John Piper Series on Christian Baptism

By John Piper

Pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN 55415

Part 1

 Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 1


The Baptism of John (Matthew 3)

Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 2 "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." 3 For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet, saying, "THE VOICE OF ONE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, "MAKE READY THE WAY OF THE LORD, MAKE HIS PATHS STRAIGHT!'" 4 Now John himself had a garment of camel's hair, and a leather belt about his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea, and all the district around the Jordan; 6 and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins. 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance; 9 and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 And His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clear His threshing floor; and He will gather His wheat into the barn, but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." 13 Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. 14 But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?" 15 But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." Then he permitted Him. 16 And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, 17 and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

Baptism : part of Jesus' Ministry and Part of our Mission

Today we begin a brief series on the Biblical teachings concerning baptism. There are several reasons for this. One is that in almost seventeen years I have never preached a series of messages on the Biblical meaning of baptism. This is a gaping hole in our treatment of the whole message of the Bible for our time.

Another reason is that Jesus made baptism part of his ministry and part of our mission. Baptism is not man's idea. It was God's idea. It is not a denominational thing. It is a Biblical thing. It started with John the Baptist at the beginning of our gospels. He came, verse 11 says, to "baptize with water for repentance." It continued in the ministry of Jesus himself. John 4:1 says, "Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John," although it was the disciples, not Jesus who did the actual immersing (John 4:2). And the practice was picked up by the church not because of their own wisdom, but because of the command of the Lord. At the end of his earthly ministry Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). So Jesus made baptism part of his ministry and part of our mission.

Baptism : Universal in the Early Church

Another reason for the series is that the practice of baptism was universal in the early church. It was not just for converted Jews or converted gentiles, or any one specific church. It was practiced for all converts in all the churches. We know of no unbaptized believers (except the thief on the cross, Luke 23:43). For example, in Romans 6 Paul says to a church that he has never visited (in answer to a question whether Christians can sin that grace may abound), "How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?" (Romans 6:2-3).

In other words, he bases his argument that Christians can't go on willfully sinning on the fact that we have all died with Christ, as baptism shows. Dead men don't sin. He assumes that the Roman believers were all baptized, and he was simply reminding them what it stood for. It was a universal, defining experience in the early church. If we are to be in sync with the entire New Testament and the entire early church we must take baptism seriously and practice it faithfully.

Finally, there is a reason for this series that relates to our situation today at Bethlehem. We believe that we have been remiss in not calling for a more forthright and public declaration of faith in response to the ministry of the word. Most American evangelicals are familiar with what Billy Graham does at the end of his preaching, calling people to walk to the front. Sometimes these are called "invitations." Sometimes "altar calls." When you look for something like this in the Bible there is no clear example. But what is clear is that when Paul preached the word, say in a synagogue or on the Areopagus, he got connected with those who believed (Acts 17:4,12,34).

The Decisive, Public Way of Taking a Public Stand

And if you ask what the decisive, public way of taking a Christian stand was in the New Testament, the answer is, baptism. The message Peter gave in Acts 2 ended with the words, "Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ" (Acts 2:38). Our renewed conviction is that we need to regularly offer baptism as the decisive public way for people to respond publicly to the gospel. But to do this we felt we needed a clearer understanding as a church of what baptism is. Hence the series on baptism.

Then, in a step of faith and hope in God's saving power among us through the summer, we are planning to have baptism and testimony services every Wednesday evening beginning in June, with some of them being off-site in lakes and pools. Our thought is that God has been and will be at work among us to bring people to faith and readiness for baptism, and that the guests and families that come to baptisms need to hear the testimonies of how God brought people to himself and what it means to be a Christian.

David Livingston is planning Sunday morning baptismal classes throughout the summer that will prepare a person in two weeks for following through on their profession of faith in baptism. We want to keep the time between the profession of faith and the baptism fairly short, because that is the way the New Testament did it, and because then the symbol feels more like a declaration of the new reality of faith.

Beginning with John the Baptist

Today we begin our series with the baptizing ministry of John the Baptist. This is the New Testament origin of Christian baptism. There is a close continuity between Christian Baptism and John's baptism. John began baptizing, Jesus continued baptizing, and he commanded the church to keep on with the practice : though now the act would be done in his name. So there are crucial things to learn about baptism from the baptism of John.

The most important thing to learn is that when a Jewish person received John's baptism, it was a radical act of individual commitment to belong to the true people of God, based on personal confession and repentance, NOT on corporate identity with Israel through birth.

This is one of the main reasons I am a Baptist, that is, this is one of the main reasons that I do not believe in baptizing infants, who cannot make this personal commitment or confession or repentance. John's baptism was an assault on the very assumptions that give rise to much infant baptism. Let me try to explain and show you what I mean from Matthew 3.

First of all, get the picture. According to verses 1-2, John comes into "the wilderness of Judea, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.'" He is in Judea and he is preaching to Jews, God's chosen people. He is the promised prophet who would come and prepare the way of the Lord : make things ready for the Messiah. It's important to realize that John's ministry was to Jews, not primarily to Gentiles.

The reason this is important is that the Jews are already God's chosen people in an outward, ethnic sense. So this means that John's radical call to repentance was being given to Jews who were already part of the historic people of God. These are the people John was telling to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. These were people who were part of God's covenant and they had the sign of the covenant : at least the men did : namely, circumcision.

Confess Your Sin, Repent, be Baptized

To these people, who were ethnic Jews, part of God's covenant people, having the sign of the covenant, circumcision, John said, in effect, "Confess your sins, repent, and signal this with baptism, because God's wrath is hanging over you like an axe over the root of a tree." Look at verse 6: "They were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins." This is why his baptism was called "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). He called for the Jews to admit that they were sinners and needed to get right with God, and to admit that being Jews was no guarantee of being saved. In other words baptism was a sign that they were renouncing their old dependency on ethnic Jewishness and were relying wholly on the mercy of God to forgive those who confess their sins and repent.

You can see this even more clearly in verse 7: "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?'" That's the issue : the wrath of God. Not just on the nations who are uncircumcised, but even on God's own people. In other words, Jewishness was no guarantee of salvation. Being born into a covenant family was no guarantee of being a child of God. Baptism is John's new sign of belonging of the true people of God : not based on Jewishness or being born into a covenant family, but based on radically personal, individual repentance and faith. They got baptized one by one to show that they were repenting as individuals, and joining the true people of God : the true Israel, not simply the old ethnic Israel, but the true remnant of those who personally repent and believe. Merely traditional Jews were become true spiritual Jews through repentance : at least that was John's aim.

"We Have Abraham as our Father"

We see even more deeply into John's position when John responds to the Pharisees and Sadducees. He says in verse 8, "Therefore bring forth fruit in keeping with repentance." And then he reads their minds, it seems, and says in verse 9, "And do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, "We have Abraham for our father'; for I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." Now what were the Pharisees and Sadducees really saying with the words, "We have Abraham as our father!"? They were saying, "Don't talk to us about the wrath of God. Wrath belongs to the gentiles, not to the descendants of Abraham."

In other words, they were saying that physical descent from Abraham guaranteed the security of their salvation. There was no threat of wrath! "We have Abraham as our father!" What was their reasoning? Well, John shows us by the way he responds. In verse 9b he says, "I say to you, that God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham." In other words, what they were thinking was that God had made a promise to the children of Abraham that they would be blessed, not just with temporal blessings, but with eternal blessings (he would be their God and they his people) and that God would always be for them as his covenant people. Since God cannot lie, the children of Abraham are safe, no matter what, because if God destroyed his own people, then there would be no one left of fulfil the promises to, and he would prove to be a liar. So they use the faithfulness of God as their warrant for security.

To this John has a stunning response: he says, you are right about the faithfulness of God, but you make a terrible mistake in thinking that, if you perish in his wrath, he can't fulfil his promises. He can, and he will. God can, if he must, raise up children to Abraham from these stones (or from Gentiles!). In other words God is not boxed in or limited, the way you think he is. He will be faithful to fulfill his promises to the children to Abraham, but he will not fulfill them to unbelieving, unrepentant children of Abraham. And if all of the children should be unrepentant and unbelieving, he would raise up from stones children who would believe and repent.

God Can Raise up Children Who Believe and Repent

Now what does all this tell us about baptism? Three things:

1. It tells us that John's baptism is not simple continuation of circumcision. This is important because those who defend infant baptism often appeal to circumcision as the old sign of the covenant and say that baptism is the new sign. The one was given to infants and so should the other be. Circumcision was the sign of belonging to the Old Covenant people of God. Every Jewish male received it. If you were born Jewish, you received the sign of the covenant as a baby boy. So at least some of the Pharisees and Sadducees came to see circumcision as the sign of God's favor and of their security as the covenant people. But John's baptism was a radical attack on this false security. He infuriated the Pharisees by calling the people to renounce reliance on the sign of the covenant that they got when they were infants, and to receive another sign to show that they were not relying on Jewish birth, but on the mercy of God received by repentance and faith. A new people within Israel was being formed, and a new sign of a new covenant was being instituted. It was not a simple continuation of circumcision. It was an indictment of a misuse of circumcision as a guarantee of salvation. Circumcision was a sign of ethnic continuity; baptism was a sign of spiritual reality.

2. John's baptism was a sign of personal, individual repentance, not a sign of birth into a covenant family. It is hard to overstate how radical this was in John's day. The Jews already had a sign of the covenant, circumcision. John came calling for repentance and offering a new sign, baptism. This was incredibly offensive, far more offensive even than when a Baptist today says that baptism is not a sign to be received by infants born into a Christian home, but a sign of repentance and faith that a person chooses for himself, even if he already has been christened as an infant, the way the Jews were circumcised as infants. John's baptism is the beginning of the radical, individual Christian ordinance of baptizing those who believe.

3. John's baptism fits what we are going to see in all the rest of the New Testament, and indeed in all the first two centuries of the Christian era until A.D. 200 when Tertullian mentions infant baptism for the first time in any historical document, namely, that all baptism was the baptism of believers, not infants. And the reason was that baptism was the sign of belonging to the new people of God who are constituted not by birth or ethnic identity, but by repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

The way of salvation is repentance and faith in Christ, not ethnic identity or birth to Christian parents. God calls us today, no matter who our parents were, and no matter what ritual we received as infants: God calls us today to repent and believe on Christ alone for salvation and to receive the new sign of the new covenant of the people of God : the sign of repentance and faith, baptism. So I call on every one of you who has not followed Christ in this way, "Repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). This is the call of God. This is the path of obedience and life.


Part 2


Colossians 2:8-15

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority; 11 and in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions, 14 having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. 15 When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him.

Does Christian Baptism Parallel Old Testament Circumcision?

This is the second in a four-part series on Christian baptism. Let me tell you a bit about how I am choosing the texts to preach from. I discovered in my seminary and graduate school days that my old ways of defending believer's baptism were not compelling. I used to spend time pointing out that all the baptisms described in the New Testament are baptisms of believers and that all the commands to be baptized are given to believers. I used to point out that infant baptism is simply not mentioned in the Bible and that it is questionable to build a crucial church practice on a theological inference, without explicit Biblical teaching when all the examples go in the opposite direction.

But I discovered that those who baptize infants ("paedobaptists") were not swayed by these observations, because they pointed out that, of course, we only see believer's baptism in the New Testament since we are dealing in all these settings with first generation evangelism, not with second generation child-rearing. Everybody agrees that the only adults that should be baptized are believing adults. The issue is, what happens when these baptized Christian adults have children?

So they pointed out that all my statistics are irrelevant and the question boils down to one of theological inference. Specifically, does Christian baptism parallel Old Testament circumcision as the sign of those who join the covenant people of God, and if so, should not the children of Christians receive baptism the way the sons of Israel received circumcision?

For example, the Heidelberg Catechism was written in 1562 as an expression of the Reformed faith. It is said by some to have the intimacy of Martin Luther and the charity of Philip Melanchthon and the fire of John Calvin : three great Reformers in the 16th century. At the end of the section on baptism, question #74 asks, "Are infants also to be baptized?" The answer goes like this:

Yes; for since they, as well as their parents, belong to the covenant and people of God, and both redemption from sin and the Holy Ghost, who works faith, are through the blood of Christ promised to them no less than to their parents, they are also by Baptism, as a sign of the covenant, to be ingrafted into the Christian Church, and distinguished from the children of unbelievers, as was done in the Old testament by Circumcision, in place of which in the New Testament Baptism is appointed.

Now this has been the standard understanding of baptism among Presbyterians and Congregationalists and Methodists and many others for hundreds of years. Lutherans and Catholics defend the practice of infant baptism differently, putting more emphasis than these other churches have on the actual regenerating effect of the act.

Are New Truths Revealed in the New Covenant?

So one of the most crucial questions you must face as you ponder the New Testament command to be baptized is whether you think this parallel with circumcision settles the matter. That is, is it the will of God revealed in the New Testament that Baptism and circumcision correspond so closely that what circumcision signified, baptism signifies? Or are there new truths about the creation and nature of the people of God in the New Covenant that point toward a discontinuity as well as continuity between circumcision and baptism?

Well, in my struggles with this issue over the years, especially the years in graduate school when I was studying mainly with paedobaptists, three or four texts, more than any others, kept me from embracing the argument from circumcision. One is Colossians 2:11-12. Another is 1 Peter 3:21. Another is Romans 9:8. And another is Galatians 3:26-27. I will take the Colossians text today and build on the others in the weeks to come.

But first let's make sure we don't miss the forest for the trees. This text (Colossians 2:10-15) is a virtual rain forest of strong gospel timber. Get a bird's eye view of it with me. It's all about what God has done for us (in history, objectively through Christ), and what he has done in us so that we will indeed inherit what he purchased

What God Has Done For Us

Take first the objective, historical, external work of God in verses 14-15. In essence, what these two verses tell us is that our two greatest enemies were defeated in the death of Christ. Nothing more powerful than the death of Christ has ever happened.

The first enemy defeated was the "certificate of debt" that was filed against us in the courtroom of heaven. In other words, because of our sin and rebellion, the laws of God had become a deadly witness against us and we were in such deep debt to God that there was no way out. Verse 14 says that Christ canceled that whole debt by paying it all on the cross. "[He] canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross." So the great enemy of our sin and guilt and debt, Christ defeated. That happened in history, objectively, outside us.

The second enemy defeated was the host of evil spiritual beings : the devil and his forces. Verse 15: "When He had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him." It's true that we must still "wrestle with principalities and powers" (Ephesians 6:12), but if we wrestle in the power of Christ and his shed blood, they are as good as defeated, because the blow he struck was lethal. Revelation 12:11 says that believers "overcame [the devil] because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even to death." We must fight. But the battle belongs to the Lord and the decisive blow has been struck at Calvary. Satan cannot destroy us.

What God Has Done in Us

Now besides these two great objective, external, historical triumphs over our worst enemies (the debt of sin before God and the devil's hosts on earth), this forest also describes what God does in us : not just for us and outside of us but in us so that we benefit from what was done outside of us.

He uses two pictures: one is circumcision and the other is resurrection. Verse 13 focuses mainly on our resurrection:

When you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions.

So you see what he does in us: we were spiritually dead, and he made us alive. This is the miracle of the new birth. You were saved because God spoke a life-giving, resurrecting word into your heart (2 Corinthians 4:6).

The other picture of what God does in us is the picture of circumcision. Verse 11:

In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ.

Now this is harder to understand because the ideas are more foreign to us. Paul compares the saving work of God in us with the practice of circumcision. He says it's like that, only this is a circumcision made "without hands" : it's a spiritual thing he is talking about, not a physical one. And he says that what is being cut away is not the male foreskin, but the "body of the flesh." In Paul's language that's probably a reference to sin-dominated, ego-dominated use of the body. What is cut away in this spiritual circumcision "without hands" is the old unbelieving, blind, rebellious self and its use of the body for sin. And that way, Paul is saying, God makes a person his very own.

So we have seen two pictures of what God does for us, objectively, historically, outside ourselves to save us: he defeats the enemy of sin and the enemy of Satan. And we have seen two pictures of what God does in us to make us part of that salvation: he raises us from the dead spiritually and he circumcises our hearts and strips away the old rebellious self and makes us new.

Baptism and Circumcision

Now, in that forest of glorious good news, here's the question about the tree of baptism: is water baptism the Christian counterpart to Old Testament circumcision? Is the continuity such that, just as circumcision was given to the children of God's covenant people then, baptism should now be given to the children of God's covenant people?

The key verses are verses 11-12. Notice the linking of the two ideas of circumcision and baptism:

. . .in Him [Christ] you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

It's clear there's a link here between baptism and circumcision. But it isn't, I think, what many infant baptizers think it is. Notice what sort of circumcision is spoken of in verse 11: it is precisely a circumcision "without hands." That means Paul is talking about a spiritual counterpart of the Old Testament physical ritual. Then baptism is linked in verse 12 to that spiritual counterpart to the Old Testament circumcision. This is extremely important. Try to get it.

What is the New Testament counterpart or parallel to the Old Testament rite of circumcision? Answer: it is not the New Testament rite of baptism; it is the New Testament spiritual event of the circumcision of Christ cutting away "the [old sinful] body of the flesh." then, baptism is brought in as the external expression of that spiritual reality. That is precisely what the link between verses 11 and 12 says. Christ does a circumcision without hands : that is the New Testament, spiritual fulfillment of Old Testament circumcision. Then verse 12 draws the parallel between that spiritual fulfillment and the external rite of baptism.

Notice what verse 11 stresses about the new work of Christ in circumcising: it is a circumcision "without hands." But water baptism is emphatically a ritual done "with hands." If we simply say that this New Testament ordinance of baptism done with hands corresponds to the Old Testament ritual of circumcision done with hands, then we miss the most important truth: something new is happening in the creation of people of God called the church of Christ. They are being created by a "circumcision without hands" by God. They are being raised from the dead by God. And baptism is a sign of that, not a repetition of the Old Testament sign. There is a new sign of the covenant because the covenant people are being constituted in a new way : by spiritual birth, not physical birth.

"Through Faith"

And one of the clearest evidences for this is the little phrase "through faith" in verse 12. Watch this carefully. This is what held me back from paedobaptism through years of struggle, until I saw more and more reasons not to join up. Verse 12 links the New Testament spiritual circumcision "without hands" in verse 11 with baptism, and then links baptism with faith:

Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.

If baptism were merely a parallel of the Old Testament rite of circumcision it would not have to happen "through faith" since infants did not take on circumcision "through faith." The reason the New Testament ordinance of baptism must be "through faith" is that it represents not the Old Testament external ritual, but the New Testament, internal, spiritual experience of circumcision "without hands."

Those two words : "through faith" : in verse 12 are the decisive, defining explanation of how we were buried with Christ in baptism and how we were raised with him in baptism: it was "through faith." And this is not something infants experience. Faith is a conscious experience of the heart yielding to the work of God. Infants are not capable of this, and therefore infants are not fit subjects of baptism, which is "through faith."

So I urge those of you who have not yet come to faith in Christ to consider the rainforest of good news in these verses: that Christ died and rose again to cancel our debt with God and to triumph over Satan; and that he raises spiritually dead people from the grave and circumcises sinful hearts : he does all this through faith. He brings us to trust him, by showing us how true and beautiful he is. Look to him and believe.

And then he bids us to express that faith in baptism. If you want to prepare for this step of obedience, you can come up after the service, or you can check it off on the worship folder leaf, or you can come to the baptismal preparation class starting next Sunday for two weeks.

May the Lord draw many of you to the enjoyment of this full obedience "through faith."


Part 3


1 Peter 3:18-22

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; 19 in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, 20 who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. 21 And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.

Controversy is Essential and Deadly

Let me begin today with a brief introductory word about controversy. The main thing I want to say is that doctrinal controversy is essential and deadly. And the attitude toward controversy in various groups of Christians depends largely on which of these two they feel most strongly. Is it essential or is it deadly? My plea is that at Bethlehem we believe and feel both of these. Controversy is essential where precious truth is rejected or distorted. And controversy is deadly where disputation about truth dominates exultation in truth.

The reason controversy is essential in the face of rejection and distortion is that God has ordained that the truth be maintained in the world partly by human defense. For example, Paul says in Philippians 1:7 that he is in prison for the "defense and confirmation of the gospel." And Jude 3 says that we should "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints." And Acts 17:2-3 says that Paul's custom in the synagogue was to "reason" from the Scriptures and "explain and give evidence" that Jesus was the Christ. So the preservation and transmission of precious truth from person to person and generation and generation may require controversy where truth is rejected or distorted.

But controversy is also deadly because it feels threatening and so it tends to stir up defensiveness and anger. It's deadly also because it focuses on the reasons for truth rather than the reality behind truth, and so tends to replace exultation in the truth with disputation about the truth. This is deadly because thinking rightly about truth is not an end in itself; it's a means toward the goal of love and worship. Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:5 that "the goal of our instruction is love." And he prayed in Philippians 1:9-11 that our "love . . . abound in knowledge . . . unto the glory and praise of God." Controversy tends to threaten both love and praise. It's hard to revel in a love poem while arguing with someone about whether or not your sweetheart wrote it.

John Owen on Controversy

So controversy is essential in this fallen world, and controversy is deadly in a fallen world. We must do it and we must tremble to do it. A wise counselor for us in this is John Owen, the Puritan pastor from 340 years ago. He was involved in many controversies in his day - theological and denominational and political. But he never ceased to be a deep lover of God and a faithful pastor of a flock. He counsels us like this concerning doctrinal controversy:

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth - when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us - when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts - when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for - then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.*

I think that was the key to Owen's life and ministry: he didn't just contend for doctrine; he loved and fellowshipped with the God behind the doctrine. The key phrase is this one: "When we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for - then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men." In other words, we must not let disputation replace contemplation and exultation.

I am keenly aware that this series of messages on baptism is more controversial than usual. I am also eager that this pulpit avoid two great errors: losing truth in the quest for exultation; and losing worship in the noise of disputation. So let us all pray that in our lives and in our church we walk the tightrope balanced by the necessity of controversy on the one side and the dangers of it on the other.

The Bible itself is a great help in this because it teaches about baptism, for example, in contexts that are so rich with good news that it makes it relatively easy to exult as we deal with this practice of baptism. In fact, baptism itself is meant, like the Lord's Supper, to point to realities that are so great and so wonderful that. over all the controversy, we must hear the music of God's glorious goodness and grace.

Exulting in Christ's Substitution for us

So it is here in 1 Peter 3:18-22. Sandwiching the teaching on baptism in verses 19-21 there are the same great truths about Christ and his death and resurrection that we saw last week in Colossians 2. Let's get these before us for the sake of exultation before we look between for the necessary disputation.

Verse 18: "Christ also died [literally: suffered] for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, in order that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit." Now here is something worth exulting over. Put it in five parts.

1. We are cut off from God.

First, the greatest problem in the world, the greatest problem in your life and mine, is that we are cut off from God. We have no right to approach him. We are alienated from him. You see this behind the words of Peter when he says that the aim of Christ's suffering was "that he might bring us to God." Now if Christ had to die that we might be brought to God, it is clear that we are alienated from God without Christ. This is the big issue. Not floods, and not cancer, and not crime, and not war, and not our job or marriage or kids. The big issue is that we are cut off from God, our Maker. And if that problem does not get solved, then the anger of God will rest on us and our eternity will be miserable.

2. It is sin that alienates us from God.

Second, we see what the problem is that alienates us from God, namely, sin. Peter says, "Christ suffered for our sins . . . that he might bring us to God." It's our sins that cut us off from God. This is true legally and it's true emotionally - as we all know. Legally, God is a just judge and does not simply pronounce the innocent guilty and the guilty innocent. He is holy and does not relax in the living room with rebels. Every sin is serious and pushes him farther away. And emotionally, we know that as our consciences are defiled by sins we feel so dirty in the presence of God that we can't lift our faces.

3. God substituted his Son for us.

Third, God has taken the initiative to overcome this alienation from him by offering Christ to suffer in our place. You see this great reality of substitution in the words, "Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the just for the unjust." Here is the great ground of our hope, that we really can and will come home to God. O let us exult in this above all the works of God - that he has substituted his just Son in our place. This is the great gospel. This is what holds us late at night and early in the morning when sin and Satan assail us with their accusations and say, you can't pray to God, much less go to heaven. Look at you! You're a sinner! To this we say, "Yes, but my hope does not lie in not being a sinner. It lies in a substitution of the Just for the unjust."

4. The substitution was once for all.

And to add to the glory of it, in the fourth place, Peter, just like the book of Hebrews (7:27; 9:12; 10:10), says that this substitution of the Just for the unjust was "once for all" - once for all time. It need not be and cannot be repeated, because it was perfect and complete the first and only time it was done. The debt for all my sins - past, present and future - was paid in a single sacrifice for all time. O the glory of an objective, finished, once-for-all gospel performed by God in his Son outside of me apart from my psychological fickleness.

5. God was satisfied with Christ's substitution.

And fifth, after he had offered himself once for all the Just for the unjust, God gave him life. "Having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit." This means, at least, that God was satisfied with Christ's substitution. Which means that if you will cherish it as the foundation of your life, God will be satisfied with you, in Christ. God gave Christ life in at least two senses: one is that God gave him life in the spirit during the three days while his body was in the grave. We know this because Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). Today, not in three days, but today. The other way that God gave Christ life is that he raised his body from the dead, and transformed it into a "spiritual body" - a new kind of body without the limitation of the old "flesh" - a body suited for the spiritual realm that "flesh and blood" cannot inherit (1 Corinthians 15:50). So God gave a mighty YES to Christ's substitution by raising him from the dead.

That's the top of the sandwich around the teaching of baptism: "Christ has suffered for sins once for all the Just for the unjust that he might bring us to God." Welcome home, are the sweetest words in the world, when God speaks them to our soul.

Exulting in the Subjection of Christ's (and our) Enemies

The bottom part of the sandwich is verse 22: "Christ is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him." Here we see the other effect of the death and resurrection of Christ. First was a substitution for our sins, now we see a subjection of his enemies. First substitution, then subjection. (Kids, ask mom and dad at lunch today, "What were the two words that started with "s" to describe the work of Christ?)

Now don't miss this: we saw the very same thing last week in Colossians 2:15. When Christ died and rose again, all the evil angels, and authorities and powers were subjected to him in a new way. From the beginning of creation he was sovereign over them. That's not new. But now he has nullified the one thing that they could use to destroy us, our sin. It's as if the demonic world had many weapons to harm us, but only one great tank of poison that could destroy the children of God. And when Christ went to the cross, he drank the entire tank.

O there is much to contend for here, but for now, this morning, let us simply exult in this. Let us commune with our God in this. Let us revel in this reality. That the substitutionary death and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ subjected angels and authorities and powers to him, meaning that in him the elect of God cannot be destroyed by these enemies. Our great enemies are subjected to the will of the one who died to save us, and he will save us. He will not let his work of substitution or subjection be done in vain.

Does Baptism Save?

Now sandwiched between these two great truths about Christ (substitution for sinners and subjection of enemies) are the words about baptism. I preached on this text September 25, 1994. So I send you to the file cabinet if you want more, but I only have time here to go straight to the point at issue, namely, the meaning of baptism. In verse 19, Peter reminds the readers that, in the spirit, Jesus had gone to preach to the people in Noah's day, whose spirits are now in prison awaiting judgment. (I don't take the position that verse 19 refers to Jesus' preaching in hell between Good Friday and Easter.) But there was tremendous evil and hardness in Noah's day and only eight people enter the ark for salvation from the judgment through water.

Now Peter sees a comparison between the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism. Verse 21 is the key verse: "And corresponding to that [the water of the flood], baptism now saves you - not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." Now there are some denominations that love this verse because it seems at first to support the view called "baptismal regeneration." That is, baptism does something to the candidate: it saves by bringing about new birth. So, for example, one of the baptismal liturgies for infants says, "Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ's Church, let us give thanks."

Now the problem with this is that Peter seems very aware that his words are open to dangerous misuse. This is why, as soon as they are out of his mouth, as it were, he qualifies them lest we take them the wrong way. In verse 21 he does say, "Baptism now saves you" - that sounds like the water has a saving effect in and of itself apart from faith. He knows that is what it sounds like and so he adds immediately, "Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ." (Or your version might have: "the pledge of a good conscience toward God").

But the point seems to be this: When I speak of baptism saving, Peter says, I don't mean that the water, immersing the body and cleansing the flesh, is of any saving effect; what I mean is that, insofar as baptism is "an appeal to God for a good conscience," (or is "a pledge of a good conscience toward God"), it saves. Paul said in Romans 10:13, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord - everyone who appeals to the Lord - will be saved." Paul does not mean that faith alone fails to save. He means that faith calls on God. That's what faith does. Now Peter is saying, "Baptism is the God-ordained, symbolic expression of that call to God. It is an appeal to God - either in the form of repentance or in the form of commitment.

What is Baptism?

Now this is fundamentally important in our understanding of what baptism is in the New Testament. James Dunn is right I think when he says that "1 Peter 3:21 is the nearest approach to a definition of baptism that the New Testament affords" (Baptism in the Holy Spirit, p. 219). What is baptism? Baptism is a symbolic expression of the heart's "appeal to God." Baptism is a calling on God. It is a way of saying to God with our whole body, "I trust you to take me into Christ like Noah was taken into the ark, and to make Jesus the substitute for my sins and to bring me through these waters of death and judgment into new and everlasting life through the resurrection of Jesus my Lord."

This is what God is calling you to do. You do not save yourself. God saves you through the work of Christ. But you receive that salvation through calling on the name of the Lord, by trusting him. And it is God's will all over the world and in every culture - no matter how simple or how sophisticated - that this appeal to God be expressed in baptism. "Lord, I am entering the ark of Christ! Save me as I pass through the waters of death!" Amen.


Part 4


Romans 5:20-6:4

Today is the last message in this short series on baptism. I know there is so much more to say. I'm sorry if I have left unanswered some of your questions. But we will have more opportunities in various settings to discuss these things.

Recall that one of our main motives for putting this series here at the beginning of the summer is that we believe the New Testament calls for people to come to Christ openly and courageously. We want to see people who have been believers come to that point of public testimony and we want to see people become believers through your witness and through the ministry of the word here all summer long.

Why Did Jesus Ordain the Act of Baptism?

Sometimes we might wonder why Jesus ordained the act of baptism. Why is there such a thing as baptism? If salvation is by grace through faith, why institute a required ritual or a symbol to act out that faith? That is a question the Bible does not answer. But experience teaches some interesting things.

For example, after my first message three weeks ago a former missionary to the Philippines came up to me and expressed her appreciation for the series and then said why. She said that in the Philippines, where there is a good bit of nominal and syncretistic Catholicism, converts were tolerated and scarcely noticed by their family - until they came to be baptized. Then the Biblical predictions of hostility and separation came to pass. There is something about this open ritual of new-found faith that makes clear where a person stands and what he is doing. In other words, in many cultures today the situation is a lot like the situation with John the Baptist. He came preaching a baptism of repentance and those who thought they already had all they needed were often enraged.

That same week this missions magazine (The Dawn Report, May 30) came. On page 7 there is a picture of a man baptizing in a missionary setting in a river, with this caption under the picture: "Outdoor services and river baptisms are sometimes the best vehicles for growth." We simply do not know the whole constellation of reasons God had in his wisdom for prescribing baptism as a normative way of expressing faith in Christ and identification with him and his people. We can think of several reasons why it is a good thing, but we probably cannot come near to thinking of all the good effects that God intends. In the end it is an act of trust in our Father that he knows what he is doing and we are happy to act on his command.

Immersion or Sprinkling?

But today I will try to show from Romans 5:20-6:4 a little more of the meaning of the act. This will also address the question that some of you have regarding the mode of baptism - that is, immersion rather than sprinkling. In fact, let me begin with a general word about the mode of immersion as opposed to sprinkling. There are at least three kinds of evidence for believing that the New Testament meaning and practice of baptism was by immersion. 1) The meaning of the word baptizo in Greek is essentially "dip" or "immerse," not sprinkle. 2) The descriptions of baptisms in the New Testament suggest that people went down into the water to be immersed rather than having water brought to them in a container to be poured or sprinkled (Matthew 3:6, "in the Jordan;" 3:16, "he went up out of the water;" John 3:23, "much water there;" Acts 8:38, "went down into the water"). 3) Immersion fits the symbolism of being buried with Christ (Romans 6:1-4; Colossians 2:12).

We won't linger over this, but let me say a word about how we may look at the fact that our church and our denomination make baptism by immersion a defining part of membership in the local covenant community (but not in the universal body of Christ). We do not believe that the mode of baptism is an essential act for salvation. So we do not call into question a person's Christian standing merely on the basis of the mode of their baptism. One might then ask: should you not then admit to membership those who are truly born again but who were sprinkled as believers? There are two ways to account for why we do not.

1) Should we call a manmade method of baptism "baptism," if we believe on good evidence that it departs from the form that Christ inaugurated? Would this not run the risk of minimizing the significance that Christ himself invested in the ordinance?

2) Local Christian communities, called churches, are built around shared Biblical convictions, some of which are essential for salvation and some of which are not. We do not define our covenant life together only by the narrowest possible set of beliefs one must have to be saved. We believe rather that the importance of truth and the authority of Scripture are better honored when communities of Christian faith define themselves by clusters of Biblical convictions and stand by them, rather than redefining the meaning of membership each time one of their convictions is disputed. When different Christian communities can do this while expressing love and brotherly affection for other believers, both truth and love are well-served. For example, the fact that many of the speakers we invite to the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors could not be members of this church says that we take love and unity seriously and we take truth seriously.

Which non-essentials will be included from generation to generation in defining various communities depends largely on varying circumstances and varying assessments of what truths need to be emphasized.

What Baptism Portrays

With that background let's look at Romans 5:20-6:4 to see what baptism portrays, and only secondarily what implications this has for the mode of baptism. My aim here is to help you see the glorious reality that baptism points to so that, mainly, the reality itself will grip you, and that, secondarily, the beauty and significance of the act will rise in your mind and hearts. Romans 5:20-6:4:

And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, (21) that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (6:1) What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? (2) May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (3) Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? (4) Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.

One of the great things about this text is that it shows that, if you understand what baptism portrays, you understand what really happened to you when you became a Christian. Many of us came to faith and were baptized at a point when we did not know very much. This is good. It is expected that baptism happens early in the Christian walk when you do not know very much. So it is also expected that you will learn later more and more of what it means.

Don't think, "Oh, I must go back and get baptized again. I didn't know it had all this meaning." No. No. That would mean you would be getting re-baptized with every new course you take in Biblical theology. Rather, rejoice that you expressed your simple faith in obedience to Jesus and now are learning more and more of what it all meant. That is what Paul is doing here: he is hoping that his readers know what their baptism meant, but he goes ahead and teaches them anyway, in case they don't or have forgotten. Learn from these verses what you once portrayed in the eyes of God, and what actually happened to you in becoming a Christian.

I am going to deal with only two things that baptism portrays, according to these verses.

1. Baptism portrays our death in the death of Christ.

Verses 3-4a: "Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death," Here is a great truth about us Christians. We have died. When Christ died he died our death. This means at least two things. 1) One is that we are not the same people we once were; our old self has died. We are not the same. 2) Another is that our future physical death will not have the same meaning for us that it would have had if Christ had not died our death. Since we have died with Christ, and he died our death for us, our death will not be the horrible thing it would have been. "O death where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (1 Corinthians 15:55). The answer is that the sting and the victory of death have been swallowed up by Christ. Remember from last week: he drank the tank. Notice the repetition of the word "into" in verses 3 and 4. Baptized "into Christ Jesus," and baptized "into his death" (verse 3), and baptism "into death" (verse 4a). What this says is that baptism portrays our union with Christ, that is, we are united to him spiritually so that his death becomes our death and his life will become our life. How do we experience this? How do you know if this has happened to you? The answer is that it is experienced by faith. You can hear this in the parallel verses. Galatians 2:20 makes the connection with faith: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God. . ." In other words, the "I" who died was the old unbelieving, rebellious "I" and the "I" who came to life was the "I" of faith - "The life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God." And the basis of all this is union with Christ - "Christ lives in me." And I live in him - in spiritual union with him. His death is my death and his life is being lived out in my life.

Another illustration of this would be Colossians 2:6-7a: "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith." Here again you can see that faith in Christ is the way you experience union with Christ. You receive him as Lord and Savior and in that faith you are united to him and walk "in him" and are built up "in him."

So when Romans 6:3-4a says that we are baptized into Christ and into his death, I take it to mean that baptism expresses the faith in which we experience union with Christ. This is presumably why God designed the mode of baptism to portray a burial. It represents the death that we experience when we are united to Christ. This is why we are immersed: it's a symbolic burial.

So know, believer, that you have died. The old unbelieving, rebellious "I" has been crucified with Christ. This is what your baptism meant and means.

2. Baptism portrays our newness of life in Christ.

Verse 4: "We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." Nobody stays under the water of baptism. We come up out of the water. After death comes new life. The old "I" of unbelief and rebellion died when I was united to Christ through faith. But the instant the old "I" died a new "I" was given life - a new spiritual person was, as it were, raised from the dead.

The most crucial commentary on this truth is Colossians 2:12. Paul says, "Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." Notice: We are raised up with Christ just like Romans 6:4 says we walk in newness of life. And there is the working of God who raised him from the dead just like Romans 6:4 says that Christ was raised through the glory of the Father. And this happens through faith in the working of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

So Colossians 2:12 makes explicit what Romans 6:4 leaves implicit - that baptism expresses our faith in the working of God to raise Jesus from the dead. We believe that Christ is alive from the grave and reigning today at the Father's right hand in heaven from which he will come again in power and glory. And that faith in God's working - God's glory as Paul calls it - is how we share in the newness of life that Christ has in himself.

In fact, the newness of life is the life of faith in the glory and the working of God. "I am crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live . . but the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God." The newness of life is the life of day by day trusting in the working of God - the glory of God.

Baptism Portrays What Happened to us When We Became Christians So let's summarize and come to a conclusion. Baptism portrays what happened to us when we became Christians. This is what happened to us: we were united to Christ. His death became our death. We died with him. And in the same instant, his life became our life. We are now living out the life of Christ in us. And all this is experienced through faith.

This is what it means to be a Christian - to live in the reality of what our baptism portrays: day by day we look away from ourselves to God and say, "Because of Christ, your Son, I come to you. In him I belong to you. I am at home with you. He is my only hope of acceptance with you. I receive that acceptance anew every day. My hope is based on his death for me and my death in him. My life in him is a life of faith in you, Father. Because of him I trust your working in me and for me. The same power and glory that you used to raise him from the dead you will use to help me. In that promise of future grace I believe, and in that I hope. That is what makes my life new. O Christ, how I glory in what my baptism portrays! Thank you for dying my death for me and giving new life to me. Amen."


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