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.

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.

No Easy Message – Micah 1. RBT Notes, 18th November

You’re called to be a servant of God’s Word. How thrilling! What an exciting lifestyle, what privileges, what affirmation, what joy lies ahead. Who wouldn’t want to be called to minister the Word of the Living God? Except you’re Micah. Your godly parents have given you a wonderful name – Micah means, “who is like the Lord?” – and by grace you’ve come to know the truth of that question. But you’re discovering that the Lord has given you a hard ministry. There will be glimpses of light and joy, but this is a hard road you must walk. You will have to confront, and you will have to care.

God is not silent, and He’s always serious. God is bringing the witness of His truth to the world. Micah lived in the 8th Century BC, and was called to warn both Israel and Judah that God was against their greed and corruption. God wants the world to hear the charges He is bringing against His people (v.2). The church must never forget that He is the God of the whole earth, of those who do not acknowledge Him as much as of those who do. He comes like fire and earthquake, and He comes in judgement (vv.3-7). He is moved to anger by the sins of those who profess His name. Let the church beware.

A call to minister in the name of a Holy God like this is a call to care. Micah weeps over his people’s sins (vv.8-10). Feel the force of his words. Have you wept for other people’s sins? Have you wept for your own? Could you call others to see the depth of their sins, and to repent over them (vv.11-12)? Would you warn those you claim to love of the wrath to come, which only Jesus and a living, wholehearted faith in Him will save them from (v.13-16)?

Micah calls us to face hard realities. The hardest is God Himself. He doesn’t ignore sin. He sent His Son, to warn of sin, to weep over sin, and at the Cross to pay for our sin. In Him God is real. Will we trust Him, and serve Him? Who is like Him?

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, in a world and a church which doesn’t want to take You seriously, I confess that I am often just the same. I love the trivial, and the easy. In myself, I’m not ready for the hard call of obedience and faith. Your Spirit alone, Lord, can forge faith and strengthen discipleship. I am Yours, Lord, just as surely as in Christ You are mine. Make me a believer and servant of Your Gospel. Amen.

True Ministry – 2 Corinthians 11. RBT Notes, 15th November

“Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord” (10.17). Paul knows where his confidence should be, when life gets tough, and he recommends that the Corinthians shift their own allegiances away from mere men to their Lord. We need the same challenge. It’s so much easier to put our trust in people who look impressive, and who seem to offer immediate solutions to our problems, and hope in our discouragement. Paul would counsel a little realism: a slavish devotion to leaders, however gifted they are, will lead ultimately to a deep, deep disappointment. It will only be a matter of time.

Until this church gets that important lesson, Paul cannot rest. Foolish, jealous, afraid (vv.1-3). Not words we associate with an Apostle, perhaps. Maybe we think of swan-like serenity, the appointed man of God gliding through his problems without any ripples. No, this leader is a Christian, not a Buddhist. He cares very deeply for those he serves. And care costs us emotional peace. He sees in them an alarming gullibility, as they are willing to look for and trust in the impressive, rather than the authentic (vv.4-6). Could we share their foolishness in this?

So here is authentic ministry: it refuses to put burdens on others (vv.7-12). A worldly, self-seeking leader is looking at the size of salary, and with it, the kudos of the position. A servant of Christ is looking to live without putting financial strain on others, even working to alleviate them further, and cares very little for titles or prestige. He does care, though, passionately about the work of God. Paul is not afraid to call out the Corinthians’ favourite leaders as insincere men, more the agents of Satan than of Christ (vv.13-15). And he doesn’t shrink from pulling back the curtain on just how much he has endured in the service of the Gospel (vv.16-33).

Here’s the recommendation: read vv.16-33 out loud, slowly and carefully. Let these sufferings sink in, and challenge you. They are the marks of authentic ministry. It’s your time, your comfort, your savings, your health, your status, your emotional equilibrium. It costs. It always will. The seed must die, Jesus said, of His own life. He was speaking about you, too. And like Him, your death will bring life to others. Let’s get living, like Paul, by dying.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, I am so Corinthian, in what I want, and in how I look at others. Forgive me. Fix my eyes upon Jesus. Fill my vision with His love-driven sacrificial life. Teach me its beauty, and shape my life in its image. That others might find life in Him. Amen.

The Weight of Glory – 2 Corinthians 4 – RBT Notes, 4th November

If the Gospel changes people like nothing else can, then its servants have no reason to lose heart in ministering it. No reason at all (v.1). Nor do we have any reason to resort to shady dealings in Gospel service (v.2).

But if the Gospel is so powerful, why does it look so powerless, as our hearers often reject it, and as we go through so much trouble in proclaiming it? Well, says Paul, Satan is hard at work, blinding people to it (vv.3-4). It’s not a clearer sermon people need, ultimately, or a more compelling witness: it’s the work of the Spirit, doing the very work God did in creation, shining light into darkness, this time the darkness of sin-blighted and Satan-blinded hearts, to show them Jesus in His glory (vv.5-6). And He loves to do just that.

So, Satan is at work, but God is stronger. What about us? Every Gospel servant discovers, sooner or later, just how weak she or he is. The Gospel is the treasure, not us. We are like the clay jar – cheap, fragile, and feeling distinctly disposable, knocked about, and pretty worthless (vv.7-9). We’re called to suffer as we serve, just as Jesus did. As we live out His life (and only as we do so), we find the power of the Spirit working in and through us; not crushed, not despairing, not abandoned, not destroyed. God is holding onto us. And we are bruised so that others find life in Jesus. Gospel service is “we die, you live” (v.12).

So, do not lose heart. Eternal glory will come, and will far outweigh our troubles. Dare we believe that our problems, real as they are, are actually “light and momentary” (v.17)? It depends if we’re feeling the pressing weight of heaven. We should, and we must. One day heaven will be here.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord, my trials knock me down. Lift me back up. Lord, I lose perspective, and so I lose hope. Please drive the truths of this precious chapter into my heart. Feed me with its truths. Teach me that the reward is almost in sight, and help me to press on in Gospel sacrifice until the Day comes. Amen.

No Easy Road – 2 Corinthians 1. RBT Notes, 1st November

“Called to be an apostle” (v.1). Paul needs to remember that, when it comes to the Corinthians. This church, dearly loved and gifted by the Lord (1 Cor. 1.4-9), are a tough crowd. They’ve not mellowed since Paul wrote to them in his first letter, and this epistle shows them with the same besetting sins – they are proud, cold and difficult. Paul longs that they would remember that he is an apostle, sent by the Risen Christ. He has truth to tell, and love to share. They need to open their hearts to him, if they are to be open to the Lord who sent him.

He is suffering for the Saviour, and has no shame in it (vv.1-11). So many believers, then and now, see suffering as failure. Paul doesn’t. Nor does he want his suffering to be a failure in his own life, leaving him bitter or discouraged. Rather, he is learning to find God’s comforting grace in his trials, and is eager to share that comfort with others (vv.3-7). he is convinced that God is utterly trustworthy (vv.8-11). So how are you doing? Is your suffering making you hard-hearted, or growing in humility and gentleness? And will you allow the Lord to use your knowledge of grace to reach out to other struggles with? that is His will for you.

He is committed to the Corinthians, even if it might not look like it (vv.12-24). Sometimes Christian leaders have a really hard time of convincing those they serve that they really do love them. Paul does. Leaders need to say hard things, make unpopular decisions, and don’t have all the time they would like to give to people. Paul feels he needs to defend himself against the suspicion that, because his travel plans have got messed up and he hasn’t managed to get to Corinth, that he’s not a true friend of the believers there (vv.12-22). Not at all!, he’s saying.  He is their committed servant. He is, afterall, “called to be an apostle”, and every commissioned servant of Christ has a mandate of love. Reflect on the gorgeous statement of ministry intent, in v.24. Then ask yourself, do you trust your leaders? Are they working for your Gospel joy? And will you allow them to love you, in saying the things you like, and the things you don’t? It may well all be for your own good.

 

A Prayer to Pray

Lord Jesus, Head of Your church, thankyou that in You all of God’s promises are true and trustworthy. Empower me by Your Spirit to believe them, and change my heart to seek the joy of others in You, with transparent love and perseverance. Amen.