Thursday, November 8, 2012

Improving Our Baptism

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”  Romans 6:3

You should think about your baptism every day of your life.  Does that surprise you?  It shouldn’t.  When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman Church, he wanted to teach them that salvation by grace didn’t give them a license to sin.  So he reminded them about the meaning of their baptism.  In doing so, he assumed that they should have known what baptism meant for their everyday Christian lives.  He says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”  (Romans 6:3).  Baptism means union with Christ in his death and resurrection.  Since this is what baptism means, we cannot conclude that grace excuses sin.  If we think that we may “continue in sin so that grace may abound,” we are living contrary to the meaning of our baptism.  The Apostle Paul’s reminder to the Roman Church is what the Westminster divines called “improving” one’s baptism.  Larger Catechism 167 explains how we may improve our baptism:
“The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace, and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.”
God intends for our baptisms to strengthen us throughout the entire Christian life.  But what are the practical ways that we may improve our baptism?  The Larger Catechism explains many ways, but let’s see if we are able to explain this in simpler terms.  When the Westminster divines spoke about “improving” baptism, they meant “making a good use of.”  There are two main ways that Christians may make a good use of their baptism on a daily basis.  The first of these ways is by believing God’s promises made to us in baptism.  One of my favorite definitions of a Sacrament is that it is a sign and seal of God’s promise.  The language of sign and seal comes from Paul’s description of circumcision in Romans 4:11.  The connection between circumcision and baptism is made in Colossians 2:11-12.  In a Sacrament, God makes a promise to his people, and he signifies and seals that promise to their hearts by attaching a sign to his Word.  In this case, the sign is water, and God attaches water to his Word so that we might believe that Christ’s blood washes away sin from our souls as water washes away dirt from our bodies.  “And now why do you wait?  Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).  “And such were some of you.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).  As Christians we are those whose “bodies” have been “washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22).  This doesn’t mean that the water itself washes away our sins as Peter tells us that baptism “now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21).  Nevertheless, the water of baptism is not merely water, but it is “the washing of water with the word” (Ephesians 5:26).  The power is not in the water but in the Word of God.  The power is also in the Holy Spirit who uses the Word of God to create faith in our hearts (Romans 10:17).  So we must make use of our baptisms by believing the promise made to us.  Without faith in God’s promise the waters of baptism are useless.  The waters are added to strengthen and confirm our faith in God’s promise.  Heidelberg Catechism 69 explains this well.  “How does baptism remind you and assure you that Christ’s one sacrifice on the cross is for you personally?  In this way: Christ instituted this outward washing and with it gave the promise that, as surely as water washes away the dirt from the body, so certainly his blood and his Spirit wash away my soul’s impurity, in other words, all my sins.”  Now if we remembered this, then this would be a great help to us in sin and temptation.  We may be tempted to doubt that our sins are forgiven.  So where do we turn?  We turn to God’s promise to forgive us our sin for Christ’s sake.  Where does God make this promise to us personally?  In his Word and in our baptism.  Now the wonderful thing about this is that baptism is an objective reference point.  We may question whether we have had a genuine conversion experience or whether we have the requisite fruit in our lives.  But we may not question whether we have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God made an objective promise to us at that moment.  Certainly the promise must be subjectively realized in our lives, and this happens every time we believe the promise.  So the the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of administration.  So we are always drawing on the promise of God to forgive us our sins for Christ’s sake.  This promise is made to us in baptism.  I should point out here that looking to God’s promises made to us in our baptism is very different than the common problem of presumption.  Evangelicals tend to be uncomfortable with this idea of “improving our baptism” because they fear the way that many presume to be saved on account of their baptisms.  Some people have a view of baptism that teaches that sinners are saved automatically by the ritual itself.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Presumption says, “I have been baptized.  Therefore, I am saved.  I can continue to live my life how I want.”  How much this differs from God’s Word in Romans 6!  The point of Romans 6 is that if we really believed the meaning of our baptisms, then we would recognize that it is impossible for us to continue in sin.  We have died to sin.  We have risen to walk in newness of life.  We are new creatures.  Looking to God’s promises in our baptism, then, is not presumption; it’s faith.  We simply believe that what God said in his Word and sealed with his water, is true.  Luther once said that his flesh and the devil often tempted him to doubt his salvation.  In response to the devil’s accusations, Luther said that Christians should proclaim, “Behold, I am baptized, and I believe in Christ crucified.”  Now that’s improving one’s baptism!  Secondly, we may also improve our baptism by remembering the promises we made to God in our baptism.  Baptism is not merely a sign and seal of the Christian’s profession of faith.  It is first and foremost a sign and seal of God’s promise.  But in response to God’s promise to forgive us and cleanse us for Christ’s sake, we profess our faith in him.  At every Christian baptism promises are made.  When an adult is baptized, he makes promises to Christ and to the Church.  When an infant is baptized in keeping with God’s covenant promises (Acts 2:38-39), the parents make promises to raise the child for Christ, and the church makes promises to help the parents in the Christian nurture of that child.  The point is that we need to recall our baptismal vows often.  Larger Catechism 167 speaks about our need to remember “our solemn vow made therein.”  This includes confessing our sin (1 John 1:9), putting our sin to death (Romans 8:13; Colossians 3:5), and offering our lives as instruments of righteousness (Romans 6:13).  The main point of Romans 6 is that the baptism of the past implies sanctification in the present.  It calls for daily death to sin and daily resurrection to righteousness.  Baptism is not irrelevant for the Christian life.  It keeps our Christian life centered on Christ.  Baptism is Christ-centered.  His blood and his Spirit cleanse us from all sin.  His death and his resurrection justify us.  We are right with God through faith in him alone.  Whenever speaking about baptism, I always try to remind Christians that baptism is not something that we do.  It is not our work; it is God’s work.  When we study baptism in the New Testament, we notice that it almost always appears in the passive form: be baptized.  We do not baptize ourselves.  We are baptized by another.  This shows us that we cannot cleanse ourselves of our own sin.  We need the blood of Jesus to wash away our sin.  We are passive recipients of God’s promise to wash us.  We simply receive his promised cleansing by faith alone.  We see something similar in the Lord’s Supper.  Bread and wine are given to us.  We receive them with an open mouth.  We do not earn them or work for them.  The washing, the food, and the drink are God’s free gifts.  This is the dramatization of the gospel for us.  Jesus cleanses you from all your sin.  Jesus feeds you with his body and quenches your thirst with his blood.  He nourishes and strengthens you.  It’s true that we neglect this needful duty of improving our baptisms, but when we think about baptism in this way, do we not see how great a resource it is for us in times of doubt, trial, and temptation?  Should we not remind ourselves that we are baptized and that we believe the Christian faith?  Do we not know that we have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection?  We are new creatures in Jesus, and we ought to use all the means of grace (Word, Sacraments, and Prayer) to remind us of this grand reality.  We sing, “Jesus loves me.  This I know.  For the Bible tells me so.”  Let us also sing, “Jesus loves me.  This I know.  For my Baptism tells me so.” 

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