A hymn written by Robert Lowry in 1876 begins with a good question:
What can wash away my sin?
The answer is immediate and accurate:
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What about the water of baptism? Doesn’t it wash our sins away too? Be careful. The real sin-cleansing power comes from above and works only through the blood of Jesus. Baptism has no power or meaning apart from Jesus’ blood. The water itself is neither magic nor holy. Without the cross, it’s just a bath. But because of the cross and the forgiveness we can claim through Jesus’ blood, baptism becomes the most meaningful act we can carry out this side of heaven.
If the act of baptism is not the actual agent of forgiveness, how could the apostle Peter preach: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38, bold font added)? And why did a devout Christian named Ananias tell Saul of Tarsus: “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16)?
Just because baptism is empty and meaningless apart from forgiveness, that does not mean it is itself the agent of forgiveness. I see a powerful connection between forgiveness and many other acts of faith and obedience, like prayer, communion and worship. I fully believe in prayer for the remission of sin. When I pray, “Lord, forgive my sins,” I am expressing this belief. I am praying for forgiveness without presuming that prayer is the agent of my forgiveness. I also believe in the Lord’s Supper for the remission of sin. Remove the forgiveness part and it’s just juice and crackers. I partake of this sacrament as a means of access to the blood of Jesus, knowing that it’s the blood itself that forgives me in the end. I even believe in worship for the remission of sins. What joy would there be in worship and song if we separated them from forgiveness? Still, Lowry was right; nothing but Jesus’ blood can cleanse the sinful soul.
Does the sinner’s prayer actually forgive sins? Of course not. Yet, we pray for the forgiveness of our sins because we are desperate for it–a desperation that also takes us straight to the waters of baptism as instructed in the New Testament. So why all the fuss over the phrase “baptism for the remission of sin”? Like praying for forgiveness, it’s biblical!
We understand that literal water, juice, crackers, song lyrics, musical notes and prayers are not the agents of our salvation. But the minute we separate them from the forgiveness of sins we get through Christ, they lose all meaning. That’s why Peter could preach, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38).
As it happens, Robert Lowry also wrote the hymn lyric:
Shall we gather at the River?
He was great at asking good questions.