Baptism is the sacramental sign of the New Covenant. It is a sign by which God seals His pledge to the elect that they are included in the covenant of grace.
Baptism signifies several things:
- In the first instance, it is a sign of cleansing and the remission of our sins.
- It also signifies being regenerated by the Holy Spirit,
- being buried and raised together with Christ,
- being indwelt by the Holy Spirit,
- being adopted into the family of God, and
- being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Baptism was instituted by Christ and is to be administered in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The outward sign does not automatically or magically convey the realities that are signified. For example, though baptism signifies regeneration, or rebirth, it does not automatically convey rebirth. The power of baptism is not in the water but in the power of God.
The reality to which sacrament points may be present before or after the sign of baptism is given. In the Old Testament the sign of the covenant was circumcision. Circumcision was, among other things, a sign of faith. In the case of adults, such as Abraham, faith came prior to the sign of circumcision. With the children of believers, however, the sign of circumcision was given prior to their possession of faith, as was the case with Isaac. Likewise, in the New Covenant, Reformed theology requires adult converts to be baptized after making a profession of faith, while their children receive baptism before they profess faith.
Baptism signifies a washing with water. The command to baptize may be fulfilled by immersion, dipping, or sprinkling. The Greek word to baptize includes all three possibilities.
The validity of baptism does not rest upon the character of the minister who performs it or the character of the person who receives it. Baptism is a sign of the promise of God of salvation to all who believe in Christ. Since it is God’s promise, the validity of the promise rests on the trustworthiness of the character of God.
Because baptism is the sign of God’s promise, it is not to be administered to a person more than once. To be baptized more than once is to cast a shadow of doubt on the integrity and sincerity of God’s promise. Surely those who have been baptized two or more times do not intend to cast doubt on God’s integrity, but the action, if properly understood, would communicate such doubt. It is every Christian’s duty, however, to be baptized. It is not an empty ritual, but a sacrament commanded by our Lord.