In the church spiritual health survey that was taken last March, you will recall the first section of questions addressing doctrine. The result was rather impressive. All the subjects received no less than 92% agreement with the church, except for one – infant baptism, which 64% affirmed. And so that is my purpose for preaching on the subject of baptism these two Sundays. Today I will be giving a general introduction to the sacrament of baptism. It is next Sunday that the specific subject of infant baptism will be addressed.
I should make two comments before we get started. One, the elders of Tenth do not measure spiritual health by one’s view of infant baptism. Commitment and spiritual maturity are not equated with equated with this doctrinal position. Finally and most importantly, let us remember that this morning we have gathered to worship God. And I am called of God to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and that is what you are to be listening for.
Let’s begin with the morning text:
37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38 And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Surely this text shows the importance of baptism in the life of the church. The first instruction given to those who would turn to Christ is “Repent and be baptized.” What then is the meaning and role of baptism?
Baptism signifies the gospel. This is the promise for you. Though it is a simple act, it communicates the comprehensive message of the gospel. There is the washing away of sin through the atonement of Christ, our union with Christ, our entry into God’s covenant, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.
The Atonement of Christ
First, there is the washing away of sin through the atonement of Christ. This is the clearest message conveyed in this sacrament. The answer given to Question 69 of the Heidelberg Catechism expresses this well: “Christ appointed this external washing with water, adding thereto this promise, that I am as certainly washed by his blood and Spirit from all the pollution of my soul, that is, from all my sins, as I am washed externally with water, by which the filthiness of the body is commonly washed away.”
This concept of washing or cleansing from sin originates in the Old Testament. In Ezekiel 36, God promises the house of Israel that he will restore the exiles, bring them back to their land, and…I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you (25).
This concept of sprinkling was ingrained in the Jewish conscience as a symbol of cleansing or sanctifying. Worshippers bringing a sin offering would be anointed with the blood of the sacrifice to make atonement for sin and the altar sprinkled with that same blood (Leviticus 4:6, 17; 14:16, 27). When Aaron and his sons were set apart as priests of the Lord, they were sprinkled with blood (Leviticus 8:30). When David prayed to God in Psalm 51:7, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow,” he was thinking of the ritual of being sprinkled with the sacrifice’s blood by use of a hyssop branch. Sprinkling with water was also known. When the tribe of Levi was set apart for the Lord, the Levites were sprinkled with water (Numbers 8:7).
Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 shed light on connecting these rituals with the cleansing work of Christ’s blood.
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) 12 he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. 13 For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, 14 how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God (9:11-14).
After further discussion of the necessity of the shedding of blood for removing sin and how Christ’s sacrificial work is far greater, the writer beckons believers to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, saying, “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water (10:22). Do you see the connection here? Physical baptism (our bodies washed with pure water) corresponds to the inner baptism of being cleanse from sin (our hearts sprinkled clean).
Our Union with Christ
Secondly, baptism signifies what the Westminster Confession refers to as our “ingrafting into Christ.” The outer sign represents the inner grace of union with God the Son. Galatians 3:27-28 says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Because we are baptized into Christ; because in that baptism we have put on Christ, our identity is now found in him through our union with him.
Consider what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 6:3-5:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
Note the phrases “baptized into Christ Jesus,” “buried therefore with him by baptism into death,” “united with him in a death like his,” and “united with him in a resurrection like his.” Outer baptism signifies this inner baptism of union.
Next Sunday when Dr. Ryken baptizes the children brought to him, he will pronounce the name of the child and then say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” We get that formula from Jesus’ command: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The preposition “in” is the same Greek preposition – eis – translated “into” from the above verses. Thus, the minister baptizes the individual not only on behalf of the Trinity, but into the Trinity, i.e., into communion with the triune God.
So baptism is a statement that the recipient is in the family of God. The redeemed of Christ have been brought into Christ, and because they have been brought into Christ, they abide in the Father and Spirit as well. Regarding the Father, Jesus says, “If anyone loves me…My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23). Regarding the Holy Spirit he promises to send the Counselor who “lives with you and will be in you” (John 14:17).
Entry into God’s Covenant
Baptism, furthermore, signifies entrance into the New Covenant to which we belong, viz., the covenant of grace in Christ. God has made a covenant with us to be his people. As the writer of Hebrews explains, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (Hebrews 9:15). As circumcision signified the covenant made with Abraham for his descendents, so baptism signifies the covenant made with Christ for his. But here is the key difference: Christ through his body bore the guilt incurred in the first covenant and ratified the second. Thus, when we enter the covenant, our baptism signifies the work that Christ has already done to fulfill its conditions. It is a sign that points us to the finished work of our Redeemer. I will leave for next Sunday a fuller explanation of baptism as a sign of the covenant.
The Sanctification of the Holy Spirit
One other sign of baptism is the anointing of the Holy Spirit who applies Christ’s redemption and begins his work of sanctifying us. The water signifies not only the cleansing blood of Christ, but the anointing of the Holy Spirit. 1 Peter 1:2 speaks of the Holy Spirit sprinkling the blood of Jesus Christ.
Go back to Ezekiel 36. We read verse 25, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” Let’s keep reading in verses 26 and 27: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” Make the connection: the Holy Spirit does the work that the water signifies.
Christ’s own baptism signified the anointing of the Holy Spirit who descended upon him as a dove. That same Spirit that came upon him is the Spirit sent to dwell within us and give us a new heart and new spirit. This entering of the Holy Spirit into us is the baptism of the Holy Spirit that truly saves us and sprinkles our hearts clean. It is this inner baptism that unites us to Christ and connects us to his one body. It is the baptism of the Holy Spirit that is spoken of in the Nicene Creed in the clause, “we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins.”
Does Not Save
Now is the time to make clear that water baptism does not save. Consider Peter’s remarks again. When asked what to do by his hearers, he says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). This verse seems problematic. Clearly Peter is speaking of water baptism, and he seems to say that such baptism, coupled with repentance, achieves forgiveness of sin. Furthermore, he notes that the gift of the Holy Spirit will come as a result, not before.
If this was all we had of Peter’s preaching ministry, we might conclude he intended that water baptism was necessary for salvation and receiving the Holy Spirit. But consider his message to Cornelius’ household and the result. He concludes his message by saying, “To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” No mention of water baptism as necessary for forgiveness. The next two verses report, “While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles…Then Peter declared, ‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
What is the role of water baptism in this case? It is serving to signify and to give a divine seal outwardly what has happened inwardly. The water baptism marks these Gentiles as belonging to God just as Peter and his fellow Jewish believers belong. Listen to Peter’s explanation before a church council.
And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?
Stand in the way of what? Of administering God’s sign and seal of his work in the Gentiles.
How then do we square Peter’s comments on the Day of Pentecost and in Cornelius’ home? Answering that question leads to understanding the role of the person being baptized. Baptism is a confession by the believer that he is identified with Jesus Christ. Think of it as Christ drawing a line in the sand and then commanding those who profess faith in him to cross over and receive his mark upon them in view of the world. Go to Pentecost. Peter says to the people, “Repent.” Sure, no problem. Preachers are always telling us to do that. Peter says, “Be baptized.” Again, no problem. There are dozens of purification houses in front of the temple that worshippers use to purify themselves before presenting their sacrifices. (By the way, that’s how 3,000 could get baptized in Jerusalem.) The real challenge before them lies in Peter’s sermon conclusion: Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified (36). That is when they were “cut to the heart” and asked what to do. Well then, repent (turn from sin), be baptized (seek to be cleansed from sin), but do it in the name of Jesus (i.e. make public profession that Jesus is both Lord and Christ).
This is why water baptism is critical. If a believer will not confess Christ before others, how then can it be said that an inner baptism has taken place? There is no such thing as a private faith in scripture. Baptism calls the believer out of the world and into the kingdom of God, and he or she must step forward. As Jesus said, “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed…(Mark 8:38).
What then of the gift of the Holy Spirit? The Spirit comes as he comes, not as we command him. However, it seems evident that the “gift” in these Acts passages is not the baptism of the Spirit by which he gives faith to the believer, but rather the affects we experience after making profession.
When are we actually born again? Who knows? A few seconds before we confess Christ? An hour before? Years before? Who knows the mystery of God’s working in his elect? What we do know is what we experience after confessing faith in Christ, which is the Spirit sanctifying us, making us fruitful, and granting us spiritual gifts.
But there is one other text that seems teach that water baptism saves. It is 1 Peter 3:21:
“Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” In context Peter is speaking of water baptism. It is a sign that corresponds with the salvation of Noah through the flood. Note his careful addition. The salvation of baptism is not from the water applied, but from the appeal to God for a good conscience, i.e. for a righteous standing before God. And that appeal is made on the basis of Christ’s resurrection. Theologians debate the fine points of the process of salvation, but let it suffice for now to say that it is when a person makes his appeal, his confession, his calling upon the Name of Jesus Christ that he then experiences the fruit of salvation.
Again, it is not the application of water that saves us. But also understand at a deeper level that it also not our confession that saves us. It is Jesus Christ who saves us. It is the baptism that he underwent on the cross that cleanses us from sin. It is his rising from the dead that gives us the same victory over death.
Do you remember that image of Christ drawing the line for us to cross over? In baptism he is not merely calling us to show whose side we are on. He is calling us out of the world into his kingdom, and saying to us, “You belong to me. I am with you. Are you worried that you are not strong enough to keep your promise to follow me? Well, you are right. You are not. But I am. And I put my mark on you as a sign of what I have accomplished for you. You crossed this line only because my Father drew you. And I put my mark on you as a seal that you belong to me, and I will keep my promise that whomever the Father has drawn to me and has given faith to believe in me, I will raise up on the last day! (cf John 6:35-40).
When your faith gets weak; when you get anxious about making it to the end, remember your baptism. Remember the sign and seal placed upon you that you belong to God who drew you and gave you faith. And whether you have been immersed, sprinkled, or poured on, that water is to remind you that you have been baptized into Christ Jesus who will never let you go. The promise spoken 2,000 years ago on the Day of Pentecost remains true for you.
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