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.”


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