What does baptism do? This is a common question, even among Christians who have seen dozens, maybe even hundreds of baptisms. We recognize that something special happens in this ritual action, this sacred ordinance or sacrament where water and word combine under Christ’s command. And the answer is complex: baptism does many things, has many effects, and profoundly shapes the person being baptized in many ways. In Galatians 3:27-29, Paul describes baptism as doing two things in particular: 1) baptism unites us to Christ, which we see in verse 27, and 2) because of this union, baptism makes us heirs to Abraham’s promised inheritance, which we see in verse 29.
Before we dig in to these two benefits of baptism, however, I want to say a word about another issue that is all tied up with our question today: the issue of how baptism and faith are related. It is quite common for Christians to characterize the relation between faith and baptism as one of opposition, by asking “which is more important: baptism or faith?”, but I want to argue that setting these two concepts against each other is something that doesn’t even enter Paul’s mind. Paul doesn’t see the need to reconcile faith with baptism because, as Charles Spurgeon once said about another issue, “I never reconcile friends.” Look at how Paul progress from verse 26 to verse 27: there is a seamless transition from faith to baptism. Both concepts share the same result: sonship and inheritance through union with Christ. Main point: baptism is not opposed to faith. They are friends. Application: as you think about baptism, don’t think of them as enemies.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s look at Paul’s two big ideas: First, in baptism, we “put on” Christ. Baptism creates a relationship that wasn’t there a moment before, just like wedding vows, or an inauguration ceremony. Baptism is God’s watery word to you that you are a Christian, a little Christ in His sight. Which means, that when God looks at the baptized “you”, He sees Jesus. Why? Because you have been united to Jesus. Listen to what our Confession of Faith says in chapter 28: Because you have put on Christ, you have been regenerated – you have new life in Christ. Because you have put on Christ, your sins are forgiven. Because you have put on Christ through baptism, you have given yourself up God to walk in newness of life. We might put it this way: because you’ve been baptized into Christ, you have 1) been given a new identity, 2) been given a clean slate, and 3) been called to a new lifestyle. That’s what it means to put on Christ.
Next week, we will look at the second thing that baptism does, and what that means for the baptism of infants. For now, remember these key points:
- Baptism is a ritual that changes you.
- Baptism and faith are friends, not enemies.
- Baptism unites you to Jesus Christ.
- Because of this, baptism gives you a new identity, a clean slate, and calls you to a new lifestyle.