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Baptism and Forgiveness

“Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ ”

- Acts 2:38

No one can turn to Christ for salvation without first being regenerated by God the Holy Spirit. That is Jesus’ point in John 3, where He states that it is impossible to see the kingdom of God without first being born again “of water and the Spirit” (v. 5). This regeneration is brought about by the Spirit according to His schedule, not ours. After all, the Spirit goes where He wishes and when He wishes, and we cannot determine precisely when and where He will act (v. 8). Thus, while there is a theological connection between Christian baptism and our regeneration—baptism tangibly portrays and confirms God’s promise to renew His people—there is no necessary temporal connection between baptism and regeneration. Because of the sovereignty of the Spirit, we cannot say that everyone who is baptized is regenerated at the moment of baptism.

In addition to being a sign and seal of regeneration, baptism is also a sign and seal of the forgiveness of sins, according to Westminster Confession of Faith 28.1. This is taught in passages such as Acts 2:38, where Peter commands the Pentecost crowd to repent and be baptized “for the forgiveness” of their sins. The close relationship between cleansing and forgiveness in Scripture explains why baptism is a good sign and seal of divine pardon. Jeremiah 33:8, for example, promises the forgiveness and cleansing of the guilt associated with Judah’s sins against the Lord. In His grace, God forgives our sin, choosing not to hold our transgressions against us any longer. Yet He also removes our guilt. He washes us clean with the blood of Christ (1 John 1:9). The atonement of Christ removes our sin and guilt, which are replaced with the righteousness of our Savior (2 Cor. 5:21).

Because water is a cleansing agent for dirt on the body, it is a fitting visible sign for the spiritual cleansing that God effects for our souls in Christ. But note that the reality of forgiveness to which baptism points comes to pass only as baptized individuals repent. Peter joins the necessity of repentance with baptism in today’s passage, so we see that as with regeneration, there is no automatic connection between the rite of baptism and the experience of divine forgiveness. God makes a true promise to forgive sin in baptism, but that promise is made only to those who repent. Without repentance, we do not benefit from the grace signed and sealed by the sacrament. But if we are living lives of faith and repentance, the water of baptism assures us that God has cleansed us from our sin and forgiven us.

Coram Deo

Do you have trouble believing that God has forgiven you in Christ? Look to the water of baptism. Every time we see a baptism administered, we should be reminded of God’s promise to cleanse and forgive. The water of your baptism is God’s unbreakable promise to you to forgive you when you repent. Just as water washes dirt from our flesh, so the Spirit washes the filth of sin from our souls.

Passages for Further Study

Psalm 51
Ezekiel 37:23
Mark 1:4
Acts 22:16

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.