WSC 094–095 Baptism


Last week we were thinking of the sacraments in general. And so, we were reminded that we believe there are only two sacraments: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And we then learned that a sacrament is a holy ordinance appointed by the Lord Jesus to be observed continually by the church in its worship until the Lord comes again. In other words, the reason we do these things is because the Lord Jesus has commanded us to do these things. He said: Make disciples by baptising them and teaching them. He said: Take and eat. Drink this. Do this. So, the sacraments were appointed by the Lord Jesus.

And we learned that a sacrament is a sign. It tells us something about the Lord Jesus and what he has done to deliver us from our sin and misery and to give us eternal life. The sacraments are a visual aid which speak to us of the good news of the gospel and God’s promises to his people. The water of baptism speaks to us of God promise to wash away our sins for the sake of Jesus Christ who died for us. The bread and the wine speak to us of his body broken for us and of his blood shed for us and for our salvation. The sacraments speak to us of these things.

But the sacraments are also a seal: by them God guarantees and certifies his promise. He uses the sacraments to re-assure us. Will God really forgive me? Surely not? I’m too sinful. But then we see someone being baptised, or we remember that we ourselves have been baptised. And there it is: God’s seal. God’s signature:

I promise to wash your sins away.

We come to church, and we know how sinful we are. We remember all we have done wrong. All the ways we have fallen short. Surely I don’t deserve to be in glory with God? Surely he’ll send me to hell because that’s what I deserve? And we look up and see the Lord’s Table and the bread and the wine and there it is: God’s seal. God’s signature:

I promise to give you eternal life.

The sacraments are a seal to confirm what God has promised and they’re given to re-assure us.

But we also learned that some the benefits of Christ’s redemption are applied to believers by means of the sacraments. Now, we receive justification — whereby our sins are pardoned and we’re accepted as righteous in God’s sight for the sake of the righteousness of Christ — we receive this justification only through the preaching of the gospel. And we receive adoption through the preaching of the gospel too. God works through the reading and preaching of the gospel to give us faith and repentance. And all who repent and believe are justified and we’re adopted into God’s family so that we can call him ‘Father’. God gives us justification and adoption through the reading and preaching of the gospel. But thereafter, God works through the preaching of his word, and through the sacraments to give us the rest of Christ’s benefits. And so he works through preaching and he works through the sacraments to sanctify us and to assure us of God’s love and to give us peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit and growth in grace and perseverance.

And then the final thing we learned last time is that these things don’t happen automatically. The sacraments are not magic. The water is ordinary water. The bread and wine is ordinary bread and wine. And there’s nothing special about me or any minister who administers the sacraments. But by the blessing of the Lord Jesus who commanded us to do these things, and by the power of the Holy Spirit who works through these things, the sacraments become effective in the lives of believers so that our weak faith is strengthened and we’re re-assured and we receive the benefits of Christ’s life and death and resurrection.


So, that was last week. Today we’re moving on to think about baptism in particular. And so, listen to question and answers 94 and 95 of our church’s Shorter Catechism:

Q. 94. What Baptism? Baptism is a sacrament in which the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, signifies and seals our being grafted into Christ, our having a share in the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our pledge to be the Lord’s.

Q. 95. To whom is Baptism to be administered? Baptism is not to be administered to any outside membership of the visible church, until they profess their faith in Christ and obedience to him; but the infants of such as are members of the visible church are to be baptised.

The fact of baptism

The first point to make is simply to note the fact of baptism. From the days of the New Testament on, Christians have always practised baptism. In the New Testament itself, we read of John the Baptiser who baptised people in the Jordan River. And, of course, the Lord Jesus was baptised by John. In John 3 and John 4 we read of the Lord’s disciples baptising people. Then, on the Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter preached that great sermon in Jerusalem and the people listened to his sermon and were cut to the heart by his words. And so they cried out: ‘What must we do?’ And Peter urged them all to repent and to be baptised for the forgiveness of their sins.

Then, in Acts 8, we read about Samaritans who believed Philip’s message about Jesus Christ and they too were baptised. Later in that same chapter, we have the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptised by Philip on the side of the road after reading about Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant of God who bore our sins and who was pierced for our transgressions.

In Acts 9 we read that the Apostle Paul, following his conversion, was baptised in the city of Damascus.

In Acts 10 we read how Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household believed the message of the gospel which Peter preached to them. And they too were baptised.

In Acts 16 Luke records for us how God opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message about the Lord Jesus. And afterwards, she and her household were baptised. Then, in the same chapter, there was the Philippian jailer who was converted in the middle of the night. And he and his household were baptised.

In Acts 18 Paul went to Corinth and there he preached the gospel. And many Corinthians believed and were baptised.

In Acts 19 we read how Paul found some disciples in Ephesus. They had previously been baptised with John’s baptism. But now Paul baptised them in the name of the Lord Jesus.

And then, in 1 Corinthians 1, Paul notes that he baptised Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanus. And all through the subsequent history of the church, baptism has been practised throughout the church.

Appointed by Christ

So, that’s the fact of baptism. Now question 94 of the Shorter Catechism teaches us that baptism is a sacrament. And that means that it’s one of the two holy ordinances appointed by the Lord Jesus. And so, we have the words of the Lord in Matthew 28. Following his death and resurrection, and before he ascended to heaven, he commanded the Apostles — representing the church — to go and make disciples of all nations. And how were they to make disciples? By baptising them and by teaching them to obey everything he had commanded. The Lord Jesus Christ, the head and king of the church, has commanded his church to make disciples of all nations by baptising them and teaching them. And therefore, in obedience to his clear command, we observe the sacrament of baptism.

The mode

The Catechism then refers to what we call the mode of baptism. In other words, how should baptism be administered? And the Catechism, being brief, refers briefly to washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. So, there’s the element: water. And then there are words to be spoken: the person is baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. And then there’s an action: washing.

But it’s here that we begin to move into an area of disagreement. Christians have always agreed that we should observe baptism. But different churches have different views on how baptism should be administered. Many Christians believe that the only proper way to baptise someone is by full immersion. The person to be baptised should be completely immersed under the water and then lifted out again. But Presbyterians take the view that full immersion is not necessary. And in our Confession we say that baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling water on the person. In other words, full immersion is not wrong, but it isn’t necessary. And we take this view simply because what really matters in baptism is not the quantity of water which is used. The water is a sign which speaks to us of the gospel of Jesus Christ and God’s promise to wash away our sins for the sake of Jesus Christ. And whether we use a little water or a lot of water, the sign is still there and the promise is still there.

And so we have no difficulty with full immersion or with sprinkling or with pouring. What we do have difficulty with is the insistence that baptism has to be by full immersion. Or the insistence that it has to be by pouring. Or the insistence that it has to be by sprinkling. The amount of water does not matter. And so, in the course of my ministry I’ve baptised people by sprinkling and I’ve baptised people by full immersion. Both are permissible. Neither is wrong.


But someone says: ‘Does the word ‘baptise’ not mean to dip or to immerse?’ We say: Not necessarily. It might mean that, but not in all cases. For instance, the word appears in Luke 8:38 where we read that the Pharisees were surprised that the Lord didn’t wash before eating. They expected him to wash his hands with water — as their purification rites demanded. In other words, they expected him to wash his hands by pouring water over them. What they didn’t expect was for him to dip himself from head to toe under the water.

Someone says: ‘Doesn’t the biblical account of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew 3:16 say he went up out of the water? And doesn’t the account of the Ethiopian eunuch’s baptism in Acts 8 say that he went down into the water? Doesn’t that mean they were fully immersed under the water?’ But we reply that what Matthew says is that Jesus was baptised and then he went up out of the water. In other words, Matthew refers to two distinct actions (baptism and stepping out of the river afterwards). He doesn’t say anything about how the baptism itself was administered. And in Acts 8 we read that both Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch went down into the water. And then Philip baptised him. And then they both came up out of the water. In other words, they both stepped into the river where Philip baptised him. And then they both got out of the river. It doesn’t say how the baptism was administered.

When we look at the Lord’s command in Matthew 28 he says that we are to make disciples by baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. We aim to keep Christ’s command by baptising people with water. But we don’t insist on how much water should be used. Full immersion. Sprinkling. Pouring. It doesn’t matter so long as it is done in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


So, we have the fact of baptism and the way it is administered. When we come to discuss the purpose of baptism, we find that there are three main views.

The first is that baptism is the instrument by which God gives spiritual life to the person being baptised. So long as the sacrament is administered properly, it is said that God regenerates the person the moment they’re baptised so that, at that moment, the person becomes a Christian. Now, while this is a common view of baptism it has at least one major flaw. In Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul writes about how we were spiritually dead. But then God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ. Why did he do this? Paul tells us: He did it out of his sheer grace, his kindness towards sinners. And how did he do it? Paul tells us again: It was through faith in Jesus Christ. And that’s the point. We receive all the benefits of Christ’s life, death and resurrection through faith in the Lord Jesus and not through baptism. Through faith, we cling to Christ. And so, it’s through faith that we’re saved from God’s wrath and eternal condemnation and we receive eternal life. We do not receive eternal life by being baptised, but by trusting in Jesus Christ the Saviour.

The second common view is to treat baptism as a sign of something we do or have done. Many Christians think of baptism as a public expression of their repentance and faith. They are publicly declaring that they have left behind their old way of life without Christ and they are beginning a new kind of life with Christ. It’s a sign of the transition they have taken from unbelief to belief. And as evidence of their faith in Christ, and as the first step in their life of obedience to Christ, they are obeying his command to be baptised.

This too is a very common view and, unlike the first view, it understands that we do not receive eternal life by being baptised but by putting our faith in Jesus Christ. Now, in the Presbyterian Church we believe that the sacraments are signs. That’s what we were learning last week. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, being sacraments, are signs. They are signs pointing us to something. However, we believe that — like every other sign God gives in the Bible — they are signs of something that God does or promises to do for us. The focus is not on ourselves and what we have done or on what we believe or on what we intend to do. The focus is always on God and what he does or on what he promises to do for us through Jesus Christ.

Let me explain by referring to the way signs are used in the Bible. Take the sign of the rainbow in Genesis 9. God put the rainbow in the sky following the flood in the days of Noah as a sign of his promise never to destroy the whole world with a flood. Take Abraham’s circumcision in Genesis 17. God commanded Abraham to be circumcised as a sign of the covenant. That is, a sign of God’s promise that he would be Abraham’s God and the God of his descendants. Take Gideon’s fleece in 6. God promised that Gideon would lead God’s people in victory over their enemies. But Gideon could scarcely believe it. He wanted God to confirm the promise. And so he asked God for a sign — and the sign confirmed the promise. Take all the miracles which the Lord performed during his earthly ministry. John, in his gospel, refers to them as signs — and they are signs because they confirm that the Lord Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah. And take the Lord’s Supper. The bread and wine are signs of Christ’s body and blood and of God’s promise to give his people eternal life for the sake of Jesus Christ whose body was broken and whose blood was shed for us.

When God gives signs in the Bible, they are to tell us something about him, and what he has done for us, or what he promises to do for us. And so it would be highly unusual for baptism to break this pattern and to become a sign of something we do or have done.


So, we agree that baptism is a sign, but it is a sign which speaks to us of God and of all that he promises to do for us through the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, what does God promise to do for us?

He promises to forgive us our sins. Just as dirt is washed from our bodies with water, so the water of baptism tells us of God the Father’s promise to wash away the guilt of our sin — not by water, but by the Holy Spirit who enables us to trust in Jesus Christ the Saviour. How does God save us and give us eternal life? He sends his Spirit to us and his Spirit enables us to turn away from our old way of life of unbelief and he enables us to turn in faith to the Saviour who died for us and rose again. And, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God washes us and cleanses us and adopts us into his family and gives us the hope of eternal life. And all of this is signified by baptism because when the water is applied, the person being baptised is being baptised into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The Father has chosen us. From all eternity he chose us and said: I want him. I want her. I want them to be with me for ever and ever. And the Son died for us. The Son of God left the glory of heaven and came down to earth as a man, and in our place he suffered the punishment for our sins and paid the price for our guilt to reconcile us to God. And the Holy Spirit comes to us and enables us to believe and to receive the forgiveness that Christ has won for us on the cross. And baptism is a sign and a seal of all of this so that it speaks to us of these things and re-assures us that these things are true.


We come to church, weak and weary and with a guilty conscience because of our sins and our failure to do what God wants. And our conscience accuses us and Satan accuses us and says:

You’re far too sinful for God. How dare you think that you belong here! How dare you think that you could be a child of God. You’re far too guilty.

But then we remember our baptism and baptism says to us:

Yes, you’re a sinner. Yes, you’ve done wrong. But God has promised to wash away your sins for ever.

You see, if baptism were only a sign of something I have done or promised to do, then every baptism would only accuse me. And every time I remember my own baptism, it would accuse me. It would say to me:

You promised to turn away from sin for ever; and look what you did this past week.

You promised that you were going to live a life of obedience; and look what you did this past week.

You promised that you had died to sin; but look how you have sinned this past week.

How can you call yourself a Christian!

But baptism speaks to us of what God promises to do. And he always, always keeps his promise. And he has promised to wash the sins of his people away:

Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.

Every time we witness someone being baptised, the focus is placed on God, and what he has done for us by his Son, and what he promises to do. And every time our focus is placed on God and upon his Son, our Saviour, then our faith in God’s promises is strengthened. When we remember that our sins have been washed away for ever, then we’re re-assured of God’s love for us. And our guilty conscience is silenced. And we’re filled with joy in the Holy Spirit. And we’re encouraged to press on in the faith and not to give up. So baptism is a sign, but it’s a sign which tells us about God’s promise to wash away our sins. And through this sign, God works to re-assure us and to help us.

In closing let me just add that the Catechism also says that baptism is a sign and seal of our pledge to be the Lord’s. It’s first and foremost a sign of what God does for us through Christ. But it also speak to us of our duty to God. You see, through baptism we’re solemnly admitted into membership of the church. All who have been baptised have their names added to the church roll and they are regarded as members of the church. And as members of the church of Jesus Christ, it is our duty to live a life which is worthy of the Lord who loved us and who has brought us into his church at the cost of his blood, shed on the cross. And so, have you been baptised and thereby admitted into the membership of Christ’s church? Then live as a member of the church should live and remove from your life everything which dishonours the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head and King of the church.