A Celebration of Baptism

The following is a lightly edited transcript

What I’d like to do now, in the few minutes that we have before baptism, is to present you a kind of a bird’s-eye view of where I think the practice of baptism came from and what meaning it has for us here at Bethlehem. I won’t be restricting myself just to the text that was read. I simply urge you just to sit back and listen, rather than trying to follow in any of the Scriptures, because I’m going to be citing many.

A Baptism for Repentance

Just before Jesus came on the scene, another man came on the scene. Jesus preached, “The Kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). This other man had come also, John the Baptist, preparing the way, also saying, “Repent and be baptized.” He came preaching a baptism of repentance, in other words (Mark 1:4).

What is this baptism of John the Baptist mean? I think it means that the Messiah has come and he is beginning to gather out of Israel a new people. The thing that is characterizing this people is that they are responding to his message in repentance and faith, and therefore, no Jew, when they hear the message of judgment and the call to repentance, which John preaches to the covenant people, should ever say, “Well, we have Abraham as our father. We bear the marks in our own flesh of the sign of the covenant — circumcision.”

John says, “Don’t even start to say that. The people that I am gathering for the Messiah are people who repent, and the sign of the covenant given beforehand doesn’t make any difference.” What counts in the new people is not who your parents were; what counts is whether or not you repent, and whom you live for. And therefore, John introduces a new symbol of this new people and the entry into it, namely baptism. He doesn’t call them to be circumcised again; he starts baptizing people.

In other words, by calling Jews to be baptized, who were already supposedly the people of God, he was declaring loud and clear that it’s not physical descent from Abraham that makes you part of the family of God. And since it’s not that, the old symbol of circumcision, which marked the entrance into the physical people of God, is now being replaced by another symbol, which symbolizes entrance into the new people of God, the true Israel, the church. I think John thus illustrates for us the foundation of the meaning of baptism in the rest of the New Testament.

Go Make Disciples, Baptizing Them

The next stage in the development of this process is that Jesus submits to baptism. He accepts John’s baptism, approves it, and aligns himself with this new people, even though he himself didn’t need to be repenting of any sin.

The next step is that Jesus’s disciples, we are taught in John 3:22–24, also make part of their ministry baptizing the way John did.

Next, after Jesus’s resurrection, he commands the church, saying:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit …

Then, in the final stage, a few weeks after that command, the apostles rise up on the day of Pentecost, preach the first sermon to a standing-room-only crowd of Jews, and they do the same thing John the Baptist and Jesus did. They say:

Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:38–39).

So following in the footsteps of John the Baptist and Jesus and his command, the apostles call the nation of Israel to repent and to signify that repentance in the act of baptism. That’s the text that Tom read earlier. The promise that was held out to the people is not only to them but to the generations following them and to others beyond — that’s us. And then he sums up what all these people have in common: They are those whom the Lord our God calls to himself. People who have heard the call and come to Jesus are the people who are part of this new family of God that is being assembled since Jesus came. It is for everyone who hears and responds. Forgiveness of sins, then, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to those who repent, turn and follow Christ, and go on to express that transformation in baptism.

The Symbolism of Baptism

So now, I think we can see a couple of things. We can see the origin of this ordinance of baptism. John the Baptist begins calling the nation Israel to repent and be baptized. Jesus submits to that act of baptism, approving of it and aligning himself with the new people. The disciples of Jesus practice it. Jesus, at the end of his life, before he goes back to the Father, commands that it be done until he comes again. And then the apostles begin, at the very outset of their ministry, to offer it to the early church and to all who would repent and believe.

I think emerging from this little outline is the meaning that baptism has — it was a sign of repentance and faith in Christ, who is the Savior and Lord of a new people. Baptism symbolized, for John the Baptist, Jesus, and Peter on that first day of Pentecost, a conversion — a turning from self-reliance or reliance on the law, to Jesus and reliance on him. It represents a turning around from the old life and going off in a new direction, behind Jesus Christ. The way Paul put that in the rich theology that he had developed was:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

Do you see the turning around that symbolized there? It’s leaving the old and heading off into the new with Jesus, aligning ourselves with him. It symbolizes death to the old way and life to the new way.

The Necessity of Faith

Now, I think it will help very much to make more precise how we understand baptism, by contrasting it with infant baptism. I’ll try to explain to you why we in the Baptist tradition do not baptize little babies. The reason is twofold. The first reason is that little infants can’t exercise repentance and faith. And the second reason, which is just as important, is that we think it accords with the New Testament that a person should inherit the blessings of Abraham, or be considered a Christian, on the basis of his parents’ faith. The most credible defense that has the most integrity, I think, of infant baptism is a defense that goes like this: Just as Israel, in the Old Testament, circumcised little eight-day-old babies, symbolizing their entrance into the covenant people, so the church, the new covenant people, should baptize little babies to signify their entrance into the covenant people by virtue of being born to Christian parents.

Now, I agree that there is a very important correspondence between circumcision in the old people and baptism in the new people. The correspondence, it seems to me, is something like this. This is a very important sentence: Just as circumcision was administered to all the physical sons of Abraham, so baptism should be administered to all the spiritual sons of Abraham. And who are the spiritual sons of Abraham? Galatians 3:7 says:

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.

Since the only way to enter the new people of God is through repentance and faith, it’s fitting therefore that the symbol that signifies entrance into that new people should be a symbol administered to those who have that repentance and faith.

Believer baptism bears witness to what John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles taught — namely, not all are children of Abraham just because they are his descendants. It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God (Romans 9:7–8). There is a very important change that has come into the way God is forming a people for himself. In the Old Testament, the way God was forming a people for himself was by natural offspring. Any child born to a Jew was circumcised by virtue of having been born into a Jewish family. But in the church, in the new or the true Israel, the way God is forming this people is not that way, but only by virtue of spiritual conversion, transformation, and faith and repentance.

Yes, there is a correspondence between circumcision and baptism — both symbolize entrance into the people of God. But there is a very, very crucial difference with the coming of Christ. With the coming of John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles, the emphasis that falls is now that you become a part of the people of God, not by virtue of any physical descent whatsoever, but only by virtue of having the faith of Abraham. Those are the ones who belong to the covenant community, and those are the ones, therefore, who we believe should receive the sign and symbol of the covenant, namely baptism.

Celebrating the Work of God

Therefore, in conclusion, what we celebrate this morning is the work of God in the hearts of little children, Laotians, and Hispanics, to bring those young people and older people out of darkness, into light, and to turn them from unbelief to belief, to walk behind Jesus Christ. That’s what we celebrate. When I ask the little children in a few minutes, “Do you confess Jesus as your Lord and as your Savior?” and they say, “Yes,” what we’re celebrating is that they have taken this mighty Lord and made him their own. They have received him, as John 1:12 says.

When I raise my hand over them and baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, what we celebrate is that the whole Godhead has been engaged in their conversion, and they are now related to every member of the Trinity in a new way. And when I take them and put them under the water, what we all celebrate together is the death of Jesus and his burial for our sins, that we need not, having identified with him, ever die again spiritually. And when I lift them up out of the water and the choir leads you in singing, what we celebrate is that Jesus arose, and they are going to participate in that resurrection. And when they walk out of that baptismal pool back into those rooms, they are stepping up out of oldness and following Jesus in a new way of life. That’s what we understand by baptism, and it is something to celebrate.

My prayer is that every person here will, with the kids, rekindle your love to God and all that he’s done for you that has been symbolized in baptism, and that you’ll reawaken those baptismal vows that you made.