The Efficacy of Baptism

by The Rt. Rev. Daniel R. Morse

In 1 Peter 3:13–22, where we read the broader context of the baptism of Noah and his household, we find this very strong assertion, "This water symbolizes baptism that now saves you." Peter says, "Baptism saves." But what does that mean? Peter compares the water of baptism to the water of the flood. Therefore we can view Noah’s experience as a kind of baptism, a household baptism—Noah, his wife, and his children.

We who have been baptized into Jesus Christ ought to take comfort from the example of Noah. Like Noah, we are aligned with the powers of the kingdom of God against the powers of the kingdom of this world. Like Noah, we are to be exemplars and also preachers of righteousness. Like Noah, we can expect to be persecuted and mocked when we exhort men to repent of their sin. Jesus warned us that this would be our lot if we took our stand with him. But that’s the point. We take our stand with Jesus Christ just as Noah did, and in the great Day of Judgment, we can expect to be vindicated. God will not let us perish, just as he did not let Noah perish. Peter is calling upon the early Christians, in the face of the persecution they are undergoing, to remember that they were baptized and to remember what that meant for Noah. Baptism is the sign and seal of God’s favor and of his promise.

Now that promise in baptism is not only to us personally but to our households as well. We are aligned with the kingdom of righteousness, and it is utterly inconceivable that it could be otherwise with our children. Our children are identified with us in the struggle, and they are to be trained to fight with us side by side. They also will be vindicated in God’s Judgment. Remember that even infants wear the martyr’s crown. Along with their believing parents, many children have suffered death for the sake of the Gospel.

It is not the ceremony of baptism in and of itself that saves. We know that it is God who saves, God who provided the ark that Noah built. Our ark is Jesus Christ. Baptism saves, because in it we are identified with Jesus Christ who is our Savior. That’s why we can say baptism saves, because God saves through Jesus Christ. Baptism saves not in and of itself, but as a sign and seal of a mutual pledge. It is first of all God’s salvation that is signed and sealed; his sovereign grace; his saving work. But it is also a sign and seal to those who trust in him. You see the two parts of the covenant coming to expression there. God’s sovereign grace signed and sealed to us, his promise, a promise that is received and realized in the way of faith.

Enjoying the Comfort of the Covenant

What comfort may we derive from our own baptism and the baptism of the infant children of believers? What needs to be stressed in this connection is that we may never divorce God’s covenant grace from the discharge of those obligations that are ours in our covenant relation with God. Covenant privilege always entails covenant responsibility. The comfort and confidence of God’s covenant mercy may never be severed from covenant keeping.

You can see perfectly clearly that Noah’s righteousness is not conceived of as meritorious. Far from it. His righteousness is evident precisely in his trust and in his reception of the salvation to which he is not entitled. And with respect to the children, the point is not that they can make a decisive pledge for themselves but that God is pleased to claim them as his very own. Just as God commanded Noah to take with him his sons and their wives, and his own wife, just as God claimed Noah together with his household, so God’s claim is upon believers and their children. They have the same promise of vindication as their parents. Do they deserve it? No they do not! Do they have to do something to get that promise? No they do not! God in his grace makes a promise to believers and their children that he will vindicate them in the Day of Judgment, but precisely because they have that promise, they are at the same time pledged to God to maintain a good conscience before God.

Covenant keeping begins with faith. We must trust God and his Word, but it doesn’t end there. Faith severed from obedience is presumption, just as obedience severed from faith is self-righteousness. By faith the promises of the covenant are ours. We are saved by faith, but faith without works is dead. It is no faith at all, and faith that is dead can neither hear nor believe the promises of the covenant. The sign and seal of baptism can be no pledge or guarantee to us of salvation unless we are careful of God’s covenant, embrace its promises, discharge its obligations, and lay hold in faith upon the covenant faithfulness of God. To divorce the faith of God’s promise from the faithful and persevering discharge of covenant obligations is presumption and mockery.

We are not without comfort, as those outside of Christ, nor is our comfort some presumption of being in favor with God. Our comfort for ourselves and for our little ones is the comfort and assurance of faith. It is an assurance that is experienced through the ministry of the Spirit as we walk in faith, as we walk in the Lord and in his way. Our baptism reminds us of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promise. We live by that promise. We hang on to it tooth and nail. It calls us to respond at the same time with a corresponding love and loyalty to him who first loved us. If we can depend upon the faithfulness of God that he will not forsake us, that calls forth from us a corresponding loyalty to God.

Evangelism in the Covenant

Baptism is the sign and pledge and seal that God’s mercy is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear him and his righteousness unto children’s children. The consequences of that perspective are obvious. The children of the covenant are objects of evangelism. But not as though they were outside of Christ, and outside the Church. They are objects of evangelism precisely as those who are sanctified in Christ. In baptism Jesus says, "They are mine." We cannot treat infants as if Jesus were wrong. Jesus is right. They are not little pagans. They belong to Christ, and the foundation for Christian education is safe in the promises of the covenant; therefore, we must nurture faith in the children. That is what we mean by the evangelism of the children of the covenant. Through instruction in the Word of God and the promises of the Gospel, the children of the covenant must be taught that Jesus does love them and that he has promised to them eternal life. They must be taught to obey their parents in the Lord, not outside the Lord. And they must be taught to obey the Lord out of love and gratitude. They do not obey in order to earn something—not in order to come into possession of the promise. They have the promise.

At the same time they must be warned about the consequences of unbelief and disloyalty. God will by no means clear the guilty. So we encourage the little ones to keep covenant with God. In fact, the whole educational program of the church is carried out in accordance with that pledge that is theirs in their baptism. Our children belong to God. They are his by his sovereign claim. Now I know when you see them in the yard, they look like everybody else’s—they have dirty faces, and their shoelaces get untied—but they are God’s precious possession, signed and sealed in their baptism. It is precisely because they belong to God that they are trained to discharge that pledge of a good conscience in their education in the church, in the school, and in the home. Their baptism is a continual reminder that their status as children of the covenant is not automatic. It is God’s sovereign good pleasure. At their baptism we are reminded that it is the gift of God’s grace by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but at the same time those children are committed to the battle, the cosmic struggle between God and Satan for the souls of men. They are committed to that battle side by side with us on the side of Jesus Christ against the powers of darkness. That means that the whole congregation—every man, woman, and child—is engaged in that battle and they are to be mobilized and trained for that purpose.

Persevering in the Covenant

Peter writes to encourage early believers and to encourage us as well. He says that the struggle is hard and that we will encounter resistance. Certainly we can see the resistance against the whole idea of having a Christian culture. It will get harder and harder to maintain the struggle, but we must continue in it, and our children belong to the Lord, so they must be trained to take their place with us in that struggle. We are not trying to get them into the kingdom. God says they are his, and they have his promise signed and sealed to them in their baptism. If we disregard the fact that they are the Lord’s children, and do not hear that word of the covenant, we are bound to forfeit the blessings of the covenant. But on the contrary if we keep covenant with God, he will keep covenant with us. That is the promise we have in baptism.

We don’t earn the blessings of the covenant. Neither do the blessings of the covenant free us from the responsibility to keep covenant. The uniqueness of the biblical revelation is the conjunction of blessing and responsibility in such a way that everything we have is of God’s sovereign saving grace. Now these blessings are not enjoyed by us as stocks and blocks, to use the phrase of John Calvin, as if God lavished his blessings on cold, hard blocks of stone that make no response. Rather they are enjoyed by image bearers of God who have the responsibility and the privilege to keep covenant together with our children.

We believe God, and we believe his Word. We are in that struggle, and we can take courage from our baptism because that baptism is the pledge of allegiance that God has made to us. Having received that pledge of allegiance we look forward to the cosmic baptism of the last day, which will be a baptism not with water but a baptism with fire. In that day God will indeed destroy all his and our enemies. Not a single one will escape. They will all perish. But you can be absolutely certain that God will vindicate his children who look to him in faith. That is what is signed and sealed, guaranteed to us every time the water of baptism falls on the heads of our covenant children. It is the sign and seal of God’s sovereign grace, and what God has been pleased to witness to us we believe, and believing we act accordingly.

So then, the efficacy of baptism is that it is the sign and seal of our union and communion with Christ and participation in all of the benefits, and that therefore we are obligated to keep covenant with God. It has that meaning for adults and for our children. Our task as Christian parents is to nurture our children in that covenant consciousness of being the people of God. Let us be careful and diligent to instruct our children from the earliest days of their lives that they belong to Jesus, and therefore are responsible to love and serve him faithfully.