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Article 10 (cont’d.) 

Article 10 of the Nicene Creed reads, “We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.” 

In this article the early church acknowledged first of all the existence of one baptism. This idea we considered in our last article. The early church also connected baptism to the remission of sins. She also confessed in this article that baptism is for the remission of sins. It is this idea that we now consider.

That baptism is for the remission of sins is certainly Biblical. In Mark 1:4 we are taught that “John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” Peter uses similar language in his speech on Pentecost. In response to those who were pricked in their hearts Peter exhorted, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). 

That baptism is for the remission of sins is a very beautiful and comforting truth. However, when the early church confessed a baptism for the remission of sins she had a warped view of what this means. Already at this early stage in her history errors concerning baptism had arisen in the church. Hence, although the confession she made here in this article of her creed is Biblical, what she meant to express was not. What we wish to do in this article therefore is to set forth the teaching of the early church on baptism. And having done that we will set forth the true Biblical idea of baptism, especially that baptism is for the remission of sins. 

In this early period of the church’s history there was no fully developed doctrine of baptism. The early church fathers emphasized that baptism is a sacrament of regeneration. The trouble was, however, that the church fathers had no clear conception of regeneration. They did not distinguish between regeneration and justification, as we have learned to do on the basis of God’s Word. Consequently, when the early church fathers spoke of regeneration in connection with baptism they had in mind primarily the idea of the remission of sins. In addition to the remission or forgiveness of sins they also included in regeneration the idea of spiritual renewal by the Holy Spirit. Along with this idea of regeneration the early church fathers also saw in baptism a translation out of the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of Christ. Baptism was the rite of initiation into the kingdom and church of Jesus Christ. 

The early church fathers also had the idea that somehow the sacrament of baptism itself had the power to save. It was taught, for example, that baptism washed away all sins committed prior to its administration. At this time the church had no real conception of original sin. Her attention was focused on the actual sins committed in this life. It was the teaching of the church that all sins committed prior to baptism were forgiven through baptism. Quite in harmony with this line of thinking it was also the teaching of the church fathers that baptism was necessary to enter into the kingdom of God. Consequently, infants who died without the benefit of baptism were considered to be damned to eternal perdition. This idea was based primarily on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, ‘”Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven” (John 3:5). 

Arising from this idea of baptism, especially the idea that all sins committed prior to baptism are forgiven through baptism, came the abuse of postponing baptism. Infant baptism was practiced in the early church. However, many parents postponed the baptism of their children. Some did this out of indifference. However, others did so that their children could take advantage of the forgiving powers of baptism after the sins of youth had been committed. In like manner, adult converts frequently postponed baptism as long as possible. Again, the purpose was to take the greatest possible advantage of the forgiving powers of baptism. In many cases the postponement of baptism was motivated by a desire to live in sin as long as possible. One could live as he pleased so long as there was time for baptism before death. Then all sin would be wiped away. Consequently, many were not baptized until they were on their death bed, as was Constantine, the first “Christian” emperor of Rome. In turn, in times of catastrophe and calamity the church witnessed many baptisms. 

We find, then, in this early period of the church’s history the seeds of the Roman Catholic doctrine ofex opere operato. This is the view that the water of baptism itself washes away sin, that this washing of baptism is accomplished in all who receive the sacrament, and that this is indispensable for salvation. 

Much different is the teachings of the Scriptures in this matter as summarized in our Reformed creeds. 

According to Scripture, baptism is a sign and seal of salvation. More particularly it is a sign and seal of the washing away of sins in the blood of Jesus Christ. 

The washing away of sins involves a twofold spiritual reality. Included in the washing away of sins is, first of all, the remission of sins. That our sins are washed away means that God forgives our sins for the sake of the shed blood of Christ. But the washing away of sins is more. It also is an inner cleansing of heart and soul by the Holy Spirit. The washing away of sins implies spiritual renewal—regeneration and sanctification. This certainly is the teaching of our Heidelberg Catechism, LD 26, Q 70. 

Now, baptism is a sign and seal of that spiritual reality. 

That means, negatively, that the water of baptism itself does not wash away sins. The water of baptism has not the power to wash away so much as the least of our sins. Its only power is to wash away the dirt from our bodies. For that reason neither is baptism indispensable for salvation. We need not fear that an infant who dies without being baptized is thereby doomed to eternal perdition. 

Baptism is merely a sign and seal of the washing away of sins. And that means, positively, that the spiritual reality of the washing away of sin is symbolized in baptism. Because water has the power to wash away the dirt of the body, God has ordained it as a sign and symbol to depict the washing away of sins in the blood of Christ. Furthermore, baptism is a seal of the washing away of sins. A seal is a pledge, a guarantee. In baptism, therefore, God pledges salvation. He guarantees the washing away of sins depicted in the washing of water. This pledge of salvation doesn’t come to all, not even to all who are baptized. The seal of baptism is to the believer. Baptism is God’s seal that He will most certainly wash away the sins of all and every believer in the blood of Jesus Christ, His Son. 

For that reason baptism is also a means of grace to the believer. 

It is through the sacrament of baptism that the Holy Spirit strengthens the believer in his faith. Baptism serves the strengthening of faith, of course, exactly because it is a seal. Through baptism God seals or guarantees to every believer that He will certainly wash away the believer’s sins in the blood of Christ. In that way the believer’s faith is strengthened. 

And it is through the strengthening of his faith that the believer comes to partake in richer measure of the grace of the washing away of his sins. Through the strengthening of his faith in Christ he comes to the glad assurance that his wretched sins are all forgiven for Christ’s sake. Through the strengthening of his faith by baptism he is also renewed spiritually so as to live a new and holy life. Through the confirmation of his faith by baptism the believer is comforted and refreshed in all the blessings of God’s salvation. 

In this sense baptism is a means of grace to the believer. 

And it’s in this sense, too, that we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins. 

By this confession we do not mean, then, that the water of baptism washes away our sins. Nor do we mean that baptism somehow magically washes away all sin prior to baptism so they are all forgiven. 

By this confession we mean rather that baptism is a sign and seal of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. And when that seal, therefore, is administered to the believer, or when the believer witnesses that seal administered to others, his faith is made strong even to the enjoyment of the forgiveness of his sins. 

What a glorious thing is baptism! 

And what a glorious confession we are able to make!