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Baptism has been at the heart of the Christian faith since its inception. The roots of baptism, however, run much deeper than just the founding of the New Testament church. They run deep into the Old Testament and the covenant relationship that God has made with His people. In fact, we cannot understand new covenant baptism rightly if we do not have a healthy knowledge of the Old Testament signs and seals. Put another way, the covenant-keeping God has given His people visible signs and markers since the beginning, going all the way back to the two trees in the garden of Eden. Unfortunately, we live in a time of great biblical illiteracy. There is much confusion about what the Bible says about everything from the nature of God to a biblical understanding of man, and yes, even baptism. With so much confusion, it is important that we look at what baptism is in order to understand why it matters and how it is indispensable to the Christian.

A Sign and a Seal

First, baptism is a sign and a seal of the covenant that God has made with His people. It is a visible pointer to a greater reality. Initially, God gave the covenant sign of circumcision to Abraham in Genesis 17. This act of cutting away the flesh marked the covenant people of God and reminded them of the promises God had made to them. Yet, in Genesis 17:10, God calls circumcision “my covenant.” One may think of how the Lord Jesus, when He instituted the Lord’s Supper, poured out the wine and said, “This is my blood of the covenant” (Matt. 26:28). Neither circumcision nor the wine were the actual substance of the covenant, but they pointed to the reality of the covenant itself. There is such a close relationship between the sign and the thing signified (what Westminster Confession of Faith 27.2 calls a “sacramental union”) that we can point to one and mean the other.

Consider the analogy of a wedding ring. Wedding rings are not actually the marriage itself, but rather a sign that the one wearing it is in a marriage. The ring serves as a visible reminder that a married person is not his or her own but belongs to another. So it is with baptism. In baptism, we are given the sign of the new covenant people, pointing to our covenant relationship with the triune God to whom we belong. Christians belong to the triune God, and those who belong to Him need to bear His sign.

A New Name

In baptism, those who have received the sign of the covenant also receive a new name that relates to a new identity. The name we are given in baptism corresponds to the One into whom we are baptized. Consider Jesus’ command to go and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (Matt. 28:19). The Apostle Paul picks up on this idea when he says that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” (Rom. 6:3). He uses similar language in Galatians 3:27. Just as in the old covenant, when people were baptized “into Moses” during the exodus event (1 Cor. 10:2), we are baptized “into Christ” in the new exodus.

The covenant-keeping God has given His people visible signs and markers since the beginning, going all the way back to the two trees in the garden of Eden.

For the believer, this means that the most important fact about us is our union with Christ. We are “in Christ” in such a close manner that it can be said that when He died, we did too (Gal. 2:20), and when He rose and ascended to sit at the Father’s right hand, so too did we (Eph. 2:6). Today, there are many who are confused about their own identity. This has left many in a mass of confusion, depression, and despair. Yet, dear believer, you have the very name of the triune God upon you. Your identity is that you are one with the Lord Jesus Christ, a new creation who has been buried with Him in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4–5). We must not listen to what the world or even our own flesh says about us, but rather, we must listen to what God says about us through our baptism.

Means of Grace

Lastly, baptism matters because it is a means of grace. We are weak and weary pilgrims on our way to the heavenly Zion, and we need sources of strength for our pilgrimage. Baptism serves as one of those sources of strength. God has given the church this ordinance to strengthen and nourish His people. This does not mean that baptism has any power in itself, but rather that the Holy Spirit uses the act of baptism to convey grace to God’s people when the sign is met with faith. Baptism strengthens our hearts in love for Christ as we are reminded that just as water makes one clean, Christ has washed us and made us clean by His blood. Our faith finds assurance as we watch water being poured out upon a receiver, reminding us that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on us and dwells in us. In moments of trial and temptation, when the devil assaults us at our weakest point, telling us that we could never be saved and that God could never love us, we can confidently respond with the words of Martin Luther: “I have been baptized! I have been baptized!”