Baptism – A Means of Grace

In an article entitled “Wash in the waters again” David Mathis touching, smelling, and tasting. Alongside preaching, they reveal to us again and again the very heart of the gospel we profess and aim to echo. They are enacted “signs,” pointing to realities beyond themselves.

But these ordinances are not just signs, but “seals.” They confirm to us not just that God has done something salvific for mankind, but that it applies to me in particular. The gospel is not only true in general, but specifically for me. And when a Bible-believing, gospel-cherishing church applies the seal to me, it can be a great grounds of assurance that I myself am included in the rescued people of Christ.

In this way, baptism and the Lord’s Supper serve to mark us out as the church, distinct from the world, and are part of what it means for the new covenant to be a covenant — with acts of both initiation and ongoing fellowship, both inauguration and renewal. Continue reading

The Baptism & Temptation of Jesus

Text: Matthew 3:

The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Matthew 4:

The Temptation of Jesus
4:1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,
“‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6 and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written,
“‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and
“‘On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written,
“‘You shall worship the Lord your God
and him only shall you serve.’”
11 Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

What is the significance of Jesus’ baptism? In what way was Jesus tempted? What application can be made to our lives today?

Sermon on audio found here.

Does Acts 2:39 Teach Infant Baptism?

An article by and his Jewish listeners are cut to the heart, asking, “What shall we do?” (v. 37). Peter responds in Acts 2:38-39:

Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself (Acts 2:38-39).

The argument for infant baptism is found in Peter’s declaration that “the promise is for you and your children”—not just you, but you and your children. According to paedobaptists, the promise that Peter refers to in Acts 2:38-39 is the same promise that God made to Abraham and his descendants in Genesis 17:1-8. As Robert Booth explains:

This was a promise that [the Jews] would have heard of and talked about many times. Since they were now entering the new covenant era of the church, the question of their children’s relationship to the church would naturally have been on their minds. Being a Jew, Peter was certainly aware of their concern and immediately moved to address the issue. He assured them that the promise was still for them and their children.

Therefore, writes Booth, “If the children of believers are embraced by the promises of the covenant, as certainly they are, then they must also be entitled to receive the initial sign of the covenant, which is baptism.”

To evaluate this argument from Acts 2:39, it is helpful to consider three basic questions: What is the promise?; Who were the recipients of the promise?; and Who was baptized?

What Is the Promise?

In Acts 2:39, Peter says that “the promise” is for his hearers, for their children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord calls to Himself. Even though Peter does not specify the content of the promise here in this verse, his meaning was clear to his original hearers, for he had already referred to this promise several times in the earlier part of his sermon: (a) “I [God] will pour forth My Spirit” (v. 17); (b) “the promise of the Holy Spirit” (v. 33); and (c) “you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). This promise is the gift of the Holy Spirit and the salvation that accompanies Him.

This understanding of the promise is further supported by Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:4. In Luke 24:49, Jesus speaks of the coming Holy Spirit, saying, “And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” Then, just before His ascension, Jesus commands His disciples “not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised” (Acts 1:4), a clear reference to the Holy Spirit. Continue reading

The Sacraments (1)

[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (v. 11a). – Romans 4:9–12

God uses means to convey grace to His people. While our understanding of the sacraments is firmly rooted in the teaching of the New Testament, the altar call (as used in most Churches today) is not. It actually is a very recent development in Church history.

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are seven sacraments:
• Baptism (Christening)
• Confirmation
• Holy Eucharist
• Penance (Confession)
• Anointing of the Sick (known prior to the Second Vatican Council as Extreme Unction (or more literally from Latin: Last Anointing), then seen as part of the “Last Rites”)
• Holy Orders
• Matrimony (Marriage)

Protestant (Evangelical) Churches teach that there are two sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In an over-reaction to Roman Catholicism, many Protestant/Evangelical Churches downplay sacraments altogether. Yet to do so violates Scripture itself. God is aware of our weakness and our need to be reassured of our standing with Him. God promises that we are His in the Gospel, and He confirms His favor toward us through baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Yes, God invites believing sinners to come to Him — not to an altar — but to a baptistry (where the water of baptism is applied) and to a communion table (where bread and wine are given to struggling sinners to remind them of God’s favor and to strengthen weak faith).

Summarizing the teaching of Scripture, the Heidelberg Catechism (Question 65) defines the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as: “holy signs and seals for us to see. They were instituted by God so that by our use of them he might make us understand more clearly the promise of the gospel, and might put his seal on that promise.” And what is the promise of the Gospel? “To forgive our sins and give us eternal life by grace alone because of Christ’s one sacrifice finished on the cross.”

Sacraments are tangible signs and seals of God’s invisible grace promised to His people in the Gospel. They are given by God to confirm that faith already given through the preaching of the Gospel. Just as the altar call seemed to be the logical outcome of a sermon — the Word often calls us to do something — so too the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments are intimately connected.

What God promises to us in the Gospel (the forgiveness of sins) is confirmed in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Gospel is both promised and then made visible when the Word is preached and when the sacraments are administered.

Yet, there is one huge difference between the altar call and the Reformed understanding of the sacraments. In the altar call the qualification was “if you truly meant it,” which made the subjective state of the sinner the critical factor in whether or not one actually benefited from going forward. In both sacraments, however, the emphasis falls squarely upon God’s sovereign oath: “I will be your God and you will be my people,” an oath that can be paraphrased as God stating to struggling sinners, “I really mean it!”

In the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis falls squarely upon what God has done for sinners in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, and not upon the strength of a sinner’s faith.

Circumcision was a sign — a visible act that pointed beyond itself to an invisible reality. This invisible reality was the fact that Abraham was cut out from the world and set apart unto God through faith alone (Gen. 15:6; 17). It was a visible reminder of the Lord’s promise to cut out of this fallen world a people for Himself. Circumcision, Romans 4 also reveals, was a seal. In the ancient world, a seal marked off ownership — people knew to whom an object belonged based on the seal affixed to it. Thus, circumcision was the mark of God’s ownership, tangible proof that those who bore the mark actually belonged to the Lord and would inherit all His promises if they had faith in Him.

“[As with circumcision, the new covenant sacraments are also visible and tangible ways in which we are reminded of God’s promises and marked off as His people. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have no inherent power to make us the children of God. That is, the performance of these rites themselves does not benefit us if we have no faith. We can access the grace available in them only if we believe the gospel. In fact, if we receive the sacraments without faith, we call down curses upon ourselves (1 Cor. 11:27–30).

John Calvin writes in his famous Institutes that a sacrament “is an external sign, by which the Lord seals on our consciences his promises of good-will toward us, in order to sustain the weakness of our faith, and we in turn testify our piety towards him, both before himself and before angels as well as men” (4.14.1). Using elements that we can taste, see, and touch, the sacraments help us, as embodied creatures, to understand spiritual realities. In turn, when we participate in the sacraments, we testify to our faith in God’s promises before a watching world.

In what way do the Scriptures represent the sacraments of the church as being different from other practices, such as the reading of Scripture or prayers, which are not sacramental? What constitutes a sacrament? There are four elements (Boice):

1. The sacraments are divine ordinances instituted by Christ himself.
2. The sacraments are ordinances in which material elements are used as visible signs of God’s blessing.
3. The sacraments are means of grace to the one who rightly partakes of them.
4. The sacraments are seals, certifications or confirmations to us of the grace they signify. The sacraments are God’s seal on the attestation that we are his children and are in fellowship with him.

Must Baptism Precede Membership? Of course!

From the what church membership is, as well as what baptism represents. I tried to briefly answer those questions in previous posts. Let me try to answer this question with a story. Let’s call this story…

Must Wearing the Team Jersey Precede Playing with the Team?

Player: “Hey coach, the team owner just hired me. I’m ready to play.”

Coach: “Great, let’s get your jersey on and put you out on the field.”

Player: “Wait a second, I’m not comfortable wearing a jersey. I’d prefer to hold off. Maybe I’ll play a few games, and then consider wearing the jersey.”

Coach: “Well, no, actually, you have to wear a jersey before you can play for us. It’s how everyone knows who you are playing for.”

Player: “That’s ridiculous. First, I admit the rule book talks about players wearing jerseys, but nowhere does it explicitly say that I HAVE to wear a jersey BEFORE the first game…”

Coach: “Ahhh, hmmm, you’re right. The rule book doesn’t actually say that baptism must come before membership. Maybe we should not require our team to wear their jerseys at all. Some will; some won’t. Nobody will be confused by that.”

Player: “You’re being sacrastic.”

Coach: “Yes, I am. But lovingly so. Look, the rule book says players must wear jerseys–period. It doesn’t say before or after the first game. It just says they have to wear them. And the point is, you need them from the start because those jerseys are the very thing which tell people whose team you belong to. That’s what this little rite is for.

Player: “Okay, fine. But I haven’t got to my second point.”

Coach: “Yes?”

Player: “Second, I still think you’re being a little legalistic. I mean, I’m a team member! The team owner hired me. I don’t need the jersey’s to prove that I’m a member. It’s a done deal. So now I want to go and play, and I think I will play best wearing my old gym shorts.”

Coach: “True, the owner hired you, and that’s what made you a team member. I’m glad he did. But the owner ALSO wrote rule book which said that all the players have to wear uniforms. And he delegated to me the authority to make sure you wear it. So jersey up!”

[Curtain close.]

I hope it’s clear why I would say that baptism should precede church membership. Baptism is a public identification with the Trinity. That’s what Jesus means when he speaks of being baptized “into the name” of Father, Son, and Spirit. When you are baptized, you are saying, “I’m with them!” You are putting on the team jersey.

What’s is local church membership? At its heart, it is the same thing. It is a declaration that we belong to Christ’s kingdom and to his universal church.

How does a local church make that declaration? It does it through baptism (and the Lord’s Supper).

So go find my own local church’s directory of names. Inside you will find all the people who we have collectively taken responsibility for as members of the universal body of Christ. We have taken responsibility to declare this short list of names to be “Christ’s church” whenever we administer baptism and receive the Lord’s Supper.

Must baptism precede membership? Well, I mean, I can imagine an extraordinary situation where the order might get reversed by a few weeks. It’s not a matter of ontological or salvific necessity, per se. But basically, yes! Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the mechanism that Jesus has given us for declaring someone to be a member of his body, and this happens among real people in a real place called the gathering of a local church.