“For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:15-16)
Here we have an instance in Scripture where Ananias , a devout disciple of Jesus calls upon the newly converted Saul to be baptized that his sins might be washed away. Similarly, in the prayer that we just prayed a moment ago, we asked God to drown the sins of the one about to be baptized just like he drowned Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea so many centuries ago. Of course there has been controversy over the centuries in the church concerning how this can be true. Is there something powerful in the water? How does a little water with a few words wash away sins? But some of the confusion regarding this may be based on our misunderstanding of what forgiveness means. Forgiveness is not first and foremost the removal of sin. If sin is like a bad paint job, forgiveness is not the action of scraping all that ugly paint off. Forgiveness is not primarily the removal of sin. So in that sense, baptism for the remission of sins does not mean that you are covered in sin like a bad paint job, and this water is some kind of supernatural paint thinner: you pour it on and the sin comes off.
Forgiveness is the refusal to hold existing sin against someone. Forgiveness is the whole-hearted determination to begin again, to start over with someone. Remember Jesus on the cross asking the Father to forgive his enemies while they were carrying out their crimes against him. Jesus was asking the Father to not hold this grievous evil against them. He was praying that the Father would treat them as though they had not killed him, as though they had not wronged him. In other words, forgiveness is a legal declaration. When the judge declares a verdict, his verdict always creates a new beginning, either the beginning of not-guilty existence of the accused or the beginning of the guilty existence of the accused. Of course in our case, as the accused, we are most certainly guilty. And our children share in that guilt which we have inherited from Adam together with all the sins we have added of our own. And this is why we call on the name of the Lord. We call on Christ to be our advocate, to be our defender, to rise up and save us and deliver us from what we deserve.
And this begins to get at how baptism can wash away sins, how baptism can be used by God to declare forgiveness. Baptism doesn’t wash away sins like a paint thinner; it washes away sins like the Red Sea washed away the sins of Israel. Baptism cleanses us from sin like Jesus and the woman caught in adultery when Jesus asked her, where are your accusers? Go and sin no more. The point is that baptism is an adoption ceremony, the place where God places his name on us, washes us (quite literally), and calls us his son or daughter, claiming us and all our faults, all our failures, and then he looks up at us and says, where are your accusers? Where are those chariots and horses that were chasing you only minutes ago? In other words, this is a baptism for the remission of sins because God has vowed to make this sacrament a sacrament of new beginnings, this is where we begin again. Here, God declares a verdict over us and over our children, and the verdict is not-guilty because we call upon the name of the Lord, because we put our trust in the perfect Son and in his work on our behalf.
If Jesus calls out to his Father to forgive those who crucified him, he has in effect declared his willingness to forgiven anyone and everyone. What did you do? Have you stolen, lied, committed adultery? Jesus forgives you. What? Did you kill Jesus? He forgives that too. The point is that while sin always grieves Jesus, it does not deter him; it does not ruin his plan to remake this world. We continue to break covenant, we fail and fall, we are unfaithful, but God remains faithful, he remains true, he does not fail. And he says, I forgive that and that and that other thing over there, yeah that too. And this is the way that God actually cleanses us; He actually cleanses us by declaring that we are clean. He washes us and says we are sinless, go and sin no more. He says you are new, you are born over again, you are my son, my daughter. He declares our forgiveness, and that is how God is actually remaking us. In the same way he always creates; he speaks. He says the word, and the worlds come into existence. He speaks again, and mountains grow out of the sea. He speaks, and the stars burst into the heavens. He speaks again and the sea divides; he speaks again and says, where are your accusers? And he speaks again, and says you have my name, Father-Son-Holy Spirit, you are mine and you are clean. I have washed away your sins.
So Des and Heidi, the charge to you is to raise your son in this faith, in this reality. Teach your son from his earliest days this gospel, this good news that he is forgiven, that his sins have been washed away. Teach your son to revel in this goodness, to believe this goodness, to believe that all his sins have been drowned in the sea, that all his accusers, all his enemies have gone away, and to therefore go and sin no more. And in particular, I exhort you to live this freedom before Andrew in your life together and as a family. Be a family that forgives over and over and over because you have been forgiven much. Do not be accusers toward one another, rather be christs to one another, call out for forgiveness, and remind one another frequently that your accusers have gone, and go and sin no more.