Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Christian Education

Given some recent discussions I've been having on Christian education, I thought I would post this sermon. I gave the sermon in August 2005.

A Case for Christian Schools
Psalm 145:1-7

I. Introduction

Have you seen those bumper stickers that say “Drive Carefully, Schools Are Open”? Well, this week marks the beginning of the school year. I know Sheboygan Christian starts on Wednesday, and the local public schools start Thursday.

The beginning of the school year seems like the perfect time to talk to you about one of my passions, something that has been a key component of nearly every part of my life: Christian education, and Christian schools in particular.

Those of you who know me know that I come from a family of teachers. My father left his career as an engineer to become a science teacher at a Christian high school and then a professor and now an administrator at a Christian college.

While my brothers and I were young, my mother went to college at night, and later part-time while we were in school so she could become a Christian school teacher. After about ten years teaching elementary students, she became an education professor at the same college where my dad is and now runs the graduate education program there.

And it doesn’t stop there—my brother taught for a number of years, my uncle is a Christian school principal, and three cousins are teaching or have taught in the last year at Christian schools as far away as Central America. Two more cousins plan to become Christian school teachers. And last, but certainly not least, my dear wife Kimberly is a teacher, having taught sixth graders for six years before spending the last ten years teaching our children at home and volunteering at school.

I am not a teacher by trade, but I am a product of a Christian education. For seventeen years I attended Christian schools, starting with my kindergarten year at North 4th Street Christian School in Prospect Park, New Jersey, all the way to my senior year at Dordt College in Iowa.

Those years served me well, and one of my dreams is that someday there will be a Reformed Christian law school so that students will have an opportunity I did not—the opportunity to study law in the light of Scripture and the Reformed world-and-life view.

I am absolutely convinced that Christian day schools are one of the best tools that God has given us to help us teach our children and pass on God’s word and will for our lives to them.

I am proud of the fact that our denomination has historically supported Christian schools, and I am proud of the support that all of you give so that all of the children of this church can receive a Christian education, regardless of their ability to pay. I am thrilled that last year, during the first year of our Christian Education program we collected more than enough to pay the tuition of the children who participate in the program. I think it is wonderful that the money to support the program comes from such a variety of people in the church—not just parents, but also people with no children or very young children, elderly people, people who spent years struggling to put their own kids through Christian school without a program like this, even people who have children in Christian schools, but who have chosen for one reason or another not to participate in the program.

Tonight I want to talk about Christian schools—I want to remind you of why they are important, to point out some of the misconceptions we have about Christian schools, to point out what our Christian schools ought to look like, and to encourage you as a body to continue your support for Christian education.

II. Why Christian schools?

A. They are an excellent tool for passing the knowledge of God from

generation to generation

The Psalm I read as our text this evening is a psalm of praise. “I will exalt you, my God and my King,” says the psalmist. “I will praise your name for ever and ever.” But the Psalmist knows that God is so wonderful, so praiseworthy, that it isn’t enough for just one person, or just one generation to praise Him. In verse four he proclaims that “One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts.” Not just that, but they will “tell of the power of [God’s] awesome works” and “they will celebrate [His] abundant goodness and joyfully sing of [His] righteousness.”

I can’t think of a better tool for one generation commending God’s works, His power, His goodness, His justice, His love to the next generation than Christian schools, schools where the Lord God is at the center of every part of the day and every activity, schools where teachers, parents, staff members, and volunteers are as excited as the psalmist about passing on to the young their praise and love for God.

I think it is only natural for those of us who have the Holy Spirit working in us to want to pass on the love of the Lord to others. That’s why we engage in outreach. That’s why we reach out to the poor and needy in our community. And that’s why we teach children about God.

God also specifically commands that we pass on our knowledge to future generations. In Deuteronomy 4:9, after God’s miraculous work in leading Israel out of Egypt, God, through His servant Moses, commands his people to “be careful and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things our eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”

Later, in Deuteronomy 6:7-9, God commands his people to impress the law and commandments of God on their children. “Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up,” he says. “Tie them as symbols on our hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.” In other words, God’s law and commands must be an integral part of every single thing we do, of every moment of every day.

We can only be assured that God’s laws are in front of our children while they are learning if we make sure they are in a place that explicitly teaches them that God loves them, that God has a plan for them, and that God expects a response of obedience from them. I can’t think of a better place to be assured of this during the school day but in a Christian school.

B. To teach our children from a Christian perspective

Another reason for Christian schools is to teach our children from a Christian perspective.

I’m going to start with a bold statement: There is no such thing as neutrality. Maybe some of you sports fans can relate. Have you ever watched a game between two teams to which you have no connection? If you’re like me, you still end up rooting for one team or another. Just a few weeks ago I took my family up to Minneapolis to watch a Twins-Red Sox game. We don’t have any connection to either team—we went there because my alma mater was holding an alumni gathering at the game. Both teams are in a different league than the team I root for, the Milwaukee Brewers, so it really made no difference to me who won. But I can tell you that all five of us ended up rooting hard for one team or the other.

Another example that shows neutrality is nothing but a myth is the news media. On a national level we have conservative organizations claiming that the media is biased toward Democrats because so many journalists tend to vote Democratic. On the other hand you have Fox News Network claiming to be fair and balanced while practically acting as a mouthpiece for the current administration. We see this on the local level—consider the vast differences in the way the Sheboygan Press covers city government compared to WHBL. Sometimes you’d think the reporters from those two organizations aren’t even covering the same meetings.

Neutrality is a myth. It’s a myth not because we have a human tendency to pick sides, but because the world is divided into two sides: the side that is for God and the side that is against Him. We call this the “antithesis.”

The antithesis means that there is no middle ground, no neutrality between God and the devil. This idea isn’t all that foreign to us—we often hear it expressed in popular music. Folk-rock singer Bob Dylan sang, “You gotta serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” Ten years later, the band Rush sang, “You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice. If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Neutrality is not an option. Even if you think you are neutral, you have come down on one side or another.

An understanding of the antithesis certainly isn’t limited to musicians. The Reformed philosopher Cornelius Van Til wrote often about the antithesis and about the myth of neutrality. He said that the antithesis “is between those for whom the final center of reference in knowledge lies in man, and those for whom the final center of reference for knowledge lies in God, as this God speaks in Scripture.”

Despite the writings of people as disparate as Bob Dylan and Cornelius Van Til, the common wisdom today is that neutrality is possible. Our public school system is based on that belief. Our Supreme Court struggles mightily, but in vain, to make consistent decisions about religion in education, prayers in public schools, statues of the Ten Commandments in courthouses, confident that it is possible for the state to be completely neutral.

In education, this belief in the possibility of neutrality presents itself as a conviction that we can present learning to children in such a way that they themselves can choose what values to believe and apply to what they are learning.

If we accept that our children, perhaps with input from their families, communities or churches, have the ability to receive neutral information—objective facts—and then choose for themselves the direction in which to take those facts, we have turned individuals, or at least human reason, into the final judge of truth. We end up with the dominant worldview today, one that says that humans can decide on their own what is truth.

The Christian writer Greg Bahnsen describes the way many people think today this way: “The experts may differ; it is up to every man finally to decide for himself. This is proper; the sanctity of the human person must not be violated. Ask any man to accept anything on pure authority, the sort of authority that the Bible claims for itself, and you are virtually asking him to deny his manhood. You are then asking him to be irrational and therefore to deny him the use of the powers that constitute his personality.”

As Christians, we do accept on pure authority the rule of God over everything in Creation. We accept that He is at the center of every single activity—he is the reason, the be-all and end-all of our existence. To accept that an individual, or mankind, gets to decide what is rational, what is authoritative, is to deny the centrality of God. Such a way of looking at the world is hardly neutral—it is clearly opposed to God.

If we accept that God is at the center of everything we do, then we must desire for our children to learn in a setting where God is acknowledged as the center of all, where He is recognized as the King of Creation, the Master of Math, the Sovereign of Science, the Ruler of Reading. We want our children to be taught in a setting where the teachers proclaim with Abraham Kuyper that Christ is Lord of “every square inch.”

C. Christian schools are a commitment that is covenantal, communal, and


You probably know that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church has spent the last several years studying Christian education and developing a response to those who say that our denomination’s traditional support for Christian schools needs to be reconsidered. One of the parts of that report that I really appreciated was a section that affirmed that Christian schools are a “covenantal, communal, and intergenerational commitment.” Now that is quite a mouthful, but it is packed with meaning.

When we talk about the covenant, we are talking about the basic relationship between God and us. God promised to be our God, to restore us from our sin and brokenness, and to allow us to live in perfect relationship with Him. But these promises from God come with an expectation that, through the working of the Holy Spirit in us, we will respond in gratitude to God. Part of that response of gratitude involves declaring God’s wondrous works and righteousness from generation to generation.

We see some of what God expects from us in relation to the children He entrusted to us in His Word—I’ve already mentioned the passage in Deuteronomy where God commands us to impress God’s commandments on our children. In Proverbs 22:6 we are taught to “train a child in the way he should go,” with the promise that “when he is old he will not turn from it.” And in the New Testament, in Ephesians 6:4, fathers (and mothers, too) are instructed to bring their children up “in the training and instruction of the Lord.” God expects us to pass on what we know about Him to our children, to future generations, so they too may live always to glorify Him. In this way, then, Christian schools are a part of a commitment to God based on the covenant of grace.

When we say that Christian schools are communal, we acknowledge that God has placed us in a community, a community where each member has responsibilities to each other. The core principles of Christian Schools International, the parent organization for the three Christian schools we support here at Calvin, reflect that mutual, communal responsibility. One of the principles by which CSI is run puts it beautifully: “Because God's covenant embraces not only parents and their children but also the entire Christian community to which they belong, and because Christian education contributes directly to the advancement of God's kingdom, it is the obligation not only of parents but of the entire Christian community to establish and maintain Christian schools, to pray for them, work for them, and give generously to their support.”

Hilary Clinton took a lot of guff for the title of her book “It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.” But if by “village” we mean the community of believers, that is exactly what we teach when in our baptism ceremonies we ask the congregation to promise to “receive these children in love, pray for them, help instruct them in the faith, and encourage and sustain them in the fellowship of believers.”

Last spring I had an an experience with the community of believers helping me teach one of my children. One of my boys was apparently making a habit of being a bit reckless on his bicycle while crossing Geele Avenue to get to or from school. My kids are obviously of an age where Kim or I cannot be with them every minute, and we didn’t know that this was a problem. Well, one morning my son pulled out into traffic about the time Butch Katt happened to be driving in the area. A few minutes later I got a call at work from Butch. I remember him saying something like “If you think I’m sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong just tell me to shut up, but…” and then he proceeded to tell me what he had seen. I did not tell Butch to shut up—I was glad he told me what had happened so Kim and I could take the steps to ensure that this didn’t happen again. I appreciated the call, because he was doing just what he and all of you promised when that child of mine was baptized in this very room. Yes, God gives primary responsibility to the parents, but God also wants all of us to be that village, the community of believers, that helps the parents to raise their child.

Christian schools are an extension of that community. They are not the church, they are not the family, they are another institution created to assist families in raising their children so that the church can continue with its task for years to come. They are a community commitment.

Schools are also an intergenerational commitment. As I mentioned before, in Psalm 145 the psalmist writes about one generation passing on to another all the wonderful things they know about about God—his mighty acts, glorious splendor, and abundant goodness. By their very nature, Christian schools are a way for one generation to teach the next about God. Whether you are have children or not, whether you are seventeen or seventy, God wants you proclaiming his goodness and works to the next generations. One way you can do that is by supporting the schools that are teaching children about their Lord and Savior.

III. What Christian schools are NOT, and what they ought to be

I’ve spent a lot of time building a case for Christian schools as a tool for doing God’s will, as a way to teach the generations in a way that acknowledges God is at the center. I want to take a few minutes to look at some misconceptions or problems people have with Christian schools and contrast those misconceptions with what Christian schools ought to look like.


1. They are not perfect

Christian schools are not perfect. I sometimes hear criticism because Christian schools are imperfect, or the people associated with them, including the students, are imperfect. Often the implication is that we are just a bunch of hypocrites, acting like we are better than the folks associated with other schools, when we are really not. In northwest Iowa, a lot of us Christian school kids were used to being called “Post Toasties” by the public school kids in the area, because in their mind we felt we were “a little better than the rest.”

There is no doubt that Christian schools are affected by sin, just like all of creation. I know my schoolmates and I were certainly far from perfect. I remember one particular incident in high school where my father, frustrated with my behavior, asked me why he was bothering to send me to a Christian school, if I was going to behave in a way that gave no evidence of it having an impact on me. I know some of you have had bad experiences as students, volunteers, or employees in Christian schools, even in our schools right here in Sheboygan.

Sin is real. It pollutes all of creation, all of our institutions, every single person in the world. As Q&A 114 of the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, in this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of obedience. And that means Christian schools are no more immune from the ravages of sin than any other part of the world.

It is easy to point at the faults in our schools, declare them imperfect and full of hypocrites, and walk away. But to do so is just as hypocritical, for each and every one of us is also stained by sin, unable to do what’s right on our own. Even more, such action denies that God is powerful enough to use our imperfect, frail human institutions for powerful purposes. Finally, by doing so we ignore the working of the Holy Spirit, sanctifying believers who are doing what they can to follow God’s leading.

If the Holy Spirit has the power to change lives destroyed by sin and use them for God’s purposes, think how much more the Spirit can work through an institution like our schools, made up of many imperfect people who are day-by-day, hour-by-hour being sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
Given our imperfection, we should strive to make Christian schools agents of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification.

2. They ought to be agents of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification

Christian schools should be agents of the Holy Spirit. They can become that in several of ways. First and foremost, of course, is by teaching children that they are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. Children who are never confronted with the fact that they are sinners will never understand their need for salvation. The teachers and mentors at the school must confess to the children our own weakness and tendency to sin and our deep desire to be made clean by the Spirit. We must help children see that they are sinners who desperately need God. We need to share with children the pain we feel when sin touches our lives and the joy we feel when we see evidence of God transforming lives right in our very midst.

Besides teaching children of their sin, Christian schools must point children to Jesus Christ as both the example of perfection and the only way to forgiveness. Children must learn that salvation belongs to our God, that Jesus Christ came to this earth as both God and human to bear our sins and conquer death, and that we are now free of sin and death, free to live in relationship with our God, free to live the in the way that God meant for us to live.

Finally, Christian schools must be places where our children are free to express their gratitude to God for our salvation. They must be places where children can see and celebrate Holy Spirit’s work every day in making us more and more like Christ, places of training to live lives of service to our exalted King. Father God, let loose your Holy Spirit in our schools and among our children.


1. They are not merely shelter from a hostile and sinful world

Another common misperception about Christian schools, one held by many supporters of Christian schools, is that they are mere shelter from the world. Some see Christian schools as primarily designed to keep kids sheltered, away from the evil in the world. There’s no doubt there is evil in today’s world that affects the lives of kids. We can’t avoid seeing it on TV or reading about it in the paper. So it can be very tempting to think of Christian schools as simply a safe haven, a shelter from the bad influences around us.

While I am glad that my kids are at least somewhat sheltered, we deceive ourselves if we think that just sending them to Christian schools will keep them from the influence of sin. More than that, I am convinced that we sell our schools short if we consider them a modern day version of an abbey or monastery, a place to separate from the world.

If our children don’t learn about the sin in the world from Christian teachers, will they recognize it when they confront it after they graduate? If they aren’t presented with the reality of the antithesis, the battle between right and wrong, will they be willing to confront evil when they see it as adults? If they haven’t been exposed to the philosophies that dominate the world today, will they be able to challenge those philosophies when they intrude into their lives in the future? Christian schools should protect and nurture, but they should also engage with the world. Instead of being like an abbey or monastery, Christian schools should be like boot camps for soldiers of the cross, preparing students for battle as God’s soldiers.

2. They ought to be boot camps for training as kingdom servants

Islam has been in the news a lot recently. One of the news items has been about the madrassahs; religious schools in places like Pakistan where, it is alleged, students are prepared for life as terrorists. It is clear that while some madrassahs might be hotbeds of terrorism, their common thread is that the leaders believe education ought to be based on the Koran, that Allah ought to be at the core of all learning, and that secular ways of thinking are considered dangerous and wrong. Students in the madrassahs are taught that Islamic principles should govern every single area of life, not just those areas that people consider spiritual.

Other than the fact that we worship God, not Allah, and that our standard for living is the Bible, not the Koran, how are the madrassahs any different than Christian schools? Certainly our students will not be learning terror techniques and won’t be trained to use guns in a physical holy war against other religions, but that is because our God is a God of peace. In all other respects there are clear parallels between the madrassahs and Christian schools. Education in Christian schools is based on a truth that uses the Bible as its measuring stick. God is at the core of every bit of learning. And students are taught that there is no separation between the sacred and the secular. Instead they are taught a Christian view of the world that will affect every moment of every day, whether they grow up to be doctors, truck drivers, day car providers, artists, or small owners.

If we use the military imagery we often see in the Bible, it is easy to imagine Christian schools as boot camps, preparing students for the battles they will face. If our schools are simply shelters from those battles, our children won’t be prepared for the battle against evil, and they are much more likely to be killed or injured once they are thrown into the battle. It would be as if they spent all their time training by hiding in a bomb shelter or a refugee camp, rather than in training for the job they have to do.

When soldiers train, they are often exposed to conditions similar to those they will face in battle, just in a more controlled setting. That’s how our schools should see themselves as well. Children are not ready yet for the battle they will face as Christians, but they must be exposed to the things they will face in a controlled way that will teach them how to face the attack of the enemy, how to become effective soldiers of the cross, members of God’s army of peace and justice.


1. They are not exclusively for believers and their children

One other misperception I see about Christian schools is that they take away from our work of outreach, because Christian schools are exclusively for believers.

Most of you probably get The Banner, the magazine sent out to every member of the Christian Reformed Church. In the issue I received this week, there are two short articles by families who had to choose between Christian schools and public schools. One chose Christian schools and one chose public schools. The family that chose public schools, the Hoogenbooms, said this about their decision: “We had accepted a call to begin a church that would connect with people far from God and help them find hope and eternal life in Christ. We became convinced that to do this effectively we had to fully intersect our lives with the community of people we were called to reach. We soon realized that all our new neighbors were involved in the local public school. They spent time and built relationships in the school community. We realized that if we were going to build relationships and establish credibility with them, we needed to be part of that setting as well.”

This thought process is not unique among Christians. I have spoken to a number of people with an intense desire to reach the lost who have said essentially the same thing. A few years ago, my 11th and 12th grade Sunday school class discussed the case of a Calvin College professor who lost his job because he felt led to live and minister in the inner city, so he transferred his kids to the neighborhood public school because he felt he could not truly interact with his new neighbors if his kids were in an expensive Christian school outside of the neighborhood while his neighbors did not have that option.

I will admit that this argument makes some sense to me. It makes sense because it is hard to deny that, at least in the traditional Christian school setting, we can and have become isolated from the lost in our community, out of touch with the people who most desperately need someone to be the Holy Spirit’s tool for bringing them in relationship with God.

It is my contention, however, that this problem isn’t something structural, something that just automatically happens because we have Christian schools. Instead, this is a weakness in our vision for Christian education, a weakness we need to eliminate.

I have yet to find a separation in the God’s commands between God’s command to subdue and rule the earth, the task our Christian schools are preparing our children to fulfill, and His command to make disciples of all nations. If we take seriously God’s desire for lost people and his command that we be his agents to reconcile the lost, then our schools must recognize that they too must not only train children to become evangelists, they must participate in the work of evangelism. In other words, Christian schools ought to be a key component of the church’s mission, which includes evangelism.

2. They ought to be a key component of the church’s mission,

including evangelism

First, there is no division between God’s command to proclaim his works from generation to generation and His command to go into all the world, making disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them. They are essentially the very same task, perhaps with a slightly different audience. One job should not take away from the other—instead we should make sure that they complement each other.

Second, to claim that Christian schools somehow prevent us from doing evangelism is to denigrate the whole idea of learning from a Christian perspective. God has given those of us in communities with Christian schools a unique gift. Perhaps more so than other Christians, Reformed folks who have supported Christian education have produced great scholars and thinkers who have had an important impact on the ways Christians think, and on the world in general. But we can’t hide that gift of God under a bushel. Instead, we must share this great legacy with everyone, so as many people as possible may benefit.

Finally, there is evidence that considering Christian schools as a partner in the church’s work in outreach is successful. Rev. David Snapper, a Christian Reformed pastor in in Washington state has done research that shows that Christian Reformed church plants are more successful when there are Christian schools nearby. And many of you, like me, know that Christian schools can be an important part of encouraging people to become followers of Christ. You almost certainly know of people who were either not Christians, or brand new in their Christian walk when they first encountered Christian schools. I have talked to several people who say that their connection with a Christian school and the community that surrounds it was the primary way the Holy Spirit reached out and grabbed them. Certainly the church played a role, but schools are a tool the Holy Spirit can and will use.

So instead of seeing Christian schools as an obstacle to doing outreach, let’s see them as fellow partners with the church in evangelism. This may mean some changes in how we handle things at some of our schools, but that cost is so little to pay in comparison to the wondrous riches of salvation God has given us, and that He now wants us to share with others.

V. How can we support our Christian schools?

A. Pray

So how can we support Christian schools as they strive to teach generation after generation about the wondrous works and unsurpassable wisdom of our God? First we should pray. Pray for the students who are learning what it means to be a servant of God in every part of their life. Pray for the teachers who have such a responsibility to care for and teach their children. Pray for the parents who entrust their students into the care of the school. Pray for the volunteers who help enhance the mission of the school. Pray for the staff who ensure that the school runs smoothly every day. Prayy for the board members who set the policies and standards for how the school will be run. Pray for the administrators who oversee every part of the school. We cannot pray too much.

In fact, I am going to ask each and every one of you take a few minutes on Wednesday morning, the first day of school, to pray specifically for the upcoming school year, for the Christian schools we support, and for the students who are back in basic training again for another year. Please pray also for the public schools, and our wonderful Christian teachers there who also treat their work as a mission from God.

B. Support them financially

The second thing you can do to support the local Christian schools is to support them financially. Christian education does not come cheap. Our congregation has promised to pay more than $185,000 in tuition for the students from Calvin who are a part of the Christian Education Fund. Many of you who didn’t have the benefit of such a program scrimped and saved to get your kids through Christian schools in the past, and many still do the same today to meet the commitment they have made to keep the fund going. I already mentioned that I am proud of you have done to make sure the children from this church have the opportunity to attend a Christian school, regardless of their financial situation. Thank you for your financial commitment to Christian education.

And maybe we can do more. The principal of one of our local Christian schools told me about a family who wants desperately to have their children in Christian schools. The children are daily affected by the sin around them, and the parent desperately wants her kids to go through the basic training a Christian school can provide, but they simply cannot afford it. Instead, the parent made the wrenching choice of choosing to have one child in Christian school for as long as money was available while sending the other to public schools. This is not a matter of setting priorities; this family is definitely sacrificing just to send one child to Christian schools. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, this principal asked me, if we could find several people willing to “adopt” this family, making sure their dream of a Christian education for both of their children can become a reality.

Another person asked me whether there could be some way of expanding our Christian Education Fund, perhaps in concert with several other churches, to include churches where there may be a desire to have many of their children in Christian schools, but the financial realities make this unlikely. The committee who oversees Calvin’s Christian Education Fund will be discussing this concept in the future, once our own program is clearly on strong footing on a long-term basis. But think how such a move would not only increase the number of kids getting basic training as soldiers in God’s army, but it would also send a message to the world that churches can work together as the body of Christ towards a common goal.

C. Promote the Christian schools.

Third, promote them to your neighbors. Talk up the schools we support in the community. Do this with everyone, not just people you know are Christians, because you never know what may come of such a conversation. People may come to Christian schools for many different reasons—a perception of better academics, hopes of keeping kids out of bad situations in their old school, favorable parent-teacher ratios. But in the end, whatever the reason they initially have for being in Christian schools, if those students end up answering God’s call in their lives, living lives of servants, then the schools will have been successful.

D. Share your gifts

Finally, share your gifts with them. Volunteer, if you are able. Talk to a teacher about how he or she might use you at school. Or participate in fundraisers, in outside events. Another way to share your gifts is to take some of the burden off of the parents, so they can remain involved in other aspects of God’s community, including the church. A friend of mine, Rev. Steve Zwart, commented in a sermon here at Calvin that it seems like parents become so involved in school activities that they abandon church activities. Don’t let that happen—there is no reason why you cannot be useful to the school before or after you have children there. Get involved with telling of God’s power, his authority, his mercy, from generation to generation.

Christian schools are a wonderful gift from God. This week, as the kids go back to school, let us thank God for this gift. Let us tell from generation to generation the power of our God, His perfect righteousness, and the salvation He has given us through His Son, Jesus.


Monday, July 19, 2010

The Benefits of Baptism

I've been remiss in updating this blog. More and more I am using Facebook and Google Buzz to pass on interesting links and posts from other bloggers. I will continue to post occasional sermons and other writings of my own here. In the near future, I will likely delete some of the posts here and re-post them to Buzz, leaving only my own writing on this blog.

Anyway, here is a sermon I recently preached on baptism.

The Benefits of Baptism
Acts 2:36-47
I. Introduction

Lately I have been thinking about baptism. Baptisms are among the highlights of the church year for me—it’s fun to watch the proud parents bring their precious child in front of church to be baptized. I always like to make a bet with myself as to which parent will hold the baby during the baptism. And of course it is always interesting to see how the baby will respond to water being poured on his or her head.

My 11th and 12th grade Sunday school students went through the Belgic Confession this year, so we spent a day talking about baptism. I reminded Katie Otte and Kathryn Andringa that as four year-olds, they sang at my son Micah’s baptism—they had forgotten. We enjoyed comparing notes on the way baptisms are done at different churches and by different pastors. We talked about the quantity of water Pastor Rob uses, and how Pastor Alsum used to walk the babies around the congregation. One of my students told me that her little brother thought that Pastor Alsum was dancing with the baby as he moved around the sanctuary.

Baptisms are often a wonderful and enjoyable time, not just for the parents, but for the entire church community. Of course, not all Christians do things the same way. Many Christians don’t baptize their children. Instead, they practice “believer baptism,” waiting until that child expresses a faith in Jesus Christ before baptism can happen. Some Christians argue about the proper form of baptism—should we sprinkle? Should we pour? Should we immerse?

This morning, I will be focusing mostly on the baptism of infants. While we do baptize believing adults if they were not baptized as children, the normal pattern here at Calvin is that of parents bringing their infants to be baptized.

I won’t spend much time this morning on why we practice infant baptism in this church. I’m convinced that what we believe about baptism has a huge impact on a large part of our Christian life—how we raise and teach our children, how we respond to sin, how we can have confidence in our being saved. And so I think it is very important that we baptize our children. But other than a few passing notes, I am not going to focus on why we baptize infants.

Rather, what I really want to focus on are the benefits of baptism. Because baptism is a gift from God that benefits his people. You’ll find that on the top of your outlines. Baptism is a gift from God that benefits his people.

And so, let’s turn in our Bibles to the book of Acts, chapter 2.
The second chapter of Acts is one of the most climactic sections of the Bible. The Holy Spirit has just been released to work in the hearts of every believer, and Peter is preaching the gospel to a crowd of thousands of people from all over the world. And just before our text begins at verse 36, Peter is explaining the work of Jesus Christ, teaching about his death and resurrection, and confirming that Jesus was the promised Messiah, come to save his people. So listen, then, to the word of God from Acts chapter two, verses 36 through 47, which starts with Paul’s summary of his words to the crowd in Jerusalem:

Read text.

Next, turn with me in the back of the gray songbooks to page 890. Starting on page 890 you’ll find a summary of what we believe about baptism. I am going to read through all of the questions and answers there about baptism. I encourage you to follow along. Again, that is beginning on page 890.

Read catechism Q&A 69-74.
II. Baptism is a gift from God that benefits His people.

Baptism is a gift from God that benefits His people. It is God’s gift to those he loves, and because of the gift of baptism, we actually receive some benefits.

In the next few minutes I am going to point out some of those benefits. But before I do, I want to point out one benefit that we do not automatically receive from being baptized. Being baptized does not automatically mean we are saved.

The writers of the catechism we just read point that out when they ask “Does this outward washing with water itself wash away sins?” The answer, of course, is “No, only Jesus Christ's blood and the Holy Spirit cleanse us from all sins.”

I talked about this a couple of weeks ago at night when I told the story about one of my kids seeing a McDonald’s sign in the middle of nowhere. He thought the sign was the actual McDonald’s, and was disappointed when we had to explain that the actual restaurant was still 20 minutes down the road at the next exit. Baptism is a sign of the washing away of sins that believers receive through the blood of Christ and the work of the Spirit uniting us to Christ. It signifies an important promise, a promise on which we can rely if we respond to the call to repent and believe. But it is only a sign. And yet, it is a sign that comes with benefits. So let’s look at the benefits that we do receive because of baptism.

A. The benefit of being in a community

The first is the benefit of being in a community.

Lots of great stuff happens during a baptism ceremony. But for me the highlight always comes right before the actual baptism. Here at Calvin, we start out all baptisms with some teaching about baptism. Then after a prayer, the pastor asks the parents to confirm their belief in Christ and their promise to raise their children in the faith.

Then comes one more part, a part I look forward to every time. While the parents hold their child, the entire congregation stands and promises the parents to “receive the child in love, pray for him or her, help instruct him or her in the faith, and encourage and sustain him or her in the fellowship of believers.”

Do you ever think about what you’re doing when you repeat those words? We are welcoming that child into a community of believers. This month we welcomed Eleanor Vander Laan and Levi Arentsen into that community. We promised them and their parents that we would love them and pray for them. We promised to help instruct them and encourage and sustain them as fellow believers.

And when we make that promise, we are not just doing that for ourselves. Someday Eleanor and Levi will grow up. There’s a good chance they will leave us and move to another community. But wherever they go, there will be a community of believers praying for them, loving them, and encouraging them.

When we stood up and made those promises to Eleanor and to Levi, we made those promises not just for ourselves, but on behalf of all Christians. Because when Levi and Eleanor were baptized, they didn’t just become part of Calvin Church. They didn’t even just become members of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. No, they were baptized into the church universal, a community of believers that spans time and space.

Being part of the community of believers is no small thing. It is an important benefit of our baptism. Notice in our text this morning how right after he describes 3,000 new Christians being baptized on Pentecost, the writer of Acts jumps right into six verses about the fellowship of believers. He describes how they dedicated themselves to the breaking of bread, how they continued to meet together, how they shared what they had and broke bread in each other’s homes. Baptism marks us as members of a community, of a fellowship, of a family. And an important benefit of being baptized is the benefit of being in that community.

There are a lot of reasons why being a part of a community of believers is such a great benefit of baptism. We see some of them in our text and in the next several chapters of Acts. Being together with fellow believers nurtures and grows our faith. It gives us an opportunity to devote ourselves to the teachings of Scripture, to study them, to pray together, and grow in faith together. This is especially important for children—that’s why we offer Sunday school and children’s church and youth groups It is also why we put such a high priority on Christian schools.

Being part of a community also helps develop the spiritual gifts God has given us. Later on in Acts we see other Christians also developing their gifts—gifts of hospitality, of leadership, of discernment, of compassion. We can see this in our own church as well. A great benefit of being in a community of believers is the opportunity to develop our spiritual gifts and become even more effective servants of Christ.

A community also provides us the benefit of examples to follow. Paul, in his first letter to the Thessalonians describes a chain reaction of examples at Thessalonica. “You became imitators of us and of the Lord...” he says, “and so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia.” A community gives us people who become examples to us and help spur us to growth.

And a community gives us brothers and sisters who can support us when things are difficult, who can encourage us when our faith seems weak, who can discipline us when we stray, and who can share in our joy when we are blessed.

When we are baptized, we become part of a community of believers—a community of believers who nurture us in our faith, who help us to develop our gifts, who provide examples of Christian living, and who become our brothers and sisters in Christ. What a wonderful benefit of baptism! But there’s more.

B. The benefit of a reminder

Beyond the benefit of being in a community, baptism also gives us the benefit of a reminder. This reminder is one reason why we do baptisms as part of our church service, in front of the family and community. That ceremony of baptism gives us the benefit of a reminder—a reminder of our sin, a reminder of our redemption, and a reminder of the gratitude we owe God.

1. of our sin

First, a reminder of our sin. Notice that at the beginning of our text this morning, right after Peter has laid out the gospel, the writer of Acts tells us that “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart.” Maybe you find that a strange reaction. Peter has just told the crowd that Jesus Christ, who had been crucified, had been made both Lord and Christ. You’d think people would be excited, cheering, shouting “Long live the King!” But instead, their reaction was to be cut to the heart, and to ask what they should do.

But those who heard the gospel message realized that what had happened was that this conquering King had paid the price for their sins. They were full of sin, unable to do anything to save themselves. And being confronted with Jesus as King only served to contrast their own unworthiness, their own failure to live according to the covenant that God had still fulfilled.

One of the reasons we baptize the infants of believers is to symbolize that very truth—that we are no different than those infants. I know that their parents are convinced that Eleanor and Levi are the brightest, most intelligent babies that ever existed. But no matter how bright and intelligent, they had no idea what was going on when Pastor Rob poured water on their heads. Eleanor was so surprised she spit her pacifier into the baptismal font! Eleanor and Levi did nothing to plan their baptisms. They took no part in deciding when the ceremony would be held or how the service would play out. They couldn’t do it. They’re not capable of deciding those things.

In the same way, we were all incapable of causing our salvation. There was nothing we could do on our own to be saved. It all had to be planned by someone else, performed by someone else, because of our sin. And so, when we watch a baptism, performed on a little baby who has no idea what is happening, we are reminded of our sin.

2. of our redemption

Thankfully, there is more to remember than just our sin. Baptism is also a reminder of our redemption. Baptism reminds us of our redemption. It tells us that our baptism in the name of Jesus Christ, as Peter says in verse 38, is for the forgiveness of our sins. And because our sins are forgiven, we are saved.

Water is a powerful symbol throughout Scripture. It can be used to symbolize washing and cleaning, but it can also be a symbol for burying things, such as when things are thrown into the depths of the sea. And things can also float on water, and water sometimes symbolizes being brought up from the depths, rising to the top.

Baptism uses water to symbolize all of these things. The water of baptism certainly is a sign of the washing away of our sins by the blood of Jesus Christ. Paul’s letter to Titus talks of baptism that way when it says that God “saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” The catechism puts it beautifully, saying that “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.” Our sins are washed away by the blood of Christ. The water of baptism gives us a picture of that washing away.

The water of baptism also symbolizes the fact that our sins have been buried with Christ. Romans 6:4 says that “we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” In other words, our sins are gone. They have been sent down to the depths of the sea, so that we can live lives unburdened by them.

And the water of baptism also shows us that while our sins remain buried, we have been raised with Christ. Colossians 2:12 says that we were “buried [with Christ] in baptism and raised with him through [our] faith in the power of God, who raised [Christ] from the dead.” And because we’ve been raised with Christ, we are renewed, set apart by the Holy Spirit and united with Christ “so that more and more [we] become dead to sin and increasingly live a holy and blameless life.”

The water of baptism is a reminder to us, a reminder of our salvation.

3. of the gratitude we owe God

Finally, baptism gives us the benefit of a reminder of the gratitude we owe God.

If you grew up in a Reformed church, you probably studied the Heidelberg Catechism. In one of your first lessons, you probably learned about the “the three S’s”—sin, salvation, and service. If you are under 40 or so, you might have learned instead about “misery, deliverance, and gratitude.”

However you learned it, though, it is clear that knowing our sin and misery, combined with understanding our salvation and deliverance from sin, leads to gratitude. It leads to a desire to be God’s servant. When we are washed of our sins and our old self dies away and is buried under the depths, the result is the coming-to-life of the new self. Baptism reinforces in us a “wholehearted joy in God through Christ and a delight to do every kind of good as God wants us to.”

We are reminded of this gratitude, this wholehearted joy and delight to do what God wants when we see a baptism. Baptisms should be times of joy, not just because we see a new member of the community of believers, but because we are given a reminder of our gratitude. This reminder can give us even more impetus to go out and live as servants of Christ’s Kingdom, working by the Spirit in us to transform this world in preparation for the next. Baptism gives us the benefit of a reminder of the gratitude we owe God.

C. The benefit of assurance

Finally, baptism gives us the benefit of assurance. Because of baptism, we can be assured of being a part of the family of God and of eternal life. This is the benefit of assurance.

The Catechism tells us that God gave us the symbol of baptism, not just to teach us that our sins have been washed away, but also because “he wants to assure us…that the washing away of our sins spiritually is as real as physical washing with water.”

It is important to see how much the writers of Scripture tie together baptism and assurance of salvation. In verse 38 of our text this morning, Peter says “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.” He doesn’t say, “You might receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” He doesn’t say, “There is a good chance you will receive the Holy Spirit.” He says “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Peter is telling his listeners that if they repent and are baptized, they will be united with Christ—in his death, in his resurrection, and in his glory. United with Christ, we are assured of life with God.

We see this close connection between baptism and assurance elsewhere in Scripture. In Romans 6, Paul asks “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” All of us who were baptized. He then says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Again, in Galatians, Paul writes that “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” All of us.

It is because of this assurance, I think, that our confessions clearly state that “Godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy.” It isn’t baptism itself that saves. It is being chosen by God to be part of his covenant of grace that saves us. The children of believers are holy because “of the gracious covenant in which they, together with their parents, are included.” Because children are included in the covenant, they are saved, even if they don’t survive long enough to receive baptism, the symbol of their being saved.

Now, again, I want to stress that baptism, while it can give us the benefit and comfort of assurance, does not automatically make us a Christian. But it does give us hope, even for those who seem to turn their backs on their baptism. We must always live in hope—in hope that God keeps his promises, in hope that the Spirit never stops working in the hearts of those whom God has chosen, in hope that the hound of heaven never fails.

And for those of us who believe, baptism should give us assurance. Baptism is a sign of a promise. And God keeps his promises. Baptism gives us the benefit of assurance.

III. Conclusion

I hope we have many, many more baptisms in this church over the next few years. I hope you look forward to baptisms as much as I do. Because baptism is a gift from God that benefits his people.

Baptism gives us the benefit of a community of believers. It reminds us not only of our sin, but of our salvation and of our gratitude. And it provides the benefit of God’s promise, God’s assurance.

Baptisms are a sign of a promise. A promise that Peter reminds us is “for you, and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”