Tonight we will have the opportunity to witness a follower of Christ giving public profession of his faith through the waters of baptism. What does baptism entail and what does it mean? It has been customary in recent years for Baptists to talk primarily about baptism as an ordinance. An ordinance is a rule or law. In this sense, baptism is an act of obedience to Christ. While this is certainly true, is it more than that?
It seems to me that we have developed a rather negative theology of baptism (somewhat ironic for a Baptist church). We talk about who should not be baptized, what baptism does not accomplish, and what modes are not acceptable. But we have said little about what baptism is and what it does.
I would suggest that the term sacrament, when rightly understood, helps to positively express what baptism means. A sacrament speaks of “a thing set apart as sacred.” And it came to be defined as a “visible word” or an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Ordinance focuses on what man must do. Sacrament focuses on what God has done and is doing. Both are important concepts but certainly the focus of the gospel is on what God has done in redeeming us through Christ.
Many Baptist churches have avoided using sacramental terminology for fear of being misunderstood (a legitimate concern). But the solution is not to avoid a good term but to define it properly. Let’s be clear – we don’t believe in baptismal regeneration (that baptism saves a person). There is no saving grace that is imparted when a person goes through the waters of baptism. But that is not to say that there is no grace. Baptism is a confirming sign and seal of a believer’s initiation into the new covenant. This strengthens his or her consciousness of salvation. That is grace!
Check out “our very own” Brandon Jones’ doctoral work on this very topic: Waters of Promise.