In the previous lesson we saw that baptism is a symbolic washing. We are impure, dirty because of our sins, and the blood of Jesus makes us clean, that is, our sins are forgiven because of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
But the gospel is not only about the cross of Jesus, and our salvation is not only about forgiveness of sins. In the same way, baptism symbolises more than washing away sins through the blood of Jesus. The catechism brings that our in q&a 70, when it not only talks about being washed with Christ’s blood, but also about being washed with his Spirit.
The Bible gives enough reason for that. In Titus 3:5, it says that we are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” In John 3:5, Jesus said: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” These verses share the idea of “regeneration” or “rebirth” by the Holy Spirit, and connect this to baptism. Baptism not only shows the washing away of sins, but also the profound change that takes place in believers as they leave their old, earthly life of sin and embrace the new, spiritual life of the Kingdom of God.
Born of water and Spirit
1. Buried with Christ
2. Beginning of a new life
3. Built into a body
Buried with Christ
Before we talk about the new life, we must first talk about death. Romans 6:3 says: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death?” What does Paul mean by that?
First of all, he says we are baptised into Christ. Elsewhere the Bible speaks literally about baptism into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The word “into” describes a profound connection here: baptism shows that we are connected with our Lord Jesus. We are linked to the one who died on the cross, and in a profound way we share in that death.
What does that mean? If you read the surrounding verses in Romans 6, it becomes clear. “We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” (v. 2) And: “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.” (v. 6-7) The catechism echoes this language in q&a 70: baptism means that we become dead to sin.
Paul also says (v. 4) that “we were buried with Christ through baptism into death.” This is a powerful image: to be buried in the water of baptism. We usually think of water as something positive, because we can drink it and use it for washing and cleaning. But water can also be deadly, as you can sink down in it and drown. That is why the Bible often speaks of water, especially the seas and oceans, as a symbol of death. In the Flood and the Red Sea God executed judgement and brought to his enemies death by water. Romans 6:4 calls that to mind when it connects water baptism to death and burial. Our baptism is not only a symbol of washing but also a symbol of dying and burial—the death of our old sinful self.
This is the reason that some people, particularly Baptists, insist that baptism must be done by “full immersion”: a person should go into a river, lake, or pool and be pushed all the way under water, to imitate burial. If you have been baptised by having water sprinkled or poured on you, Baptists would not consider that a real baptism. Now, historically speaking, they are not right about that. In the Bible, people were often baptised standing in a river or lake, but they probably had water poured over their heads instead of going all the way under water. Early Christian documents allow for baptism by pouring water from a jar. When we baptise a baby, we usually pour just a small amount of water for practical reasons. There is nothing wrong with that.
But we must remember that baptism is not only a picture of washing. It is also a picture of dying and being buried—just as Jesus died and was buried. Because a Christian believer, someone who belongs to Jesus, should be dead to sin. No longer a slave of wickedness.
What does that mean practically? In Rom. 6:11, Paul makes this practical for his readers. Like us, they were baptised Christians, and therefore they should be dead to sin, but in practice that was not always the case. So the apostle writes: “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” That is, stop giving sin a place in your life, do not give in to its temptations, because it is no longer a part of the real you. There are many ways in which you can use your body for sinning—lying with your mouth, stealing with your hands, and so on—but “do not offer any part of yourself as an instrument of wickedness.”
This takes work. Baptism itself doesn’t magically stop you from sinning. It shows that power of the Holy Spirit who will help you see that sin is no longer your master, who will help you overcome your weakness and stand up to temptation. That is why the catechism says: more and more we become dead to sin. Our old, natural self, that is inclined to sin—we should think of it and act as if it was put on that cross together with Jesus, and put into the grave with him. That part of us has been drowned in the waters of baptism and may not come back to life again.
Beginning of a new life
Jesus died and was buried—but he also came back to life and was raised from the dead. These two belong together. In the same way, if we belong to Jesus, we not only die to sin but also have a new life. “We were buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” His resurrection becomes our resurrection. That, too, is shown in our baptism.
What does this mean? To quote Romans 6 one more time, “offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.” Jesus rose from the dead with a glorified body and heavenly life; if baptism connects us to Jesus, to his resurrection, then that means we, too, get to live a life of heavenly glory. All our activities become focused on God and his Kingdom. The catechism summarises by saying: more and more we become dead to sin and lead a holy and blameless life.
Baptism, as a symbol of both death and resurrection, shows that a Christian must and will undergo a radical change, from living for sin to living for God, from the old, natural self to a new, Spirit-led person. As we have discussed before, this radical change is called “being born again”, “regeneration”, even “a new creation”.
In John 3 we read how Jesus said: “You must be born again.” While it is true, as Nicodemus pointed out, that we cannot literally crawl back into our mothers and come out again, there must really be a new birth: “Born of water and the Spirit.” When Jesus said that, he pointed to baptism as a sacrament of cleansing from sin, but also as a sign of a new, spiritual life. Not only must our sins be washed away, but our lives must be turned into the right direction, focused on the Kingdom of God, and guided by the Holy Spirit.
We must understand our baptism also as a “washing with the Spirit”. Pentecostal Christians make the mistake of thinking of “baptism with the Spirit” as a second event, independent of the baptism with water. But our water baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit shows that we receive the Spirit of Jesus, and that therefore our lives are spiritual lives. As the catechism says, to be washed with the Spirit means to be renewed by the Holy Spirit and sanctified to be members of Christ. Baptism itself does not bestow the Spirit, but it shows the reality in the life of believers, that they are more and more follow the lead of the Holy Spirit of Jesus himself.
Apart from Romans 6 and John 3, there is another key passage that makes this point. In Titus 3:5ff we read: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” When the water of baptism was poured out on us, that was also a picture of the Holy Spirit whom the Lord pours out over our lives. It shows the reality of salvation, that all who believe in Jesus will receive his Spirit generously. Only by living in step with that Holy Spirit will we enter the Kingdom of God.
Built into a body
I hope you see how rich the symbolism of baptism is, a picture of getting rid of your old self and being born as a new, spiritual person. There is one more text to look at: 1 Cor. 12:13. “We were all baptised by one Spirit into one body.” From the context it is clear that the word “body” here refers to the Christian church. Our baptism into Jesus and into his Spirit is also a baptism into the church.
What does that mean? It means that our baptism, the washing of our sins, and our new life of the Spirit are not individualistic things. Yes, each of us must personally die to sin and live in the Spirit. But we also do these things together as the church, as the body of Christ, that is, as the community of all true believers.
Some of us love spending time together as a church; for others it may be harder, because of bad experiences with other people in church, or because you want the church to be different than it is. But it would be wrong to think of the church as secondary or optional, as less important in God’s plan of salvation. The church is nothing less than Jesus’ body, his physical presence here on earth while we wait for his return. The church is the place where the Kingdom of God is revealed. The church is the beginning of the new mankind, of the community of forgiven and reborn people who will live on the new earth.
So 1 Cor. 12:13 can draw a straight line from our baptism to the Spirit to the church. Our baptism shows : this is the new community to which we belong, to take up the task God gave us, as a foot or hand or ear or eye, as Paul explains in the rest of 1 Cor. 12.
What does it mean to be baptised? That sacrament is a picture and a pledge of a reality that must become visible in your life. It symbolises the washing off of sins, but much more. Your baptism proclaims that you are to be dead to sin, born again by the Spirit, living the life of Jesus’ resurrection, and an active part of his church. Baptism shows it by way of sign and promise; the Holy Spirit makes it reality in your life.
What should we do with this in practice? We must listen to the Holy Spirit and not get in the way of his work. We must recognise that being baptised matters for the things we do, for the decisions we make. Do you work on crucifying your old self? Are you living as the Holy Spirit guides you? Are you a living, active part of the church? Your baptism shows what you are supposed to be, what spiritual reality must shape your life. Don’t ignore it, but start putting it in practice, in the power of the Spirit that was poured out over you.
- What does it mean to be “dead to sin” (Rom. 6:11)?
- Why do Baptists insist on “full immersion” baptism? Why is this not necessary?
- What does it mean practically that we are “buried with Christ”?
- What does it mean to share in Jesus’ resurrection?
- Why is the image of a “new birth” (John 3) so powerful?
- How is baptism connected to the church? (1 Cor. 12:13)