Baptism is a sign of submerging into death and bearing the punishment of sin, or of so submerging into death that the justice of God is fully satisfied. And therefore it is a sign also of the rising again unto a new life. Thus Jesus was baptized indeed. He descended into the depths of Gods wrath, into the deepest darkness of death, and tasted death for all His people. And He rose again, justised by the very sentence of God upon Him, in the glorious resurrection. Of this baptism into His own blood and into His own death He received the sign when John baptized Him. He was about to enter upon His public ministry. In that ministry He was to announce the kingdom of heaven. Like John, He was to preach that the kingdom of heaven was nigh. But unlike John, He was to preach in word and work that He Himself would bring that kingdom of heaven. He is the Good Shepherd, the King, the Door, the way into the everlasting tabernacle of God. He was to enter into the sheepfold and lead out His sheep. But all this was concentrated around His death. If He would not die, He would be none of all this. His death, therefore, was the essential element of His whole ministry. And therefore it was very proper that He should be baptized of John as a sign of His ultimate baptism into death.
The formula for baptism used by the church is based upon Matthew 28:19, and it is indeed significant that this formula be retained. It must not be substituted by anything else. In fact, only baptism that is administered in the name of the Triune God is at all recognized by Reformed churches. In the original we read into the name.” And this does not mean “upon the authority of the name of the Triune God,” but rather “into the fellowship of God Triune as He revealed Himself in the name of Jesus Christ.” The name of God in Scripture has a very important significance, as we well know. It denotes God, or Jehovah, Himself as He reveals Himself to us, as He is known to us, as He is near to us. God is God. He is the infinite and the eternal One, Who is Himself invisible. But He made Himself a name. He revealed Himself. And by this name He Himself came down to us, is known to us, is near to us, and surrounds us on every side. This name of the Lord in general is in all the works of God’s hands. Thus the psalmist sings in Psalm 8:1, 9: “O Lord our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth.” All creation is the handiwork of God; and all creatures, therefore, spell His name. For they are created by the Word of God, and that Word of God is in them. And not only did He call them into being, but He still is in them and upholds them by His almighty and omnipresent power. He sustains and governs them in all their existence, in all their operation. And therefore, all that is and all that occurs in creation, from the beginning to the end of history, declares and reveals the name of the Lord. It is a revelation of the living God, Who is always near, so that the psalmist may sing: “Unto thee, O God, do we give thanks, unto thee do we give thanks: for that thy name is near thy wondrous works declare.” Psalm 75:1. However, that name of the Lord as it is revealed in creation is not sufficient to know Him as the God of our salvation. Nay, more: that name reveals also His wrath, His wrath upon all the workers of iniquity. We could never know the name of the Lord in all the works of His hands, therefore, unless we behold those works in the light of another name by which the Lord has made Himself known to us. That name is in the Scriptures. And that name centrally is Jesus. It is only when we behold the glorious name of the Lord from the standpoint of that one name that it becomes the name of the God of our salvation. Apart from that one name, the revelation of God in the things that are seen surely brings the name of God to us as a name of power and might, but, as has already been said, also as a name of wrath, that loudly proclaims that God is angry with the wicked every day, and that He will visit the workers of iniquity with His just punishment in time and eternity.Rom. 1:18, ff. But there is another, a new, an altogether wonderful revelation of the name of Jehovah: and that name is Jesus, Jehovah salvation. From the viewpoint of the name Jesus we behold the entire name of the Lord our God as a name of mercy and grace, as a name of salvation. And this is the name of Jehovah, the name of the Triune God as the God of our salvation, in which we are baptized. It is the name that was revealed in the fulness of time, when God sent His only begotten Son into the world, made of a woman, made under the law. It was revealed in the entire ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ: for by His word and work God spoke to us as the God of our salvation, full of grace and mercy. It was revealed as the name of reconciliation in the cross of Golgotha: for God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them. Cf. II Cor. 5:19. It is revealed in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead as a name of everlasting righteousness: for He was delivered for our transgressions and raised for our justification. Rom. 4:25. It was revealed as a name of glorification in the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ and in His exaltation at the right hand of God. And it will be revealed in all the fullness of its saving power in the day of Christ, when He shall make all things new, when the tabernacle of God shall be with men forevermore. That is the name of God that was declared unto us by the Spirit and through faithful witnesses. It is preserved for us in the Holy Scriptures. And it is still proclaimed by the church. Into that name, therefore, that is, into the fellowship of that name, and therefore, into the covenant fellowship of the Triune God in Christ Jesus our Lord, we are baptized. And from this it is very evident that baptism is a sacrament. It is an institution of God through Christ to be observed by the whole church in the new dispensation.
When we consult the Reformed Confessions, we find that they one and all attribute a rich significance to the sacrament of baptism. Centrally, indeed, they all confess that baptism signifies the washing away of sin through the blood of Christ. Thus also the Heidelberg Catechism, in Lord’s Day 26, in answer to the question, “How art thou admonished and assured by holy baptism, that the one sacrifice of Christ upon the cross is of real advantage to thee?” teaches us: “Thus: That Christ appointed this external washing with water, adding thereto this promise, that I am as certainly washed by his blood and Spirit from all the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.” (Question and Answer 69) In Question and Answer 70 the Catechism teaches us as follows: “What is it to be washed with the blood and Spirit of Christ? It is to receive of God the remission of sins, freely, for the sake of Christ’s blood, which he shed for us by his sacrifice upon the cross. . . .” Other confessions, however, attribute a richer meaning to the sacrament of baptism. According to them, it includes the reception into the covenant of God and the inheritance of the sons of God. It signifies not only to be purged from the filthiness of sin, but also to be endued with the manifold grace of God. It means that we are adopted unto children of God, that we are enriched with various gifts unto a new life. It signifies not only the remission of sins, but it also is a sacrament of regeneration, purification, renewal. There are indeed Reformed theologians who would emphasize exclusively that baptism signifies the washing away of sins. According to them, the being buried with Christ into His death and being raised again into a new life has nothing to do with the essential meaning of baptism. But it is evident that their purpose is chiefly to defend the mode of sprinkling over against those that insist that immersion is essential and necessary for baptism.
Reformed theologians have always insisted that immersion is certainly not the only proper way of baptism, but that pouring or sprinkling is also quite sufficient. And this position we hold too, also on the basis of Holy Writ. Even if the original word for baptism signifies “to dip, or to immerse,”—a meaning which is contested by some Reformed theologians,—we would still insist that sprinkling is quite sufficient, simply because it belongs to the sign and not to the essence of baptism. And because it is not essential, but belongs to the outward form and symbol, sprinkling or pouring must be considered quite sufficient. Even as the common cup, in distinction from the individual cup, at the Lord’s Supper is not essential to the significance of communion, but belongs only to the mode of celebrating that sacrament, so immersion, in distinction from sprinkling or pouring; is certainly not essential to the meaning of the sacrament of baptism. Besides, there are plenty of indications in Scripture that another mode of baptism than that of immersion was employed. It is hardly reasonable to conceive of the possibility that John the Baptist at the river Jordan baptized the multitudes that came to him by means of immersion into the river. It certainly is impossible to believe that the three thousand that were baptized on the day of Pentecost in Jerusalem-were all immersed. Nor does the baptism of Cornelius and his household leave the impression that sufficient water was brought into the house for all to be baptized by immersion. The jailor at Philippi was evidently baptized in or near the prison; and he and his house were certainly not led to the river to be immersed. And not only so, but sprinkling is at least suggested in Scripture, even though it does not directly refer to the sacrament of baptism. In Ezekiel 36:25 we read: “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.” And in Hebrews 10:22: “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”