What’s in the Water?: Baptism as a Sign of the New Covenant (Part 2)
EDITOR’S NOTE: 9Marks is not just a ministry for credobaptist churches. We exist to serve paedobaptist churches, too. Nonetheless, we recognize that most of our readers are probably credobaptists. So we though it might be helpful to demonstrate how to teach those churches about baptism.
What follows is how one pastor began to teach his church. Even if you don’t agree on every single point, as we ourselves may not, we think you’ll find much useful material here.
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A wedding ring doesn’t not make you married, which is good for me, because I once lost my wedding ring. But a ring does say that you’re married, to both your spouse and to everyone else. You could say that a wedding ring is a visual shorthand for the whole marriage package. It’s perfectly fitted to symbolize a specific invisible truth.
Here’s what I say to a couple and the witnesses present at a wedding just before the giving of the rings:
The wedding ring has been an outward sign of the inward and spiritual bond in marriage. It is a visible reminder to you, your spouse, and everyone around you that you are taken, and your love for each other is to be obvious, tangible, clear, pure, beautiful, and unbreakable.
We know what a wedding ring symbolizes. But what does baptism symbolize? What is God saying to us about our covenant relationship with him? What kind of changes does baptism symbolize? If baptism is a sign of the new covenant in Christ, then what’s new about the new covenant?
In this post, I want to explore some of the invisible things to which baptism points. Every church should want these things to be especially clear when they baptize someone.
To start, we need to get our bearings on the Bible’s story. Then, we’ll talk about the symbolism of baptism. Toward the end, we’ll make some applications for how we think about and approach baptism together.
LET’S TALK ABOUT COVENANTS
Here’s one way to summarize the Bible’s story: the Bible is the story of God’s one plan of salvation unfolded across multiple covenants. We need salvation because we are sinners. In Adam, we are guilty, condemned to death and judgment. In Adam, we are corrupted as sinners, spiritually dead. And in Adam, we are alienated from God and one another. We’re even alienated within ourselves. We don’t know who we are. How does God save us from our sin? God saves by making and keeping covenant promises.
What are these promises? He has not only verbalized these promises to us. He has also visualized them for us. Most covenants have signs, and these signs are a way of telling God’s story of salvation.
The rainbow is a covenant sign. It’s a picture of God’s promise never to judge the earth like he did in that day until the end of the age. How does a rainbow picture that? God has hung up his war bow and it no longer faces us. He’s not done with us yet! “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). This is a covenant with the whole of creation, a continuation of God’s commitment to what he made in the beginning.
Circumcision is a covenant sign. This involved cutting the flesh of young males, and it pictured the creation of a new people. How did circumcision do this? God’s salvation of Noah and his family was dramatic, but not enough. Noah died, yet sin remained. But when God came to Abraham, he came with the promise of a new people in a new place. God promised to save people through Abraham’s family, and the sign of circumcision is the sign of entry into that family. Israelites entered that covenant by birth, born as citizens of what became the nation of Israel. Why a sign that involved physical surgery? To picture the spiritual heart-surgery that every person needs for a relationship with God (Gen. 17:10; Deut. 10:16; 30:6).
The Passover meal is a sign of Israel’s renewal, a meal to repeatedly picture the Lord’s deliverance of his people from slavery. The Angel of Death passed over the homes whose doorposts were marked with blood (Ex. 12:23, 48). The Passover marked Israel’s birth as a nation ordered by God’s Law given at Sinai. That covenant was given in grace to instruct Israel how to live under God’s gracious rule.
But Israel grieved the Lord. He redeemed them, and they rebelled from him. He saved them from bondage, and they broke his covenant.
WHAT’S NEW ABOUT THE NEW COVENANT?
There was a problem with the Law covenant—the old covenant. It couldn’t change the human heart. Its repeated sacrifices couldn’t deal finally with sin; its tablets couldn’t make our hearts worship God.
But the old covenant was never intended to do accomplish all that. Rather, it was intended to prepare us for something new:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. (Jeremiah 31:31–32)
This covenant is the answer to how God will fully restore our relationship with him.
How will God through the new covenant do this? In a few ways. First, he will give us a new heart. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” he says, not just on stone for us to read (33a).
Second, he will establish our new relationship with him, for we will worship and love him from the heart. Finally, God’s repeated promise will come true: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (33b).
Third, these new worshipers will form a new community. Israelites entered the covenant community by birth, but this community is entered by new birth, that is, by faith. For that reason, “No longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me” (34a). This new community has a new nature and a new structure. For this new community, access to God won’t be mediated through priests and kings, but all will have direct access to God. That’s the answer to the problem raised by Jeremiah, “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity” (30:29, 31). In other words, God will deal with us directly, and he will save us directly.
Fourth, given the problem of our sin, how can God do all this? What about our guilt? What about death and judgment before a holy God? Well, the new covenant comes with a new sacrifice. “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more” (34b). This new covenant brings complete forgiveness through a better sacrifice—God himself through the person of Jesus Christ (Heb. 7:27; 9:26).
In other words, God’s new covenant is God’s perfect and complete answer to the age-old problem of sin.
HOW DOES BAPTISM PICTURE THE NEW COVENANT?
We know what the rainbow, circumcision, and the Passover meal symbolize. But how does the sign of baptism dramatize our entrance into the new covenant? The answer is beautiful and simple.
First, Baptism dramatizes of the work of Jesus Christ that brings about the new covenant. In baptism, we go under the water, picturing his death and burial, and we come up from the water, picturing his resurrection.
Second, baptism pictures our union with Christ. United with him in his death, our judgment falls on Jesus. United with him in his resurrection, his resurrection life is our new life. Paul puts this plainly, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4–5).
Finally, baptism pictures our union with God’s new people in Christ. The Spirit is the one who brings the new covenant blessings, and this includes the creation of a new regenerated community. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1Cor 12:13). Here, baptism is used metaphorically. But water baptism pictures this invisible reality: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:27–28). We are not only baptized into Christ, but also into his body.
CLEARING UP THE WATER
I suspect you’ve heard this before, but it’s still useful to take a fresh look at the doctrine of baptism. Jeremiah 31 doesn’t course-correct so much as it helps us clarify what baptism pictures, giving us the reasons why we do things we’ve always done.
We should always want to see old things in sharper focus. Here are some of the a study of baptism ought to clarify.
First, the new covenant is a regenerate community. It’s not a mixed community like Israel, comprised of believers and unbelievers. This is why we baptize believers only.
To baptize infants is to misunderstand more than the sign, but the nature of the new covenant and the people it creates. Circumcision and baptism are both covenant signs, but baptism is the sign of a new and better covenant. Circumcision pointed to the need for spiritual heart surgery; baptism pictures the accomplishment of that surgery. This is what Paul meant when he carefully related circumcision to baptism in his letter to the Colossian church:
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses. (Colossians 2:11–13)
This is somewhat obscure to our ears, but here’s what it means: Jesus was cut (circumcised) in his flesh through his crucifixion so that we could be cut in our hearts through regeneration. Baptism doesn’t replace circumcision. Baptism pictures its fulfillment.
Second, we enter the new covenant community by faith, and for that reason we do not trust in our baptism.
I previously talked about the allure of sentimentalism and how it urges us to place undue trust on our baptism. On one level, this is understandable. We are wired to boast in what we’ve done partly because we can’t imagine a God who graciously does it all for us. But we must never trust in the sign; we must trust in the One to whom the sign points.
Third, baptism pictures our union with Jesus in his sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. For that reason, we don’t sprinkle or pour but plunge someone under the water.
Baptism by immersion is a violent image, which makes sense of how Jesus spoke of his own death: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk. 10:38). By plunging someone underwater, baptism pictures Christ’s death and our death with him.
Fourth, the new covenant brings full access to God through a new and better mediator, Jesus Christ. There are no priests or kings to mediate God’s presence to us, and for that reason we don’t emphasize the role of the baptizer in baptism.
The only time the baptizer gets any attention in the New Testament is when it’s become a problem for the Corinthian church (1 Cor. 1:13–17). Instead, we read about our baptism into Christ and into the body (Gal. 3:27; 1Cor. 12:13). For that reason, we focus on the person’s confession and on the congregation, not the individual doing the dunking.
We’ve now explored the various invisible realities to which baptism points. Most preeminently, we we discussed the nature of the new covenant as a regenerate community.
If the question of infant baptism is something you’d like to pursue further, then this question about the nature of the covenants lies at the heart of the matter. For a deeper dive, read this interview with Stephen Wellum based on his chapter “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ.
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Author’s note: This post is based on a sermon preached, November 22, 2020, titled, “Baptism: A Sign of the New Covenant.”