Improving Our Baptism
Ever consider how you might improve your baptism?
Baptism is not something we typically think about as “improvable.” It’s a one-time, means-of-grace event, administered to a new professing believer entering into the visible covenant community of the local church. The waters don’t create a new spiritual life, but signify the regenerating and renewing work Jesus has already done in the baptized.
No, we can’t go back and improve the quality (or quantity) of our faith when we were baptized. We can’t improve the character of the baptizer, or change who was in attendance, or how clean the water was, or anything like that. None of these can be improved upon —and don’t need to be.
So, at first pass, the idea of “improving our baptism” can come off a little silly. But strange as it may sound, talk like that has some good Reformed precedent.
It’s Question 167 of the Westminster Larger Catechism that asks, “How is baptism to be improved by us?” Here’s the answer that blessed pack of divines provided — and you may want to take your time and chew your way through this very rich paragraph:
The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
In other words, bringing to mind our baptism is a potent way of bringing ourselves back to the gospel dramatized in the baptismal waters. In calling to mind our own baptism, we remember not just the experience, but its significance in pointing to what Jesus has accomplished for us, and what benefits he gives to those who believe.
True Christian baptism is no mere external ritual, no mere “removal of dirt from the body,” but a symbol-laden and meaning-infused “appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21).
Into Deep Waters
Baptism is a profound reality for the Christian. Jesus doesn’t play around with the ordinances (only two of them) he institutes for his church. People have died because they dinked around with the Lord’s Table (1 Corinthians 11:30), and the waters of baptism are nothing to take lightly as well. (I’d advise not administering the sacrament to anyone who isn’t professing faith in Jesus.)
It seems Westminster is right on Question 167. Jesus not only means that believers be baptized, but that, excepting extraordinary circumstances, we remember the experience, and are able to call it to mind “our life long.” In this way, whether in a baptismal service (“when we are present at the administration of it to others”) or in the course of everyday life (“especially in the time of temptation”), remembering our baptism becomes an occasion to renew our trust in Jesus and feel again the church’s confirmation that we are his.
One Baptism Remembered Again and Again
So, baptism is not only a means of grace for us on that one memorable occasion when we were the new believer in the waters. It also can be a means of grace throughout our lives as we observe, with faith, the baptisms of others and bring to mind the riches of the reality of our identity in Christ pictured in our baptism (Romans 6:3–4; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12).
So, whether in temptation or in observing someone else’s, don’t let your own baptism be a forgotten reality. There’s more grace in those waters — not in being re-baptized, but in remembering your one baptism — even as there’s an eternity of grace in our ongoing faith in Jesus and his cross.