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Improve Your Baptism

Immersion as a Means of Grace

One reason I believe we should only baptize believers by immersion is that baptism, in the New Testament, is meant to be vividly memorable. God means for the memory of being immersed in the waters to fortify us against temptation and bolster our assurance.

Baptists often make and defend their case by quoting specific New Testament verses. On its own, this will not prove persuasive to some infant-baptists, but it is a good place to start. Woe to us if we ignore the plain, obvious, even stubborn reading of the words of God almighty to us in the Scriptures.

Beyond the most important verses in the New Testament, however, we need to pay attention to the bigger picture, and the covenantal dynamics of how the whole Bible fits together. Baptists must test our readings of our proof texts within the larger theological and covenantal considerations put forward in the Scriptures. And when we do, I believe we find the believer-baptist case is not only upheld, but significantly strengthened.

In this article, I want to tackle a third major consideration — namely, that rites of covenant inauguration are more fitting and effective when memorable to the applicant. In fact, they are designed to be memorable. This highlights an important difference between old-covenant circumcision and new-covenant baptism. A male infant who is circumcised will carry this initiatory rite in his own flesh for his whole life. The same is not the case with baptism. This makes baptism a rite more fittingly applied to (1) those mature enough to remember it, as well as (2) those who themselves profess already-existent faith, worked in them by God, rather than simply the hope and prayer that faith may one day be granted.

Sign and Seal

While Romans 4:11 has circumcision in view, not baptism, we learn something about a rite of covenant initiation that applies to baptism. The insight also helps to explain why, famously, the great Reformer Martin Luther (rightly) would seek to recall his baptism when struggling for assurance (and against temptation). Abraham, Paul says, “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith” (Romans 4:11).

Baptists commonly emphasize that new-covenant baptism, like old-covenant circumcision, functions as a sign. Baptism demonstrates visibly and objectively in the world what has happened invisibly and subjectively in the heart. God has taken out a heart of stone and put in a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). He has caused us to be born again (1 Peter 1:3) and granted the gift of faith (Ephesians 2:7; Philippians 1:29). Baptism outwardly signifies this inward reality. But what does it mean for a rite of covenant initiation to be not only a sign but also a seal?

In the ancient world, kings and dignitaries of all stripes (all the way down to heads of households) often possessed a particular symbol, whether on a staff or ring or another small piece of metal, which they could stamp into hot wax to authenticate that a message was from them and had their backing. For instance, in Daniel 6, once the prophet was lowered into the lion’s den, the king “sealed it with his own signet . . . that nothing might be changed” (Daniel 6:17).

In the New Testament, believers are said to be sealed with the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 1:22; Ephesians 4:30), whom Ephesians 1:13 explains as “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it.” Even though we are, in a sense, not yet fully saved and brought completely into our final salvation, God puts his seal on us, in the present age, by giving us his Spirit, which confirms in our hearts (Romans 5:5) that we are truly his and that he will indeed save us fully in the end. And the Spirit, of course, is invisible and works subjectively in us as he “dwells” in us (Romans 8:9, 11; 1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Timothy 1:14).

Baptism, then, along with the Lord’s Supper, serves as a kind of visible and objective seal, confirming to the individual Christian, through the church as a whole, not only God’s covenant love and faithfulness to his people in general, but also his specific love, care, and full acceptance of me through faith in his Son.

Means of God’s Grace

Baptism, like circumcision, is a rite to be “received” (Romans 4:11), not performed. Not only is the believer testifying to the church and the world that Jesus is his Lord, but also, and more significantly, God is testifying to the baptizee, through the church, “You are mine. I call you ‘beloved.’ You are in my Son by faith and righteous in my sight. You are fully accepted in him.”

The baptizee is not the main actor in baptism but a participant and receiver, first from God (“You are mine”) and then from the church (“We believe your faith is genuine”). The declaration of baptism to the believer is not infallible, but it is objective, public, and significant in the life of faith. Baptism is like a wedding ceremony, in which God, the church (the witnesses), and the recipient all speak. Baptism is not alone the grounds of our assurance, but it is a real and tangible event that contributes to our overall experience of assurance.

The reality of baptism as not only sign but seal raises the question of God’s means of grace and their use. Some Christians shy away from this language related to baptism, but if defined rightly, it is appropriate and helpful. Baptism is indeed a one-time means of grace, through faith, to the believer in that it confirms to us the reality of our faith and strengthens that faith, as we receive the testimony of God, in the testimony of the church. Baptism also dramatizes the gospel as the believer is buried under the water, symbolizing the death of the old self, and then raised to new life in coming up out of the water.

Baptists often accent that we receive baptism in obedience to Jesus’s command (Matthew 28:19), and baptism is indeed an act of obedience. However, we do well to observe and emphasize that baptism also extends God’s grace to his church (and, in a different sense, to the world). Each baptism proclaims God’s power to awaken the spiritually dead and transform lives by the gospel of his Son, and each baptism dramatizes that power, for the joy of the church, in a one-time experience for a particular person.

Immersed and Commissioned

Baptism also serves as a kind of commissioning to the life of faith. We often accent the rite as initiatory to the family, but it’s also a commission from our Lord to join his church in making disciples — which is another reason to baptize only professing believers. Baptism doesn’t merely mark out who’s in the new covenant or not, but also recognizes the commission of the administers (not mediators) of the covenant. In this sense, baptism is a kind of ordination or appointment to the priesthood of all believers.

Baptism, then, as a means of grace serves as another inroad into the question of who should be baptized, and how. God’s appointed means of grace — whether his word, prayer, fellowship, or more specifically the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper — serve as instruments of God’s favor to those who receive them seriously and in faith, and instruments of judgment to those taking them lightly or partaking apart from faith (as we see in 1 Corinthians 11:27–32). It would be unwise, and perhaps perilous, to alter, treat lightly, or administer the sacrament to any who do not profess faith.

Now, alongside the error of administering the sacrament apart from faith, we should note, as well, the error of treating baptism lightly in whatever form that would take, whether mass, spur-of-the-moment baptisms, or tourist immersions in the Jordan River. Such abuses are even more grave than well-meaning infant-baptisms that treat the rite seriously but misunderstand its proper recipients.

Improve Our Baptism?

Beyond the one-time experience of the baptizee, baptism as a means of grace relates to Christians throughout our lives as we observe, with faith, the baptisms of others. The Westminster Larger Catechism calls this “improving our baptism” and concedes, even then (centuries ago), it was a “much neglected duty.” Much of what Westminster confesses is applicable to those baptized as infants, though the whole practice of “improving our baptism” is markedly strengthened and deepened when the Christian himself chose and remembers the event of his own baptism.

Here’s the entirety of the section from Question 167 on “improving our baptism,” which rewards a careful reading. Note the line least fitting to those baptized as infants: “our solemn vow made therein.”

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.

In other words, baptism is not only a blessing to us on that one memorable occasion when we were the new believer in the waters. It also is a rehearsing of the gospel for us as observers and a means of grace “all our life long” as we watch, with faith, the baptisms of others and renew in our minds the riches of the reality of our identity in Christ pictured in our baptism (Romans 6:3–4; Galatians 3:27; Colossians 2:12).

End of the Means

Perhaps one reason that some Christians avoid the language of “means of grace” with baptism is owing to ambiguity — to a false impression communicated in the language of means. This is a good concern. The sacraments are not mechanistic. They do not distribute impersonal grace to the soul, even of those who partake in faith. Rather, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper — like the faithful preaching of God’s word — bring us into a personal encounter with God himself.

We dare not focus so intently on the what of the sacraments that we miss the great who at the heart of grace. Believers receive actual spiritual benefit through the sacraments, not simply outward signs; and God himself is the one who gives the benefit in relationship with himself, not the rite itself. There is no grace to receive apart from God himself. For the Christian, grace has a face. Jesus is the Grace of God Incarnate (Titus 2:11). And what makes baptism, and the Table, and the preaching of God’s word, so powerful and significant for the Christian life is that these are avenues where God has promised us his presence. These are among his revealed paths of grace along which we position ourselves for regular encounter with him.

The great goal of the sacraments — the end of the means of grace — is knowing and enjoying God in Christ. The final joy in any truly Christian discipline or practice or rhythm of life is, in the words of the apostle, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). “This is eternal life” — and this is the goal of any Christian “means of grace” — “that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

Our heartbeat in coming to be baptized, and to the Table, and watching others’ baptisms in faith, is this: “Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord” (Hosea 6:3). And if such a vision of the Christian life, and of the sacraments, is yours as well, perhaps you can see why many of us believe it’s only fitting to apply the grace of baptism to those who profess to know and pursue our Lord.