New City Catechism 45.3
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.
Some Christians argue that the sacraments/ordinances are "visible words," and as such they have the same power to impart salvation as does the preaching of the gospel. Were this the case, it is hard to imagine how Paul could say that he was called not to baptize but to preach the gospel, clearly setting the latter above the former in importance (1 Cor. 1:17).
Why is it important to make this distinction, namely, that the sacraments/ordinances do not effect salvation as physical acts? It's because the assumption that they do impart salvation could too easily lead us to the conclusion that we should trust in the sacraments to save us, rather than to trust in the Savior to whom they point us. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-5 Paul writes,
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.
In the context of his overall argument, Paul makes the point here that the generation of Israelites who came out of Egypt had their own sacraments or ordinances, so to speak. They were baptized into Moses when they crossed the Red Sea. And they ate spiritual food in the form of manna from heaven; they drank spiritual drink in the form of water from a rock. Just as believers pass through the waters of baptism and then gather at the Lord's Table to eat and drink, so did Israel in the wilderness.
And yet, those ordinances were not enough to save them, for they lacked faith in the Lord, and that entire generation (save Joshua and Caleb) died in the wilderness. Paul uses this example as a warning to the Corinthians not to assume that baptism and the Lord's Supper are what save them. Apart from faith, baptism and the Lord's Supper do nothing. And that is why he warns his readers to guard themselves from sinful idolatry (1 Cor. 10:6-22).
The ordinances matter. They cannot be disregarded. But we must never confuse them with the gospel itself, the proclamation of which brings salvation to us by faith.
Suggested passage for personal or family reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-22. How does Paul use the wilderness generation of Israel as an example of warning? What does he tell his readers they must do in light of this warning?
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