The following is in essence a chapter from my forthcoming book “The Preacher’s Catechism” (Crossway).
Baptism is such a precious gift in our rootless, drifting age. People put on and put off different identities, and search for belonging – or resolutely refuse to belong to anything or anyone. Secularism promises a world of endless possibilities; but for those who drink deeply of its values, it’s endlessly disappointing. We need more.
Baptism is the sign of entry into a new world, the kingdom which God rules through His Son. To be a baptised person is to find that your life has been caught up into the glories of this kingdom. To enter the waters of baptism is to hear the declaration that God in Christ is for you, and has brought you to Himself, for freedom and service. Baptism is, literally, life.
Question 94 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that baptism “signifies and seals our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.” What does that mean? Here’s a three-fold declaration of biblical baptism:
Baptism is the surrender of faith
Baptism declares “God wins”. His Word is true, He is Lord. Our sins deserve the wrath of God, death now and in the hereafter. Jesus Christ took that death in our place, dying an eternity of death for us at the Cross. Baptism is our “coming clean”: we admit that we deserve condemnation, and refuse to hide any longer before a holy God. We confess our sins, and run to Christ, and we are made clean by His blood. Conversion is surrender, as surely as the Lord Jesus surrendered Himself to God’s will, the baptism of His suffering and death.
Baptism is the same. We surrender ourselves to the water, an act which declares our death to sin and self. We identify with the Lord Jesus Christ, and confess our union with Him, by grace. God the Father has placed us exactly with Christ, so that the death He underwent on the Cross is the death which we have undergone. No, we weren’t paying for our sin, Jesus alone did that; but we died there. “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). “We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14). Jesus died, and if we are united to Him, we have died, too. “Or don’t you know that all of us who are baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death?” (Rom. 6:3). Baptism is death, by grace.
With death comes life. In this surrender we come to the Lord of Life. Just as our Saviour was not abandoned to His grave, we rise in Him to know joy in His presence and the foretaste of eternal pleasures (Ps. 16:10-11, cf. Acts 2:27-36). The surrender brings life, life as we follow Christ, and do so with others.
Baptism is a pledge of belonging
Through baptism God says ‘mine!’ of the person coming to the water. Baptism declares that, through saving grace, forgiveness has come, and sinners are made saints. Loved and chosen by the Father, savingly united to Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, we belong to God the Trinity. Baptism declares that truth (Matt. 28.19). Through baptism we know the delight of the Father as we submit to His command. What wonderful good news to a lonely world! The misery of exile from God has been replaced by the welcome of God. In baptism we have come home.
And we have come home to the family of God, the church. A private, undeclared profession of faith is an unthinkable as a private baptism is. It is suspect at best, eternally dangerous at worst (Matt. 10:32-33). Baptism is the church’s celebration of salvation. The church belongs to us, and we belong to the church. Baptism tells us so. It’s the public declaration that the Spirit has engrafted us into the people of God, and there is no salvation except that which is shared and lived out amongst God’s people (1 Cor. 12:12-13).
We preachers need to make much of this last distinctive. In baptism the new believer as well as the church are recognising that they belong to each other, in the one body. All good churches do baptism preparation classes with new believers. Surely we must give pulpit time to doing the same with the congregation, reminding them that baptism pledges them to all believers, old as well as new.
Baptism is our declaration of holy war
The Gospel is war. In the Gospel God declares that He is against the world in its godlessness, and will one day destroy all of its disobedience. The Gospel message is equally the claim that God has fought and conquered the sin and condemnation of all who come to find peace in Jesus Christ. Baptism is a swapping of allegiance, a changing of sides, so that Christ is our Captain. The baptistery is the place where we acknowledge that “we died to sin”, and ask ourselves, “how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:2). We have clothed ourselves with Christ in baptism (Gal. 3:27); now we follow in His footsteps, fighting, suffering and rejoicing in His name.
John Owen once famously lamented, “unacquaintedness with our mercies, our privileges, is our sin as well as our trouble.” He’s right, of course. Baptism is a new world of privilege. Preachers, we must teach all that baptism is in the purposes of God, and all the grace that is set forth in it. To be a baptised follower of Jesus is, in a word, everything.
 My happy confession here is that I’m a convinced credo-baptist, and therefore take issue with the Westminster Shorter Catechism that children of members of the visible church should be baptised. That said, the Catechism has much to teach credo- well as infant-baptists.
 John Owen, Works (The Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, 1968), Vol. 1, 32.