Baptism: The water that divides or the grace that unites?

“Perhaps no command of Christ has occasioned so much controversy, bitterness and mistrust as the command to baptize. Who should be baptized? How? And what does baptism mean?” From The Water That Divides by Bridge and Phypers.

This sermon is a statement about the practice of baptism in our congregation, in which there is much diversity of thought.

  1. Baptism & Unity

In Romans 6: 3-4, Paul says that all who are baptised are baptised into Christ Jesus, and into his death. He continues, “Just as Christ was raised from the dead… we too may live a new life.”

From this we see that baptism is essentially a unifying sacrament. It is baptism into the one Lord Jesus Christ; it is death to division and hostility, and it is new life together in Christ.

“For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” 1 Corinthians 12: 13.

You can see then how important it is that our practice of baptism expresses our unity and not division.

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2. Baptism: The outward sign of an inner grace

As per Matthew 28: 18-20, the sacrament of baptism was instituted and commanded by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Being physical as well as spiritual believers, it is important to act out what happens to us inwardly. The outward sign of baptism acts out, expresses, and seals what God has done, is doing, and will do within us as we hear the word of His grace with repentance and faith.

Furthermore, baptism proclaims powerfully to others what God has done in our lives. Public baptism is a very effective way of preaching the Gospel.

It is no wonder then that Jesus commanded us to baptise – in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

To be baptised is, for us, the obedience of faith.

When the people asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Acts 2: 37-38.

3. The Inner Grace is the Primary Reality

Having spoken of the importance of baptism, we must always remember in our practice of it that the primary reality is the work of God’s grace within the believer. Paul calls this, “The washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Titus 3:5

When the church at Corinth was divided, the question of whose baptism they received was an issue. Paul’s response was,

“I am thankful that I did not baptise any of you… for God did not send me to baptise but to preach the Gospel.” 1 Corinthians 1: 13-17

Paul’s primary concern was to preach Christ so that people might “hear with faith” and be born of the Spirit (Galatians 3: 1-5).

If salvation by grace through faith is kept central to our thinking we can deal more appropriately with matters of practice.

4. Deciding Matters of Practice

The relationship of God’s grace and our practice is well illustrated when the early church had to deal with an important and difficult decision.

The Council of Jerusalem

In Acts 15: 1-35, the leaders of both Jewish and Gentile Christians met together to decide what should be required of Gentiles when becoming Christians. Should they be circumcised and obey the law of Moses. Some said, “Yes!”, others said, “No!” There was much discussion and debate. Peter’s testimony and James’ judgment were helpful. Peter testified to the grace of God that was received by faith in the house of Cornelius.

“He accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them.” Verse 8.

“He purified their hearts by faith.” Verse 9.

“We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

Paul and Barnabus confirmed this with their testimony.

James (the leader of the Church) responded:

“It is my judgment… that we should not make it difficult for Gentiles who are turning to God.”

In the subsequent letter to the Gentile Christians, the apostles wrote, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements…”

Across the vast difference between Jewish and Gentile Christians, a general rule of acceptable practice was established that preserved their essential unity in Christ.

Paul later wrote from experience:

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Ephesians 4:3-5

5. Some Guidelines for the Practice of Baptism Among Us

The guidelines which the apostles gave on the above occasion were like boundaries within which the believers were free to obey their consciences.

The following guidelines (expressed as negatives) are like boundaries within which we might be free and united in our celebrations of baptism.

i) We ought not to prohibit or discourage Christian families from seeking baptism for their new-born children. The covenants of the Old and New Testaments both acknowledge ‘households’. See Acts 16: 15 & 33.

ii) We ought not to practice indiscriminate infant baptism (ie. baptism of infants whose families are not part of the body of Christ). The service of Dedication or Family Thanksgiving is useful in these situations.

iii) We ought not to baptise infants without eagerly expecting, praying for and working for their personal repentance and faith in the years to come.

iv) We ought not to discourage children who, themselves, sincerely wish to be baptised. We ought not to delay them in anticipation of an adult conversion baptism, for a child’s faith is surely acceptable to Christ within His covenant.

v) Our children ought not to continue long in the practice of eating and drinking at the Lord’s table without being baptised (Holy Communion being a sacrament for baptised believers).

vi) We ought not to reject our own infant baptism. If you were baptised as an infant, you have been blessed by the covenant of God’s grace which you entered with your parents. Rejecting your family’s faith may just be youthful rebellion. Acknowledging your infant baptism acknowledges your covenant relationship to your parents and the family of God.

vii) We ought not to rebaptise people who have already been baptised. It is better to show them how faithful God has been to their baptism.

viii) We ought not to say that total immersion is essential for true baptism. It is a powerful expression of the meaning of baptism and ought to be used where practical, but to say it is essential is putting too much emphasis on us ‘doing it right’, and not enugh on what God has done.

ix) We ought not to prevent children and adults having the opportunity to be baptised by immersion in the congregation ie. by not having facilities for immersion baptism in the church. People ought not to have to go elsewhere to be baptised by immersion.

x) We ought not to believe in ‘baptismal regeneration’, ie. that baptism magically ‘does the trick’ and itself saves us, no matter what. We are saved by God’s grace though our faith. It is not by what we do, it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2: 8-9).

Let us pray about and discuss these guidelines to see if they are acceptable boundaries of practice for all of us.

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6. The Right Time for Baptism

In deciding about the right time for ours or our children’s baptism, it is helpful to have an overview of God’s work in a person’s life. The full work of His grace spans our whole life and can include the following occasions:

  • before we were born: “he chose us in him [Christ before the foundation of the world]” Ephesians 1: 4-5
  • in the womb: “the baby in my womb leapt for joy” Luke 1:44
  • at birth: “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth” Luke 1:15
  • in childhood, producing knowledge of God and a simple trust in Jesus
  • in teenage years or later, bringing conversion and a full understanding of the Gospel
  • in our growth in faith, causing us to “stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured” Colossians 4:12
  • in death, and our entry into the Kingdom of Heaven

Notice that God’s full work of grace is never complete in this life. We see it as advancing, little by little with high points here and there. Some can point to a time they were converted, others can’t.

God, however, views the work as a whole, and baptism, the sacrament of our inclusion into Christ, is the sign of this whole work of grace.

7. Four Suitable Occasions for Baptism

Here are four occasions, each of which may be the suitable time for baptism, depending on the circumstances and God’s leading:

  1. When a child is born into a Christian home, and into Christ’s body, the church.
  2. When a child comes into a simple and sincere faith in Jesus, and, having been taught about baptism, desires to be baptised.
  3. When an adult person comes to repentance and faith.
  4. When a household comes to faith and the family enters the body of Christ.

8. I Am Baptised

Martin Luther endured the hardships of life with a simple statement of faith: “I am baptised”. The greatness of baptism is not in how or when it is done, but in the assurance that we “were baptised in Christ Jesus” Romans 6:3.

The baptised are members of the Covenant of God’s grace.

Baptism then is not the water that divides us, but the grace that unites us.

Let us pray that we might rejoice together in our baptism.

By George Robert Iles

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