So what is the status of a baptized person in the Roman Catholic Church? His sins have been removed, but “concupiscence” remains. In Roman Catholicism, concupiscence is a moral weakness, a tendency toward sin, which is itself not sin and which can be resisted by grace (grace that God gives to everyone through the sacraments and through the good works of piety of a faithful church member). But the Bible teaches that all sinners (even believers) have a sinful flesh, a totally depraved and corrupted nature, which is not only inclined to all evil, but is itself evil, and which can do nothing good. This sinful nature exists in all sinners, although in believers it has been dethroned. Nevertheless, even in believers the flesh is still very active and produces in us all kinds of evil. Without a biblical understanding of sin, the Roman Catholic will lack a proper understanding of salvation: neither water baptism nor the power of free will (even when coupled with God’s grace) can deliver us from the “filth of the flesh.”
Why then does the Bible speak this way, linking the reality of salvation to the sign of baptism? Reformed theologians speak of the sacramental union, for in the Bible there is a close connection between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (the washing away of sin in the blood of Christ). The Heidelberg Catechism asks about this sacramental union, “Why then doth the Holy Ghost call baptism ‘the washing of regeneration,’ and the ‘washing away of sins’? God speaks thus not without great cause, to wit, not only thereby to teach us that, as the filth of the body is purged away by water, so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ; but especially that by this divine pledge and sign he may assure us that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (Q&A 73).
The relationship between the sign (baptism) and the thing signified (salvation) is not one of identity. They are not the same, nor does the sign become the reality. A sign cannot be the reality; otherwise, it is not a sign. A sign cannot become the reality, otherwise it ceases to be a sign. Nevertheless, sometimes the Bible gives the name of the thing signified to the sign itself, because God would have us associate the reality with the sign.
I give a few examples to illustrate the point. “He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant” (Gen. 17:13). Circumcision was not itself the covenant—it was the sign and seal of the covenant (see Rom. 4:11), yet God speaks of his covenant in Abraham’s flesh. “Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened, for even Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us” (1 Cor. 5:7). The Passover lamb was not itself Christ—it was a sign of Christ, yet Paul calls Jesus “our Passover.” “And [they] did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). The rock itself was not Christ—it was a sign of Christ or a type of him, yet Paul does not hesitate to call the rock “Christ.” In a similar way, the Bible speaks sacramentally of both baptism and the Lord’s supper. In connection with the second sacrament, for example, scripture unhesitatingly calls the bread “my body” and the wine “my blood.” We know, however, for a number of reasons that the bread and wine are not (and do not turn into, and do not contain) the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Yet the Bible speaks of one (the sign) in terms of the other (the reality).
The Heidelberg Catechism, in connection with baptism, quotes two passages to illustrate this: “the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:5) and “And now why tarriest thou? Arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). By these expressions, the Bible does not teach that baptism regenerates or that baptism washes away sins. The Bible is speaking of the sign (baptism) in terms of the reality (regeneration and cleansing from sin). The same is true of 1 Peter 3:21: baptism saves, but only as a figure, which figure points to true salvation in the blood of Christ.
This explains the beautiful “as…so…” language of the sacraments in the Heidelberg Catechism and in other Reformed creeds: “I am as certainly washed by His blood and Spirit… as I am washed externally with water…” (A 69); “He will as certainly wash us by His blood and Spirit as we are washed with the water of baptism” (A 70); “As the filth of the body is purged away… so our sins are removed” (A 73); “We are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (A 73).
On the one hand, there is the sign of baptism, which is the washing of water: “as the filth of the body is purged away by water” (A 73); “as really as we are externally washed with water” (A 73). Water can do that: it cleanses us of outward filth and dirt. On the other hand, there is the reality, which is a spiritual cleansing by Christ’s blood and Holy Spirit: “so our sins are removed by the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ” (A 73); “we are as spiritually cleansed from our sins” (A 73). What water cannot do, the blood and Spirit of Christ do.
The “as…so…” language of the sacraments is beautiful when we rightly understand it!
But if water baptism does not “do” anything, in that it does not actually wash away our sins, is it then useless and vain? Not at all, for it is a “divine pledge” (Heidelberg Catechism, A 73). It is, as Peter calls it, “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Pet. 3:21). The conscience of a man is his inner judge placed there by God, which conscience evaluates all his actions, and either accuses or excuses him (Rom. 2:15). A conscience might be weak (1 Cor. 8:7), defiled (Tit. 1:15), or even seared with a hot iron (1 Tim. 4:2). The conscience in 1 Peter 3:21 is a good conscience, that is, a conscience which testifies to the believer that he is a child of God, that his sins are forgiven, and that he is acceptable in God’s sight. But how does the believer have a good conscience?
No ceremony or work of man can give a man a good conscience because no activity of man can remove the sin that gives him a guilty conscience. This was true with the Old Testament law of Moses: “in which were offered both gifts and sacrifices, that could not make him that did the service perfect, as pertaining to the conscience” (Heb. 9:9). The only thing that cleanses our conscience and gives us assurance that our sins have been removed is the blood of Christ: “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit, offered himself with spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9:14); “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” (Heb. 10:22).
But here is Peter’s point: baptism plays a role—a very important role—in assuring our conscience. Christ’s blood cleanses the conscience because we are assured that the sacrifice of Christ satisfies God for our sins. In addition baptism is “the answer of a good conscience toward God” (v. 21). Baptism itself does not cleanse the conscience, but it does something else. We need to understand the word “answer” in verse 21: “the answer of a good conscience.” The difficulty is that the word actually means “question” or “request.” It comes from a Greek verb meaning to “ask,” “request,” “inquire,” or “interrogate,” but the noun only appears here in scripture. The idea is that the conscience seeks an answer to the question, “Are my sins forgiven?” Am I right before God?” This is the conscience’s urgent question and without a satisfactory answer there can be no peace. Therefore, according to the grammar of verse 21, a man’s conscience is the one making the request and his conscience receives the answer. The answer to the believer is: “Yes, your sins are forgiven in the blood of Christ.
Baptism is a pledge of that: in baptism we are seeking an answer to that question and God gives it. He gives it using baptism as a means of grace to strengthen our faith: “By this divine pledge and sign God [assures] us that we are spiritually cleansed from our sins as really as we are externally washed with water” (Q&A 73).
How, then, does baptism save us? Not by baptismal regeneration; not by the putting away of the filth of the flesh; but by acting as a beautiful picture of the true cleansing in the blood of Christ, which is the fulfillment of the typical flood. God uses baptism to assure us that our sins are forgiven, not in the waters of the baptismal font, but only by the blood and Spirit of Christ.
This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments, please post them in the comment section on the blog.