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The Sign and Reality of Baptism

It is of the utmost importance, when speaking of baptism, to realize that the NT uses the word in two different ways.  A failure to recognize this often leads to misunderstanding and error.

Sometimes when the NT uses the word “baptism” it is referring to the sacrament or rite, what we might call water baptism (cf. Matt. 3:7; 28:19; Acts 2:38, 41; I Cor. 10:2).  This is really not baptism, properly speaking, but the sign of baptism - a symbol pointing to an invisible spiritual reality.

In distinction from the symbol or sign, the reality of baptism is the washing away of sins by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ.  That is the reality of which water baptism is only a picture.  Speaking of baptism in that sense it is entirely proper to say that baptism saves (I Pet. 3:21).

Many passages in the NT are speaking of this spiritual saving reality and not of the sign, that is, of water baptism.  The most notable of these passages are I Corinthians 12:13, Romans 6:3-6, Galatians 3:27, Ephesians 4:5, Colossians 2:12, and all those passages which speak of being baptized in or with the Holy Spirit.

None of these passages is speaking of water baptism.  Unless we realize this we will fall into all sorts of errors and come to very wrong conclusions, e.g., that water saves (I Pet. 3:21) or brings us into fellowship and communion with Christ (I Cor. 12:13).

The difference between sign and reality is clearly evident in the fact that not all who are baptized with water receive the reality of baptism.  Nor do all who remain unbaptized with water thereby forfeit the spiritual reality of baptism by which we are saved.

Nevertheless, the two are related.  The one is the sign or picture of the other, and that may not be forgotten.  A sign that said “London” but pointed to Manchester, would only mislead and deceive.  The sign must always point to the reality if it is to be of help to us.  Thus the sign must match the reality, and the reality must match the sign.

For example, the question of the mode of water baptism can to some extent be answered by examining the mode of spiritual baptism.  If we ask, how are we baptized by the blood and Spirit of Christ?, the answer of Scripture is “by sprinkling or pouring.”  It would be strange, not to say misleading, if sign and reality did not match at that point.

By the same token, the reality must also “match” the sign.  It would not do at all to have the eating of bread and wine, though they also represent the death of Christ, as  symbols of the cleansing of sin by Christ’s sacrifice.  The sign must be of cleansing.

Indeed, Christ has given us the sign to help us understand and believe the reality.  If I say, “Can anything really wash away all my sin - wash it all away?  That is too much to believe. My sins are too great and too many.”  The sign of baptism says, “As really as water washes away the filth of the body, so really does the blood of Christ wash away sin” and so encourages my faith in Him and His sacrifice.

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 6
  • Issue: 25
Hanko, Ronald

Rev. Ronald Hanko (Wife: Nancy)

Ordained: November 1979

Pastorates: Wyckoff, NJ - 1979; Trinity, Houston, TX - 1986; Missionary to N.Ireland - 1993; Lynden, WA - 2002; Emeritus October 15, 2017

Website: www.lyndenprc.org/sermons/

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