Baptism as a Seal?

Question

How do we define the seal in regards to baptism?

Answer

Baptism is a sign and a seal.

The circumcision made without hands is symbolized by actual circumcision in the Old Covenant (Rom. 2:28-29) and actual physical baptism in the New Covenant (Col. 2:11-12, etc. However, it is more than just a mere symbol. As Pratt maintains:

With specific regard to baptism, it is worth noting that the New Testament never describes baptism as something ordinary or natural; it never speaks of baptism as a mere symbol. The language of sacrament was sustained by Reformed churches precisely because the New Testament ties baptism so closely to the bestowal of divine grace.

For example, Paul spoke of baptism as the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (Tit. 3:5). He also wrote that, through baptism, believers are united to Christ and die to sin (Rom. 6:3-7). Peter, in turn, when asked what was required for salvation, replied, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins (Acts 2:38). Elsewhere, Peter boldly declared, Baptism ... now saves you also not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 3:21). These and many other New Testament passages at least seem to indicate that baptism is much more than a symbol. In the language of the Bible, spiritual realities such as rebirth, renewal, forgiveness, salvation, and union with Christ are intimately associated with the rite of baptism.

The Westminster Confession of Faith 27.2 acknowledges this biblical evidence in sacramental terms: There is, in every sacrament, a spiritual relation, or sacramental union, between the sign and the thing signified: whence it comes to pass, that the names and effects of the one are attributed to the other. A sacramental union exists between the sign and the thing signified. A mysterious union, a spiritual relation exists between baptism and grace so that the names and effects which the Scriptures use to speak of divine grace may also be attributed to the rite of baptism. When the Scriptures attribute the names and effects of Gods saving mercy to the rite of baptism, they speak in a sort of theological shorthand leaving the precise relationship mysterious or unexplained.

Reformed theology concurs with Scripture that there is more than meets the eye in the rite of baptism. Spiritual realities occur in conjunction with baptism, but the Scriptures do not explain in detail how baptism and divine grace are connected. So, Reformed theology speaks of the connection as a sacramental (i.e. mysterious) union. It is in this sense that Reformed theology rightly calls baptism a sacrament. See

The WLC biblically asserts that baptism is not merely a sign (visible attestations of God's favor), but also a seal (confirmations of God's love, in which he gives assurance of that which is symbolized by the sign). WLC 163 biblically speaks of this reality. It asks, What are the parts of a sacrament? The answer: The parts of a sacrament are two; the one an outward and sensible sign; the other an inward and spiritual grace thereby signified. The WLC 177 biblically asserts that baptism is a sign and seal of our regeneration and ingrafting into Christ, and that even to infants. Baptism, is more than a mere sign. It is also a seal to the covenant people of God's promise to be our God and to make us his, both now and forever (cf. Exod. 6:7; Lev. 26:10; Jer. 30:2; 31:33, etc.). So, it is not only a glorious picture of God's grace, but it also is the covenant members basis for claiming the promise of salvation (the Holy Spirit both sealing us and sealing the promise to us).

In baptism, the Spirit, in God's timing actually confers grace on his people (part of the sealing activity). The, WCF 28.6 puts it this way: The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God's own will, in his appointed time.

So, a seal points back to the sign. The sacrament of baptism is a seal meaning God signifies that the person receiving the sacrament has the qualities it signifies. An illustration that Bob Burridge (The Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies) uses is very helpful:

When someone receives a diploma upon graduation, the diploma certifies that he has completed the course of instruction as recognized by the faculty and board of the institution granting the degree. If a person forges a diploma or has misrepresented himself to the institution, the certificate does not make him qualified in the field it represents. It would be a serious crime and offense to the institution to make such a false claim. Similarly, someone who wrongly receives a sacrament offends God and does not bring the blessings promised upon himself. Instead he calls down the wrath of God upon himself for his false claim. But when a child of God receives the sacrament rightly administered by God's prescription he receives that blessing which is represented by the sign upon the authority of God who instituted it.

In this sense we say that a sacrament is a means of grace. It does not convey the grace by its outward application. But God uses the sacrament, when rightly applied and received, as a means by which he dispenses his grace to the recipient.

Related Topics:

Noah, Baptism, and Hell - 1 Peter 3:18-22
Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2?
Explaining Baptism in Children's Language
Re-Baptism?
Should I baptize my child myself?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).