Many Christians have a bad taste in their mouths when it comes to catechisms, confessions, and creeds. They rightfully desire to draw their doctrine from the Bible. They rightfully consider the Bible to be the sole authority for life and faith. They rightfully bulk at the thought of anything rising to equality to the Bible (and equality ends up being supremacy). However, they don’t understand that creeds of some sort are essential, necessary, in fact, inevitable. The moment anyone tries to understand what the Bible means, they are thinking in creedal terms. Or when someone tries to give the sense of a passage of Scripture, they are speaking in creedal language, they are saying, “I believe that the Bible means this.” Heretics read the same Bible but come to erroneous conclusions about what the Bible means. I think there needs to be a great awakening in American Christianity to the reality that the ecumenical creeds and Reformed catechisms and questions are not enemies but great allies in the faith. As a brother mentioned to me today over Zoom, we are not the first to read the Bible. I hope Small Town Theologian can contribute to that great awakening to the usefulness of creeds, confessions, and catechisms.
Here’s an example. Consider 1 Peter 3:21 which says, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you . . .” Imagine a preacher dogmatically affirming that he believes the Bible and that the Bible is his only creed. Imagine him getting up to preach on 1 Peter 3:21. He begins to address his congregation:
Do you want to be saved? Do you want eternal life? Do you want to be with God forever? Then you need to be baptized. See, the Bible says that baptism saves you. You can’t be saved without it. See, as the water of baptism hits your head, God works salvation through the water which saves you. If you want to have your sins washed away, if you want forgiveness from God, believe the Apostle Peter when he says, “Baptism now . . . saves you.” If you haven’t been saved through baptism, please come forward now to receive salvation from God by being baptized.
Can you imagine that? He says he believes the Bible, but when he gives his creed, his “I believe” explanation of Scripture, he proves he doesn’t actually believe the Bible. He has the means of salvation completely wrong. He has the gospel wrong.
A creed, at least a faithful creed, explains what the Bible means. Creeds are inevitable. The Reformed creeds are the best. And I use 1 Peter 3:21 for a reason. Baptism does not save you. Copious Scriptures explain that a person is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (that’s creedal language). Receiving baptism cannot save anyone because only Christ can save. God extends His saving grace to sinners through faith, and baptism is a sign and seal of the gospel which is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). Heidelberg 21 gives an excellent and Biblical description of true faith, and in says, “This faith the Holy Spirit works in my heart by the gospel.” The Holy Spirit works faith in the heart by the preaching of the gospel. Only by faith do we receive salvation in Christ, and God is gracious to grant us salvation through faith which the Holy Spirit works in us. Praise be to God.
I think sometimes Protestants forget they are still protesting the corruptions of the Roman Catholic Church. I think many Protestants forget why the Reformation needed to happen and consequently fall into error. One big error in Roman Catholic doctrine is baptismal regeneration. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that a sinner is regenerated or born again as a result of being baptized. When a person is baptized, their original sin is washed away, and they become a new creation.
At this point, Heidelberg 72 provides much clarity on the gospel and the practice of baptism. Seventy-two asks, “Does this outward washing with water itself wash away sins?” In other words, is baptism able to cleanse us from our sins? Is the cleansing happening in the baptism? Seventy-two answers, “No, only the blood of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins.” 1 John 1:7 says, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” Only the blood of the slain Christ can cleanse a dirty soul. Baptism signifies and seals this gospel. Baptism doesn’t create faith, but it does strengthen it and does comfort believers.
And I think Heidelberg 73 goes on to provide more clarity when it addresses the regeneration question. It asks, “Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism the ‘washing of regeneration’ and the washing away of sins?” Listen closely:
God speaks in this way for a good reason. He wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ remove our sins just as water takes away dirt from the body. But, even more important, He wants to assure us by this divine pledge and sign that we are as truly cleansed from our sins spiritually as we are bodily washed with water.
Okay. Baptism is not the means by which God washes our sin away, but it is a means by which God comforts and assures our hearts in the gospel. Baptism is God’s teaching tool. Baptism is a sign and seal or pledge that God uses to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ alone remove our sins just as water washes away dirt from our bodies. What a helpful teaching tool for the entire church. Someone who is baptized can think of their baptism as a reminder from God that they are truly cleansed from their sins. Their baptism beckons them to trust, and through faith alone the Holy Spirit strengthens their trust. The actual washing is a work of the Holy Spirit by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, but the baptism communicates to them the gospel. Sure, many unbelievers have been baptized and were never regenerated and never received the benefits of Christ, yet true believers are comforted and assured by the Holy Spirit and their baptism, comforted and assured that through faith the benefits of the gospel are theirs.
So, you were baptized. Marvelous. Do you think your baptism saved you? If so, you are erroneously and dangerously trusting in an outward ceremony; you are trusting that an outward washing achieved for you and inward washing that only the Holy Spirit can achieve. Repent of this dangerous error. Baptism is not to draw your attention to baptism but to Christ alone. Cling to Christ by faith for he alone is your salvation. Allow your baptism to draw your attention to Christ who alone washed you from your sins. Receive the gift of baptism as a comforting sign and seal of God’s redemptive grace. Be comforted by your baptism and look to where your baptism points you – to the sufficient redemptive work of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit working faith in you by the gospel. Allow your baptism to strengthen your confidence in Christ.
Your baptism didn’t save you. Christ saved you as the Holy Spirit regenerated your heart. Regeneration happens apart from baptism; it is a work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said we have been “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13). Jesus explained the new birth of the Spirit and used the phrase “born of the Spirit.” Read Ezekiel 36:25-28. I think it gives us a beautiful explanation of how the Holy Spirit regenerates us.
I hope your confidence of salvation is not in your baptism but that your baptism points you to Christ alone in whom you find your confidence of salvation. Let it never come from your lips, “I’m saved because I was baptized,” but let your testimony be filled with the work of Christ. I’m saved because Christ my Savior by his blood and Spirit washed me of all my sins, and I’m blessed by my baptism which strengthens, comforts, and assures me of this. To God alone be glory.
Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism and creeds are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism: True Comfort for Life & Death (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 395.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.