Discussions about baptism often focus on what we are baptized with—how much water and how it’s to be applied. Today, Sinclair Ferguson encourages us to consider what we are baptized into—and how that affects our identity.
This week on Things Unseen, we’ve been thinking about something we’ve all seen: baptism. And I’ve tried to avoid the usual controversies about baptism—whether or not believers only or believers and their children should be baptized, whether baptism should be by immersion or pouring or sprinkling. And I’ve done that for what I think is a good reason, not just to avoid stirring up controversy but because discussing these things very rarely helps us do what I said earlier on in the week our spiritual forefathers urged us to do—namely, improve our baptism. That is, to put it to the proof, to make good use of it in an ongoing way in our own Christian life. Even our spiritual forefathers who used that term sometimes felt they were fighting a bit of a losing battle. The Westminster divines, who wrote the Shorter and Longer Catechisms, for example, called this “a needful but much neglected duty” (WLC 167).
So, here are the questions I’m asking myself today: When did I last actually think about my own baptism? And then, when did I last try to improve it? When did I last think, “This really makes a difference to my Christian life, knowing that I was baptized”? Today and tomorrow, I want to suggest two ways in which we can all improve or make the best spiritual and practical use of our baptism. And it’s possible they may challenge us to adjust our focus a little bit.
I think I can introduce the first theme by saying this: sometimes when we talk about baptism, we focus all of our attention on what we are baptized with and ignore what we are baptized into. We’re baptized with water. Water is the instrument, the means that we use to baptize. But despite all our discussions about the amount of water we use, that’s not really the chief focus of what we are baptized into. You know that, I’m sure, because you’re familiar with the way Paul talks about baptism in Romans 6:3: “Don’t you know,” he says, “that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” He uses similar language in Galatians 3:27. We are baptized with the element of water, but we are baptized into fellowship with a person, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps an analogy helps here. You’ve been at weddings and watched the groom place a wedding band on the bride’s ring finger and say: “With this ring, I thee wed. With all my worldly goods, I thee endow.” Did you know that neither the words nor the ring are actually essential to their marriage? The words and the ring are a sign and seal of it. They’re a visible representation of the marriage bond. The big thing is not the ring but what the ring represents. The ring isn’t the commitment, but it expresses the commitment in this moving visual way. And baptism is like that: it’s the visible expression of Christ’s commitment to us in His union with us. It’s like the wedding band placed once for all on the ring finger—our once-for-all baptism with water as a permanent reminder of the new identity that belongs to all those who trust in Christ that they’re no longer their own, but they belong to another. And in belonging to this another, Jesus Christ, we are endowed with all that He has done for us through His death and resurrection.
Paul goes on to explain what this means. In union with Christ, not only are our sins forgiven, but the dominion or reign of sin over us has been broken. We’re not yet free from sin’s presence or its influence, but we’re no longer under its reign. We’ve been given a new identity. We belong to a new kingdom altogether. Jesus reigns over us. And Paul goes on to say, doesn’t he, that because you are in Christ, sin will no longer have dominion over you and, therefore, you’re now called to give yourself without reservation to Him (Rom. 6:4–14).
Let me put it this way: baptism is actually a naming ceremony. We are named for the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It doesn’t in itself do anything in us, but it does something permanently to us. It names us for God.
In many countries and states, the last time a bride signs her name the way she’s always done is on the marriage papers. I know there are people who object to women changing their name to their husband’s name when they get married, but we shouldn’t if we’re Christians, really, because we understand Paul’s words about marriage. Its deepest meaning lies in the way it points to Christ. And when we’re united to Christ, we’re given a new name. We take our Savior’s name. We become Christians.
Paul expresses this powerfully in Romans 6 when he says that the symbolism of baptism begins to be realized in our lives when we understand that we are a new category of person altogether—a person who has a new identity, a person whose identity is that they’ve died to sin and been raised to newness of life. And so, we no longer live the way we used to live. And when we grasp that, when baptism makes that impact on us, then we’ve begun to improve our baptism, to use the older language.