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  • Writer's pictureWayne Shelton

What Does Baptism Have to do with Salvation?

1 Peter 3:18-22 (focal vv 21022)

In the early church, many thought baptism to be essential for salvation and embodied that conviction in the emergency baptism of dying infants. Later, Augustine stated that infants were incorporated into the faith and life of the church by their baptism. Others focused on the long preparation of adult converts for baptism. They linked baptism and the confession of faith, by which one shares in the death and resurrection of Christ.

Protestants, as we know, debate whether baptism is rightly applied to children, and if so, what it signifies and what it accomplishes. Dan Doriani, in his commentary on 1 Peter, writes,

“Risking oversimplification, we can say that most Protestants aim to avoid two errors. First, mindful of the passages that declare what baptism does, they do not want to reduce baptism to a mere sign of graces already received. For Scripture says that baptism unites us to Christ (Rom. 6:1ff.), clothes us with Christ (Gal. 3:27), and joins us to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13).”

But secondly, Doriani states, ‘We also know that the action of baptism does not, in itself, save. (We deny the Roman Catholic concept of ex opere operato – ‘by the work, worked’).’ Scripture says that the Lord Jesus saves, by grace, through faith, in texts such as Acts 2:21; 15:11; 16:31; and Romans 10:9-10. Further, it is all too obvious that many of the baptized eventually rejected the Lord and his covenant.

Therefore, concludes Doriani,

“Protestants affirm that God gives grace in baptism and yet deny that it guarantees salvation or necessarily regenerates unto eternal life. We want to stand between two errors. We deny that baptism is a mere sign and we deny that baptism is an intrinsically efficacious sign [We deny the act itself does actually save].”

But what does baptism accomplish?

The Westminster Confession of Faith seems both to avoid our two dangers and to state the positive role of baptism. In 28.1, it states that baptism is a sacrament ‘ordained by Jesus Christ’ for the admission of the ‘party baptized into the visible Church’ and ‘a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his ingrafting into Christ.’ The Confession turns to the efficacy of baptism in 28:5-6 (Modern English Study Version):

28.5. Although it is a great sin to despise or neglect this ordinance, nevertheless, grace and salvation are not so inseparably connected with it that a person cannot be regenerated or saved without it. Neither is it true that all who are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated.

28.6 The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time when it is administered.

Nevertheless, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered but really exhibited and conferred by the Holy Spirit to all (whether adults or infants) to whom that grace belongs, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time.

‘At a minimum,’ Doriani notes,

“This is a classic Protestant statement on baptism. If baptism is a ‘sign and seal of the covenant of grace,’ then it is a means of saving grace. The confession accents the grace promised in the covenant and union with Christ. There is strong warrant for both themes. Romans 6:1-4 says that we are baptized into union with Jesus in his death and resurrection (cf. Gal. 3:27). And Acts 2:38-41 links baptism and covenantal grace when Peter, at the climax of his Pentecost sermon, tells his convicted listeners, ‘Repent and be baptized…. The promise is for you and your children.’”

In the Great Commission, Jesus tells the apostles to ‘make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Doriani explains that in this case, ‘teaching and baptizing are means or instruments of discipleship.’ For adults, then, baptism is a confirmation of their faith and an instrument of their union with the triune God. For children, the Spirit may or may not impart new life at the time of baptism, but baptism can surely be a means for discipleship. For instance, Doriani writes ‘when a child witnesses an infant baptism during worship, parents (or others) can remind the child of his or her own baptism.’ He then offers a poignant way in which to remind the child of his or her own baptism:

“We baptized you when you were little, too. We promised to raise you to trust Jesus. The pastor put water on you, too. We use water for washing, and when we baptized you, we asked God to wash away your sins. The pastor also said, ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ for you. That means that he asked God to be your God. Now you belong to him. We all want you to believe in God for yourself, but baptism means that you are never all by yourself. See how the family always comes to baptisms and how the whole church is there? Our family came, too, and we pray for you. The people of the church promised to care for you as well. We teach you and pray for you so that you will belong to God and follow him all your life.”

So, how does this teaching on baptism relate to 1 Peter 3:20-21? Many of you simply want to know, ‘Does baptism work?’ I am glad you asked. Come and join us this Lord’s Day as we talk about what baptism does. You will not want to miss this study. Trust me. As you plan to come, bring your mom along with you, if you are able to. Happy Mother’s Day to you moms.

In Christ,


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