What Baptism Is Not & What It Is

Dear Church Family,

At the beginning of the month, we had the wonderful privilege as a congregation to participate in the baptism of Madeline Brenneman, the daughter of Trevor and Mariah Brenneman.

Whenever we partake of the sacrament of baptism in the church, I like to take the opportunity to speak about the meaning of baptism, or to highlight a particular aspect of the sacrament. Unfortunately, I find that when we pastors do this – especially in a Presbyterian context at the baptism of an infant child – we emphasize what baptism is not but fail to talk about what baptism is. So, with that in mind, here is a brief summary of how I talked about what baptism is not and what it is at our most recent baptism a couple of weeks ago.

What Baptism Is Not

First, what baptism is not. Baptism with water does not save, nor does it confer grace by any power in the rite or through the piety of the minister.

What Baptism Is

OK. Now that that’s out of the way, here is a very brief and non-exhaustive description of what baptism is.

Baptism is a sign of obedience to Christ’s command to make disciples

Jesus gave instructions to His Church to make disciples of all the nations by baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded (Matthew 28:18-20). So, I like to encourage parents to remember that the Great Commission begins at home. Of course, Jesus commands us to go to our neighbors and to the nations, but Christian discipleship begins with our children.

Baptism is a sign of holiness or set-apartness (belonging to the covenant community)

In teaching the church in Corinth how new believers ought to relate to their unbelieving spouses, the Apostle Paul instructs the believer to remain with his or her spouse as along as that unbelieving spouse consents to live together. Paul, then, gives his reasoning: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). The children of believers are holy, or sanctified and set apart, and therefore, receive the physical sign of set-apartness in baptism.

Baptism is a sign of the Trinitarian work of salvation

One of my favorite (run-on) sentences in the Bible is Titus 3:5-7: “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.” In saving His people, God the Father pours out His Holy Spirit, who regenerates and renews us, through His Son, Jesus Christ our Savior. This gracious work of salvation is pictured for us in baptism.

Baptism is a sign of Divine covenant promises

Baptism finds it’s roots in the old covenant sign of circumcision. Just as the church is Israel, grown up – the Lord’s supper is the Passover meal, grown up – and baptism is circumcision, grown up. And, when the Lord instituted the sign of circumcision with Abraham, He spoke of His covenant promises as being generational – “I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you” (Genesis 17:7).

This seems to be the reason for which Peter – when asked after his sermon on the day of Pentecost, “Brethren, what shall we do?” – responded as he did. Peter said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:38-39).

Likewise, when the Philippian jailer asked Peter and Silas, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30), they responded, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:30-31).


Oftentimes, people speak of baptism as being a declaration of the faith of the individual. Of course, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the sole means by which man may be justified before our holy God (Galatians 2:16); and, in baptism, there is an implicit and explicit call to trust in the Lord. At the same time, it is important to note that the signs and seals of the covenant of grace (in both the old and new testaments) typically point not to the faith of the individual, but to God’s grace, the divine covenant promises, and His redeeming work – which we receive by faith alone.

The Lord be with you!
– Pastor Peter M. Dietsch