Baptism Is About the Gospel

FPCNorwayLessons, Reforming Worship

Baptism is about the gospel, and it is crucial to a biblical understanding of baptism that we keep the gospel central when we talk about it. God gives baptism to the church to be a visible display of the gospel. That is why it is so vital that we understand the doctrine of baptism rightly. Get that doctrine wrong, and we threaten the gospel itself. 

Baptism Is About the Gospel

Reforming Worship: Biblical Foundations to Worship God by the Word of God
Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
April 19, 2020

Keeping the Gospel Central in Baptism

There are few practices in the church that are more wonderful, more ancient, and more contentious than baptism—particularly in the last 500 years. During the Protestant Reformation, a minority party of believers, known as the Anabaptists, rejected the practice of infant baptism. This trend expanded to the Baptist movement in the following century. Meanwhile, the majority party of the Protestant Reformation affirmed infant baptism but reexamined the doctrine in light of the Scriptures. Of course, both sides argued that their view was the biblical view, and, of course, both sides have fought vigorously about it ever since. The majority of Christians today practice infant baptism, but the majority of Protestant Christians today practice adult or believers-only baptism. Now, why all the ruffled feathers? And what is baptism about anyway?

Baptism is about the gospel, and it is crucial to a biblical understanding of baptism that we keep the gospel central when we talk about it. God gives baptism to the church to be a visible display of the gospel. That is why it is so vital that we understand the doctrine of baptism rightly. Get that doctrine wrong, and we threaten the gospel itself. If we make baptism about the recipient, then we have undermined the gospel. Make baptism merely a cultural rite of passage—like graduating from high school—then we have missed the gospel altogether. Make baptism a mark of maturity for established Christians, and we again miss the point of the gospel. Treat baptism as a magic formula for getting saved, or an infallible mark that you are saved, and we still, have missed and undermined the gospel.

Tonight, we are going to look at the Presbyterian doctrine of Baptism. In my estimation, I have not found a more robustly biblical articulation of the sacrament. Long before I was a Presbyterian, I looked to its theology to supplement my own. I hope that I provide a winsome case for the Presbyterian position and that at minimum, the gospel would be a point of unification where there may be otherwise contention. I should also say that the occasion for this address is the celebration of our first baptism as a church, which we will conduct after the evening lesson. As far as we know, this is, in fact, the first Presbyterian baptism in Norwegian history. So in light of this occasion, we need to clearly state what we believe about baptism, and by extension, what we believe about the gospel too.  After all, the gospel is what baptism is all about. We will study baptism by asking three questions. As we consider this doctrine, I would like to focus on the points that unite Protestants, though I will do my best to mention the contention points along the way.

1. What Is Baptism?

The Presbyterian doctrine concerning the nature of baptism can be grouped into three main points.

i. Baptism is a sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ

The reason that we practice baptism is that our Lord Jesus Christ instituted it. These words of institution come to us in the Great Commission. There Jesus says to his disciples, “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” (Matt. 28:19). Now, baptism is conducted by the washing of water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Thus far, we have universal agreement among the three major branches of Christendom. We practice baptism because Jesus told us to do it. Further, there is widespread agreement that baptism is central to discipleship. Again, the first thing that comes from our Savior’s lips about making disciples is that we baptize them.

We should say that for the majority of church history, the mode of using water has not been a point of contention—except for the anabaptists and baptists beginning in the sixteenth century. From the beginning, Christian churches have used sprinkling, pouring, or immersion. While some argue that the Bible ‘clearly’ teaches one position or another, the witness of Church history is that this should not be a point of contention. Why it should not be a point to argue about is because of what baptism signifies in the first place (which we will come to in a minute). Another reason that it should not be a point of contention is that the Bible uses the Greek word “baptize” in the New Testament and the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) in several ways. For example, in Hebrews 9:9, this Greek word is used to describe “various washings” to summarize the sacrificial duties of the priests in the Old Testament. These “various washings”—or “baptisms”—included dipping (cf. Exod. 12:22), sprinkling (cf. Lev. 4:6, 17), and pouring (Lev. 9:9).[1]

ii. Baptism is a sign and seal of the Gospel

We said at the outset that baptism is about the gospel. To that end, the Bible teaches that baptism is a sign and seal of it. This usage of the words “sign” and “seal” comes from Romans 4:11. There Paul says that Abraham “received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was uncircumcised.” The sign of circumcision pointed to God’s covenant with Abraham. It also served as a seal that Abraham was made righteous by that covenant. So circumcision pointed to the covenant and attested to Abraham’s standing within the covenant. Now come to Galatians and we learn something incredibly important for our study. In Galatians, we learn that God’s covenant with Abraham is the gospel in Old Testament form. Paul says in Galatians 3:7-9, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Therefore, this physical act of circumcision functioned as a sign and seal of the gospel. It pointed to it and testified that Abraham was made righteous by it.

But can we say the same for baptism? Many authors have written on this subject. I will simply say here that the two most significant sacraments of the Old Testament are circumcision and the Passover and that they parallel the two sacraments of the New Testament, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. As a case in point, Paul demonstrates the parallel of circumcision and baptism in Colossians 2:11-12, when he writes, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism.” Both the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments function as great signs and seals of the gospel. Again, baptism is about the gospel. As a sign and seal, it points us to God’s promise in the gospel, and it bears witness to the righteousness that we have by faith in the gospel. If you would like to learn more about the various elements of the gospel that baptism signifies, you can read chapters 27 and 28 of the Westminster Confession of Faith as well as the corresponding questions in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

iii. Baptism is a visible mark between the church and the world

Baptism’s Old Testament parallel of circumcision put a visible mark between those who were members of the covenant people and those who were not (cf. Rom. 15:8). Indeed if a sojourner from outside the community wanted to become an Israelite and an heir of the promise, if they are male, he would need to undergo circumcision. Now we can be thankful that the New Testament sign is not quite so painful, but it does indeed function in the same way of placing a visible mark on the people of God. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” Baptism is the New Testament way of marking out disciples from the rest of the world. Now, this leads to our second question.

2. Who Should Be Baptized?

Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 28:19 that the starting point of discipleship is baptism. In fact, as my New Testament professor, D. A. Carson, would regularly say in class, there is no concept in the New Testament of an unbaptized Christian. The implicit assumption in the New Testament, whenever the apostles write to the church, is that they are baptized. We just cited an example of that in 1 Corinthians 12:13. So, to answer the question of who should be baptized, we can say two things.

i. All believers should be baptized

In every age of the church, until some odd exceptions in recent years, baptism constituted the beginning of the discipleship process. Or, in other words, to be a church member, you had first to be baptized. The more recent notion of unbaptized church members is unheard of in church history. Here we must note a fundamental problem in shifting views of baptism which undercut the gospel. In some circles, people treat baptism as a mark of spiritual maturity. You may know someone who desired to delay their baptism until they progressed further in their Christian walk. But this undercuts the gospel. We do not become Christians by making ourselves more worthy or able. We become Christians when God rescues us in our weakness and inability.

We should also note that many delay baptism because they view it as primarily a certification that the person is genuinely saved. Now we should, of course, except repentance and faith to proceed baptism. All Protestants affirm this point. When the crowd asked Peter what they should do be saved, he replied, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Likewise, Paul says in Galatians 3:26-27, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” So the New Testament is clear that repentance and faith should precede baptism. But it never indicates that it is an automatic sign of regeneration. 

There is no indication whatsoever in the Bible that the Apostles examined the validity of those who wanted to be disciples before they baptized them. That is, we never see a ‘Regeneration Test’ given to a baptismal candidate to see if they are ready for baptism. There is no evidence in the Bible that the apostles tried to discern if a person was genuinely saved before baptizing them. The only requisite in the Bible is that they repent and believe.  In the New Testament, disciples are considered innocent until proven guilty. Baptism is not church discipline. It is not a litmus test to see if someone is truly a believer. In the New Testament, those who repent and believe are baptized without undue delay. This biblical principle does not prohibit something like a baptism class, but it does speak against making people “prove their salvation” before allowing them to be baptized. We should expect nothing more than what the Bible requires in repentance and faith.  But what about the children of believers?

ii. The children of believers should be baptized

Now we arrive at the most controversial point. And it is somewhat surprising from a historical point of view. For four thousand years, the people of God have given their children the sign of the covenant. As we find in Genesis 17, Abraham believed the gospel covenant (per our discussion above), and God commanded Abraham to give his children the sign of his faith. Thus, circumcision is the sign and seal of the Old Testament form of the gospel covenant. As we argued above from Galatians 3, the Bible says that the covenant that God made with Abraham was the gospel (Gal. 3:8-9). Abraham believed God and God credited it to him as righteousness. And in response to that faith in God’s covenant promise, God commanded Abraham to give his children the sign as an everlasting covenant (Gen. 17:9-14). It is no surprise then that we see the same command and promise at Pentecost. Peter tells the crowd, “Repent and be baptized…For the promise is for you and your children” (Acts 2:38-39).

This principle, which we can call “household solidarity,” is found in both the Old and New Testaments. We find it rooted in Genesis 17, though the principle goes back to the Garden of Eden. We also find it in someone like Joshua, who declared, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15). This principle is also in the New Testament. When Jews brought their children to Jesus, even infants, he declared that to such belong the kingdom of heaven (cf. Luke 18:15-17). It was the parent’s faith that brought them to Jesus. Likewise, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:14 that children are made holy by the faith of the parent. Further, the New Testament records five explicit examples of household baptisms (Acts 10; Acts 16 – 2x, Acts 18; and 1 Cor. 1). Now we don’t know the ages of those baptized, but the point is that the whole house was baptized, which probably also included servants.

The Old and New Testaments, as well as four thousand years of biblical and church history, attest to the principle of household solidarity. In the Old Testament, they were circumcised. In the New Testament to the present, they are baptized. We call the children of believers, “covenant children.” Again, we should be like Joshua, saying, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).

Now, before we leave this principle, we should say something about the salvation status of covenant children. Circumcision was no guarantee of salvation. Israel was a mixed people. Just look at Abraham’s son, Ishmael. Though he was circumcised, he proved to be outside of the covenant. And many in Israel followed suit. We call them ‘covenant breakers.’ The same problem occurs in the New Testament. The apostles got it wrong with Simon the Magician. Though he was baptized, his actions proved that he was not yet a believer (Acts 8:22-23). John declares in 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” The New Testament church had many baptized disciples who later proved to be false Christians. Baptism never was and never can be a silver bullet to ensure your salvation. That’s not what it’s for. Baptism points us to the gospel, but it cannot make us believe the gospel. So today, when believers baptize their children, it is a commitment to raise them in the faith and to challenge them to preserve in the faith. Don’t miss this point. The baptism of covenant children is a call for them to persevere by faith in the gospel, and a call for parents to persevere in raising them in the faith. This call to perseverance leads to our third and final question.

How Can We Improve Our Baptism?

A significant contribution to the history of Christian thought on baptism is the Presbyterian theology of how Christians should “improve” their baptism. This improvement of our baptism is in respect to reflecting on our baptism and when we see others baptized. Now, what does that mean? How is our baptism to be improved by us? You can read about it in full in question 167 of the Westminster Larger Catechism, but I will point to one significant way here. We can improve our baptism by persevering in a life of gratitude for the gospel.

The Catechism states that we can improve our baptism “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” (WLC Q. 167). And here they cite Romans 6:3-5,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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 6:3-5

In baptism, we are buried with Jesus in death and raised to new life by the glory of the Father. Baptism is all about the gospel, beloved! And as Paul exhorts the church in Rome, this baptism is given to us that we might walk in newness of life. The call that we receive in baptism is a call to persevere in a life of gratitude for all that is ours in the gospel. We can significantly improve our baptism by living a life of appreciation for the gospel that was given to us when we were dead and undeserving.

Beloved, baptism is not a mark that signifies our spiritual maturity. Baptism is not about what you have done for God. Baptism is about the gospel. It’s about what he did for you when you were dead and helpless. Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s gospel covenant that goes back to Abraham. It displays all that God has done for you in Christ. It reminds us of all that is ours in him, both in this life and the life to come. Though rooted in the Old Testament, baptism began with our Lord’s Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, and it will end on that great day when he comes in glory to raise us from the grave. Until that time, may God bless our covenant families. May we and our children persevere in the faith. May we improve our baptisms in lives of gratitude. May we never cease to look upon them with thankfulness for all that Jesus has done for us. Beloved, let’s keep the gospel central in baptism. For baptism is not about what we did for God; it is about what the Lord of the gospel did to save you and me.

[1] We should note here that “dipping” seems to be the regular association of the baptism word group, but that the application of the blood by the priest was always either dipping, sprinkling, or pouring. They dipped an object or their finger, and they applied it to the subject—whether another priest or the altar, etc.