Do you find yourself wondering today what baptism is all about? Have you stopped to think what is happening? Isn’t it strange the minister is randomly going to drop some water on Billy’s head, why? Why is Billy about to be sprinkled with water? Well, it’s not just sentiment though Billy is very cute. It’s not just tradition though churches have practiced it through the ages.
We do it because baptism has been instituted by Jesus for the good of his church as a sign of the realities of new life in Jesus. After his resurrection, in Matthew 28 Jesus said that his church was to be about two things: Making disciples and baptising.
1. The Sacrament of Baptism
Baptism is what is called a sacrament whereby someone is either immersed in water, sprinkled with water or have water poured on them and that is an outward sign given to those to signify their belonging to the visible church, to the people of God. The signs point to many things which we’ll get onto in the next point but it very much is a sign.
Baptism merely points to the greater realities of the Christian life but are not the realities themselves. In short, Billy is going to be baptised shortly, this baptism will not make him a Christian, it will not guarantee he will be a Christian. Nevertheless, his baptism points to the realities of being united to Jesus Christ.
Baptism is also a seal. When we are converted, the Bible says we are ‘sealed by the Holy Spirit’ (see Ephesians 1:13) as a guarantee of our salvation; that is an inward work yet baptism is an outward sign of that inward work. When the Holy Spirit fills us, that is God’s stamp inwardly saying after faith is expressed, ‘I will be true to my word and I will save you.’ Similarly and outwardly, baptism is the outward sign and the pledge of God that when the conditions of the covenant are met, that is faith, that God will be true to his word and he will save.
You may be wondering why Billy is being baptised if he is not converted. We’ll get there.
For now though, we’ll consider the most important part of the sermon ‘The story of baptism’ and if you hear nothing else of this sermon, this is the bit we all need to hear.
2. The Story of Baptism
The story tells of union with Jesus Christ. That when we express faith in Jesus Christ, God isn’t like ‘cool’ and leaves it at that, there’s actually something greater going on there. We are united to Jesus which means that God is committed to us and what is true of him becomes true of us. God pledges himself to us when our faith is in Jesus that he will save us and won’t go back on his word. Particularly it is mirrored in his death, burial and resurrection with our death to self and new life in Jesus Christ.
That, just as Jesus died on the cross to pay for our sins our old self will be put to death, just as Jesus was buried in the tomb, our old self will be buried in baptism and just as Jesus rose from the grave we also will rise in newness of life. (see Romans 6:3-6 and Colossians 2:11-15)
In short, the story baptism tells us is that there’s something wrong but it also tells us how it can be fixed. It causes us to reckon with what Paul calls our sinful nature. We see in verse 11, the putting off of our sinful nature displays that there’s a sinful nature there in the first place to be put off.
‘When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ.’ (Colossians 2:13)
We’d all readily look out at the world and see without trouble that something isn’t quite right. War, poverty, greed, depression, death. Something is not quite right. But the Bible doesn’t get us to stop there, the Bible asks us to stop, to reflect, to take stock of our own lives too and realise something isn’t right with us.
Now that might be an unpopular thing to say today, it might offend you, but even those of us who think we’re alright would be forced to admit that we’re not perfect. The times we hold onto bitter grudges. The occasions where we say a cutting word to someone even though we know its going to hurt them. The times we withhold generosity from the needy all the while we live very comfortable lives.
These are just a few examples, but I’m sure you could think of some in your own life where you’ve not lived up to a good standard. For all the good we might do, we also have done wrong. And all the wrong we do can’t be cancelled out no matter how much good we do and your wrongdoing still stands. And all of that is symptomatic of the fact we are ‘dead in sin’ as Paul says here in Colossians.
That basically means that every one of us naturally are shut off to God. Whether that shows itself in hostility and an anti-God mentality or whether it shows itself in the fact we couldn’t care less about God. This is where we all are without Christ, we are dead in sin. And unless we put our trust in Christ that is where we will remain.
But when we put our trust in Christ, that old self is buried and we are raised with Jesus. Just as Jesus died on the cross to pay the charge of sin that stood against us and was buried then rose, so when we put our trust in him for our acceptance with God, we are united to him in his death, the old self dies we are united to him in his burial and we are buried in baptism then just as he was raised from death to life, so are we raised to newness of life.
That’s what baptism is about is the fact that you and I are dead in sin, shut off to God and unless God raises us to new life that’s where we stay. But when God intervenes that we are taken from death to burial to life.
Are you shut off to God? Are you indifferent or apathetic towards him? Are you against him? You remain dead in sin, for all the good you might have done, your record of wrongs still stand and you are under God’s condemnation. No amount of good works can change the fact that you have done wrong, no amount of religiosity can change it, only faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus can change that. Only when we put our faith in Jesus’ death can he cancel your record of wrongs, only Jesus by his resurrection can give you new life.
Where is your faith this morning? Is your faith in yourself? Your wrong still stands against you. Is your faith in your religious practice? No amount of attendance at church, not all the water in the world used in baptism can save you, only through faith in the working of God who sent his son to pay for your sins. Put your faith in Jesus Christ, be united to him and know newness of life.
3. The Subjects of Baptism
Who is to be baptised? It’s clear that those who are believers are to be baptised, nobody disputes that, it makes sense. Those who have faith in Jesus receive that sign which signifies the reality of their new life in Jesus. We see it commanded, ‘Believe and be baptised.’ throughout the New Testament, we see it happening. We see even in the Old Testament, Abraham first of all has faith then is given the sign of circumcision.
It seems like a bigger stretch to say children of believers. I mean they don’t even believe this stuff for themselves so why would we give them the sign. Well there are a number of reasons we do practise this in the Free Church of Scotland and why we are bringing Billy forward to be baptised this morning.
(a) The storyline of the Bible
As I said baptism is a sign pointing to the realities of the good news of Jesus, of our being united to Jesus and our new life in Him. Baptism is in the new testament, but in the old testament, there was another sign, circumcision. That’s what we read Genesis 17. Abraham believes God, he is counted righteous, he is then circumcised. But, it is not him alone as the believer who is to be circumcised, but also his children. And that continued to be the practice throughout the time of the Old Testament that believers and children of believers would receive the sign of the covenant, that is circumcision.
Now, the question is what happens when we cross over into the New Testament. The promise doesn’t change. Paul’s letter to the Galatians says, in short, that the promise made to Abraham is what is found and revealed in Jesus. It is the same promise that was made to Abraham which he trusted God for is what is found in Jesus Christ and what we trust God for. (See Galatians 3:14-29)
Furthermore, the passage we read in Colossians 2:11-12, it makes the connection from circumcision to baptism. That our circumcision, the circumcision of Christ is baptism. So it seems that the New Testament isn’t about scrapping the Old and starting again. No. If anything, we should assume continuity unless told otherwise and we are told otherwise. Our faith in the New covenant is in the same person as in the old covenant. There is great continuity and where there is discontinuity, the new testament makes a big deal of it.
• The inclusion of the Gentiles
If you go throughout the gospels and the new testament letters, we see that much is made of the inclusion of the Gentiles. In the old testament, it was the nation of Israel who were God’s chosen people and not those outside of Israel. Flip over into the New Testament and Gentiles are included, are welcomed, are brought into the people of God, its everywhere.
• The setting aside of the old sacrificial system
Hebrews 10 talks about how Jesus has made the one for all sacrifice of his body on the cross setting aside the need for the old sacrificial system
• The presence of God
God used to dwell in the temple behind the curtain in the holy of holies where nobody could go, but now, the temple curtain is torn in two, the Spirit comes and lives in his people.
These are three huge changes between the Old Testament and New Testament. In every case where there is a change, the New Testament picks up on it, but it doesn’t seem to change when it comes to the role of children in God’s covenant relationship with his people. In fact, to sound pretentious for a moment, the silence is deafening! The fact that given the 2,000 years of history where children of believers were part of God’s blessings and promises and all of a sudden it stops. Wouldn’t there be something to tell us it had stopped?
In the context of the New Testament where it is loud and noisy about everything else that’s different from the Old Testament, if the position of children of believers has changed, why is there absolutely nothing about it? Then you have the fact that if there was a change of position from old covenant to new in regards to children it would go against the grain of every change from old to new.
Every single change or discontinuity from Old to New Covenant means that life for the people is greatly enhanced, not greatly reduced. It would therefore cut against the grain hugely if, in the transition between the old and new covenant, everything was to improve and be enhanced, but that wouldn’t apply to the children of believing parents.
(b) What the New Testament says
And then there is the fact that although the New Testament may be silent on baptising infants, it is not silent on the children of believers.
(See 1 Corinthians 7:14, Ephesians 6:1 and Acts 2:39)
If children of believers are to be viewed as unholy, unconverted, unregenerate people outside of the covenant of grace then they are not holy as in 1 Corinthians 7:14, when they are called to obey their parents the phrase ‘in the Lord’ doesn’t make sense as they aren’t in Christ, and Peter had no reason to mention children in Acts 2. He could have just said ‘for you and for all who are a far off.’ but he specifically mentions children.
Now, in a moment John is going to come and baptise Billy. This won’t make Billy go from spiritual death to spiritual life as if by magic. This won’t guarantee that Billy will be converted one day. In Genesis, Esau wasn’t converted after being given the sign of circumcision. There’s nothing to say Billy will one day be converted.
But we do it because we recognise that throughout biblical history that children of believers are to be recognised as part of the people of God and therefore the sign of the covenant is to be given not just to believers but also to children of believers. And the sign extends to Billy today of what is already a reality, that he is a child of the covenant of grace because of the faith of his parents, with the promise from God that if and when he expresses faith, God will be true to his word and extend the realities of the sign, new life in Jesus Christ to him.
So perhaps you’re sceptical this morning as a believer with children as to whether or not you should have them baptised even though they haven’t yet expressed faith, even though they perhaps can’t express faith yet, but what is clear is that children have been included in the Old Covenant. I think what we’ve looked at is clear that they should be included in the new covenant. Would you prayerfully consider having your children baptised? It is their right being a child of a believer that they too receive the sign of the covenant. Would you extend that to them today?