The Newness of Christian Baptism
A sermon on Belgic Confession Article 34 / Matthew 28.16-20
Beloved family of Jesus Christ,
Baptism unites us to the history of God's acts. Last week, we saw some of that history when we considered the ancient roots of Christian baptism. Baptism isn't just something that dropped out of the sky in the first century; it has, in one way or another, been part of God's dealings with His people from at least the time of Noah, and in fact there are symbolic links to baptism as early as Genesis 1. The New Testament identifies the great flood and the passage through the Red Sea as baptisms.
Baptism therefore brings us into a history of great events, events in which God acted powerfully to save and maintain His people. And the New Testament also speaks of the washings of the law as "baptisms." The whole cycle of circumcision and baptism that runs through Leviticus 11-15 is taken up in Christian baptism. Our sacrament is not a novelty; it has ancient roots.
But in order to understand Christian baptism, it is not enough to recognize those ancient roots; we must also inquire into how baptism becomes new in Christ. For as much as it is true that Christian baptism is related to the flood and to the passage through the Red Sea and to the rituals of the law - nonetheless, Christian baptism is not itself simply those things.
Taking those rituals of the law, for instance - we don't have this category called "uncleanness" that we keep falling into, and keep needing to be baptized again. Our baptism doesn't function that way. So in order to understand the significance and place of our sacrament, we must go further than recognize its roots. We must ask what is new, what is different.
This evening, then, as we look at the newness of Christian baptism, we will see that it has to do with being baptized into a new relationship, and in connection with that, being baptized into a new efficacy.
1. Baptism becomes new in Christ, and this involves first of all a new relationship. Something new has happened to God, if I may say things that way, and therefore something new has happened to our relationship to Him.
We see this newness in our text, when Jesus says in verse 18, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth." Notice that carefully. This authority has been given. Jesus is not referring to His eternal authority as God that He has always enjoyed. He is referring to what has been accomplished in His resurrection. He is saying something similar to what Paul says in Romans 1.4, when he says - literally - that Christ has been appointed "Son of God with power" through the resurrection. This is something new that has happened to Jesus.
And therefore, in that sense, something new has happened to God, something of course which He Himself has brought about, but it is new nonetheless. Jesus did not die before the world was created; He was not resurrected at the time of Moses. His death and resurrection took place at a specific point in history.
What then does this have to do with baptism?
Everything. For it is on the basis of this newness that Jesus says therefore in verse 19. "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth - therefore go make disciples; therefore baptize them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
And if we recall what Paul says in Romans 6 - and elsewhere, for that matter - we will see why this is so. Paul says in Romans 6 that in baptism we are buried in Christ's death and raised with Him in His resurrection.
What I am saying then, is that something new has happened to God. And that something new is what brings about a new covenant. And the fact that there is a new covenant makes the sacrament something new or renewed, as well. Christian baptism cannot simply be old covenant baptism, with no change, because Christian baptism does not belong to the old covenant, but the new - the new covenant, which is founded upon Christ's death, resurrection, and His sending of the Spirit.
And so that is just what we find here. God had a covenant people already. But when Jesus comes, dies and is raised, something new happens to the sacraments. Now, Jesus says to the disciples, "make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."
You won't find that in the baptisms of the Old Testament. Not the baptismal events, nor the ritual baptisms. When Paul talks about the passage through the Red Sea, he says that Israel was "baptized into Moses." When he talks about Christian baptism, he says we are "baptized into Christ."
The point, of course, is not that being baptized into Moses had no spiritual value. It is not that only in the new covenant do believers get any relationship with God. No, not at all. Moses was God's agent; he was the mediator of a covenant that God Himself gave. And therefore baptism into Moses conferred real divine blessing. This is true with the ritual baptisms of the law, as well. It was God who gave those baptisms in the law, and He gave them through Moses. So we must avoid the temptation of looking at the ancient roots of baptism as simply something worthless, as if they had no "spiritual value" or some such thing.
But the point is: now that Christ has come, that mediator is gone. Now that Christ has come and in Him is revealed the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, there is no Moses standing between God and His people as a mediator. As Article 34 begins by quoting from Romans 10.4: "We believe and confess that Jesus Christ, who is the end of the law...." The law was one covenant; Christ has come as the new covenant. That is what God says to the Servant back in Isaiah 42.6 and 49.8: "I will give you as a covenant to the people." That's the point: the new covenant is not so much a thing; in a real sense, the new covenant is simply Christ.
This therefore is what we mean when we say that in Christian baptism we are baptized into a new relationship. We are not saying that under the old covenant, there was no relationship with God. But we are saying that in Christ, we have been brought so much closer, and we are brought into relationship with God as He has now revealed Himself in the crucified and resurrected Christ, and as He has now come at Pentecost. These are privileges, and they are very personal. Because God has done something new - something, to be sure, that He was always pointing to, but new nonetheless - because He has done something new, so too we receive something new. The superiority of Christian baptism is not because our ritual is superior in some way, not because our water has magical powers and the baptismal water of the old covenant did not. No, the superiority of Christian baptism rests entirely in what God has done, and in Christ we share in it.
2. We've seen that the newness of Christian baptism has to do with a new relationship, a new thing that God does because something new has happened in His own life. God the Father has given God the Son up to death and raised Him up by the Spirit, and then God the Son has sent that Spirit to us. That is a powerful reality, and that changes things. Baptism becomes new in Christ, and so we see further a new efficacy. Efficacy refers to power, how baptism is effective to accomplish something. This is built squarely upon our first point, the new relationship.
There are two things in particular that I want to point out with regard to efficacy in Christian baptism that was not the case with regard to old covenant baptismal events and rites. First, old covenant baptism was a washing for remission, but no promise of conferring the Spirit was present in it. And second, and related to everything else that we have talked about this evening, old covenant baptism was repeated over and over, while Christian baptism retains its power once for all.
Old covenant baptism promised remission but not the Spirit. You may recall that some months ago, when I first began to preach from Mark's Gospel, we saw that John the Baptizer in his preaching said: "I baptize with water, but one coming after me will baptize with the Spirit and power."
That statement is often taken to mean: "Water baptism is powerless and does nothing, but Jesus performs an invisible baptism, and that's what really counts." As we saw in that sermon, however, that is not at all what John was saying. The passage itself says that this baptism was a baptism for remission of sins. In other words, John certainly was not of the opinion that nothing happened in connection with his baptism; he believed that God forgave sins through this avenue.
But what John was saying was related to our first point this evening. If you read through the Old Testament, you read again and again of a coming time when God would pour out His Spirit upon His people. That hadn't happened yet. That doesn't mean that the Holy Spirit was inactive, doing nothing, in the Old Testament. But it does mean that a coming day was going to bring something dramatically new in the way He worked.
And that is what John is promising. He is saying that his baptism is a baptism of water, which was symbolic for remission. It conferred forgiveness. But the baptism that Jesus would bring would be much greater, for He would baptize with that long-awaited Spirit.
We are reminded of this in our passage this evening. Jesus says: "baptizing them in - or literally, into - the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." The baptisms of the law could not be worded that way. There was no promise of the Spirit in those baptisms. But there is in ours. Again, not because of anything we have done, not because of anything better in the water, but because of who Christ is and what He has now done. He has ascended to the right hand of the Father and received the Spirit from the hand of the Father. He has received the Spirit for us and sent Him to us from the Father.
That is what is promised to us in our baptism. It's what Jesus promises here: baptize into the name of the Spirit. It's what Peter promises in Acts 2, when the Spirit has displayed Himself gloriously for all to see. Peter says this is the Spirit of promise. The people respond, "Well, what must we do?" And Peter says in Acts 2.38, "Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
What this means is that God is near to you in a special way that the old covenant saints did not enjoy. You may say, "Well, I don't feel it." I didn't ask you if you feel it. The question is: "Do you believe it?" Jesus said to Thomas, "Blessed are those who believe without seeing," and something similar could be said regarding our feelings, as well. We can rest assured in faith that in Christ we have been brought into fellowship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God has promised that to us in our baptism, and we need only believe.
Finally, one very practically obvious way in which Christian baptism has a new efficacy compared to old covenant baptism is in its permanence. You will remember from last week that under the law, baptisms were designed to restore one to the state of purity given in circumcision. You were circumcised at eight days old. And then you became unclean. And then you got baptized. And then you became unclean. And then you got baptized. And then you became unclean.... And so the cycle went. Over and over and over.
And we don't do that. As we confess in the fourth paragraph of Article 34:
We believe, therefore, that every man who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal ought to be baptized but once with this only baptism, without ever repeating the same, since we cannot be born twice. Neither does this baptism avail us only at the time when the water is poured upon us and received by us, but also through the whole course of our life.
I like that, you know. "Every man who is earnestly studious of obtaining life eternal." Those who are serious about it. The logic might seem to be: "Hey, one baptism, good; two - better. I'm serious about this!" But no, just one. Being earnestly studious does not mean being baptized again and again and again to show how serious we are. No rather, it means that we believe that what God does for us just that once is sufficient to carry us throughout the rest of our lives. The whole cycle of being clean and unclean, of having access to the presence of God and then not having access - that is done with. Because in Christian baptism, we are united to Christ in His death and resurrection, and we are assured that Christ's blood has freed us from uncleanness.
That's new. It's in contrast to the law. This one-time-ness of Christian baptism is related to how Article 34 begins, when it talks about the shedding of blood. That's why circumcision is no longer fitting. You had a shedding of blood there, and then that set you on a road of more shedding of blood and baptism after baptism. But no longer. Christ's blood was shed, and in our baptism we are united to Him in that one all-sufficient death. Christian baptism is permanent for the same reason that we do not slaughter animals to atone for our sins any more. The blood of Christ avails for us, once and for all.
Now, that doesn't mean that we do not have a sacrament that we return to repeatedly, as you know. In a couple of weeks, we will talk about the Lord's Supper, and Lord willing you will understand why it is appropriate to be baptized only once, while it is also appropriate to come to the Lord's Supper repeatedly, even frequently.
Brothers and sisters, Christian baptism has ancient roots. It grows out of God's history with His people. But just as that history has developed and brought about new things; just as in that history the early seeds come to full flower in the gospel, so it is that baptism takes on a new light when something new has happened in the life of God and His walk with His people. Now that Christ has died, arisen, and sent the Spirit, in baptism we are enfolded into a life with the resurrected Christ and the Spirit of promise. He has died once for all; He has arisen once for all; He has sent the Spirit once for all. And on that basis, we are baptized once, in the full knowledge that in Him we have everything that we need.