Some theological traditions endorse baptismal regeneration, the idea that all baptized people, by virtue of the rite of baptism, receive a new heart for God. This new heart can be lost through post-baptismal impenitence; nevertheless, these traditions teach that God always grants a new heart in baptism. Other theological traditions commit the opposite error of viewing Christian baptism merely as a public testimony of our commitment to Jesus. In this view of baptism, God is not really giving a promise and the Holy Spirit is not really moving to confirm our faith. Instead, baptism only displays our intention to serve Christ, our decision to rest in Jesus for salvation.
Scripture, Reformed theologians recognize, teaches neither of these extremes. The rite of baptism does not cause our regeneration; no baptized person has an automatic claim upon God’s grace merely because he was sprinkled, immersed, or otherwise washed with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A new heart is the gift of God’s Spirit alone (John 3:3–5), and He does not regenerate every baptized member of the visible church. Yet this does not strip baptism of true power and significance. The Lord’s sure promise that He redeems all who turn from sin and rest in Christ alone is conveyed, without exception, to all who are baptized. “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39). God really uses baptism to assure the elect, to sustain their faith, and to welcome them into His church. This is not baptismal regeneration, for the promise in baptism, like all of God’s Word, also has power to harden the hearts of those who reject it. We cannot fully explain how God uses baptism to bless His people. But the sacrament of baptism undoubtedly conveys real spiritual benefits to the elect.
Scripture is unafraid to speak of baptism in this manner, as the Heidelberg Catechism explains (Q&A 73). Today’s passage is one of many in which the Bible uses baptismal language almost synonymously with salvation. Scripture does this, the catechism says, because God wants to provide spiritual assurance in baptism of what He does in the hearts of all who believe. No one is saved by the mere washing of water, but all who are saved have experienced the grace of God in their baptism.
God conveys grace to us through the preaching of the Word and the sacraments, so we must never think of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as empty rites. We cannot understand everything that happens in baptism, for who understands every facet of any of God’s works? But we can expect the Spirit to bless us in a special way that helps us in our Christian growth. If you are a Christian, the Spirit works in you when you witness the baptisms of others.