Last Lord’s Day our congregation had the pleasure of witnessing the baptism of a covenant child born into one of our families. When infants are baptized, parents take vows. We understand the obligation baptism places on parents, who present a child for baptism. But how does baptism make a difference in the child’s life? The Westminster Standards are helpful in summarizing how we ought to think about the sacraments. The Shorter Catechism defines a sacrament in this way:
“A sacrament is an holy ordinance instituted by Christ, wherein, by sensible signs, Christ, and the benefits of the new covenant, are represented, sealed, and applied to believers” (WSC 92).
A sacrament is a religious ritual instituted directly by Jesus Christ. The sacraments use physical elements which can be apprehended by the five senses (sensible) to communicate Christ and his blessings. The sacraments represent (display or illustrate), seal (confirm or authenticate), and apply (strengthen) the work of Christ in a believer’s life.
Baptism “represents” the work of Christ by picturing for us the cleansing that we receive from Jesus, who washes away our sins (Acts 22:16). Baptism also pictures consecration to the Lord for sacred service using the imagery of the Old Testament ceremonial washings (literally, “baptisms” in Hebrews 9:10) and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on God’s people (Acts 2:17-18). These are just some of the ways in which baptism “represents” Christ and the benefits of the new covenant. Since we only have these benefits as we are united to Christ in faith, we can also say that baptism represents our union with Christ and with His church as members of His covenant community.
But how does baptism “seal” or confirm the work of Christ? Romans 4:11 is instructive:
“[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well” (Romans 4:11, ESV).
Circumcision (an OT sacrament) was a physical sign of the righteousness Abraham had by faith. In other words, circumcision represented his covenant relationship with God and in so doing it sealed that relationship to Abraham. The physical act of cutting away served to confirm in Abraham’s mind that his faith in God and God’s love for him were real. He literally had the mark of belonging to God cut into his flesh. Baptism works in a similar way. The fact that one has been baptized is meant to increase confidence that one really does belong to Christ. We may have our faith confirmed as we witness others being baptized knowing that we too have received that sign.
A sacrament is also to “apply” Christ and his benefits to believers. The idea here is that the sacraments strengthen our faith and lead us to greater levels of obedience and service to Christ. They call us to be more and more who we are in Christ. The Holy Spirit uses them to enable greater obedience. How does this work? Romans 6:3-7 helps:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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. 5 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. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin” (Romans 6:3-7, ESV).
Your union with Christ breaks the dominion of sin in your life and frees you to begin the life-long process of growing in holiness. You are no longer a slave to sin but one who is free to obey now and one who is going to be perfected eventually (“united with him in a resurrection like his”). The Holy Spirit uses the sacrament of baptism to call you to live more and more like one united to Christ – like one who is dead to sin and alive to Christ (Romans 6:11).
How baptism functions as a sign and seal to those baptized in infancy may not be obvious – even to those who are convinced that covenant children should, in fact, be baptized. Again, the Confession of Faith helps us:
“The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, not withstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in His appointed time” (WCF 28:6).
The Spirit blows where He will (John 3:8) and works according to God’s good pleasure. He can use a baptism to seal and apply the work of Christ years afterwards and even in the life of one baptized as an infant. I once counseled a young man, who had been baptized in the Lutheran Church as an infant. When he went to college he was not walking with the Lord, but he did begin attending an evangelical church. After God began to work in his life in a powerful way, he made a profession of faith and wanted to join the evangelical church. They asked him to be re-baptized but he refused because, as he told me, “The entire time I was not living for God, I knew it was wrong. I knew I had been baptized and that I was not living like a baptized person ought to live.” His baptism, in fact, was a major reason he started attending church again. In God’s grace, the Holy Spirit had used this young man’s baptism to bring about his conversion and growth in grace years after the fact.
The Bible gives us a similar pattern in the life of King David. When David was a young man, the prophet Samuel visited the family of Jesse and asked to see all of the sons (1 Samuel 16). God unexpectedly chose David, the youngest son, to be anointed by Samuel as the king to replace Saul. David did not actually become the king for quite a number of years – perhaps as many as fifteen years. But his anointing to be king had a powerful effect on his life. Among other things, David fought and defeated Goliath, the great enemy of his people (1 Samuel 17) and on two separate occasions he refused to take the life of his rival (King Saul) even though it appeared that God had delivered Saul into his hands (1 Samuel 24 and 26). Although David was not yet the king, for years he acted like the king. Why? Because he had been anointed and knew that he really was set apart to rule God’s people. Although not a sacrament in the strict sense of the term, David’s anointing functioned in his life in a way analogous to baptism.
In your baptism, you are anointed to serve Christ. The fact that you’ve been baptized is always calling you to be a faithful servant of the Lord. The Holy Spirit can use your baptism throughout your life to call you to greater obedience and to enable greater faithfulness. In fact the Larger Catechism encourages us not to neglect our duty to “improve” our baptisms (WLC 167). As parents we ought to regularly remind our children that they have been baptized and that that actually means something!
“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12 ESV)