This is the second in a three-part series on the sign of Baptism. Read the Introduction and Part 3. This post is based on a sermon preached, November 22, 2020, titled, “Baptism: A Sign of the New Covenant.”
A wedding ring does not make you married, which is good for me, because I lost my first ring. But a ring does say that you are married, and it says this to your spouse and to everyone else. You could say that the ring is a visual shorthand for the whole marriage package. It is 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 in this sign? What kind of changes does this sign symbolize? If baptism is a sign of the new covenant in Christ, what’s new about the new covenant?
In this post I want to explore with you some of the invisible things to which baptism points. As elders, we want these things to be especially clear in our minds when we baptize someone together as a church.
To start, we need to get our bearings on the Bible’s story. Then, we’ll talk about the symbolism of baptism. Then, 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 to us, but he has also visualized these 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. The rainbow in the sky is God’s promise never to judge the earth like he did in that day until the end of the age. How does it picture that? God has hung up his war bow and it no longer faces us. He is not done with us! “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.
The sign of circumcision is the next covenant sign we encounter. This involved the cutting of the flesh of young males and pictured the creation of a new people. How did it do this? God’s salvation of Noah and his family was dramatic, but not enough. Noah died and sin remained. But when God came to Abraham, he came with the promise of a new people in a new place. God will save through Abraham’s family and the sign of circumcision is a 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 was for Israel a sign of renewal, a meal to repeat picturing 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, a nation ordered by God’s law covenant given to Israel at Sinai. That covenant was given in grace as instruction for life 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 could not change the human heart. Its repeated sacrifices could not deal finally with sin and its tablets could not make our hearts worship God. It was never intended to. 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 truly restore our relationship with him.
How will it do this? In a few ways. First, this new covenant 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, this covenant will give us a new relationship with God, for we will worship and love God from the heart. 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, 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, but also a new structure. For this new community, access to God won’t be mediated through the priests and kings at the temple, but all will have direct access to God. That’s the answer to the problem raised by what Jeremiah wrote, “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, what’s the basis for these incredible blessings given the problem of human sin? What of our guilt? What about death and judgment before a holy God? This covenant comes with a new sacrifice. “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more” (34b). This new covenant brings a new and complete forgiveness of sins through a better sacrifice (Heb. 7:27; 9:26).
In other words, God’s new covenant is God’s perfect and complete answer to our 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 specifically does the sign of baptism dramatize entry into the new covenant? The answer is beautiful and simple.
First, Baptism dramatizes of the work of Jesus Christ which brings 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.
But second, baptism also pictures our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. 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” (Ro. 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). Baptism is used here metaphorically. However, 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). In other words, we are not only baptized into Christ, but into his body.
Clearing Up the Water
If you’ve been at Heritage long enough, none of this will be new, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t in need of a fresh look at this doctrine. Jeremiah 31 doesn’t course-correct us so much as it helps us get clearer on what baptism pictures, giving us the reasons why we do things we’ve always done. As with any doctrine, if we’re not seeing new things then we are seeing old things in sharper focus. Here are some of the things we’re clearer on.
First, the new covenant is a regenerate community and not a community mixed with believers and unbelievers like Israel. 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 and baptism pictures the accomplishment of that new life. 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 does not 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.
This is a common trap and a common misunderstanding that springs from hearts that at the same time love to boast in what we do partly because we can’t imagine a God who does it all for us. No, we do not trust in the sign; we trust in the One to whom baptism 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.
That baptism, or immersion, is a violent image 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 under water, the sign of baptism pictures that to which baptism points: 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 the presence of God to us, and for that reason we don’t emphasize the role of the baptizer in baptism.
The only time the matter of who baptizes gets any attention in the New Testament letters is when it’s a problem for the Corinthian church (1Cor. 1:13–17). The emphasis seems to lie elsewhere. What we read about is baptism into Christ and baptism into the body (Gal. 3:27; 1Cor. 12:13). For that reason, our focus is on the person’s confession and on the congregation.
With that summary, we have now explored the invisible realities to which baptism points. The most important point of doctrinal clarity I hope you gained from this is the nature of the new covenant as a regenerate community. If the question of infant baptism is something you’d like to pursue further, this question about the nature of the covenants is 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. If you aren’t hung up on the question, read the interview anyway, as this post was a good primer for the topic.