This week we begin with Question 45 of the New City Catechism, found in Part 3 (questions 36-52), which focuses on the Spirit, restoration, and growing in grace.
Question 45: Is baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?
Answer: No, only the blood of Christ and the renewal of the Holy Spirit can cleanse us from sin.
The ordinances can only properly be received in faith, but it is important to keep in mind where our faith is directed when we receive them. We must not trust in the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper to save us. Instead of looking at them, we should look through them to the reality of Christ's death and resurrection for us.
Applied to baptism, this truth means that it is not the outward immersion in water that washes away our sins. It is our union with Christ by faith, which is pictured outwardly by immersion in water. As we saw last week, Peter can speak of baptism as an act that saves us, but only when carefully nuanced: it saves as an appeal to God for a good consciences (i.e., an act of faith), not as an act of bodily washing (1 Pet. 3:21).
None of this means that the act itself is not important. Of course it is important! The actions God has prescribed for us to picture heavenly realities are crucial components of the practice of our faith. We cannot divorce the Christian faith from embodied actions such as being dipped in water and eating and drinking at the Lord's table. But there is a danger that these actions could lead us astray from faith in Christ if they become objects of faith themselves, rather than signs pointing us to Christ. Whoever believes the gospel must be baptized, but he must not trust in baptism to save him. He must trust in Christ.
Suggested passages for personal or family reading: Numbers 21:6-9 and 2 Kings 18:4. When you compare these two passages, do you see how something that was given by God to Israel as a blessing later became for them a stumbling block? What went wrong with the bronze serpent over time? How might that lesson carry over to baptism?