus in his death and resurrection.
Third, we must distinguish between the sign (water) and the thing signified (the forgiveness of sin). The Scriptures do speak of baptism as “the bath of regeneration” (Titus 3:5) and tied to the “forgiveness of sin” (Acts 2:38 ff; 22:16), without also teaching that the water of baptism is the means of regeneration. Regeneration is everywhere attributed to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8; Titus 3:5; 1 Corinthians 2:14) and not to the mere presence of the sign itself–the water of baptism, as if the sign somehow magically binds God to act. That being said, we must be very careful not to reduce baptism to mere external sign, or deny that anything at all is signified and sealed unto the one baptized. Claiming God’s covenant promise by faith, we believe with all our hearts that the baptized adult or child of a believer is indeed regenerate and has been washed in the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
One of the best summaries of what Scripture promises us in baptism is found in the words of the form for baptism as used in the Reformed churches. These words are a fit summary of these promises we have just considered.
We are baptized into the Name of God, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. For when we are baptized into the Name of the Father, God the Father witnesses and seals to us that He makes an eternal covenant of grace with us and adopts us for His children and heirs, and therefore will provide us with every good thing and turn aside all evil or turn it to our profit.
And when we are baptized into the Name of the Son, the Son seals to us that He washes us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of His death and resurrection, so that we are freed from our sins and accounted righteous before God.
Likewise, when we are baptized into the Name of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit assures us by this holy sacrament that He will dwell in us, and sanctify us to be members of Christ, imparting to us that which we have in Christ, namely, the washing away of our sins and the daily renewing of our lives, until we shall finally be presented without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.