Christian Baptism: The Sign and the Reality
When the subject turns to Christian baptism, and the content of what has been taught to people manifests, it is an agglomeration of ideas. Although some effort is usually put forth to connect the dots, the fact is that most Christians cannot explain this doctrine with clarity. Thus, my objective here is to connect the dots by covering two key points of the doctrine, the sign and the reality, with some segue into the variations in denominational traditions.
First, baptism is the New Testament ordinance that serves in the manner of Old Testament circumcision. The Apostle Paul highlighted this to the church at Colossae (Western Turkiye), “In whom (Christ) also you are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ. 12 Buried with Him in baptism wherein also you are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who has raised Him from the dead (Col 2:11–12).”
Circumcision (the physical cutting off of the foreskin of a male child’s genitalia — or — the removal of the veil that covered the corona [crown] from which proceeds the seed of the male) served as a sign of the covenant beginning with Abraham (Gen 17:10). This sign was later incorporated into the Law of God given through Moses. It was to be performed on the eighth day following the birth of each man child born into the covenant family/nation of ethnic Israel (Lev 12:3).
A sign is not the real thing. Rather, it points to the real thing. In the case of circumcision/baptism signs, they point to the eternal covenant Yahweh established for His chosen people. This is the covenant of grace whereby God does everything required to fulfill the terms of the covenant. His covenant comes with promises that He will keep because He is faithful and true (Rev 3:14; 19:11). Simply put, “God does what He says He will do, and He does all that is required to make and to fulfill the covenant.”
In the case of salvation (a vital part of the covenant), God saves His people from their sins (Mt 1:21). The Lord knows those who are His (2 Tim 2:19); and none of God’s elect are lost or stolen from Him (Jn 10:28–29; Rom 8:35–39). The fact is, “He saved us (Titus 3:5),” and He will never leave nor forsake us (Heb 13:5). God goes so far as to give His people a token of His love (2 Cor 1:22; 5:5), while they wait for His full salvation, which will occur at His second coming on the last day. Before the resurrection of the body, there is the regeneration of the soul (Jn 3:1–8; 1 Pet 1:3), which is the new life realized through the permanent indwelling Holy Spirit (Jn 14:17; Rom 8:9,11; 2 Cor 5:17).
The baptism of the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:11, 16; Jn 1:33; Acts 2:38; 10:47) is the real thing. Water baptism is the sign. Prior to this real event on God’s calendar, the elect soul is unoccupied by the Holy Spirit of Christ. The adoption by God the Father has not yet been finalized (Eph 1:5). When He sends the Holy Spirit, that is, the Spirit of adoption (Jn 14:26; 15:26; Rom 8:15, 23), then the soul is born again of God the Spirit, who makes alive (Eph 2:5; Col 2:13) the one baptized with the Spirit’s permanent presence. Light, life, and love are just three metaphors that point us to the radical juxtaposition.
Some traditions employ the sign to point forward to the future reality of promises fulfilled. The incorporation of one’s soul into Christ and His body of people is foreshadowed in paedo (infant) baptism. This aligns with the timing of Old Testament circumcision, when on the eighth day the male child received the physical sign of the covenant.
More of the Reality
It is noteworthy that not all who were circumcised with the sign of the covenant actually entered into the covenant (e.g. Ishmael, Esau, etc.). Justification (declared “not guilty,” and having right standing before God’s judgment) has always been by faith received by grace, resulting from the blood of the covenant. Jesus Christ cut the covenant of grace (the circumcision of Christ), by the very act of Himself being cut and shedding His precious blood on the cross of Calvary (1 Pet 1:19).
The substitutionary death of Christ, as a payment for sins, means He was the surety that God’s elect could approach God the Father through Him, as Mediator of the covenant (1 Tim 2:5), and God’s justice would be preserved by the same action. The action that brought reconciliation between God and elect sinners was the Messiah’s death on the cross (Rom 5:10–11; 2 Cor 5:18–20). There, He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, while bearing the sins of His people from the whole world and across history (Is 53:5; 1 Pet 2:24). His precious blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 1:19).
Again, as it pertains to the will of God in salvation, the Father planned it (Acts 2:23; Eph 1:11), the Son executed what the covenant required (Eph 3:11), and it is the Holy Spirit who applies the benefits of the covenant, to those chosen for baptism by God. Others prefer the sign to follow this reality of application. The affirmation of the reality is claimed by the one being baptized with water.
More of the Sign
Whether the sign precedes or follows the reality, it is still pointing to the reality of spiritual union of the soul with Christ Jesus. Christ is in the believer (Gal 2:20; Col 1:27), and the believer is a believer because of the indwelling Holy Spirit. The believer is also baptized into Christ’s church, which is His body of people, the Israel of God (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 6:16).
Faith in Christ may be preceded by the covenant sign (paedo), or it may be followed by the covenant sign (credo). Regardless, what matters most is that one has the Holy Spirit who gives him or her faith, according to the measure of God’s own choosing (Rom 12:3), as demonstrated in His working in the saints who have gone before us (Heb 11).
The Test of Reality
The test of reality is whether you, my dear reader, have the indwelling Holy Spirit (Jn 14:17; Rom 8:9, 11). Examine yourself using the Scriptures. Do you love Jesus Christ? Are you trusting in Him as God’s one and only way of approach to the Holy God? Do you love the truth of God’s Word? Do you love to worship God in Christ Jesus and relish the fellowship of the saints? Have you been baptized?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, then the sign is less important than the reality. When you were baptized with water (before or after the reality) is not more important than the fact that the Spirit did baptize you. Even how you were baptized with water is not as crucial as the fact that God sent His Spirit to abide in you, forever.
The Test of the Sign
Modes of receiving the sign of baptism can be argued from Scripture in the same way proponents of “when” the sign should be applied argue for their position. Whether you were sprinkled as an infant (which is a marvelous picture of our helplessness and God’s grace in salvation ) or effused (pouring of water onto the recipient) or immersed as a conscious believer (which is a beautiful picture of Romans 6:1–11, the fact is that water baptism has been ordered by Jesus Christ and should be done, coupled with the teaching of obedience to all Christ has commanded (Mt 28:19–20).
Do you believe Jesus’ sinless death, burial, resurrection, and enthronement are your trust? If yes, then you have been baptized by the Holy Spirit. The only question then is, “Have you been baptized with water?” If yes, then rejoice as you remember your baptism, either as an infant or as an adult. If no, then, you have the command of Scripture to be baptized with water, in the mode of those with whom you are members within your local church.
Reality Without the Sign
Finally, remember the thief on the cross, who believed the promise of Jesus, coincidental to the grace of repentance and faith. The promise of the Word of God (Jesus) was soon fulfilled for that man, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” The thief was not baptized with water before he died on his cross. Jesus Christ is faithful and true, and the Word of faith that gave spiritual life to the thief, on the day of His physical death, was the Word that gave Him life and life eternal.
Right Response to the Reality
Thank God for His indescribable gift of life, brought to God’s people by the baptismal work of the Holy Spirit. May every Christian rejoice in the truth of that baptism, represented by the sign of that spiritual reality, which is the sacrament of Christian baptism.
Spokane Valley, Washington
June 5, 2021