August 28, 2023

The Promise of Baptism

Sinclair Ferguson
The Promise of Baptism

If we think of baptism primarily as a point of controversy rather than a gift from God, we need to take some time and think again. Today, Sinclair Ferguson shows that baptism is a sign that confirms the promise of the gospel.


Welcome to another week on Things Unseen. This week, we’re actually going to talk about something we do see: baptism. Now, I can imagine a variety of responses to that statement. Everything from, “Oh no, I’m not sure I can bear to listen to yet another person lecturing me on my views of baptism,” to, on the other hand, “Oh yes, I think I agree with Sinclair Ferguson on baptism, so he is going to nail the opposition.” But the point of Things Unseen is not to air controversial topics for these few minutes each weekday. I think it’s worth saying, actually, that if we think of baptism first and foremost as a controversy rather than a gift from the Lord Jesus, somehow we’ve got hold of the wrong end of the stick, and I hope you agree.

So, what I want to say at the outset is this: baptism is a gift from the Lord Jesus to help us all to live for His glory. And I hope I can avoid the usual controversies on baptism to help us get to the main thing. So, if you find anything I say is controversial, it won’t have to do with either when baptism is administered or how much water is used. Yes, I know these are views on which we have different opinions, but I want to reflect with you on something more fundamental. And I want to do that because I suspect that whatever our views on these issues on baptism, we’re not actually particularly strong on appreciating why Christ gave it to us, what it means, or the impact it’s meant to have on our daily Christian living—because baptism isn’t just something that happened once and is over and done with. If you read the New Testament, you notice that its significance is meant to last through the whole course of our Christian life.

Well, the first question to ask is this: What is baptism? What kind of event is it and why do we do it? Here I suspect our tendency is to view baptism through a kind of closeup lens and tend to forget to think about it in terms of its place in the whole story of the Bible. If we do, we’ll forget that baptism is actually only one of a whole series of rites—that’s R-I-T-E-S—that God gave to His people throughout the various epochs of His self-revelation.

Right from the very beginning, God always added some kind of physical sign to His covenant word of promise. We’re all familiar with the promise to Noah that He would never flood the earth again. Is God’s promise enough for us? Well, yes, He’s God, after all, and He doesn’t lie. Will He ever break His promise? No, He won’t. He can’t. Well then, why does He tell Noah that the rainbow will be a sign to him, that He, the Lord, will remember His promise? It’s not because God needs the reminder, is it? No, it’s because He knows Noah needs the reminder. He needs the reassurance.

Some years ago, the snow in the mountains around our village in the Grampian Highlands of Scotland melted, and there was a downpour of rain, and the river that runs through the village burst its banks. Half the village was flooded, and people were out of their homes for months. It was a once-in-a-century-size flood and a terrible time for the village. And now, whenever the snow melts, and there’s a downpour, and the river rises, what do you think is the first thing on people’s minds? Well, if that is true in our village, what must Noah have felt when it started raining again? But in His kindness, the Lord gave him a sign to confirm His promise: “Just in case you forget it, Noah, whenever you see the rainbow in the sky, you can be sure I see it too, and that I am remembering My promise to you.”

And actually, in each of the great covenants God went on to make with His people, He did something similar each time: He gave them his word of promise, and then He added to it a visible sign to reassure them of the meaning of His promise and that He was going to keep that promise. That happened again in the promise that God gave to Abraham in the sign of circumcision. Remember how Paul says that it was a sign and seal of the God-given righteousness that faith receives.

So, when we fast-forward to the new covenant in Christ, it’s not really a surprise that God adds two signs to His promise: the sign of baptism and the sign of the Lord’s Supper. And both of them, in different ways, are given to us to confirm the promise of the gospel.

Now today, I think we should remind ourselves that the first function of these signs—baptism, for example—is to point to what God has promised to be and to do. They don’t, first of all, point us to what we have done or what we are to do. That’s very important to get clear in all of our minds if we‘re going to benefit from our baptism. But it’s something many Christians can get confused about because sometimes it’s our response to Christ that’s been emphasized more than Christ Himself, our response to the gospel rather than the content of the gospel. And so I say it’s really important to remember that baptism points us to what Christ has done, to use John Calvin’s lovely expression, “to Jesus Christ clothed in His gospel.”

Many of us, I think, tend to think that baptism points to us and to our faith in the first instance, but it’s a sign of God’s gospel promise. It points us to Christ and to the way in which His promises are all fulfilled in Him. So, if someone were to ask you about the meaning of baptism and your answer began by describing something you have done, then you’re really turning its meaning upside down, on its head, back to front. These signs don’t actually work that way. Baptism points to and confirms to us what Christ has done. It says, “Fix your eyes on Jesus and trust in Him, repenting of your sin.” It’s not a sign of what we have done, but a sign and reassurance of what He has done for us. And we’ll come back to that and think more about it tomorrow.