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.

Lord of All – Nehemiah 10. RBT Notes, 12th December

Sign it and seal it. Go on, you’ve seen the grace of God, you’ve experienced His mercy and undeserved goodness; so get on with it, go public and be a wholehearted disciple of God’s grace. That’s the scene, and that’s the challenge of chapter 10. And many rise to meet that challenge. Nehemiah heads the list, and priests, Levites and leaders follow on. After them come all sorts of men and women who “bind themselves with a curse and oath to follow the law of God given through Moses…” (v.29).

The way of discipleship means hard decisions, inconvenience, difficult choices. It means breaking with habits which are familiar and cherished. For these people, that means keeping marriage for the covenant people of God (v.30). It means keeping the Sabbath (v.31). It means living according to God’s Law with their money, their worship, their service, their sacrifice, their property, and in every detail of their lives, bringing wholehearted devotion to God (vv.32-39). “We will not neglect the house of our God” (V.39).

So, there is a new wall, and there is a community with a chance to start over again. In the midst, there is a God they must commit their hearts, energies, wallets, and property to. He comes first. In the New Covenant, there is no question about our loyalties. Jesus has taught us how to live, love, serve and sacrifice. He is worthy of everything. In our personal devotion to Him lies the health of our souls, and the good of our church community. If we gave in to selfishness and discipleship shortcuts, we rob Him of his glory, and do not love our neighbours as we love ourselves. But if, filled by His Spirit, we lay ourselves down to serve others, then He is glorified and many are blessed. There is no other discipleship. He wants everything, and He is certainly worthy of it.

 

A prayer to pray

Lord, my time, talents, gifts, days are all in Your hands. Thankyou that Your love and lordship mean that I can give every moment and every act to Your service. Empower me to do so willingly and joyfully. Amen.

Opposition – Nehemiah 4. RBT Notes, 2nd December

Opposition happens. It’s one of the very few certainties of the Christian life. If, that is, we’re really living the Christian life. A insipid religious hobby will get noone’s back up. But building a life for Jesus, and striving to build a ministry of teaching and sharing His Gospel, will get reaction. And not all of it will be pleasant.

Sanballat was a powerful local pagan. We’ve seen him disturbed at the news that help was on its way for Jerusalem (2.10), and then we hear his mockery (2.19). Now we see that he is “angry and greatly incensed” (4.1). He scorns their efforts, and tells them that the job is far too great for them (v.2). His friend Tobiah joins in, ridiculing their work so far (v.3).

What are your strategies when you’re mocked and threatened as a disciple of Christ?

1. You pray (vv.4-5). God knows, and He cares. Prayer helps you keep your perspective. And Nehemiah entrusts God’s enemies to His purposes.

2. You keep going (v.6). Give up, or even slow down, and you’ve lost. Seek grace, and work with all your heart.

3. Take precautions (v.9). Pray, and guard your work.

4. Don’t resent the difficulties, work with them (vv.10-13). Everyone was feeling the strain, and the workers were anxious and discouraged. Leaders need to listen to their people’s anxieties, and respond to them. Nehemiah does just that.

5. Encourage the workers (v.14). We can all forget that God is in charge when tough times come. We need to remind ourselves and one another – He is the Lord! (v.14). There is everything to fight for, given that He is in charge. And with that conviction and that work we can overcome all opposition (v.15).

 

The work’s not done in a day, though, or in a week. Constant effort, constant vigilance are needed, as well as plenty of plans for when opposition comes again (vv.16-23).

Sometimes when discipleship is costly, you have to ask yourself why you’re living as you do. Why the stress of building a wall in the face of this opposition? Because the Kingdom of God is in the balance. As we serve the Gospel, God is building His Kingdom.

Fight the good fight of faith, in the power of grace.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I’m more cowardly and weak in my faith than I’ve realised, yet. You’re also more powerful and loving than I’ve yet discovered. You alone can make me strong, and make me stand, as I live for You. Do it, Lord, for Your Glory. Amen.

 

 

 

Let’s Do This – Nehemiah 3. RBT Notes, 1st December

“The God of heaven will grant us success” (2.20). Brilliant! Bring out the sun loungers, crack open the bubbly, hang up the streamers. Success is on its way. It is. But success in God’s plans means toil. It means people coming together, praying, planning, swallowing their differences and working together in order to achieve something lasting for God. Success means the people of God dedicating themselves to God’s work to achieve something which only hard work and plentiful grace could ever achieve. No toil, no triumph.

Now is the time for work. The chapter is a flurry of activity. In all of the detail, notice these points:

Repair isn’t fun, but it is necessary. Most people like a new project, but very few like having to make an old project good again. That is their call, though. Rebuilding and repair are the key projects. So, a question: are we prepared to make a bad job good? Are we prepared to put in the work to make an old ministry effective again, or a decaying relationship a vibrant one again? That sort of work takes humility and perseverance. Have we got what it takes?

Some people will always be too important. The church has its “nobles”, those who are too important for hard work (v.5). The self-appointed important people never bow to anyone else’s instructions. Unteachability and a proud heart are a blight in the church. Those who stand on their rights never bow to the Saviour.

If you get grace, no job is too low for you. Malkijah’s name was mud – rather, it came to be associated with it . Malkijah rebuilt the Dung Gate (v.14). That’s a dubious honour, isn’t it? There probably wasn’t a queue of people contending for that job. But thereagain, there wasn’t a queue for the Cross, was there?

Enjoy this chapter. Learn from it. And get to work, with others. No job in the Kingdom is unimportant, and none is beneath you.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord of the Cross of shame, fill my cold heart again with love for You, my Saviour and my Master. Lord, that is my prayer, that I might be filled with love for the Lord who undertook everything necessary for my salvation. May I commit myself again in Your Spirit’s power to the work of Your heart, Your Kingdom. Make me a servant, Lord. Amen.

Attempt Great Things for God – Nehemiah 2 – RBT Notes, 30th November

Four months is a long time to live with an anxious, broken heart. Nehemiah has been seeking God for His forgiveness and mercy, and for His intervening power. He loves God’s people, loves God, and longs that God would move to restore His city, Jerusalem. Nehemiah offers himself for that purpose. This man, a close official, has been praying that God would “give your servant success today by granting him favour in the presence of this man” (1.11). Four months later, Nehemiah discovers that God’s “today” has come (2.1).

Nehemiah didn’t contrive to put on a sad face in the king’s presence, but Artaxerxes notices it, and asks about it (vv.1-2). We don’t know if Nehemiah’s words are premeditated, or just tumble out in an agony of heart. After his explanation, he has the opportunity he must surely have been praying for – and must have hardly dared request: leave to return and rebuild Jerusalem (vv.2-5). The other officials must have been stunned at the favour Nehemiah found. The king is intrigued, but gives his permission, and then agrees to share resources for the project after Nehemiah has the audacity to ask for them (vv.7-9).

How come Nehemiah finds such favour? Because he cared, prayed, and was courageous. Ultimately, because “the gracious hand of my God was upon me” (v.8). That is grace, and grace, though always utterly undeserved, is the gift enjoyed through believing prayer. After all, God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us” (Eph. 3.20). It’s not enough to know the theory – prayer is the asking and the receiving of that abundant and powerful grace. So do we?

But any work we attempt for God is the focus of Satan’s attacks. There will be opposition, difficulty, discouragement, disloyalty, upset, frustration and exhaustion. Doesn’t Jesus warn us to count the cost of serving Him? The first hint is in v.10. And Nehemiah knows how ambitious his plans are, and is careful at the moment to keep them to himself (v.11-12). He surveys the scale of the work ahead of him (vv.13-16), again, keeping his plans secret. Notice that he’s no Lone Ranger, and he’s looking for partners. So, once he knows what he’s calling others to commit to, he gathers the community leaders, and tells them three things: what needs doing, that God is good – and that they have work to do.

The work begins. There are the gathering clouds of opposition and discouragement (v.19), but the bright conviction of faith (v.20). With God all things are possible. Do you believe that? Do you believe that God’s work is the best work to do, and that His servants will be filled with His Spirit for it? Then what are we waiting for? Let’s offer ourselves to His work.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, You are worthy of all risk, effort, sacrifice and danger. I know that, but I don’t know that. I’m always so tempted to run back to the safe and the familiar. Forgive me my cowardly and unbelieving heart. Thankyou for Your brave Son, who was faithful to the end, paying for my sins and showing me the way of brave Gospel service. I go in His Name, in His power. Amen.

Seeing Salvation – 2 Corinthians 2. RBT Notes, 2nd November

Paul loves the whole church. His heart is heavy with their needs, and with the needs of individual members. In vv.1-11 he is all too aware of the heartache about one brother who’s been disciplined for his sin. He has written to them about this situation already (v.3), and he knows that the church’s pain has not gone away, nor this man’s. Sin in the church is real, and must be dealt with. Equally, the grace of forgiveness must be shared with all who truly repent. Now Paul wants to see this penitent brother restored.

The Gospel which saves is also the Gospel which divides. Paul is called to a ministry which will not make him popular with many. That is a part of cross-bearing, for Paul and for every true believer. Discipleship means belonging to Christ. Paul compares it to being a captive slave, brought in procession behind the conqueror for all to see (v.14). So now he follows the real Conqueror, Jesus. The purpose of following is fruitfulness: as the Gospel is seen and heard, people discover “the fragrance of life” (v.16). They find Jesus Christ for themselves.  No wonder Paul perseveres with his suffering life and ministry! No wonder he longs that the Corinthians know that this work is not all pretence, not all front, but true Christianity lived out of a full and sincere heart (vv.16-17).

And still some hate us. Jesus promised it (Jn. 15.18). Faithfulness does sometimes invite hatred. Who wants to be “the smell of death” (v.15), rejected and despised, written off as an enemy of society? Jesus didn’t, nor should we. It might well happen, though, even from our nearest and dearest. Maybe Jesus is calling us to a deeper, truer discipleship – whatever the cost.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I am naturally a comfort-seeking coward. Prize my selfish hands off all I hold dear which gets in the way of Your service. Thrill me with Your grace, and change me by it. I give myself again to You, the Lord of the only triumph that ever matters. Amen.