We must avoid two errors when we discuss the sacraments. The first of these is the view that says the sacraments convey grace ex opere operato—“by the working of the work.” In other words, the sacraments always provide grace as they are performed. This understanding turns the sacraments into magical rites that people rely on for salvation instead of faith in Christ alone. It also obscures the sacraments’ function as conduits of judgment, not grace, for those who do not receive in faith that which the sacraments signify and seal (1 Cor. 11:27).
The second error views the sacraments as bare signs with no special utility in the Spirit’s hands to further our sanctification. In this view, sacraments are, at best, reminders of what God did in the past in the atonement and our regeneration; the sacraments convey no spiritual power, benefit, or grace in the present. Most people who hold this view likely do so because they fear that a high view of the sacraments could obscure the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone on account of Christ alone. We sympathize with this concern. Nevertheless, Scripture does not allow us to deny a special working of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments.
We must affirm a special working of the Spirit in baptism because the New Testament connects this sacrament and the work of the Holy Spirit very closely. We see this, for example in today’s passage, where Paul speaks of the washing of regeneration. Elsewhere, Peter says that “baptism . . . now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21).
Given the entire witness of Scripture, we must, of course, confess that baptism is not the prerequisite for regeneration and salvation. If that were so, for example, Jesus could not have promised salvation to the penitent thief on the cross (Luke 23:39–43). The benefits of salvation signified in baptism are not confined to the sign, which would make it impossible for anyone who has not been baptized to be saved. John Calvin’s commentary on John 3 makes this point, and the Westminster Confession echoes this teaching (28.5). Nevertheless, the saved person who is never baptized is the exception, not the rule. We do not believe in baptismal regeneration, but with the New Testament, we do confess that baptism is a real means of grace wherein the Spirit strengthens our faith and reminds us of the work of Christ.
Today’s passage is a proof text for question and answer 71 of the Heidelberg Catechism, which, in accord with Scripture, calls baptism “the water of rebirth” and “the washing away of sins.” People can be saved without being baptized if, for reasons beyond their control, they are unable to get baptized. But the New Testament knows of no true convert who consciously refuses baptism. If you trust Jesus but have never been baptized, you must receive the sign and seal of baptism.