Reflecting on Truth #45





New City Catechism Question 45

Q: Is baptism with water the washing away of sin itself?

A: No, only the blood of Christ and the renewal of the Holy Spirit can cleanse us from sin.

John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” (Luke 3:16)

Why does this matter?

There are some who teach that baptism with water is what “saves” us, washes us of our sin, or regenerates us, based on passages such as 1 Peter 3:21, in which the apostle Peter teaches that “baptism… now saves you.” In fact, it is clear from Christian writings in the centuries following the ascension of Christ that the concept of “baptismal regeneration” was quite common in the church. Therefore, we must be clear about what the Bible teaches about baptism and whether it is baptism with water itself that washes us of our sin.

In 1 Peter 3:21, the apostle Peter clarifies for us that it is not baptism with water itself that saves us, but rather what that baptism represents. He states that it is not the “removal of dirt from the flesh” that has a salvific effect, but rather the “appeal to God for a good conscience”, that is, a trust in the death and resurrection of Christ for salvation. Peter connects the act of baptism with the belief that it represents.

If baptism with water does not wash us of our sin, then what does? John the Baptist teaches us in Luke 3:16 that Jesus is the one who will perform this cleansing work. Furthermore, John describes how Jesus will cleanse us: He will baptize us with the Holy Spirit and fire. It is the blood of Christ shed for us and the baptism of the Holy Spirit that wash us of our sin. The blood of Christ is the price that was paid for our sin and the Holy Spirit acts as a fire that purifies us from the inside out. The Reformer John Calvin puts it like this: “The word fire is added as an epithet, and is applied to the Spirit, because he takes away our pollutions, as fire purifies gold.”

What does this mean for us?

This means that Jesus is the one who bestows all the grace that is represented by water baptism. As mentioned in the previous catechism question and answer, baptism signifies the believer’s death, burial, and resurrection into a new life in Christ’s own death, burial, and resurrection. Baptism is the outward declaration of what has taken place inside the life and heart of the believer. The believer who is baptized with water has been regenerated by the Holy Spirit, made alive in Christ, washed of their sin by the blood of Christ and the purifying power of the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, we can have full assurance that Christ has set us free from attempting to wash ourselves clean. Our sin has been taken care of for good. We can also be assured that the Spirit who washes us of our sin also puts to death the old man in us. The Spirit also sanctifies us, conforming us to the image of Christ day by day until the coming of our Lord. Philippians 1:6 also comforts and encourages us that “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

We have been washed clean, washed of our sin, and it is the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit that has accomplished this work in us. We can rejoice in this beautiful and wonderful truth. How marvelous that our Father in heaven sent His Son and the Spirit to accomplish the salvation and redemption of His people whom He loved before the foundation of the world.

May we not trust in the mere act of water baptism for the washing of our sin, but rather trust in the cleansing work of Christ which is signified and depicted in baptism.