Does Baptism Remit Sins?

In the Nicene Creed (AD 381), the universal church confesses that we believe in “one baptism for the remission of sins.” This language comes directly from several Scripture texts:

“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins [εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν], and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:38)

“John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.” (Mark 1:4; cf. Luke 3:3)

“And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16)

What does “for” mean here? The preposition εἰς is very versatile, but is typically translated “for” in this text. This narrows the semantic range of possible meanings, but is still exegetically inconclusive with regard to this question without recourse to the analogy of Scripture and the analogy of faith. In this context, εἰς can mean “towards the obtaining of,” “in reference to,” or “for the purpose of.” [1]

This question is similar to the controversy in the other sacrament about the meaning of “this is my body.” In arguing for Transubstantiation, Romanists perfidiously assert that they hold to the plain meaning of the text and that Protestants change the term “is” to “signifies,” i.e. “this signifies my body.” But in reality Rome changes the meaning of the term “this” from referring to the bread to referring to Christ’s body, i.e. “this body is my body” instead of the clear meaning, “this bread is my body,” which is obviously figurative.

Is the true sense of this phrase that baptism is absolutely necessary for the obtaining or possession of the forgiveness of sins? Or is it that baptism is in reference to or for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins? That baptism initially effects the remission of sins? Or that baptism confirms and testifies unto the remission of sins? In this post we will argue that these verses—and consequently the clause of the Nicene Creed—do not mean that baptism is the efficient cause of the remission of sins, but rather that the purpose of baptism is to signify, seal, and exhibit the remission of sins. Much less does Scripture or the Creed teach that baptism is the efficient cause by the working itself (ex opere operato) as if the sacrament has inherent virtue independent of the Holy Spirit and the faith of the recipient. [2]

Baptism is the sign (signum), remission of sins is the thing signified (res significata/res signata). The sign is indeed connected to the thing signified, but the Creed does not say that “baptism remits sins”; that is a twisting of the words and the meaning. The original intent of this clause assumes the sacramental union of the sign (water baptism) and the thing signified (the washing away of sin). Later generations were less insightful than Nicaea, and corrupted the meaning by conflating the sign and the thing signified, but the Reformation recovered it by going back to the source: holy Scripture as the cognitive foundation of theology. [3]

Protestant Theologians on “baptism for the remission of sins.”

Baptism is not the efficient cause of the remission of sins, rather it is the sign and seal of the remission of sins, as John Calvin commented on Acts 2:38:

“Although in the text and order of the words, baptism doth here go before remission of sins, yet doth it follow it in order, because it is nothing else but a sealing of those good things which we have by Christ that they may be established in our consciences… Let us know, therefore, that forgiveness of sins is grounded in Christ alone, and that we must not think upon any other satisfaction save only that which he hath performed by the sacrifice of his death…

“That needeth no long exposition where he commandeth them to be baptized for the remission of sins; for although God hath once reconciled men unto himself in Christ ‘by not imputing unto them their sins‘ (2 Cor. 5:19), and doth now imprint in our hearts the faith thereof by his Spirit; yet, notwithstanding, because baptism is the seal whereby he doth confirm unto us this benefit, and so, consequently, the earnest and pledge of our adoption, it is worthily said to be given us for the remission of sins. For because we receive Christ’s gifts by faith, and baptism is a help to confirm and increase our faith, remission of sins, which is an effect of faith, is annexed unto it as unto the inferior mean…

“Although baptism be no vain figure, but a true and effectual testimony; notwithstanding, lest any man attribute that unto the element of water which is there offered, the name of Christ is plainly expressed, to the end we may know that it shall be a profitable sign for us then, if we seek the force and effect thereof in Christ, and know that we are, therefore, washed in baptism, because the blood of Christ is our washing; and we do also hereby gather, that Christ is, the mark and end whereunto baptism directeth us; wherefore, every one profiteth so much in baptism as he learneth to look unto Christ.”

Calvin on Acts 22:16 denies that baptism is “the cause of our purging.” He laments that “experience doth teach how earnestly men be bent upon this superstition” and put too much “confidence in the outward sign,” and “do overmuch extenuate the force of baptism.” He is clear that “the washing, spoken of by Luke, doth not note out the cause; but is referred unto the understanding of Paul, who, having received the sign, knew better that his sins were done away.” Yet baptism is not a naked and empty sign, rather it is an instrument used by the Holy Spirit to certify the graces of the covenant and to strengthen the faith of the worthy partaker. Even though Calvin speaks here of baptism as an instrument of confirming grace, his Catechism of 1537 denies that it could be an instrument of converting grace, “of purgation and regeneration” itself:

“Baptism represents particularly two things: The first is the purgation which we obtain in the blood of Christ; the second is the mortification of our flesh, which we have had through his death. For the Lord has commanded his own to be baptized in the remission of sins (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:38). And St. Paul (Eph. 5:26-27) teaches the Church to be sanctified through her bridegroom, and cleansed through the washing of water unto the word of life. And again (Rom. 6:3-11) St. Paul shows how we are baptized in the death of Christ; that is, we are buried in his death in order that we may walk in newness of life. By these things it is not signified, however, that the water is cause, nor even instrument, of purgation and regeneration, but only that the knowledge of such gifts is received in the sacrament, since we are said to receive, to obtain, and to be appointed to that which we believe to be given by the Lord, be it that then for the first time we know him, or be it that, having known him before, we are more certainly persuaded of it.”

Calvin succinctly observes in his Institutes:

“We must not suppose that there is some latent virtue inherent in the sacraments, by which they, in themselves confer the gifts of the Holy Spirit upon us, in the same way in which wine is drunk out of a cup, since the only office divinely assigned them is to attest and ratify the benevolence of the Lord towards us; and they avail no farther than accompanied by the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts, and make us capable of receiving this testimony, in which various distinguished graces are clearly manifested. For the sacraments, as we lately observed (4.13.6; and 4.14.6-7), are to us what messengers of good news are to men, or earnests in ratifying pactions. They do not of themselves bestow any grace, but they announce and manifest it, and, like earnests and badges, give a ratification of the gifts which the Divine liberality has bestowed upon us.” (ICR IV.xiv.17, p. 852).

William Perkins responds to the following objection: “Remission of sins, regeneration, and salvation are ascribed to the sacrament of baptism (Acts 22:16; Eph. 5:26; Gal. 3:27; Titus 3:5).” He answers: “Salvation and remission of sins are ascribed to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as to the Word, which is the power of God to salvation to all that believe; and that, as they are instruments of the Holy Ghost to signify, seal, and exhibit to the believing mind the foresaid benefits. But indeed, the proper instrument whereby salvation is apprehended is faith, and sacraments are but props of faith furthering salvation two ways: first, because by their signification they help to nourish and preserve faith; second, because they seal grace and salvation to us. Yes, God gives grace and salvation when we use them well; so be it we believe the Word of promise made to the sacrament, whereof also they are seals.” (Reformed Catholic, Works VII, pp. 137-138). Notice that the sacraments are instruments “to signify, seal, and exhibit” the benefits of salvation, but that faith is “the proper instrument whereby salvation is apprehended”—this again, is a distinction between confirming and converting grace.

In explaining the relationship of the sign with the thing signified in the sacraments, Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583) concludes, “the figurative speeches which are used in reference to the sacraments are to be interpreted in the same manner as the figurative speeches in reference to sacrifices. Sacrifices are often called expiations for sin, and yet the apostle Paul affirms that the blood of bulls, and of goats, cannot take away sin. So when it is said, “Baptism saves us” [1 Pet. 3:21], is “the washing of regeneration” [Tit. 3:5], and “the washing away of sin” [Acts 22:16], it is the same thing as to say, Baptism is the sign of all these things.” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 365).

On Acts 2:38, the Geneva Bible states that baptism ratifies or confirms these benefits of the Gospel, which are initially attained by faith, rather than the sacraments per se. “Repentance and remission of sins in Christ are two principles of the gospel, and therefore of our salvation: and they are obtained by the promises apprehended by faith, and are ratified in us by Baptism, wherewith is joined the virtue of the Holy Ghost.” The Jamieson, Fausset, & Brown commentary concisely expounds, “baptized…for the remission of sins—as the visible seal of that remission,” and not the initial effecting of it. Princetonian commentator Albert Barnes (1798-1870) on Acts 22:16 writes, “‘And wash away thy sins‘ – Receive baptism as emblematic of the washing away of sins. It cannot be intended that the external rite of baptism was sufficient to make the soul pure, but that it was an ordinance divinely appointed as expressive of the washing away of sins, or of purifying the heart. Compare Hebrews 10:22.”

Similarly, Francis Turretin writes that “the sacraments cannot operate, or confer by an inherent power, what according to the institution of God they presuppose or demand beforehand in the subject (such as the grace of regeneration and of justification).” Baptism conveys the “divine testimony” of the forgiveness of sins, rather than the initial effecting of it: “The eunuch (Acts 8:37-38), Paul (9:11, 17-18), Cornelius (10:34-35, 37), and others, since they had already believed and by faith had received remission of sins (Acts 26:18), were baptized for the remission of sins (i.e., that they might obtain the divine testimony of it, Acts 2:38).” (IET XIX.viii.8, vol. 3, p. 364). Turretin continues, “the sacraments confer what is promised objectively and morally by exciting faith to embrace grace and by sealing it; not effectively by producing originally some quality, drawing out or impressing it. They are called ‘practical signs,’ not because they truly and properly and immediately reach the effect by any inherent virtue, but because at their presence in the lawful use God certainly works to exhibit the thing itself.” (IET XIX.viii.18, vol. 3, p. 367).

This language of testifying, witnessing, and confirming forgiveness to the believer is prevalent in Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) also: “The public preaching of the gospel applies the grace of God to everyone, and the sacraments testify of the remission of sins and the heavenly gifts prepared for all those who believe in Jesus Christ.” (Decades, IV.ii.89). “Truly, the principal badge of the New Testament is baptism, witnessing that full remission of sins is brought to us by Christ.” (ibid., V.viii.364). “The baptizer visibly gives the sacrament of regeneration, and a testimony of the remission of sins; but by his Spirit, the Lord invisibly regenerates, and forgives sins, and seals the regeneration.” (ibid., V.viii.367). “But the holy scripture teaches that we are washed clean from our sins by baptism; for baptism is a sign, a testimony and sealing, of our cleansing. For God truly has promised sanctification to his church, and for his truth’s sake, he purifies his church from all sins by his grace through the blood of his Son, and he regenerates and cleanses it by his Spirit; this cleansing is sealed in us by baptism, which we receive. And from this, the scriptures call it cleansing, and remission of sins, purifying, new birth, regeneration, and the laver or fountain of regeneration — just as circumcision is called the covenant; and sacrifices are called sins and sanctifications.” (ibid., V.viii.397). More fully, Bullinger argues:

“The holy and elect people of God are not, then, partakers of the grace of God and heavenly gifts when they receive the sacraments; for they enjoy these things before they are partakers of the signs. For it is plainly declared to us that Abraham our father was justified before he was circumcised [Rom. 4:11]. And who does not gather from this, that justification was not exhibited and given to him by the sacrament of circumcision; rather, the righteousness which he possessed by faith before, was sealed and confirmed to him by the sacrament? Moreover, who will not gather from this that we, who are the sons of Abraham, are justified in no other manner than it appears our father was justified; and that our sacraments work no further in us than they did in him — especially since the nature of the sacraments of the people of the Old Testament, and the nature of ours, is the same?” (ibid., V.vii.311).

The Canons of Dort distinguish between beginning grace and continuing grace, whereas Scripture confers both, the sacraments only confer preserving, continuing, and perfecting of that begun grace: “And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so God preserves, continues, and completes this work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.” (Canon 5, Article 14). Heidelberg Catechism Question 65, “Since then we are made partakers of Christ, and all his benefits, by faith only, whence doth this faith proceed? Answer. From the Holy Ghost, who works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the sacraments.” Ursinus elaborates, “The Holy Ghost works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel; and cherishes, confirms, and seals it by the use of the sacraments. The word is a charter to which the sacraments are attached as signs. The charter is the gospel itself, to which the sacraments are affixed as the seals of the divine will. Whatever the word promises concerning our salvation through Christ, that the sacraments, as signs, and seals annexed thereto, confirm unto us more and more for the purpose of helping our infirmity.” (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 340). On the charter/seal analogy, he adds, “Seals without a charter, or without being affixed to something are of no consequence; and that familiar saying of Augustine is true beyond doubt: ‘It is not the want, but the contempt of the sacraments that condemns.‘” (ibid., p. 352).

Ursinus later adds that the word and sacraments “differ in their objects,” because the word is preached to believers and unbelievers alike, whereas the sacraments are only given to those already within the covenant as members of the church. Further, “The word is that through which the Holy Ghost commences and confirms faith in us, and for this reason, should go before the sacraments. The sacraments are means through which the Holy Ghost confirms faith already called into exercise, and for this reason ought to follow the word. The reason of this difference is that the sacraments do not exert any influence unless they be understood. There is no desire for that which is unknown. There must, therefore, necessarily be some explanation of the sacraments out of the word before they are observed.” (ibid., p. 352). David Pareus (1548-1622) makes the same point, “the Word is a mean appointed both for begin­ning and confirming faith: the Sacraments means of confirming it after it is begun. The Word belongs both to the conver­ted and to the unconverted: the Sacraments are intended for those who are converted and do believe, and for none o­thers.” (Explicationum Catecheticarum, pp. 485-486; trans. George Gillespie, Aaron’s Rod Blossoming, p. 231).

Lucas Trelcatius (1542-1602) similarly explains the relationship of faith to the Word and the Sacraments, “The Sacraments and the Word have reference unto faith, not after a contrary, but after a subalternal [i.e. subordinate] manner: because, as faith is begotten by the Word, so it is nourished by the Sacraments. Both are instruments, yet distinct by manner of working.” (A Brief Institution of the Common Places of Sacred Divinity, p. 322). Then he responds to “the fourth [argument of Bellarmine “that the Sacraments of the New Law, are the causes of Justification, by the work done [ex opere operato]”] is Acts 2. Answer. To be baptized for the remission of sins properly noteth, not the effect of baptism, but the end, and scope thereof: neither was the action ordained to signify the sign, but the sign to signify the action signified.” (ibid., ch. 11, p. 326). Trelcatius continues, “The ends of baptism are of two sorts; for some are Principal and Antecedent; some Secondary, and Consequent: whereof, those properly respect our Faith before God, but these our confession before men. After the first manner, the end of baptism is to signify, seal, and exhibit sacramentally, the remission of sins, the benefit of regeneration, and our union with Christ.” (ibid., ch. 12, p. 340).

A sign, seal, and exhibition assumes that the predicates (i.e. forgiveness, regeneration, union, etc.) are already extant in the subject, thus it cannot be admitted that baptism initially effects or confers the forgiveness of sins, as Anglican divine Daniel Featley explicitly maintains: “If we speak properly and precisely, the sacraments seal, and not confer grace; or, as the Church of England speaketh by her learned Apologist, ‘do not begin, but rather continue and confirm our incorporation, by Christ.’ The Sacrament is a seal of the Covenant, the conditions are supposed to be drawn and assented unto before the seal be put to the instrument. The Seal without the Covenant is not available; the Covenant may be without the Seal: we are tied to God’s Ordinances, God is not.” (A Second Parallel (1626), p. 87).

The confirmatory nature of the sacraments is key to understanding why they are not converting ordinances. This point is reflected in the Hungarian Confessio Catholica (1562) under the section “Do the Sacraments Confer Grace and Give Salvation?”:

“The outward signs of the sacraments, because they are corruptible things, will be lost, as Christ says in John 6 (Lombard, Book 4, Dist. 18). They cannot bestow salvation, are not able to confer grace, but only testify of the grace of God and salvation in Christ, which is spiritually exhibited to the elect in the promise. Thus Scripture teaches (Augustine, Book 9, on John; Book 8, on the Psalms). ‘I baptize you with water’ (John 1:26), the Messiah will baptize with fire and Spirit. ‘The fathers ate manna and died’ (John 6:49). Judas ate the sacrament and perished (Council of Orange).” (Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries, vol. 2, p. 515).

Also the Documents of the Debrecen Synod (1567) answering the question “Do the sacraments give and confer grace and repentance?” responds “It is foolishness to teach that the sacraments impart grace and repentance and that the body and blood of Christ, grace, and the remission of sin are contained in the sacraments, for the following reasons”:

First, because only God can wipe away and remit sins, give grace and eternal life. “I, I am He who wipes out your sins for My own sake” (Isa. 43:25; 40, 45, 48, 57).

Second, there is no other name under heaven or in earth than Christ through which we may be saved. Christ became righteousness, holiness, the way, the truth. The fullness of deity resides in Christ. Apart from Christ, there is no salvation in things mortal and corrupt (Acts 2–5; Phil. 2).

Third, David and the saints pray, “Wipe away my sins for your mercy’s sake.”

Fourth, the apostle says that baptism saves (1 Peter 3:21); but it is not the water that washes away the pollution of the body, but the purification of the conscience, the laver of regeneration, the grace of God, the blood of Christ (John 3-5). “Unless one is born anew from above” (cf. John 3:3, 5; 4-5). Therefore, regeneration does not take place through earthly water (Titus 3; Eph. 5).

Fifth, the apostle says that circumcision is of two kinds (as is baptism): the one is spiritual, eternal, and washes away sins (which is that of Christ) (Col. 2; Rom. 2). The other is external, which is only a sign of the righteousness of faith and is followed by the sign of justification, remission of sins, the receiving of the things signified; as Adam was justified and received the skin covering through the sacrifices. Noah was reconciled, saved in the flood, and gained the ark of the covenant. Abraham was justified by faith and was the first to receive circumcision. The apostles were justified and were the first to receive the Holy Spirit and the Lord’s Supper. Therefore, in the sacraments there is no grace and salvation, but they are only seals, signs and memorials, images of salvation and grace. Just as sealed letters of inheritance do not confer the inheritance, but only designate it. (Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries, vol. 3, p. 55).

One might object that Westminster Confession of Faith 28.6 affirms that “the grace promised [in baptism] is not only offered, but really exhibited and conferred.” However, in the sacrament of baptism the Holy Spirit does not offer initial grace to the unconverted, but confirming grace “to such as that grace belongeth unto.” Due to its nature as a “holy sign and seal of the covenant of grace” (27.1), the “grace promised” in baptism is not inchoate and converting, but ratifying and strengthening grace, as we have just seen from many others. The purpose of the sacraments is, in part, “to signify, seal, and exhibit unto those that are within the covenant of grace, the benefits of his mediation; to strengthen and increase their faith, and all other graces” (WLC 162), not to initially cause or bestow those benefits and graces to unbelievers or non-covenant members. Further, it is the Holy Ghost—not some inherent virtue in the sacrament—who confers and exhibits that “stronger measure of faith, and assurance of remission of sins…grace and pardon in a further degree, and a new measure of assurance to the conscience which there was not before.” (Samuel Rutherford, Due Right of Presbyteries, p. 217). [4] Even in the case of federally holy covenant infants who are yet unconverted, baptism does not convert, but rather, becomes efficacious to them later in life if and when they do put their faith in Christ as their Savior, effectively confirming their interest in him, and strengthens it the rest of their life as they remember and improve their baptism (WLC 167).

[1] Liddell-Scott-Jones (LSJ) Lexicon, Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, etc. Contra J.R. Mantey, εἰς is very unlikely to mean “because of,” as Daniel Wallace (even as a Baptist) has shown in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, pp. 369-371.

[2] cf. Defective Views of the Sacraments: Inherent & Independent Virtue by James Bannerman.

[3] cf. William Cunningham, Historical Theology 7.5.

[4] Cited from D. Patrick Ramsey, Baptismal Regeneration and the Westminster Confession of Faith, Confessional Presbyterian Journal #4 (2008).


One thought on “Does Baptism Remit Sins?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s