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Baptism Is a Sign of the Cleansing of Our Conscience and of the Washing Away of Our Sins

Baptism is not only important because it is commanded by Christ, a part of the church’s fulfilling of Christ’s Great Commission, and a public profession of our faith in Christ, but also because it serves as an outward picture of the inward change that Christ has wrought in our lives.
The first thing baptism pictures is the washing away of our sins. It is this symbolism that is best know about and most often associated with baptism. According to the Westminster Confession, “Baptism is a...sign...of remission of sins.” Notice, it is merely a “sign” of the “remission of sins.” It is not the waters of baptism that wash away our sins, but the blood of Jesus (1 John 1:7). As Robert Lowry so aptly put it in his beloved hymn:
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh! precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know,
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
In his teaching on baptism, the Apostle Peter is careful to point out that baptism’s relevance is not in the washing “away of the filth of the flesh,” but in that which it symbolizes—“a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). How do we get a good conscience toward God? According to the Book of Hebrews, it is by having our conscience “sprinkled” with “the blood of Christ,” which alone can cleanse our conscience “from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:13-15).
Baptism’s significance is not found in any literal washing of ourselves. Instead, it is found in its symbolic significance. It is a sign of both the cleansing of our conscience and the washing away of our sins by the blood of Jesus!
To truly understand baptism as a symbol of the cleansing of our consciences and the washing away of our sins, we need to understand some things about ceremonial purifications and John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance.
Water was used for ceremonial purifications in the Old Testament (Exodus 19:10-13; Leviticus 8:6; Hebrews 9:10). It was used to consecrate the people and their priests so that they could meet with God and minister before Him. Only those who have passed through the waters of baptism have been ceremonially consecrated to Christ; that is, only they have publicly set themselves apart for communion with Him and service to Him.
The baptism of John the Baptist, which may be said to have bridged the gap between the Old and New Testaments, is best understood as a ceremonial purification rite. Its purpose was to consecrate the people for the coming of their promised Messiah. This is why John’s baptism was called the “baptism of repentance,” because it was believed that repentance alone could prepare the way for the Christ to come.
All who were baptized by John remained in the Jordan afterward to confess their sins. Once their confession was complete, they came up out of the water, symbolizing their purification from sin and readiness for the coming Kingdom of God. Interestingly, there was one exception to the rule.
“Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
When Christ was baptized by John in the Jordan, the Bible says that Jesus “went up straightway out of the water” (Matthew 3:13-17). Being sinless, Christ had no sins to confess. Why, then, did the sinless Savior insist upon John the Baptist baptizing Him? According to Jesus, it was “to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, Jesus did not just come as our perfect expiation, but also as our perfect example.
When we are baptized, we are following the example of Jesus. Since He is our perfect “example,” the Apostle Peter admonishes us to “follow in [Christ’s] steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Obviously, this includes the step of baptism. Here we find another important reason why every Christian should be baptized.
Notice, the Father was “well pleased” with His “beloved Son” at His baptism. Likewise, He is well pleased today at the baptism of all of His children, since they are following the example and obeying the command of His “beloved Son.”
The presence of the Godhead at Christ’s baptism—the voice of the Father, the baptism of the Son, the descending Spirit—led Augustine to say, “Let us go to the Jordan and see the Trinity.” The Trinity is also seen at our baptism, for we are baptized, as Christ’s commanded, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).