We’re going to read in just a moment from Romans chapter 6, verses 1 to 4. We are in a topical series in the month of July asking, “What do we do in worship?” and “Why do we do what we do in worship?” And last week and this week the answer to that question is that we administer the sacraments. Last week, Wiley preached on the Lord’s Supper and this week we’re looking at baptism. And we baptize in worship and we baptize cute little babies like we did a little bit ago, but also adults and all sorts of people too. And it’s wonderful and a sweet time in worship. But at the same time, there’s been nothing so divisive as well between Christians, in some ways, as the sacraments and especially baptism, in the history of the church. And we all know at the time of the Reformation, the Protestant Church split from the Roman Catholic Church on one account because of what they believed about the sacraments. But even between Protestants there’s been differences of opinion, and I would bet there are differences of opinion about what’s going on at baptism even probably today here in our own church.
And you know, that makes sense on this side of eternity because the Bible says a whole lot about baptism and the Lord’s Supper, both through shadows and literally in the New Testament. And there are spectrums and nuances and angles and allegories and all sorts of things that are tricky to capture. And this is not surprising because the word “sacrament” in itself means “mystery.” It has the nuance of mystery – that the sacraments are deep mysteries. Just listen to 1 Corinthians 10:2 where Paul says this – “The Israelites were baptized into Moses.” What does it mean to be baptized into Moses? That preposition doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in modern English – “into Moses”? And so we can expect, before Christ comes again, that we’ll have all sorts of ways of looking at this. But we need to come to the Bible and grapple with what God says about baptism. Because as the old theologians used to say, “Baptism is the beautiful divine gift of God to the Church.” So let’s pray and we’ll read about it in Romans chapter 6. Let’s pray.
God, we ask that You would open our eyes, the eyes of our hearts, to see the truth of Your holy Word. We pray this in Christ’s name, amen.
Romans chapter 6, verses 1 to 4:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 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.”
This is God’s holy Word.
Baptism is a Sacrament.
We can’t say everything about baptism this morning – surprise! But we’re going to say three things – that baptism is a sacrament, baptism is an initiation, and baptism is an identity. So first, baptism is a sacrament. In Romans 6, what we just read, Paul has been arguing, saying that the Gospel, grace comes through Jesus Christ all the way down; that you don’t do anything when it comes to the forgiveness of your sins. That it’s Jesus Christ all the way down; that grace abounds. And when we look at the Law of God, the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, you can’t help but be convicted and feel the weight of guilt the more and more you stare at it and realize you’ve broken all of it. And so as much as sin abounds, grace abounds in Christ all the more. And so the problem he’s addressing here is, “If that’s true, if it’s the case that as much as you are a sinner before God’s moral law, that points to the beauty of Christ, the grace of Christ, then why not just keep sinning even after you’re a Christian to highlight the beauty of the grace of Jesus more and more? The more you sin, the more grace He has for you, so keep sinning and you can see the beauty of grace more and more!”
And he says, no. Why? Think about baptism. Think about your baptism and what it means and what it points to. And this is what he says – that baptism is about being baptized into Christ Jesus who went down, down in death, was buried and rose again, and now lives a new life, a resurrected life. And so he’s saying that baptism is a sign that points you to the redemption that Jesus purchased in the cross and resurrection and in His resurrected life. In other words, he’s saying that baptism is a sign of union with Christ. That everything that happened to Him, if you grasp hold of it by faith and repentance, happened to you; that you died with Him, you rose again with Him, you now live a resurrected life with Him. Meaning you can’t just keep on sinning like you did. You have to walk in newness of life with Christ because you are united to His body if you’ve grasped hold of the meaning of baptism. And so we say that sacraments are signs of union with Christ. And so he’s saying here that baptism is a sacrament.
And in our tradition, we define sacraments like this. A sacrament is “a sign and a seal of the covenant of grace.” And you’re saying, “That might not be the clearest definition! A sign and seal of the covenant of grace? What does that mean?” Let’s break it down. The first thing is that a sacrament is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. I said earlier that the word “sacrament” comes from a Latin word that means “mystery.” And it doesn’t, when we say mystery, we don’t mean exactly what we mean by mystery in the modern world, like a Nancy Drew mystery novel; like “The Mystery of the Lost Clock” or something like that. We mean mystery as the Bible means mystery. And in the Bible, a mystery is something hidden in the mind of God, the counsel of God. And in time, when God chooses, revealed, opened up before us. That’s a mystery. Something that was once hidden but has now been revealed through divine revelation. In other words, when it comes to the sacraments you can say that they are mysteries, Biblical mysteries in this sense. They are visible manifestations of invisible realities. Visible manifestations, before your five senses, of an invisible reality that you can’t see or touch or taste.
So what’s a sign? That’s a sacrament. What’s a sign? Sacraments are signs and we all use signs all the time. You’ll use a sign, many signs to get home today, hopefully. A red light is a sign and a stop sign is a sign. All sorts of signs that tell you what to do, how to act, what to remember, what concept that you need to recall. But think about signs in the Bible. In the Old Testament God flooded the Earth in Genesis 6 to 9 and He promised that He would never do that again to nature. And so He said, “So that you can remember My promise, I’ll give you a visible sign – a rainbow – so that when you see it you will remember the promise.” Now can you see God’s promise? No. It’s in His mind; it’s in His heart. It’s the promise He’s made, the triune God. But what you can see is the rainbow that points you to an invisible reality in the mind of God, in the disposition of God. And so we talk about of course baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament as signs, as signs of the Gospel. But there are also Old Testament sacraments or signs that theologians have talked about for centuries, like the rainbow. Like the two trees in the Garden of Eden that are signs of covenant curse and covenant promise. Like the sign of the bronze serpent that was raised on a pole. If you look at it, you see the sign of God’s grace, of God’s disposition. Or most importantly, the Passover Feast. The sign of the spread blood of the lamb. Or circumcision. Right? The sign of circumcision – the sign of the Abrahamic covenant.
But what’s a seal? A seal of course is a semi-aquatic marine mammal. Right! But there are multiple meanings in English for the word “seal” and that’s not the one we’re using! The one we’re using is what we do sometimes still if you’re from a very fancy, formal family perhaps, you put a little bit of wax on an envelope when you put it together and you put your seal on it. It’s got your family emblem or crest, you know, if you’re from one of those families that does that! And that’s picking up on a very ancient tradition. And that is that the king would take signet ring and make official his pronouncements, seal a covenant, seal, bind, make it true, official; it comes from the mouth of the king. Right? And so sacraments are seal, they’re official, they’re instituted by God Himself. And so the big picture is this – sacraments are visible, tangible, official, physical signs, pointers to the fact of the Gospel, to the fact of God’s grace towards us which you can’t see. Right? You can only recall through the visible sign. That’s what a sacrament is.
Now let me just take stock at this point with three brief summary statements. One is this. Remember, God instituted sacraments objectively. They are not first subjective acts that we perform, but first God’s objective word to us. In other words, John Calvin puts it like this. Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, is first God’s promise to you. It’s God saying something to you. He’s giving you a physical expression of the Gospel that you can remember, that you can see it, before it is my confession to God. We don’t come perform the sacraments first because we’re saying we believe, although that’s true and second. We come to them first because God gave them to us as gifts. He’s performing. He’s offering you a gift in the sacraments.
The second thing is that they’re both visible and invisible. And we’re already said that, but what’s the visible element of baptism. It’s the water, right? But the water is pointing to something invisible. It’s pointing to an invisible need; a need for invisible cleansing. And with the invisible reality, the Holy Spirit, God promises the Holy Spirit to be uniquely present in the sacraments when the Church is gathered. He does this in 2 Corinthians 1:22, that God puts His seal on us, the Holy Spirit, that the Holy Spirit is uniquely present when we perform the sacraments in the corporate worship of God’s Church.
And then finally, the sacraments make so much sense because we are embodied souls. Now when we preach, we are talking and preaching and proclaiming God’s Word to our soul, to our intellect, to our heart, to our will, to our volition, but we need more than that. We need something along side of that. We need an organic unity between the Gospel preached to both our hearts and minds and our bodies. And so God has wonderfully decided that we both preach the Word and perform the Gospel in the sacrament. It’s both a word and a deed that you can not only hear it but you can see God working in these visible signs. And so the sacraments together make so much sense coming alongside the Word of God preached.
Baptism in an Initiation.
Alright so secondly, let’s focus a little bit more closely on baptism. It’s an initiation. It’s an initiation into the fellowship of Christ’s body. And that’s what John Calvin says here. “Baptism is the mark of initiation where we are admitted into the fellowship of the Church, that being engrafted into Christ and His body, we may be accounted as children of God.” Now to get, I think, the big picture here of the whole Bible, you have to think about baptism in the light of the Old Testament and you have to think about baptism in light of the Old Testament correspondence to baptism, and that’s circumcision. And we know that point blank from the New Testament because Paul, in Colossians 2:11-14 says this. “In Him,” in Christ, “you were circumcised,” spiritually, “with a circumcision made without hands by putting off the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism.” So there, Paul is saying that baptism and circumcision correspond with one another. One being the old covenant sign of entrance into the visible people of God; one being the new covenant, the New Testament sign of entrance into the people, the visible people of God. And think about it.
Who was circumcised in the Abrahamic covenant? It was an eight-day-old baby, a little boy, representing his whole family. And God has always included little ones into His visible covenant people, right? But what’s going on with circumcision? Circumcision – and I’ll spare all of us the details – but it’s bloody and it’s painful and it’s a cutting. Right? And we know from the prophets that what circumcision was really pointing to as a physical act, it was pointing to a spiritual need. Right? The prophets would say, “Look, you don’t just need to be circumcised, Israelites. You need to have your heart circumcised. You need to be cut all the way down by the Holy Spirit, by the Word of God. You need to be changed. You need to have your depraved nature, your sin nature rolled back like circumcision. Right? In baptism, the same thing is happening that you’re washed with the water and the water is not doing anything to you but it’s talking about an invisible need, right, that these children, whoever it is, need to also have their hearts purified, their hearts circumcised. Paul’s saying it’s the same thing – to have your heart circumcised, to have your heart washed by the water of the Spirit – it’s the same thing; they correspond with one another.
But what’s the difference? Well think about the difference. Circumcision is bloody and it is painful and it is difficult. And baptism is cleansing and refreshing. It’s a washing, right? And why? Augustine, one of our church fathers, said it like this. “In the Old Testament, the covenant signs point forward to a future salvation, to a future need.” And when you see circumcision, when you see the blood of circumcision, you know that in that covenant sign God is saying – what? That blood must be shed for justice to be had, for humanity to become right with God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit. That blood must be shed. Old Testament signs look forward to a redemption that’s needed and New Testament signs point backwards to a salvation accomplished.
Why do we not have a bloody rite of initiation into God’s covenant, visible people anymore? And it’s because the Man of power, the Son of God Himself, has already gone under the ultimate knife. He has gone under the ultimate knife – the knife of God’s judgment. Do you see? And in the Old Testament covenants, typically are not made; they are cut. The verb, “to cut,” is used. Blood must be shed to display the covenant signs of the Old Testament, always pointing forward to the spilling of a blood, an ultimate spilling of blood that was needed for the forgiveness of sins, without which nobody can be saved. Right? The Son of Man, He went under the ultimate knife. Circumcision was always telling the people of God, “Look for one who is to come. Look for one who is to be cut.” While baptism looks backwards.
Think about it like this. Water has a double entendre, a double meaning in the Old Testament. And still today, what can water do for us? Well on the one hand, it can kill you. It can drown you. It can take away your oxygen. And on the other, it can give life. You drink it. You’re bathed in it. You’re purified. Right? It does both. And that’s exactly what was going on in that obscure passage in Corinthians when Paul says that the Israelites were baptised into Moses. What does that mean? When he says, “into Moses, in cloud and sea,” referring to what? The Red Sea. In Exodus chapter 14, think about it. Israelites were standing there, Pharaoh and his army at their back, the Red Sea on the other side – death on both sides. You can’t cross the Red Sea. It’s a water judgment. They were only facing death. But what did God do? He opened up the waters. He told His prophet Moses, “Speak your arms. The waters will be open. They will create wall and arch.” And they passed through underneath the waters of judgment into life, into being God’s people on the other side, into salvation. They moved from slavery to salvation through water that should have been judgment for them. But because of God’s grace, it became the medium of life. But what happened to Pharaoh and his people? They drowned. It was waters of judgment.
What’s the only difference between the Israelites and Pharaoh and the Egyptians at that moment? They were both equally sinners. They both deserved equally judgment before God. What was the difference? The Israelites had a mediator. The Israelites had Moses standing on the mountain with his arms spread wide open. As long as he opened his arms, he would display the grace of God to the Israelites and they would be saved. The water can either be the medium, the vehicle of cleansing and purification and life, or it’s judgment and it’s death. And the only difference between one and the other is the Mediator, the true Mediator, the Son of God. That’s what both circumcision points to and what water in the Old Testament points to.
So let’s take some stock and close this point. Baptism, then, is the pronouncement from God to sinful human beings that the waters of judgment have been poured over the head of Jesus Christ already. And so now these waters of judgment that we deserve have now become waters of life, waters of refreshment and purification. That’s the sign. That’s how they serve as a sign. That’s what they point to. One of the church fathers, Ambrose, said this about Jesus’ baptism. “The Lord was baptised not because He needed to be purified but so that He, by stepping into the water, could cleanse the water for us so that we would not be judged.”
Secondly, taking stock here of this point, baptism is an entrance into the fellowship of the visible church, into our church. And it’s for believers and it’s for their children because God has always welcomed children, little children, the children of His people, into His covenant people. Were there any babies crossing at the Red Sea? Of course there were! There were little babies screaming and crying as they were underneath the waters of the Red Sea. The same thing happens at Noah’s ark and all sorts of scenes throughout the Old Testament. The children have always been included. And we mentioned the fact of that in Acts chapter 2 and Peter referencing that reality. It was the little boy that was circumcised. Part of the covenant family, the visible people of God, referenced in Acts 2 to Genesis 17.
Baptism is an Identity.
Now thirdly, and let me just close this point, also the sacraments, when you consider them together, they fit together so perfectly because what we learn here is that baptism is a totally passive sacrament while the Lord’s Supper is an active sacrament. That’s why little infants are so perfect for displaying the Gospel with what baptism means. Because how does an infant come to baptism? Limp! Head hanging! They can’t do anything because what is baptism pronouncing? That Jesus Christ has done all the work. You can only receive it. It’s a call to these children to grow up and receive it, to believe it. Right? You have to be passive in baptism. You do nothing. But in the Lord’s Supper, you’re active. You’re now remembering. You’re now eating; you’re now drinking. And so the sacraments fit perfectly together in that way.
Alright so let me close our time with a third point. Baptism is an identity. And this gets more at the existential level of what baptism means for us. Everybody in life is looking, needs, has an identity. And Charles Taylor in his fantastic book, A Secular Age, says that according to the Christian tradition that every single human being needs to be fulfilled in life to thrive, to flourish. We need fulfillment. And part of fulfillment is having an identity. And the philosophers and theologians have always said basically that an identity consists of two things – a purpose, a meaning, a reason to get out of bed and do something every day, and a sense of worth and value. Right? You get your purpose and sense of meaning from your job, from your roles in life – being a parent or a son or a daughter, or a sister. All sorts of ways from the outside that you get a sense of meaning and purpose in life. And then we also need a sense of worth or value. We were made to have affirmation and love from somebody that knows us completely and still says, “I love you.” That’s the way that God made us. Tolkein said this in The Two Towers – “The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.” And we’re made to be loved and have purpose and worth and identity.
At the baptism of Jesus Christ in the gospels, God the Father opened up the heavens. He condescended and He looked down and He said this, literally, “This is the Son, My Beloved.” “This is the Son, My Beloved.” And He was saying, “This is the Son, the only Son of the Father, come to redeem humanity, sent on mission. That’s the identity of Jesus Christ. This is the Son, My Son, and He is also My Beloved. I love Him. He is worth everything. He is of so much value.” Now know this. Baptism preaches to you that if you will take hold of Christ by faith and repent, you are united to Him in everything. That the life He lived is your life. That the death He died is your death. Even what God does in baptism becomes yours. God condescends and says to you, “You are My son. You are My daughter. You are My beloved. You have a meaning and a purpose and a worth and value that came down from the heavens, if you’ll take hold of it and believe what baptism is signifying.”
And that means that you can’t have your identity taken from you. If you only define who you are by your job and vocation and career and even being a father or mother or anything, these things can be lost. Or if you do what modern people do and are told to do and go inside for your identity and look at your own self-esteem and sense of self-worth to define who you are, your feelings will change and you will be crushed. We need to be defined from the heavens down. And that’s what happens at baptism. Baptism is God’s pronouncement to you that your identity is found in Christ, that your sense of value can never leave because He loves you. It can never go away. No matter what happens to you in life, no matter what you lose in all of your circumstances. And that’s what the Westminster Larger Catechism means when it says that very strange thing, “improve your baptism.” It means when you see somebody baptised, when you’re being tempted, remember what baptism tells you. It’s that you are a son or a daughter of the King of kings. You have the imprimatur, the seal of God. And so take hold of it by faith and believe.
And we’ll close with this. Martin Luther, at the time of the Reformation, this is an old story that we can only hope is true but we can’t find any written evidence of – that when he was translating the Greek New Testament into German he was locked up in a castle and that he was regularly tempted and he would say that, “All my temptations, all my anxieties, all my desires to not believe, to quit, come from Satan himself.” And so what he did was, in chalk, he wrote this across his desk – “Baptizatus sum” in Latin. “I am baptized.” And he would – the famous story of course is – he would throw his ink pod at the wall and say, “Get away from me, temptation! I’m baptized! You can’t grab me. You can’t take me. You can’t have ahold of me!” But he did actually write this, so we know at least he believed this – “The only way to drive away the devil is through faith in Christ by saying, ‘I have been baptized. I am a Christian. I am a member of the body of Christ.’”
Your baptism, if you believe in Christ, is the seal of the King of kings. It’s your identity. You can say in temptation, anxiety, fear, when you lose in life, “I am baptized. I am a son. I am a daughter of the King. I bear the name Christian.” And so bear the name Christian as we step into Monday. Let’s pray.
Father, we ask for help that we would live the life of mission and calling and belief that baptism calls us to. And we ask for this help in Jesus’ name, amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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