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What Does Baptism Mean?

September 18, 2016

The church has been given the Great Commission. According to this passage, it is to make disciples by going, baptizing, and teaching. The church is to go into the world to find people and make them disciples. By baptizing them, the church is including people from all nations who have been made Christian, either by faith or by birth, and accepting them into the covenant community. Then the church is to train and encourage the disciples by teaching them everything that Jesus has commanded.

We will look today at what God says to us in baptism, but first, what is a good definition of marriage? You might give any number of answers, but the two Christian answers are: 1.) “A lifelong covenantal relationship between one man and one woman before God,” and 2.) “A living picture of the relationship between Christ and the Church.” While acknowledging that the second answer is true, we tend to prefer the first one—because it’s more about us and what we do. We see things from our own perspective and tend to ask how it relates to us personally rather than asking what God is doing and how it relates to the gospel.

We tend to do the same thing with Baptism. We try to define it based on what it means to me and what I am saying when I receive baptism. Baptism is supposed to be a sign of unity and inclusion, but because of disagreement over what we are saying in baptism, it has caused a great deal of division among Christians. Perhaps much conflict could be avoided if we would look at it from the perspective of what God is saying to us in baptism rather than what we are saying.

Baptism is a sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace. For insight on this matter, we can look all the way back to Genesis 17:17 at Abraham’s circumcision. Later on, circumcision took on the significance of national identity and obedience to the Mosaic Law, but originally it was about Abraham responding in faith to what God had promised him. Baptism is the New Testament equivalent of Old Testament circumcision. It is a sign, a badge of membership in the covenant community that entitles you to all the privileges and responsibilities of the house.

Baptism admits infants into the nursery of faith, and it recognizes believers who have a right to the member benefits. Infants of believing parents are planted in the good soil of the faith. The church is a disciple-making machine: infants are the raw material and we expect that they will, in time, become the final product of mature disciples.

The Covenant of Grace is the plan and promise of God to save His people through faith in Christ. This grace is one-sided and unconditional. We can’t meet the conditions of God’s perfect Law; the conditions are fulfilled solely by Jesus. All the work is done from His side. All we do is respond in faith.

The benefits of the Covenant of Grace and of baptism fulfilled are many: union with Christ, forgiveness of sins, being raised to new life in Christ, etc… These benefits are claimed by faith, but they are caused by God. The sacrament of baptism points us to our need for help from outside ourselves. Baptism is a picture of salvation and a guide that points to where it can be found. Baptism is a sign, not the reality (Romans 4:3-5, 11-12). Don’t stop at the sign but follow it to the reality to which it points. Salvation is not found in baptism; it is found in Christ.

In baptism, God says to us, “I save, my people, through faith, I promise.” All the sacraments point to Christ. (Col 2:11-12; 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 3:21-22; Luk 22:19-22) Baptism is all about Christ, his perfect life and sacrificial death. It recognizes that we need cleansing and washing. And what do we say to God in baptism? Nothing! We don’t have the microphone. We listen. But baptism calls us with all earnestness to respond by following the sign and instructions that lead us to Christ. We trust in Him.

What does baptism mean for those who are being baptized? You are separated from the world and included in the covenant community. God has claimed you for His very own. The promise of the gospel is true for you and you are a beneficiary of covenant privilege. You will be prayed for and with, see miracles of God’s grace and be taught about God and what Christ has commanded. You are now under sacred obligation to be wholly and only the Lord’s.

What does baptism mean to the parents of children being baptized? You are obligated to raise this child in covenant with God. You are to pray for them, teach them the Christian faith and live an example of it, and take them to church. Baptism does not guarantee the child’s salvation (because baptism itself does not save); it must be responded to in faith. But we fully expect covenant children, in time, to respond in faith. It would be very surprising if they do not believe the gospel and come to Christ for themselves.

What does baptism mean to the covenant community? We are to make disciples of these children. We are to help show Jesus to these children. They are children in our family. They are our responsibility. We are to provide them a loving, thriving Christian community.

What does your baptism mean to you, today? It is still a sign that points us to Christ. Without faith it is impossible to please God; therefore, baptism without faith is worthless. It is a visible gospel. It calls us to continued faith. Baptism is also a tonic against temptation; it helps us remember that we belong to God and must not live as if we didn’t. Baptism, when claimed with faith in Christ, provides assurance of our salvation. It is a continual reminder that we need Jesus to save us. He fulfilled the conditions of our salvation by living an absolutely perfect life for us and by dying for our sins, and this leaves us no room for pride. In remembering or claiming our baptism, we can draw strength from God’s commitment to us; God has claimed us and included us in His church and will continue the work that He began in us. Finally, our baptism should motivate us to live in brotherly love within the covenant community. We all have been baptized into Christ’s church. We are one in Christ. We belong to each other.

God says the same thing in baptism in a visible form that He says in the gospel. You must receive Christ by faith. Repent and believe in Jesus.

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