What Baptism Points To
Q45. Is baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?
A. No, only the blood of Christ and the renewal of the Holy Spirit can cleanse us from sin.
Sometimes, I wonder about how simple and ordinary the essential things of Christian worship appear to be. The preaching of the Word is just a frail and sinful man speaking to another group of frail and sinful people. Prayer is just these same frail and sinful people using words to express their hearts to God. The Lord’s Supper is just pieces of bread and little cups of wine being passed around and shared by these frail and sinful people. And baptism, which we considered briefly last week, is just one frail and sinful man pouring water upon the head of another frail and sinful person. But despite how common preaching, praying, and administering the sacraments of the Lord Supper and Baptism may look like, the fact is that these are the very things that God has promised to bless by His Holy Spirit and through His Word. There is nothing magical or mechanical that happens here but behind all the ordinariness of Christian worship is the extraordinary work and ministry of the Holy Spirit. This is the point that our catechism makes for us about baptism in question forty-five which asks, “Is baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?” Answer: “No, only the blood of Christ and the renewal of the Holy Spirit can cleanse us from sin.”
Baptism is a washing with water that cannot wash away sin. No amount of water can do that! In most cases, it doesn’t even wash away actual dirt off of the one being baptized. The reason for this is because baptism is meant to serve as a signpost that points us to a greater reality. The reality baptism points to is the cleansing from sin that only the blood of Christ and the renewal of the Holy Spirit can accomplish. John, the cousin and predecessor of our Lord, pointed away from the baptisms he had performed by saying that these were only precursors for a more significant spiritual reality in Jesus. In Luke 3:16 he addresses the crowd in this way, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
The reality that John points to is the reality of a Christian’s union with Christ by faith. when a sinner repents and believes in the Lord Jesus, he is baptized with the Holy Spirit and indwelt by him. The Holy Spirit is the deposit that guarantees our place in Christ and energizes us to live lives of holiness and obedience to Christ. As St. Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:13–14 ESV) When a frail and sinful minister administers the Sacrament of Baptism to an individual, we know that the water does not do anything to the person. Nevertheless, by this simple and ordinary ordinance, we believe that the superior reality of our union with Christ and the baptism of the Holy Spirit is signified and pointed to for the good and help of our faith.