Baptism is “just” a symbolic act. But symbolic acts can be very powerful. These “mere” signs can change reality when they take place in the context of the community of faith. They are “just” symbols. But symbols have power. They can transform our status.
We know this not only from presidential oaths and marriage ceremonies. We know this from the Bible story. There was nothing intrinsically magical about the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was not somehow spiritually poisonous. It was a symbol—a symbol of trust in God. But that symbol was powerful, so powerful that it brought ruin to humanity. The same is true of circumcision. Circumcision was common in the ancient world. Other nations circumcised their children, yet their children did not become part of God’s people. But circumcision was status-changing within the context created by God’s covenant promises.
A Status-Changing Act
Baptism is a symbolic act. But it is a symbolic act that changes your status.
At the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus told his disciples: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18–20 ESV). We’re baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Baptism is a naming ceremony. We now carry the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Our relationship with God doesn’t begin at baptism, but baptism is when it’s made public. We are adopted by God the Father.
Or think of baptism as being like a wedding. Marriage is more than a wedding. But a wedding is important. It signals your change of status. You may not feel different. But your identity has changed completely. It is not that you need to live like a married person so you become more married. It is the other way around: you get married so you can live as a married person. Nor can you be half married and half single. You are completely married.
It is the same with baptism. Baptism changes your status. It is not that you need to live like a Christian so you become more Christian. Baptism declares that you are in Christ. You have died with him and risen with him.
God himself is active in the covenant of marriage. We might think that what ties people together in marriage are the vows they make. But there is a bigger picture. Jesus says: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:7–9). What joins them together is not simply their choices or even the act of sex. It’s God who joins them together through their covenant commitments. Every marriage really is “a match made in heaven.” The same is true of the covenant of baptism. It might look like the persons being baptized become part of the church through the vows they make or the vows made on their behalf. But each is a match made in heaven. When the covenant-making act of baptism is combined with faith, then God himself is uniting us with Christ and his people.
Baptism and communion are symbolic acts that change reality because they are covenantal. A covenant is a bit like a contract. Promises are made and commitments are given. It’s a formal act. But a covenant is more than a contract or a particular type of contract. Covenants create or change the relationship between those involved. Marriage is a contract that creates a new type of relationship between a man and a woman. Covenants, we could say, are relational contracts. Baptism declares and affirms the covenant or contract that God makes with Christians. And Jesus describes the wine as “the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Baptism is the act by which the covenant is affirmed, and communion is the act by which the covenant is reaffirmed. So baptism and communion don’t create a relationship with God, but they do change its nature. They make it a covenantal relationship. Asking why we should get baptized is like asking a couple why they want a wedding.
Tomb and Womb
This is what it means to live “a baptized life”: it means we are people whose status has radically changed. We have become Christ’s. We have a new identity. Baptism is a naming ceremony, and as a result, we are now the children of God. Or if baptism is like a wedding, then we are now the bride of Christ. We have done nothing to achieve this. So in moments of stress, guilt, fear, frustration, or despair, I look back to my baptism and say, “I am a baptized man and I live a baptized life.”
The same is true of moments of temptation. When I’m tempted, I need to look to my baptism and say, “I’m a baptized man and I live a baptized life.” Once we’ve been baptized, our thinking needs to catch up with our new status. We are now to live this new reality. We live as those who have died to sin and risen with Christ to a new life. We need to think of ourselves as baptized people. This is the message of Romans 6:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:1–4 ESV)
Why should you struggle to stop sinning? Many pastoral issues come down to this question, and Paul’s answer is this: You’ve been baptized. Your baptism is the visible sign that your old self died with Christ, and you’ve risen to a new life. You used to be an in-Adam person, under the power of sin, under the reign of death. But now you’re an in-Christ person, set free to live a new life. You’re a new person with a new life to live.
Becoming a Christian is more radical than you think, Paul is telling us. It is not just a new set of beliefs or change of opinion. It is even more than a change of allegiance. It is a death and a rebirth! We die with Christ, and we are reborn with Christ.
So baptism is also like a funeral service in which you mark the death of your old self. Indeed, you bury it. That is what happens as you are covered by the water. And then in the next moment— as you emerge from the water—baptism becomes a naming ceremony marking the rebirth of your new self. Like a newborn child, you are given a new name as you are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. You become part of the family.
The waters of baptism are both tomb and womb—a place for the burial of the old self and a place for the birth of the new self.
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 Cyril of Jerusalem calls the baptism water “both tomb and mother for you.” Sermon 2.4, in The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation: Baptismal Homilies of the Fourth Century, ed. Edward Yarnold (Slough: St. Paul, 1972), 76.