Take a moment to recall the last time you observed a baptism. It was likely during a worship service. The pastor surely took time to remind the congregation of what baptism is and what it represents. Once the sacrament had been administered, the congregation may have responded with applause. It was a special moment for the one being baptized and his or her family. But if you're a believer, it was intended to be special for you too.
Christians believe baptism is a means of grace for the one being baptized. What some do not realize is that baptism is also a means of grace for believers as they observe the baptism of others. The Westminster Larger Catechism says observing the baptism of others gives us an opportunity to practice "the needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism" (Q&A 167). We improve our baptism by seeking to experience its meaning in deeper and more powerful ways and by living out its implications. While we can think about the meaning of baptism any time, we can do this in a unique way when we observe a baptism.
It is important to remember certain things about the sacraments. Baptism and the Lord's Supper are the only two sacraments Jesus instituted for the church. Both are means of grace. Both involve sensible signs (things we can see, touch, taste, and so on). And, for both sacraments, it is imperative to make a clear distinction between the signs and the things signified.
In the Lord's Supper, for example, bread and wine are the signs, and the broken body and shed blood of Christ are the things signified. As we consume the elements physically, we feed on Christ spiritually. Our hearts and minds are focused not on the signs but on what they signify: Christ's sacrificial death on our behalf. As we meditate upon what Christ has done for us on the cross, we experience "spiritual nourishment and growth in grace" (WLC 168). And while there is nothing magical about them, the signs, by engaging our senses, play an important role in our experience. In fact, I believe it is important for the congregation to see the pastor break the bread when he administers the Lord's Supper. But let's get back to how observing a baptism is a means of grace for believers.
As with the Lord's Supper, we distinguish between the sign and the thing signified in baptism. Historically, Christians have recognized that several things are signified in baptism: union with Christ, the forgiveness of sins, regeneration, adoption, new life, and resurrection. But what is the sign? Most would say water, and I would agree. But I would suggest there is more to it than that.
The Westminster Larger Catechism describes the administration of baptism in this way: "the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Q&A 165). In first-century Palestine, to baptize something was to wash it (see Mark 7:4). We might say the sign isn't just water but washing with water. This means, regardless of which mode we believe to be proper, when we observe a baptism, we see someone being washed by someone else. Think about that.
Remember that John the Baptist said, "I have baptized [washed] you with water, but he will baptize [wash] you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8). Here is the reason observing a baptism is a means of grace for the believer. As we watch the pastor washing dirt off a person with water, it serves as a picture of Jesus washing our sin off of us with the Holy Spirit. And our faith is the proof that Jesus has truly and permanently washed away our sin. But that's not all.
When we observe a baptism, we should also remember Jesus' baptism. Picture the scene. Jesus came to be baptized in the Jordan River. John the Baptist exclaimed, "I need to be baptized [washed] by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus said, "Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then John consented (Matt. 3:14–15). What was happening? Jesus inaugurated His ministry by being baptized. In so doing, He identified Himself with sinners who desperately needed to have their sins washed away. Mark's gospel tells us that Jesus was baptized after "all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem" had been baptized by John (Mark 1:5). Sinclair Ferguson beautifully captures the importance of the moment. He writes, "Here already [Jesus] indicates how He will become our Savior: by standing in the river in whose waters penitent Jews had symbolically washed away their sins, and allowing that water, polluted by those sins, to be poured over His perfect being." Therefore, a baptism not only serves as a picture of Jesus' washing our sin away, but also as a picture of His taking our sin upon Himself. And it even provides a picture of the cross. Remember that Jesus referred to His death on the cross as a baptism (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). On the cross, God poured out His wrath for our sin onto Jesus—instead of us. Through unimaginable suffering, our sin was washed away, and it is now as far from us as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12).
When you have an opportunity to observe a baptism, see these things through faith. Believe Jesus has washed away your sin. Believe He took your sin upon Himself. And believe your sin was washed away on the cross and is gone forever. Few things so powerfully prepare our hearts for worship.