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As I reflected on the last baptism I saw, I was challenged on how I should be participating in the sacrament. Just as with the Lord’s Supper, we must participate in the sacrament since it is a means of grace. Baptism does not contain saving power within itself; rather, it is an effectual means of God’s grace through the working of the Holy Spirit and the gift of faith. The Westminster Larger Catechism explains how we to make the most out of the sacrament of baptism when we observe it being practiced:

Q. 167. How is our baptism to be improved by us?

A. The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.

It is the purpose of this article to explain this catechism answer so that the average churchman can understand and put into practice the doctrines contained in the Westminster Standards.

            What exactly does the word “improve” mean? In this case, it means, “how can we profit by considering our baptism” or, as one OPC author writes, how can we “make the most out of our baptism.[1]” I hope now to unpack all of what the Catechism’s answer states because it is very beneficial in our walk as Christians.

            We are supposed to consider our baptism or “make the most of it” “all our life long”. The Christian life is one beset with difficulty, not only from exterior difficulties brought on by our fallen world by also from the war that is still waging within us[2], the temptations of the devil, and even the trials and refinements brought upon us by God our Father[3]. It is in these times when we can be reminded of our baptism and be encouraged. We can think on the fact that in our baptism, we are signed and sealed as Christ’s own. Alan D. Strange, the same OPC author I quoted earlier, references one of Martin Luther’s phrases he would use to comfort himself when being tempted, “I am a baptized man[4]”. Not only are we to consider the benefits of our baptism when we are tempted, but also when we observe someone else being baptized. The Catechism answer gives us six essential ways to consider baptism when we see it being practiced or when we think back on our baptism.

            Firstly, we are to consider the sacrament in a serious and thankful manner. Just as the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is a somber but joyous occasion as we remember and, by faith, participate in what Christ has sealed to us, so baptism is a joyous and serious occasion. It is joyous because we rejoice to see someone, an infant or new convert, brought into the covenant family of God and we also think on the fact that we are a part of that covenant; we are all Christ’s. It is also a serious occasion because it is a holy sacrament, not something we do willy-nilly or simply out of habit. Rather, baptism is something which really bestows and applies God’s grace to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. We are also to be considering the purposes of baptism, both as a means of grace and a sign and seal of being brought into the covenant of God. We are to think on the benefits that we receive by faith through baptism as well as the vows where we promised to live as befits the children of God.

            Secondly, we are to think on what our condition was before we were baptized and how we have transgressed that covenant since being baptized. Baptism is a helpful reminder of the manner of life to which we have been called. As Paul writes to the Ephesians and charges them to “Walk as children of light[5]”. The apostle Peter also charges us in this manner: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy[6].”  Our baptism should be one of those reminders to walk as children of God.

            Thirdly, observing baptism should remind us of the assurance of pardon that is offered to us in the gospel, wherewith baptism signs and seals the washing of regeneration by Christ’s atoning work. The promises given in baptism are often linked with the phrase “forgiveness of sins[7]”. Furthermore, there are other blessings that are sealed within this covenant that are signified by baptism. We should be reminded of our union with Christ in baptism, our union with one another in Christ, the remission of sins, regeneration, adoption, and many other blessings given to us through baptism[8].

Fourthly, we can make the most of our baptism by “drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ”. We draw strength from Christ’s death by realizing that Christ has conquered sin and death and that Christ’s righteousness is accounted to our record. We gain strength from the resurrection by realizing that just as Christ was raised from the dead, so we shall be also. Death shall no longer have any power over us when Christ returns! What a great hope we have!

Fifthly, participating in the sacrament of baptism points back to the fact that we were saved by faith and that we still walk by faith. The benefits of baptism, namely forgiveness of sins and union with Christ, are only received by faith, not at the exact time of baptism. The Old Testament demonstrates this in the sacrament of circumcision—the infants did not receive the real benefits of the covenant until they believed by faith. Some were even apostate, like Esau or Ishmael.

Sixth and finally, observing a baptism should remind us to walk in brotherly love with those who have also been baptized. Within my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, a charge is given to the congregation at the baptism of an infant if they would assist the family in nurturing the child in brotherly love[9]. We are all grafted into union with Christ and one another and therefore should be reminded to love one another as we are instructed in Scripture[10]. Seeing someone else, whether adult or infant, who is being baptized should give a great sense of filial love and joy to see someone being brought into the covenant family of God.

In conclusion, we have seen that there much to be reminded of when we consider baptism. We are to be reminded of the promises that are “for us and for our children”, our union with Christ and with each other, and our new life in holiness in Christ. It should also give us great hope, joy, and comfort in our lives. Baptism is more than the washing with water, it is the sign and seal of the covenant, and is to be participated in, not only by the applicant, but also by the observers who believe.

 

[1] Alan D. Strange, “Baptism in Our Confessional Standards”. New Horizons. Orthodox Presbyterian Church website.

[2][2] Romans 7

[3] Hebrews 12:6

[4] Strange.

[5] Ephesians 5:7

[6] 1 Peter 1:14-16

[7] Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 2:38,

[8] Galatians 3:27, 1 Corinthians 12:13, Acts 2:38-29.

[9] PCA Book of Church Order 56-5

[10] 1 John 3:11, 1 John 4:7, John 13:34, Romans 12:10

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