August 29, 2023

The Meaning of Baptism

Sinclair Ferguson
The Meaning of Baptism

Baptism wasn’t given to us just for the experience of a moment—it’s a sign that affects every day of our Christian lives. Today, Sinclair Ferguson reminds us what our baptism teaches us about Christ and what He has done for us.


We began to think yesterday on Things Unseen about the subject of baptism in, I hope, a relatively uncontroversial way, except perhaps for one thing. Yesterday, I was hinting that probably too many Christians think about baptism the wrong way around. If you ask them what baptism means, the first thing they do is talk about themselves rather than talk about Jesus Christ. And I was trying to say that the central meaning of baptism is that it points us to the Lord Jesus first, not to ourselves. Like the gospel of which it’s a sign, it’s about Him first and foremost. And that’s true, as I was hinting, of all the biblical signs that we sometimes call sacraments; first and foremost, they are reassurances to us of what the Lord has done.

You’ve probably seen that famous optical illusion where there’s either an old hag that you see or a beautiful young woman. And many people, if they see the old hag in the picture, seem to find it very difficult to find the beautiful woman. And you’ll forgive me for saying that sometimes I think it’s a little bit like that with baptism. Some of us look at it and see only ourselves and our faith decision. And forgive me for putting it this way, but if we think baptism is about ourselves then, well, we are more like the old hag. After all, we are sinners.

But baptism presupposes we are sinners and that we need to be cleansed, and that’s why it points us not to ourselves first, but to Christ. It points us, as sinners, to the promise of cleansing and renewal there is in Jesus Christ, and that’s why it gives us such daily reassurance. It’s not so much a message about our faith, but a sign that calls us to live by faith. So, we need to see something quite different in the picture that baptism portrays. Not ourselves—the old hags, the sinners—but the beautiful woman, or to put it in real life terms, the beautiful Savior.

Think about it this way: baptism is a sign of the gospel. But how does the gospel work? Not by pointing to me and what I do. In fact, the gospel presupposes my sinfulness and points me to the One who alone can save me. It reminds me that I have no resources in myself and I can’t contribute to my salvation. I’m spiritually dead and in spiritual bondage, and I need to look away from myself to Jesus Christ and His resources. That’s how the gospel functions. And if that’s how the gospel functions, it shouldn’t surprise us it’s also the way the signs of the gospel function—and baptism functions that way. It’s given to us; it’s never done by us. It points us to what Christ has done, and it’s Christ who gives us the sign.

Now, let me bore down a little more on this because if my view of baptism is that it’s a sign of something I’ve done, then it just points me back to what I have done, when what I really need is to be pointed away from myself and what I’ve done to the Lord Jesus and to every spiritual blessing that we are given in Him—the forgiveness of sins that’s in Him, the redemption from sin that’s in Him, the adoption into the family of God that’s in Him—all those spiritual blessings that Paul enunciates in Ephesians 1.

That’s why, famously, when Martin Luther found himself discouraged and under stress, he used to say to himself, “Baptizatus sum—I’m a baptized man.” Why did that help him? Because it lifted his eyes away from his own sinfulness, and the difficulties and stresses he faced, to the Lord Jesus Christ and His all-sufficiency and reminded him that all the promises of God are yes in Jesus Christ.

Think of the way a husband, momentarily tempted to be unfaithful, might finger his wedding band and be reminded of his wife’s love and her faithfulness to him and be strengthened by that to resist temptation by saying: “This is the sign and seal my wife placed on my finger the day we were married. She loves me, and I will not betray that love, nor will I deny her faithfulness to me.” And so he is strengthened to resist. In the same way, the Christian finds that the sign of baptism is a reminder and confirmation of what the Lord Jesus has done to set us free and to cleanse us from sin. And so the gospel message of baptism strengthens us to remain faithful to the One who loved us with a Calvary love.

That’s what the older writers used to describe as improving baptism. They didn’t mean making it better; they meant proving day by day that its message really works in our Christian lives. It wasn’t given to us just for the experience of the moment; it’s for every single day of our Christian lives.

But here’s a question: When did the fact that you were baptized last make any practical difference to your life as a Christian? That’s what it was given to you for, and yet some of us haven’t thought about our baptism for weeks, perhaps even for years, and that’s something worth pondering.