Take me to the Water – Baptism Basics

The following is in essence a chapter from my forthcoming book “The Preacher’s Catechism” (Crossway). 

 

Baptism is such a precious gift in our rootless, drifting age. People put on and put off different identities, and search for belonging – or resolutely refuse to belong to anything or anyone. Secularism promises a world of endless possibilities; but for those who drink deeply of its values, it’s endlessly disappointing. We need more.

Baptism is the sign of entry into a new world, the kingdom which God rules through His Son. To be a baptised person is to find that your life has been caught up into the glories of this kingdom. To enter the waters of baptism is to hear the declaration that God in Christ is for you, and has brought you to Himself, for freedom and service. Baptism is, literally, life.[1]

Question 94 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says that baptism “signifies and seals our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.” What does that mean? Here’s a three-fold declaration of biblical baptism:

 

Baptism is the surrender of faith

Baptism declares “God wins”. His Word is true, He is Lord. Our sins deserve the wrath of God, death now and in the hereafter. Jesus Christ took that death in our place, dying an eternity of death for us at the Cross. Baptism is our “coming clean”: we admit that we deserve condemnation, and refuse to hide any longer before a holy God. We confess our sins, and run to Christ, and we are made clean by His blood. Conversion is surrender, as surely as the Lord Jesus surrendered Himself to God’s will, the baptism of His suffering and death.

Baptism is the same. We surrender ourselves to the water, an act which declares our death to sin and self. We identify with the Lord Jesus Christ, and confess our union with Him, by grace. God the Father has placed us exactly with Christ, so that the death He underwent on the Cross is the death which we have undergone. No, we weren’t paying for our sin, Jesus alone did that; but we died there. “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). “We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Cor. 5:14).  Jesus died, and if we are united to Him, we have died, too. “Or don’t you know that all of us who are baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death?” (Rom. 6:3). Baptism is death, by grace.

With death comes life. In this surrender we come to the Lord of Life. Just as our Saviour was not abandoned to His grave, we rise in Him to know joy in His presence and the foretaste of eternal pleasures (Ps. 16:10-11, cf. Acts 2:27-36). The surrender brings life, life as we follow Christ, and do so with others.

 

Baptism is a pledge of belonging

Through baptism God says ‘mine!’ of the person coming to the water. Baptism declares that, through saving grace, forgiveness has come, and sinners are made saints. Loved and chosen by the Father, savingly united to Christ, indwelt by the Spirit, we belong to God the Trinity. Baptism declares that truth (Matt. 28.19). Through baptism we know the delight of the Father as we submit to His command. What wonderful good news to a lonely world! The misery of exile from God has been replaced by the welcome of God. In baptism we have come home.

And we have come home to the family of God, the church. A private, undeclared profession of faith is an unthinkable as a private baptism is. It is suspect at best, eternally dangerous at worst (Matt. 10:32-33). Baptism is the church’s celebration of salvation. The church belongs to us, and we belong to the church. Baptism tells us so. It’s the public declaration that the Spirit has engrafted us into the people of God, and there is no salvation except that which is shared and lived out amongst God’s people (1 Cor. 12:12-13).

 

We preachers need to make much of this last distinctive. In baptism the new believer as well as the church are recognising that they belong to each other, in the one body. All good churches do baptism preparation classes with new believers. Surely we must give pulpit time to doing the same with the congregation, reminding them that baptism pledges them to all believers, old as well as new.

 

Baptism is our declaration of holy war

The Gospel is war. In the Gospel God declares that He is against the world in its godlessness, and will one day destroy all of its disobedience. The Gospel message is equally the claim that God has fought and conquered the sin and condemnation of all who come to find peace in Jesus Christ. Baptism is a swapping of allegiance, a changing of sides, so that Christ is our Captain. The baptistery is the place where we acknowledge that “we died to sin”, and ask ourselves, “how can we live in it any longer?” (Rom. 6:2). We have clothed ourselves with Christ in baptism (Gal. 3:27); now we follow in His footsteps, fighting, suffering and rejoicing in His name.

John Owen once famously lamented, “unacquaintedness with our mercies, our privileges, is our sin as well as our trouble.”[2] He’s right, of course. Baptism is a new world of privilege. Preachers, we must teach all that baptism is in the purposes of God, and all the grace that is set forth in it. To be a baptised follower of Jesus is, in a word, everything.

 

[1] My happy confession here is that I’m a convinced credo-baptist, and therefore take issue with the Westminster Shorter Catechism that children of members of the visible church should be baptised. That said, the Catechism has much to teach credo- well as infant-baptists.

[2] John Owen, Works (The Banner of Truth Trust: Edinburgh, 1968), Vol. 1, 32.

Henry and Eling Venn – Married for Good

Henry Venn was the Vicar of Huddersfield from 1759-71, and his ministry was marked by a mighty outpouring of God’s Spirit in the town and area. Often the graveyard of the Parish Church would be crowded with people who couldn’t get into the building for worship. Some even stayed in the church building between morning and evening worship so as to get some of the best seats in the house!

In 1767, and aged 33, Venn lost his dear wife, Eling. They were devoted to each other, and she was a dynamic and highly competent partner with Henry in his ministry. He felt her loss deeply. Writing a month after her death, he poured out is heart to a friend. The letter was kept, and the excerpt below is intensely moving. I commend it to you, to read slowly, perhaps out loud. I think that it says so much which chimes with the thinking we’ve done about gender and relationships in our morning sermons at Hope, and how we are called to enjoy God’s gifts whilst appreciating, as the Apostle Paul says, “the time is short”. Venn writes:

I feel my debt to God enlarged in all His favours towards that other part of myself. I with gratitude adore Him for the precious loan of so dear a child of His, for ten years and four months, to be my wife. I think over, with much delight, the many tokens of love from God during the time of her pilgrimage and the consolations which refreshed and rejoiced her soul upon the bed of death. I consider her as delivered from the evil to come and in the possession of all I have been begging of God for her ever since we knew each other. Every degree of peace, of light, of joy I feel in Jesus immediately suggests the infinitely exalted sensations of the same kind which enrapture her spirit. And above all I have now to praise my Master that I have an experimental proof that He giveth songs in the night; that when dearest comforts are taken away, the light of His countenance, a little brighter view of His great salvation, a little stronger feeling of the tenderness of His heart, is more than a recompense for every loss we can sustain. I can now say from proof , “Our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

 

Some brief thoughts on Venn’s words:

Marriage is the deepest intimacy. “That other part of myself”, as Venn calls his late wife. They knew the deep joys of marriage, in the midst of hard labours for the Lord. As they grew in knowledge of each other, so they grew more and more to need each other. Death was the loosening of those bonds.Venn felt, rightly, that it was the losing of something of his own self.

Marriage in Christ is a precious gift, to be enjoyed for a season. You can feel the ache in the words “ten years and four months.” He must have longed for many more years with Eling, but what he was given he was truly thankful for. Eling was now with the Lord and truly His, just as Venn’s marriage and the time they enjoyed together were ultimately the Lord’s. If grief was bitter to Venn, he was not bitter in grief.

The goal of marriage is death. Venn saw her death not as the abrupt breaking of his marriage and its grace, but its goal. He and Eling were married in order, one day, to be no longer married. Now in heaven, the work of grace was complete. She didn’t need to married any more. God was her Husband, and her heart fully His. As Venn notes, his prayers had reached their final answers.

Grief has grace for its food. Venn testifies that the knowledge of God’s love His wife was experiencing in full measure, he was himself receiving in his broken, grieving heart. Grace was His song in the night, and Gospel comforts were the food of His soul. His wife had been taken, but God has not left Him.

And so, perspective is everything. Life is short, and marriage – if given to us – is shorter. Heaven is the home of every loving heart, married or single. So we pass through this life, and we labour to bring the beauty of Christ to every relationship, for their good and for His glory.

Book Review: Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification. Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust, 2016 (277pp)

Who wants to be holy? Sinclair Ferguson’s thesis is that every true Christian does. Equally, he recognises that every Christian finds the call to grow in the likeness of Jesus Christ to be daunting, difficult, and a journey full of setbacks. This book aims to help all believers to understand biblically what holiness is, and to grasp our holiness in Christ with conviction and joy.

Cover for Devoted to GodDevoted to God is a systematic treatment of the Bible’s teaching on sanctification. God is holy, not ‘set apart’ from His world (as is often the frankly unappealing definition of holiness), but devoted to Himself in the Persons of the Trinity. The Gospel is God’s call to us to share in that Trinitarian life through Christ. Starting then with our new status and nature in Christ through conversion, Ferguson guides us through what the New Testament has to say about (amongst other things) how we die to sin, how we fight the battle of godliness, how we relate to the Law, and how we keep going in the Christian life. There is detailed exposition of ten key New Testament passages, whilst many other passages from throughout Scripture are also referenced. Illustrations abound, and there are many (but not overbearing) references to historic theological figures with their contributions.

This is not a book you can race through. The chapters are full of detail and challenge. There is serious theology and close exposition of the text of the Bible here which need working through carefully. Devoted to God would be a great accompaniment to a quiet time. Best of all, if used in a group setting then its treasures could really be best appreciated.

I enjoyed this book so such that I had to think hard about if it could be improved. To my mind, the Christian life in the book doesn’t focus sufficiently on the church. So much of the Bible speaks of our holiness being expressed amongst and enriched by fellow believers. We needed to hear more of the mutuality of growing in holiness. At the editorial level, two smaller points: firstly, there are five appendices which cover topics relevant to holiness, including the Trinity, what it means to be “dead to sin”, and the place of the Fourth Commandment in discipleship. This is all good material, and wouldn’t have been unwieldy if included in the body of the book, to my mind. As appendices, they maybe risk being overlooked, which would be a real shame. Finally, an index would make the book even more useful, allowing readers to return to it and go easily to key passages and doctrine. All in all, though, this is an outstanding read, and a blessing from author and publisher.

Devoted to God comes from a Pastor’s heart. Ferguson wants to help us follow Jesus Christ with more confidence and fruitfulness, and he writes clearly and tenderly. Pastors will love this book, and will quickly value it for its probing marrying of the best of exposition and theology, always with an eye to personal transformation. It deserves to be read.

After All – Job 42. RBT Notes, 31st January

If Leviathan can look down on God’s creation in his effortless power (41.34), how much more the Lord Himself? He looks, He sees, He remembers. And yet He does all of it, not in superior haughtiness, but in the deepest love and compassion. This is our God. And this is the message of Go. Job is always in control. He never needs to explain Himself to His creation, but He is working out good and wise plans for it, and at the heart of them is the good of His people.

Job now opens his mouth. He has to speak. But what can he say? The God whose justice he’s clung onto in desperate hope, he now meets, in all of His overwhelming grandeur. What would you say? Surely even the best of our worship, and our strongest moments of faith, are the flimsiest responses to a God whose glory we have seen in Christ, but have barely begun to understand? The God we know, after all, inhabits ways which are “too wonderful for us to know” (v.3).

One day we will open our mouths to God. Will we argue, complain, rage, or question? No. We will confess that He is the Lord, and we will bow down in worship. Our eyes will see Him (v.5). We will be satisfied, and delighted, as we lay ourselves before Him, and hear His voice.

Heaven is the home of all of our lasting happiness. Job received his reward for his faith in this life. Almost fairytale-like, he receives his prosperity again, lands, livestock, wife and children, old age and grandchildren (vv.10-16). And there’s a thought here: remember those friends, with their angle-grinding theology of sin and judgement which they attacked Job with, and for which God blames them (vv.7-9)? Well, after God Himself showed them that they were wrong, He gives them a ringside seat to His own sort of retribution.This is not the punishment of Job’s so-called sin, but the overflowing generosity of His reward for Job’s faithfulness in all of his trials. Satan is conquered, bad theology is slaughtered, Job is vindicated, God reigns, and declares His rule of love to the world. One day all of creation will see the rule of love in Christ, and all will sing Hallelujah.

 

A Prayer to Pray 

Lord God Almighty, Your ways of grace are too wonderful for me. And yet, they are all mine in Your Son. Teach me to treasure and hold all that You have given me in Him. Teach me also to let go of those things which are gifts for a season, however precious. And keep my heart strong, that I might look ahead with increasing excitement to the gift above all else, Your waiting Son. Amen.

 

The Serpent-Crusher – Job 40-41. RBT Notes, 30th January

Does God need to justify His ways to humanity? Does the Lord of all creation need to explain Himself to the atoms of dust which make up His creation? Does He need to defend what He’s doing to you and me? God appears to Job, and any desire Job has to know the ways of God disappears as suddenly as Job’s suffering came to him. God is God. That is enough (vv.1-5).

God is fierce. There is love, here, be sure of that; God is not peeved, He’s not nursing a bruised ego that His ways have been questioned. He is revealing more of His Lordship to Job for the very purpose of deepening Job’s confidence in Him (vv.8-14). When God works in our lives, He shows us all that we cannot do – and do not deserve. This makes His grace all the sweeter, and our desire to trust Him all the more intense.

Who is like our God? Who can defeat our God? For the remainder of ch. 40 and for all of ch. 41 we have this exciting and dramatic description of the creatures no man of Job’s day could tame, first the behemoth (the hippo or elephant), and then the leviathan. The terrors of these beasts are nothing to God, who effortlessly controls them. And the leviathan? This lengthy description of the scaly, snorting beast makes us wonder just what animal it is. In fact, is it actually an animal? The best reflection on this chapter over the centuries has offered a very credible theory, that this is no animal: it is the ultimate Beast. It is Satan.

Satan reared his head in chapters 1 and 2, only then (apparently) to sink beneath the surface of the book. We know, however, that Satan may disappear from our sight and awareness, but he never actually goes away. Not yet, at least. If this is the great Deceiver in our chapter, then this brings the events of Job’s life full circle: the Satan who was given permission to torment him is the Satan who, though powerful, is shown to be under God’s effortless control. That is true for Job, as it is true for us. Though defeated by Christ at the cross, our Enemy is wounded, but still very dangerous. Dangerous for now, of course; our promise is that “in a little while the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet” (Ro. 16.20). He will – and because of this we have hope.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, one day, and only because of the Coming of Christ,  all my troubles will be over. He will come, and He will crush all wickedness and all opposition to God. And He will bring all His children safely home. Give me a great and joyful confidence in what You have declared. Until that day, keep me humbly trusting Your promises, and never demanding Your answers. Amen.

Out of the Storm – Job 38-39. RBT Notes, 27th January

I actually think that Elihu had more to say. Most of us do, when suffering comes. Whether it’s debates, arguments, complaints, discussion or anything else, suffering rarely silences us. But Elihu has spoken his last because, now, God speaks.
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God speaks. Can you actually believe that? Those two easy words – if they’re true – speak of a chasm of mystery and power which we can never cross. We cannot understand God, and we certainly cannot make Him speak. The Scriptures teach us that our minds, mouths and ears only work because God has created them and has decided that they should work. If God does speak, and Christians believe that every page of Scripture is the voice of God, then we need to use our ears and our minds. We can rest our tongues. In fact, we must.
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Who is He speaking to? Who is the man “that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge”? (38.1). Elihu? The three friends? Job? All of them? It could as well be you or me. Apart from God’s revelation we are blind, and suffering can make us blindest of all.
These two chapters are full of drama, as God reminds us, and Job in particular, of His untameable power and matchless wisdom. He is the creator, controller, planner and sovereign over all things. Stars, planets, seas, seasons, rain, thunder and lightning, they all have their existence and order at His bidding (vv.4-38). Effortless power.
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Effortless power, and complete care. God takes Job on a Planet Earth-like tour of His created world (38.39-39.30). Lions, goats, ostriches, donkeys, cattle, horses and hawks. Powerful, majestic and even funny creatures all glory in the strength God has given them, and God Himself glories in them. He loves all that He has created, and He cares for all. Who are we to doubt His goodness to us then, even when life is full of pain for us?
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A Prayer to Pray
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Lord, teach me that what I need most of all is to hear Your voice. I need to listen to You, when I don’t understand my life, and even when I don’t understand You. You speak the truth, and You always speak it out of a heart of love. Father, teach my often mistrusting heart to trust You, to seek You, and to glory in Your power and Your love. Amen.