Legal change at baptism and forgiveness of sins

Question or Topic

In the March 2003 issue of the Advocate, the question was considered: Where do the Scriptures teach that a legal change occurs in our relationship to God at baptism? In the answer that was provided, no reference was made to the forgiveness of sins. Do you consider this to be a kind of legal change that is associated with baptism?


1 John 3:4


Yes, because the forgiveness of sins has to do with law. One scriptural definition of sin is that "sin is the transgression of the law." (1 John 3:4). It follows, therefore, that the forgiveness of sin means canceling or foregoing the penalty demanded by the law and removing the offense from the record.

While analogies to circumstances in human arrangements are always imprecise, they can help to explain the teaching of the Scriptures on this point. In the United States, the President alone has the authority to grant an executive pardon by which the sentence of an accused man can be cancelled and the penalty that was to be exacted of him waived. The President's pardon power is established under the United States Constitution, Article II, Section 2: The President ... shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment.

Over the course of American history, many Presidents have exercised this authority and granted men pardons for offenses for which they were imprisoned or sentenced to death. Their power is absolute - it cannot be overridden by the Senate or by the Supreme Court. The concept, therefore, of granting a pardon for an offense is a legal matter, or matter of law, set out in the Constitution of the United States.

Under the laws of God, the highest authority is God Himself. He can pardon for offenses against His law and He has extended that authority also to His Son, and through His Son, to the apostles. During the days of his flesh, the power to forgive sins was a source of contention between our Lord and the scribes and Pharisees: "And when he saw their faith, he said unto him, Man, thy sins are forgiven thee. And the scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this which speaketh blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone? But when Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answering said unto them, What reason ye in your hearts? Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Rise up and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power upon earth to forgive sins, (he said unto the sick of the palsy,) I say unto thee, Arise, and take up thy couch, and go into thine house." (Luke 5:20-24) These verses show that the forgiveness of sins was a matter of authority or power. The miracle of healing on this occasion was an attestation of the power that God had vested in His Son.

At one of his appearances to the apostles after his resurrection and before his ascension, our Lord granted the power to forgive or not to forgive sins to the apostles themselves. "And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained." (John 20:22-23)

So we see that forgiveness of sins requires authority over the divinely given law by which the sin is imputed. Only God and those on whom the Father chooses to confer it exercise this authority. Having shown, therefore, that the forgiveness of sins is a matter that requires the setting aside or abrogation of the law, where do the Scriptures teach that baptism is the first means by which this mercy of God is extended? Scriptures, which speak about the forgiveness of sins being accomplished at baptism, include:

"And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." (Acts 22:16 -Spoken by Ananias to Saul of Tarsus.)

"Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross;" (Colossians 2:12,13)

Thus, we believe that "forgiveness of sins" is also an important example of a legal change that is accomplished, by the grace of God, at baptism.