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No Bits and Pieces, No Little People: Meet Francis Schaeffer

No Bits and Pieces, No Little People: Meet Francis Schaeffer

When the Sadducees came to Jesus with a disingenuous question about the resurrection, his response was direct: “you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mk. 12:24). We explored this interaction in Sunday’s sermon, “He is God of the Living.” The Sadducees insisted that there would be no future resurrection, that when we died that was it. It’s a brutal way to live. As in Jesus’ day we too are tempted to pursue religion without the truth of resurrection, to see the world as matter in motion without ultimate meaning.

Jesus’ chief interest in coming was souls. But we do well to ponder how a denial of a truth like the resurrection is destructive for both souls and societies. It’s by pondering the course of bad ideas that we more clearly see and speak the true goodness of the good news, to speak to our neighbors and the need of the age.

Maybe for you this pursuit isn’t so much about speaking to others as it is about coming to terms with the claims of Scripture yourself. As we said Sunday, if you have rejected Christianity because you cannot buy-in to the resurrection, you should be commended for seeing that claim for what it is. Whatever the case, I’d like you to meet someone who knew both the Scriptures and the power of God.

Meet Francis Schaeffer, a Recently Dead Pastor

It’s good for us to read the works of dead pastors from long ago, but it’s also good to read the works of dead pastors from not so long ago. In this case, the works of a man like Francis Schaeffer—a pastor and apologist from the mid-to-late 20th century—are proven valuable for two reasons. First, they have stood the test of time. Time is a wonderful sorting mechanism in a world of so many words. Second, his work has stood the test of time because he was a man who understood the times. Schaeffer was an exegete of the Scriptures and the present stage on which God’s saving plans are unfolding.

I came into Schaeffer in a theologically formative period of my own life through two books, He Is There and He Is Not Silent and The God Who Is There. Both books helped establish my confidence in the basic truthfulness and coherence of Scripture. I’m not alone. Albert Mohler tells his own story of how Schaeffer, as he puts it, “gave me a way of understanding how the Christian faith related to and answered the questions of the world around me.” Os Guinness tells a similar story in, “An Interview with Os Guinness on the 25th Anniversary of Francis Schaeffer’s Death.” Os and Mohler reminisce a bit together in a conversation they shared a few years ago. There are countless other stories along these lines.

Francis Schaeffer was an academic but no less an evangelist. His work in understanding the world was powered by his love for the people who inhabit the world, as it should be. If you’re a skeptic yourself, he had you in mind. 

Whereas Mohler first encountered Schaefer through his books, Guinness came to know Schaeffer in Schaeffer’s home turned ministry called L’Abri, which he co-founded in Switzerland with his wife Edith. If your interest is piqued, read Jerram Barr’s, “Francis Schaeffer: The Man and His Message,” for his story, his emphases, and some critique.

Where to Begin

With the Sadducee’s error in mind, this Sunday I quoted this excerpt from Schaeffer’s, A Christian Manifesto:

“Those who hold the material-energy, chance concept of reality, whether they are Marxist or non-Marxist, not only do not know the truth of the final reality, God, they do not know who Man is. Their concept of Man is what Man is not, just as their concept of final reality is what final reality is not. Since their concept of Man is mistaken, their concept of society and of law is mistaken, and they have no sufficient base for either society or law.”

Schaeffer had a way of getting under the surface of things. One of his central critiques of Christians in his day was that, as he said, “they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals.” That is, we tend to see issues like pornography, the breakdown of the family, abortion, etc. instead of the total world and story in which these tragedies emerge. Schaeffer’s burden was to help us understand this.

For an entry into Schaeffer’s work, A Christian Manifesto is a good place to start, but let me offer a few other options. Three books together form the heart of his apologetic work: The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent. These books will help to those wrestling with questions about the truthfulness of the Christian worldview and those who are engaging friends disaffected by Christianity. High School students and their parents will get help as well. Here’s from Escape from Reason

“People today are trying to hang on to the dignity of man, but they do not know how to, because they have lost the truth that man is made in the image of God. . . . We are watching our culture put into effect the fact that when you tell men long enough that they are machines, it soon begins to show in their actions. You see it in our whole culture—in the theater of cruelty, in the violence in the streets, in the death of man in art and life.”

The title of another book describes its aim: How Should We Then Live?: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. We do well to study history with a Christian worldview. But the purpose of doing so must always be fidelity to the God of history in our own day. If you can put up with the dated and even cheesy production, watch the the video series by the same name: 

There are a host of volumes written by those who studied with Schaeffer in some fashion. One of the most important among them—and a book you would do well to have on the shelf—is Nancy Pearcy’s, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity. For some reading on the life and ongoing relevance of Schaeffer’s work, check out the Summer 2020 edition of Southern Baptist Journal of Theology on the occasion of L’Abri’s 65th anniversary, edited by my dear friend Stephen Wellum—there, again, another influence of mine influenced by Schaeffer.  

No Little People

Schaeffer influenced the world with his words, but here are some words he wrote that explain his reach: “A compassionate open home is part of Christian responsibility, and should be practiced up to the level of capacity.” He more than understood the truth of Scripture for our day, but embodied it in Christian hospitality that changed the world.

This Sunday we will be in the next passage in Mark, 12:28-44, where we meet scribes who like the best seats and a poor woman who contributes all she has to live on. In all our work to understand the world, let’s remember our place in it with Schaeffer’s help—a man for whom there truly were No Little People:

Jesus commands Christians to seek consciously the lowest room. All of us — pastors, teachers, professional religious workers and non-professional included — are tempted to say, “I will take the larger place, because it will give me more influence for Jesus Christ.” Both individual Christians and Christian organizations fall prey to the temptation of rationalizing this way as we build bigger and bigger empires. But according to the Scripture this is backwards: We should consciously take the lowest place, unless the Lord himself extrudes us into a greater one.

It is there we come to know both the Scriptures and the power of God.

Defining Justice

Defining Justice

There’s a popular slogan these days, “No Justice, No Peace.” Surely, we should want to positively affirm this simple statement. It is theologically true that there is no peace without justice. But in context, this slogan has been used as a threat. In short, “if we do not get justice, we will burn this city down.” So much turns on the meaning of justice.

In Sunday’s sermon, “The Things that Are Caesar’s,” we considered the role of governing authorities in our lives and in God’s world. Though there may be extensive disagreement between two people in the precise scope of the government’s proper authority—whether it belongs in education, if and how it should intervene with markets, foreign policy, etc.—everyone agrees that the government is in the business of doing justice. According to the Bible’s own basic job description, it’s half of government’s job. Governing authorities are sent “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1Pet. 2:14). Paul puts it even more starkly: “For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).

In the conclusion of this sermon, I offered three comments about justice by way of application for better thinking on this topic. You might be having some conversations about injustices in our day, and you should. You don’t need my help on all the important minutiae. But we all need some help from the Bible to think in biblical categories and biblical ways about a topic dear to our Lord’s heart, that is, justice and the role of governing authorities.

The purpose of this post is not to argue that God cares for people and what that means in practical and personal terms; I expect that will emerge in the regular course of preaching and teaching. Rather, the purpose of this post is to explore a neglected and nuanced subject of the proper role of government—in its role as a minister of God’s justice—in mediating God’s care for people.

Justice is a big topic, and so is government. Here are three big thoughts for thinking about them.

First, Justice Is More Than Government

This point will seem both obvious and problematic. When Peter writes that it is the governing authority’s job to “punish those who do evil,” this assumes that evil means something. It assumes a standard of evil that is not determined by the state, a standard that is true not because an individual or society determined that it is true, but because it is. Both evil and justice, then, transcend any one time and place and state.

That should seem obvious to us. But whose justice is true justice? This is where Christianity presents us with a second absolute claim. The first is that there is such a thing as evil. The second is that God’s view of these things is the right one.

Governing authorities are “instituted by God,” they are “God’s servant,” even “ministers of God” (Rom. 3:1, 4–6). That’s the same word we use for “deacon.” Paul is pressing on us the lofty and even sacred responsibility that we have as citizens to submit to our governing authorities. But this also highlights the truth that justice is God’s business and the state is God’s servant, whether it wants to admit as much or not. God is a God of justice and humans should be treated a certain way because they are made in his image. We see that truth applied to the question of murder in the early pages of Scripture, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Gen. 9:6). Jesus was not arguing for a theocratic state in this age. We give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (Mk. 12:17). His kingdom is not of this world and, as such, it does not advance by means of the state. Nevertheless, human government is still God’s government.

Here’s one thing this means: justice isn’t determined by society or the state; it is discerned. Justice is not relative but revealed. God’s righteousness is revealed in what God has made and we clearly perceive it, for he has given us inner faculties to discern a standard of justice that is outside of us (Ro. 1:19, 20). In fact, our very law-making impulse is one proof that the human conscience is sensitive to the deeper truths about God and humanity (Ro. 2:15, 16). This doesn’t mean we always get it right. In fact, we actively suppress the truth we perceive in creation (Ro. 1:18). What it means is that the human conscience is calibrated to pick up on the signals that God’s creation puts out concerning the basic nature of humanity—the dignity of all human life, human sexuality as male and female, the proper authority of parents over children, the nature of marriage as heterosexual and monogamous, the dignity and responsibility of work, etc. The state is not beholden to the particular law code given to Israel in the old covenant, as that has been fulfilled in Christ. But human government is accountable with all of humankind to the truth about humans reflected in all the Scriptures, truth which is both encoded on the human conscience and embedded in creation.

Here’s another thing this means: government can get these things right, but government can also get these things wrong. When the state wields its sword based on a false understanding of humanity it is bound to commit injustice. This means we can and should speak and work for justice in our systems of government. Abraham Lincoln was right to do so in his day, as was Martin Luther King Jr. in his. Both appealed to the human conscience and our universal sense of accountability to something higher and truer than the state. When human government uses its sword for evil, its legal systems become injustice multipliers. The riots at the Capitol were an atrocity, roundly and universally condemned, and rightly so. Greater still are some of the bills passed on that floor. My point is that the government and the news will hold out some things as evil and other things as good, but they are not and cannot be our litmus test of right and wrong; they are not a reliable gauge.

One reason that authoritarian governments suppress Christianity and the church is this: they will not accept a standard of judgment by which they may be found guilty. When a state stops being accountable to its own people, it won’t be long before it stops accounting to the people’s voice on justice. Christians have been famously resilient under state pressure. We are gracious and happy to live quiet and peaceful lives. But we are not—and we must not be—easily coerced. We know better because we know God.

Justice is more than government. We give to God what is God’s.

Second, Justice Requires More Than Good Intentions

I showed up to Southern Seminary in 2005 as a 25 year old to grow in handling God’s Word for God’s people. I came to that place because of several professors, including Ronald Nash. I didn’t get to take a class with Nash, as he died a year later in 2006. He was a rare and needed combination of theological, philosophical, economic, and historical scholarship. Rarer still, he wrote with a love and concern for the church. Lately, I’ve been growing in my appreciation of Nash all the more for his ability to see under the surface of things. Here’s how he opened his book, Social Justice and the Christian Church, some thirty years ago:

One of the two sides of Christian social concern is the Christian’s clear obligation to care and to be concerned about the poor and oppressed and to do what he can on their behalf. But the other dimension of Christian social concern adds the stipulation that if a Christian wishes to make pronouncements on complex social, economic, and political issues, he also has a duty to become informed about those issues. … There is no question about the fact that [Christians] care. But their compassion is often wedded to a political and economic ideology that is long on heart and short on wisdom.

God cares about people and that’s why people care about people. We’re like him. But, as Nash suggests, good intentions need to be paired with good ideas. Good intentions paired with bad ideas about government can lead to profound injustice.

This leads us to the topic of social justice. This is an idea in need of definition. Justice and people are too important. Unfortunately, social justice is a term that suffers from semantic overload. Ten people can mean ten different things, some of them contradictory. Some of us might hear “social justice” and think about justice expressed in human relationships, perhaps with an accent on active care for the poor and oppressed. Others might think of justice in the administration of human government so that every human is rendered his or her due. Those are profoundly biblical concerns. They also align with how the term was used when it was first employed. In what may be its original usage in the 1840’s, Jesuit philosopher and conservative Catholic Luigi Taparelli taught that inequality was not an injustice but a byproduct of justice in rightly ordered constitutional arrangements. But that is the opposite of how the term is often used today. Since the mid-point of the last century social justice has been a stand-in for policies that treat people unevenly in order to achieve even outcomes. Those are two different meanings. If you carefully define what you’re talking about intentions intersect with more or less biblical political ideologies.

At this point, we could explore the claims and consequences of Marxism, statism, and socialism. You can pick up a copy of Nash’s book for that. Or check out this interview with James Lindsay by Albert Mohler for a more realtime take on what’s happening around us.

For our purposes, I want to stay closer to the ground of the biblical text. It’s fine for us to use terminology that is not in Scripture such as “social justice.” However, a set of more biblically precise categories will help us not only understand one another, but match our good intentions to the very best ideas about justice and human government.

With that in mind, here are four types of justice with reflections on the role of the state.

Personal Justice

This is what we usually think of as personal righteousness. Often in the Scriptures the language of justice is paired with righteousness. A just or righteous person is a godly person, a person with integrity. This is someone who does what is right and does right by others. We might even include here the voluntary generosity in helping the poor (Lk. 12:33). Noah was “a righteous man, blameless in his generation” (Gen. 6:9). When the Bible mentions justice, this is what it is usually talking about.

The state has an obvious interest in this. Unless we’re going to be a police state, then most people will have to be mostly good most of the time. Or, as Colson’s Law states, “the only alternatives to conscience are cops or chaos. If the inner shield of a community is lowered, the outer shield must be raised to stave off chaos. Therefore, a community, especially a free democracy, that loses its conscience will necessarily become a police state.” Hence, an important function of human government is not only to promote good behavior but to “praise” and “approve” those who do good (1Pet. 2:14; Rom. 13:3).

Commercial Justice

Commercial justice is justice in the marketplace. The Lord is for this. “A just balance and scales are the LORD’s; all the weights in the bag are his work” (Prov. 16:11). “You shall have just balances, just weights, a just ephah, and a just hin: I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:36). The poor or less savvy should not be taken advantage of. We should pursue just practices in our businesses and welcome the state’s regulation of the marketplace to ensure just transactions.

Here the state fulfills an important function. One of the evils that the state is assigned to punish is theft. The state should protect private property and act as a recognized authority to adjudicate disputes in the marketplace as they arise.

Legal Justice

This is justice before the law, specifically in instances of remediation, when the state is addressing some kind of harm. Five qualities are crucial for this kind of justice in order to not add injustice to injustice. This kind of justice is truthful in that it is based in the truth. False reports are condemned, and multiple witnesses are required (Ex. 23:1–3; Deut. 19:15). It is impartial, showing favoritism neither to the poor nor the rich (Lev. 19:15; cf. Acts 10:34; Js. 2:8, 9). The poor receive special attention in Scripture, in part, because of their vulnerability in legal settings (Ex. 23:3, 6; Ps. 72:1–4). It is proportional. In our interpersonal dealings we should turn the other cheek, but governing authorities are instituted to punish evil. When they punish evil they should do so with proportion, an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth, foot for foot (Deut. 19:21). This kind of justice is also personal, not based on our association with a group but on our own deeds. And it is procedural, involving due process in order to clarify facts, discern intent, and settle on a just resolution (Num. 35:9–34).

Let me illustrate and apply this briefly. If an unarmed man is killed in the street by a police officer, justice requires an investigation to uncover facts and a verdict based on that evidence. If it is proven a murder, then it should be called a murder and the murderer should receive a just sentence. If evidence shows that it was manslaughter, then he should be treated accordingly. Neither the victim nor the defendant’s ethnicity, connections in the community, or economic status should be in play as it concerns the outcome. Related, if it is true that evidence does not support the claim that racist police officers kill unarmed black people at a disproportionate rate (evidence which I find convincing and, if true, encouraging), then it is an injustice to make this claim. At our very best we all want to respond in a just way to injustice. An injustice will draw a crowd. Maybe it should. But in our own responses, let’s respond to God rather than a mob lest we add injustice to an already heartbreaking situation.

So far, we have explored three types of justice. Each of these could be rightly called “social justice” in the sense that they involve justice in human relationships in people are given what they are due as those made in God’s image.

A fourth type of justice is where we meet the rub between what the Bible requires of us in human government and what we might call ideological social justice.

Distributive Justice

This form of justice is concerned with the distribution of the nation’s burdens and resources. Every nation will do some of this. We pay different amounts in taxes but share the same roads and military. In the United States, things like public education and Social Security are examples of the government distributing burdens and benefits.

The question at hand is this: as an agent of God’s justice to see that people are given their due, what is the state’s responsibility to its people as it concerns the coercive distribution of burdens and resources?

We have Bible verses that regulated Israel’s national life with respect to the poor with laws that allowed the poor to glean from the fields (Ex. 23:10; Deut. 24:19–22). One could argue from those texts to social safety nets of one kind or another. But today’s cries for social justice are not just stronger appeals to help the destitute, but something altogether different.

As a subset of distributive justice, social justice proponents appeal for the distribution of resources with the goal of equal outcomes—usually economic outcomes. It sees unevenness between groups of as a problem rooted in injustice in society, a result of oppression by oppressors. Eradication of these differences, proponents insist, is a fundamental governmental responsibility. Not every person who adopts this vocabulary embraces this whole program of thought. Nevertheless, this is the philosophical and academic foundation that undergirds social policy that flies under the banner of social justice today.

How can we boil down the problem with so-called “social justice”? Here’s one way. Social justice proponents are correct that the world is fraught with injustice, but they locate the human problem in the wrong place. Christians know that the problem with humanity is inside us and it flows from inside out. It is no surprise for us to find problems everywhere humans are found. But social justice ideology insists that where humans err they do so because of the society around them and because of inadequate institutions. The answer, then, is to destroy institutions and rebuild society in order to perfect humanity.

If we locate the problem outside ourselves, we will have an unrealistically high expectation of what government can achieve, or more precisely what a few people at the top can achieve in destroying society and remaking it. Naturally, having identified the problem wrongly, they seek a solution that can only bring harm, a cost that some proponents openly embrace. There’s a discernible echo here of biblical eschatology that sees a judgment and new creation on the horizon, just without God. The social justice movement in this expression sees the state as the means to this transformation, as the state is the only vehicle for forcing the reallocation of resources and wealth. That social justice proponents see institutions as the problem and nevertheless trust the institution of human government to address the problem is a contradiction inherent to their worldview.

Liberation theologians (a driver for social justice thinking among Christians) embrace a different gospel. They see God’s plan of salvation summed up in the liberation of oppressed peoples from bondage in this age by means of the state. The centrality of the state to this vision of justice is why you may feel like affirming justice requires the endorsement of certain policy proposals. That’s why the language of “social justice” is dangerous. It allows some who use it to enlist the support of well-intentioned but undiscerning voters. This is not a post about race, but it is impossible to untangle the topic of race from social justice because the social justice movement has identified race, along with gender and so-called “gender identity,” as the fault lines that divide oppressed groups in need of liberation from oppressive society. This binary and inflammatory claim explains so much of the heat in our newsfeeds in the last decade.

What we are experiencing is not a new phenomenon. Historian Victor Davis Hansen had this to say about revolutionary societies: “In revolutionary societies the most dangerous cycle is not from poverty to equality. The most dangerous cycle is from equality to parity.” That is, from poverty to an equality of opportunity to an equality of outcome—which some refer to as equity, or which Hansen calls parity. What’s happening here socially, he says, is not so much unlike what happened in Russia in 1917 at the start of the Russian Revolution. When a people in a population who have largely achieved equality of treatment begin to see that parity is within reach, the demands of the general population go up, the demands on the state go up, the promises of the state go up, and the violence goes up. But since it can never be ultimately achieved, the society risks a descent into greater division and violence, which in turn triggers the growth of the state to address the chaos. This is why social justice has been called a Trojan horse to a totalitarian state. The state is the only agent that can bring about the demands of social justice on the broader society. 

Friends, we should be optimistic about the good of the state, cooperative, and thankful. But we should also be pessimistic because we know who humans are as sinners. Government is supposed to be limited, but without constant vigilance, as history has taught us, governments will not only reflect the best but the worst of human nature. Government is an instrument of God’s justice, but as John teaches us in his apocalypse, the state can become a beast, an instrument of Satan’s blasphemous evil purposes (Rev. 13).

What causes the state to grow beyond its divinely ordered limits? Governments grow because of human pride, as leaders find ways to arrest more power. They grow because of faulty human philosophy that locates human hope in the state. They grow because of various problems—health crises, natural disasters, threats from without, and chaos from within—as they expand their powers to solve problems but then do not give those powers back. The state grows when the people value personal affluence and pleasure more than their proper freedoms as human beings, ceding more power to the state on the promise that they can keep their comforts. And the state grows as it multiplies promises in exchange for the people’s support. At every step we hear appeals for justice and promises of a more just world.

If you want to search out this topic of social justice a bit further, Tim Challies has several helpful posts exploring some Scriptures and recent attempts to make distinctions. One book he interacts with by Thaddeus Williams is particularly helpful, Confronting Injustice without Compromising Truth. For a masterful book on the relevant and familiar passages, pick up a volume we have our interns read, What Is the Mission of the Church?: Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission, by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert. Neil Shenvi has also done some good work on this front in his post, “Christianity and Social Justice,” and in his series, “Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Christianity: Are They Compatible?,” and in a follow-up piece, “Social Justice, Critical Theory, and Consistency.” For an economist’s interaction on these themes, read two essays by Thomas Sowell, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice,” and “Race, Culture, and Equality.”

Third, Justice Is Nothing Less Than the Foundation of God’s Throne

Why were our streets filled with men and women crying out for justice this past summer? Why did so many storm the Capitol at the start of this year? Without getting into any of the details, we can say this: people long for justice because they were made by a just God, and they are having a hard time finding it down here. We too long for justice.

For all of us, here’s some good news:

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne;
steadfast love and faithfulness go before you. —Psalm 89:14

We experiment in human government, but our God does not experiment in his government of the universe. His execution of his justice and his plan is perfect. In the end, any injustice in this world will be settled.

That truth on its own is unsettling. In the garden we were in a just relationship with God and one another. When Adam sinned, he committed an injustice against the sovereign of the universe. Since then, we humans have been busy thinking up and carrying out every kind of injustice against one another and, by extension, against the God whose image we bear (Gen. 6:5; 9:6). When we cry out for justice, we’re often on to something. Human governments, as we’ve said, can commit injustice too. But just as often we are covering for injustices we’d rather not talk about or admit as individuals and as a society. The God whose throne is founded on justice sees it all. In fact, so many of our problems in this world are God’s judgment already. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18).

In an age of bad news headlines, we herald and hold fast to this good news, that the God whose throne is founded on justice is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). In the cross we meet the God of justice who is also the God of steadfast love and faithfulness. On the cross he accomplished both justice and peace (Col. 1:20). Even better, he makes us just people and he forms a just community, the church with outposts in every place where people are at peace with God and one another. Today he is building little cities within the cities of this world where people treat each other as they ought, old and young, rich and poor, slave and free, Jew and Greek.

Nations come and go, but as a friend recently put it, the church is the only institution which Jesus promised to build, defend, and preserve. A knowledge of God’s justice is one way he does that. It is faith in this God of perfect justice that grounded Christians in the first century. They faced many injustices. But even as Rome declined over the second and third centuries, the church emerged intact. She was not supported by a pantheon of pretend gods who could give her no true meaning or hope. She was sustained by the God whose throne is founded in justice, who judges and who justifies.

Slogans will come and go. People will mean all sorts of things by them. The church’s message remains. It is no threat. It is not ambiguous. It is an open statement of the truth and it’s a standing offer to all: know justice and know peace.

Help for Anxious Hearts

Help for Anxious Hearts

God speaks some of the most beautiful words to anxious people. I don’t know where I read that, but it has stuck with me.

Our text from Sunday took us to some of those beautiful words in Jesus’ otherwise peculiar command: “look at the birds” (Matt. 6:24). Birds are a reminder that God values us. If he feeds them, how much more will he care for us! That’s a good argument, and it’s put in a way that changes how we look at things. It literally changes what we are look at. Birds are one of God’s answers for our anxious hearts. 

You may be wrestling with anxiety right now. If you’re not, you probably know someone in our church who is. If so, your words are one way God may gladden their heart this week. “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Prov. 12:25).

Anxiety is not an easy thing to understand, but it’s worth the work. Here are some resources to help you mine the Scriptures for more of God’s beautiful words for anxious hearts. These are in order by length. 

Any of these resources would be something you could take up alone or with a friend in our church. If you weren’t able to join us, listen to Sunday’s sermon, “Look at the Birds: Seeking the Kingdom in an Age of Anxiety.” However you put this Sunday’s sermon to work, remember the God who cares for you and who stands ready to carry your anxieties (1Pet. 5:7).

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What’s in the Water?: Baptism as a Sign of Addition

What’s in the Water?: Baptism as a Sign of Addition

This is the third in a three-part series on the sign of Baptism. Read the Introduction and Part 2. This post is based on a sermon preached, November 29, 2020, titled, “Baptism: A Sign of Addition

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A certain headline recently caught my attention: “Utah monolith: Helicopter crew discovers mysterious metal monolith deep in the desert.” What was this all about?

Sure enough, way out in the desert was discovered a triangular structure of polished metal. Its clean edges rose out of the ground some ten feet. Clearly it did not belong there, but where was it from? As if from another world entirely, that triangular structure was proof that someone was up to something.

That is not so much unlike what the church is in the world. Here is a picture of a similarly beautiful and otherworldly structure:

Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. —Acts 2:41–47

This is the church, a mysterious monolith in the desert of this world. Its crisp edges are unmistakable, distinct, and visible to anyone with eyes to see. Baptism is no small part of that. In fact, as a sign of the new covenant, we could say that baptism gives the church its visible definition. Baptism is the shape of the church.

In the last post we focused on the invisible things to which baptism points. In this post, I want us to focus on the visible things that baptism calls us to and creates. We will explore what the Bible teaches and then we will make some applications for how we approach baptism. This will require some biblical work and, with it, some conceptual rewiring. We’ll give it the time we need.

How Is Baptism a Sign of Addition?

One of the Bible’s first and simplest lessons about the local church is a math lesson.

Notice the order of things here: “Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41, 42). The Word led to baptism, which led to a defined worshiping community. As people were baptized, they were “added” to that community. That’s what Luke is teaching us.

What does this addition involve and what does baptism have to do with it? And who’s counting anyway? Apparently, there were two parties keeping track of who was added to the church. Understanding who they are and why they counted will help us with the sign of baptism.

Through baptism we are counted by the church

Besides the Lord himself, the church is the first party keeping track of souls. We know why we count our money. We know why we count the heads of our kids when we get in the van. What does it mean for the church to count us when we’re baptized?

With this question, I am about to Bible assault the idea that baptism is a personal decision and an individual thing merely. We decide where we go to eat. We decide where to shop for clothes. We decide which kind of shampoo we will use. When it comes to identifying with Christ, it is bigger and deeper than that, and that is good news.

Before we see how, here is a thought experiment. You might have the last name Smith, but if things took the normal course, you were born into a specific Smith family. Intuitively you did not pit the more universal truth that you belonged to the Smith family more broadly against the narrower truth that you belonged to your mom and dad and siblings. They are both true at the same time and they were true at the point of your birth. In fact, the way you come to know you belong to the Smith family more broadly is through identification with a Smith family more locally. The illustration will break down eventually, but I trust you’re tracking with me.

Now, four things the church does when we baptize someone.

First, when we are baptized, we are counted in. The portrait God gives us in Acts 2 does not involve a loose affiliation of floating Christians but committed family. Luke did that on purpose. When local churches made disciples and counted them in through baptism, they did this in obedience to Jesus. When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” he gave us the “keys of the kingdom” with the authority to preach his gospel and make disciples and the responsibility to keep careful track of the disciples we make (16:18–19; 18:15–20). “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18–20). Baptism is not just a decision for the person who wants to be baptized. It involves a decision on the part of a church to go public with a person together.

Having been counted in, we are now counted on. A baptized Christian is to be treated as an indispensable member of a local church. We do not just baptize one another into Christ, but into his body (Gal. 3:27, 28; cf. 1Cor. 12:13). In terms of invisible realities, this speaks of our broad identification with God’s people at all times in all places. But once we start reading the New Testament letters, we begin to realize that this truth always touched down with visible local church commitments. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: “There is one body and one Spirit … one baptism” (Eph. 4:4, 5). But he wrote about that universal truth in order to ground his practical command for a church to bear with one another in love and build one another up as a body (4:2, 15, 16). The imagery of a body involves real-life coherence and interdependence. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1Cor. 12:21, 22). Indispensable! In other words, we make disciples, baptize them, and then count on them.

In baptism we also become accountable. We say to one another, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Ro. 6:2–4). This accountability goes further than exhortations. What happens when we stop living consistent with our baptism? Our brothers and sisters call us to repent and when we persist, they “tell it to the church,” and if that doesn’t win us, then the church treats us like an unbeliever (Matt. 18:15–20). Here’s what this means: when we go public with someone in baptism, we must be willing to go public in saying they are not a Christian through church discipline if necessary.

Fourth, in baptism we are accounted for. After churches were planted, elders were appointed (Acts 14:23). Which means we have this comforting command: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb. 13:17). When we are added to the church, we get real life shepherds who watch over our souls and who will give an account for us to God. This doesn’t mean they need to know everything about us. Only the Lord can keep that kind of a watch over us. But it does mean that our churches are led and fed by elders who are godly and who have God’s heart for God’s people. Baptism means that we aren’t just on God’s books, but we are on the books of a local church and its leaders.

Here’s what all this means: baptism is not just a private or an individual thing. Yes, it is deeply personal, but it is also a family thing. And that’s part of God’s good plan for us. Baptism puts you and a local church on public record that you belong to Christ.

When we go on record together, someone else starts counting too.

Through baptism we are counted by the world

In this section I want to Bible assault the idea that we can baptize someone without disclosing the costs or discerning that they know what they are getting themselves into.

When we are baptized, some are happy about it. Heaven rejoices whenever a sinner repents (Lk. 15:7). But some are hostile about it. We looked at the portrait of the church meeting, eating, praying, and teaching in Acts 2. What happened next? Their teaching about the resurrection became an annoyance and some were arrested (Acts 3:1–3). Just as Jesus said (Jn. 15:20).

How did the hostile ones know who to ruff up? They were keeping track of who belonged to the church. For example, “Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church” (Acts 12:1). Paul, before he was converted, “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13; cf. 1Cor. 15:9). He sought letters from religious officials “so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2).

What animated this hostility toward the church? Paul tells us: “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them.” (Acts 26:9, 10).

At times I hear someone say, “we need a compelling reason not to baptize someone.” That sounds right, but I believe it is mistaken. It seems better to say the opposite, that we need a compelling reason to baptize someone. It is true that the baptisms we witness in the book of Acts closely follow conversion. But they are also, each of them, publicly credible and immediately verifiable. That is, they were dramatic, attended with signs, save one; they were from a non-Christian to a Christian context; and they were costly in that persecution was assumed. One of the was a jailer responsible for guarding Christians. Baptism was itself a test of one’s faith.

This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be a Christian. When Jesus called people to follow him, he was big into full disclosure. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mk. 16:24, 25). Or, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Mt. 8:22). Or, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37). We are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). It is a miracle of God. But it is a miracle that moves us (Eph. 2:10). Saving faith follows Jesus. There is no contradiction here.

Here’s what this means for baptism. If we are to make disciples and then baptize the disciples we make, how do we know when we’ve got a disciple? I suggest to you that Jesus has told us what to look for. One of those things is a resolve to follow Jesus whatever the cost. That’s important to remember, since baptism puts them on record not only with the church, but with the world.

Getting Consistent on Some Things

Now it’s time to press this teaching into a more consistent practice of baptism for our church. Here are two areas in which we as elders have become convinced that Jesus has more for us in this sign than we’ve been seeing or enjoying.

Baptism and church membership go together

Baptism and a church’s membership process should be tightly linked in two ways.

First, since baptism is Jesus’ membership process, any other processes we create around it should support and account for baptism, and not sideline this sign. Consider this question: what does it take to start a church? Do we need a building or programs or spreadsheets? No, Jesus made it much simpler than that. We need the preaching of the gospel, some water, and some bread and wine (juice is just fine). That water part is Jesus’ membership materials because baptism is the church’s front door.

What does this mean for us? It means that when someone comes to us for baptism, we shepherd them through the membership class and baptism functions as the last step. In other words, when they are baptized, they will at that moment become a member—counted in, counted on, accountable, and accounted for. This is new for us, but not entirely. For example, we have always required baptism for membership. We did not do this because baptism is merely a matter of obedience, but because it is a matter of membership. We’re convinced we need to work that principle in the other direction. Of course, when someone comes to us having been baptized as a believer at a gospel preaching church, we acknowledge that baptism for our purposes of membership.

Second, baptism is a sign in which the whole membership is engaged. Baptism is not something the congregation watches a pastor do to a new Christian. Baptism may be led by a trusted leader or pastor, but it is ultimately something we do together. The keys of the kingdom are given to the church, which means there are three consciences that need to be satisfied in baptism: the conscience of the one being baptized, the conscience of the one baptizing, and the conscience of the congregation. This is why a baptismal candidate testifies to the gospel and how they were saved before they are baptized. They do this in order that we can together welcome this person into our membership with joy and without hesitation.

So, members, when we baptize someone, that means we get to and must treat them as a brother or sister in Christ with all that that means expressed in our Membership Covenant. If you’re not a member but you are confessing Christ and you have been baptized, you should pursue membership at Heritage or at a gospel preaching church somewhere. And to those who are confessing Christ but who have not been baptized, you should be baptized and join us in membership.

Baptism assumes a certain level of maturity

When is a person old enough to be baptized? This is an important question for us to engage as a church in love for our children. We may intuit that a three-year old is too young to fully understand the truth and demands of the gospel. Can a three-year old be genuinely converted? I suppose, yes. Can a congregation be confident enough to affirm that salvation publicly and hold them to all that it involves? We believe we should say, no. But if not three-years old, then what age are we talking about then?

Let’s slow down and consider what children are like. Children are dependent. They are dependent on their parents for food, for decisions, and for their ideas. Children are changeable. That is, they are flexible, exploring, and unsettled. Children are also untested. Parents have to impose consequences on children because they are naturally shielded from the consequences of their decisions. All of this is right and good and God’s plan for children.

Can children who are dependent, changeable, and untested be converted? Emphatically, yes. Is it easy enough for them and for us to discern whether they are converted so that we are willing to give them the one-time sign of eternal safety with God? Should we, for our part, put them on the line for all that Jesus calls us to? We have become convinced that the answer to that question in normal circumstances is, no. We think patience is the most loving thing for our young people.

So, then, what age? Let us walk you through the questions we asked ourselves as elders. When does it usually become naturally evident not to mom and dad or even the pastor but to the church that this person is a true convert? When would it be natural for a young person to deal directly with the church and not through their parents? Since we should never baptize someone with whom we would not be willing to go through with church discipline, when would that typically seem right? We want our young people to understand what they are doing and remember it forever, so when is someone typically old enough for that to be the case? To return to our thinking on childhood, when do we normally see a clear move from dependence to independence, from changing to stability, from untested to tested?

We decided not to work with a defined age, but we think the mid to late teens is about right. We are eager to talk with anyone about their soul at any time but will be open in normal circumstances to move forward with baptism around that time.

Does this conform to the Scriptural pattern? That’s a question we’d hope you would ask. We believe it does. At the risk of lengthening an already long post, here’s why we say that. Jesus welcomed children to himself, but that famous episode served as a lesson for his disciples and all of us in humility (Mk. 10:13–16; cf. 9:33–37; 10:32–34). When Jesus called someone by name, it was an adult. When Jesus healed, it was on account of an adult’s faith. In other words, Jesus welcomed children to be around him, but we should not overstate what he taught. In the book of Acts, baptism and conversion are closely tied together as they should be. But, again, all of the examples we have are of publicly credible and immediately verifiable conversions. The explicit baptisms we have are also all adults. When disciples are mentioned we read about “men and women.”

Here’s the point: at best, the New Testament is inconclusive on the age of baptism for believing young people. We cannot be dogmatic about this. But there does seem to be a pattern that favors adulthood or, as we say, the years approaching adulthood. Adulthood came much younger in the first century. Our own practice is what we might call a biblically informed judgment call.

It helped our elder team to realize that in historical and international perspective, the common practice is to baptize at between sixteen and early twenties. As one of many examples, Charles Spurgeon believed his children were converted quite young, but baptized his boys when they were eighteen. In foreign lands where persecution is assumed for identification with Christ, that’s about the age that churches and families are willing to baptize as well. Anecdotally, at least three of our church plants baptize at between 16 and 18 years old. The American South after 1900 and especially after 1950 is somewhat peculiar for the baptism of children down in the younger ages. We would be right to make a connection between that and the problem of nominal Christianity in our day and age.

A word to children, a word to parents, and a prayer

What does this mean for children we have baptized at a fairly young age, perhaps as young as six-years old, who are not members? First of all, if you are walking with Christ, there’s no reason to doubt the legitimacy of your baptism. This practice we’re outlining is forward looking. Second, we’re okay with lag-time between your baptism and church membership. When it seems right—again, probably mid to late teens—reach out to an elder about church membership.

What does this mean for parents? Parents, we plan to equip you with some resources to shepherd your children to conversion and with help for discipling them in the Word. For you, we would offer you this word of caution: avoid offering your child the kind of overt assurances that are the church’s responsibility to offer. What should you say to your child when they ask about baptism? Keep reading.

Are you a child interested in baptism? Good job reading this far! What does this mean for you? Let me say to you what I say to my own kids: “I am so glad you have asked about baptism. That is a sign that the Lord is at work in you. If you are confessing Christ, keep believing. That’s exactly what a Christian does. As with many things in life, let’s wait on baptism until you’re a bit older. It seems best to our elders for us to wait, and so let’s trust them with that. But more importantly, that seems to be the pattern we see in the Bible so we’re going to trust God with that. We want your baptism to be clear and meaningful and memorable for you and for our whole church family. Until then, remember that Jesus welcomed children to him, and he welcomes you with open arms. Come to him, believe in him, and don’t stop.”

For all of us now, a prayer:

Father, empower us to preach the gospel and glorify your name by adding to our church. And make our church at Heritage a truly otherworldly community—unmistakable, distinct, and visible to anyone with eyes to see. Fill us with awe as we pray and sing and eat and teach. We want to see our young people and our neighbors saved. We want to see our neighbors baptized into Christ and into Christ’s body and joined to our church. Do this for the sake of your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen. 

Now, let’s go make some disciples together.

What’s in the Water?: Baptism as a Sign of Addition

What’s in the Water?: Baptism as a Sign of the New Covenant

This is the second in a three-part series on the sign of Baptism. Read the Introduction and Part 3. This post is based on a sermon preached, November 22, 2020, titled, “Baptism: A Sign of the New Covenant.”

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A wedding ring does not make you married, which is good for me, because I lost my first ring. But a ring does say that you are married, and it says this to your spouse and to everyone else. You could say that the ring is a visual shorthand for the whole marriage package. It is perfectly fitted to symbolize a specific invisible truth.

Here’s what I say to a couple and the witnesses present at a wedding just before the giving of the rings:

The wedding ring has been an outward sign of the inward and spiritual bond in marriage. It is a visible reminder to you, your spouse, and everyone around you that you are taken, and your love for each other is to be obvious, tangible, clear, pure, beautiful, and unbreakable.

We know what a wedding ring symbolizes. But what does baptism symbolize? What is God saying to us about our covenant relationship with him in this sign? What kind of changes does this sign symbolize? If baptism is a sign of the new covenant in Christ, what’s new about the new covenant?

In this post I want to explore with you some of the invisible things to which baptism points. As elders, we want these things to be especially clear in our minds when we baptize someone together as a church.

To start, we need to get our bearings on the Bible’s story. Then, we’ll talk about the symbolism of baptism. Then, we’ll make some applications for how we think about and approach baptism together.

Let’s Talk About Covenants

Here’s one way to summarize the Bible’s story: the Bible is the story of God’s one plan of salvation unfolded across multiple covenants. We need salvation because we are sinners. In Adam, we are guilty, condemned to death and judgment. In Adam, we are corrupted as sinners, spiritually dead. And in Adam, we are alienated from God and one another. We’re even alienated within ourselves. We don’t know who we are. How does God save us from our sin? God saves by making and keeping covenant promises.

What are these promises? He has not only verbalized these to us, but he has also visualized these for us. Most covenants have signs, and these signs are a way of telling God’s story of salvation.

The rainbow is a covenant sign. The rainbow in the sky is God’s promise never to judge the earth like he did in that day until the end of the age. How does it picture that? God has hung up his war bow and it no longer faces us. He is not done with us! “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). This is a covenant with the whole of creation, a continuation of God’s commitment to what he made in the beginning.

The sign of circumcision is the next covenant sign we encounter. This involved the cutting of the flesh of young males and pictured the creation of a new people. How did it do this? God’s salvation of Noah and his family was dramatic, but not enough. Noah died and sin remained. But when God came to Abraham, he came with the promise of a new people in a new place. God will save through Abraham’s family and the sign of circumcision is a sign of entry into that family. Israelites entered that covenant by birth, born as citizens of what became the nation of Israel. Why a sign that involved physical surgery? To picture the spiritual heart surgery that every person needs for a relationship with God (Gen. 17:10; Deut. 10:16; 30:6).

The Passover meal was for Israel a sign of renewal, a meal to repeat picturing the Lord’s deliverance of his people from slavery. The Angel of Death passed over the homes whose doorposts were marked with blood (Ex. 12:23, 48). The Passover marked Israel’s birth as a nation, a nation ordered by God’s law covenant given to Israel at Sinai. That covenant was given in grace as instruction for life under God’s gracious rule. But Israel grieved the Lord. He redeemed them and they rebelled from him. He saved them from bondage, and they broke his covenant.

What’s New About the New Covenant?

There was a problem with the law covenant—the old covenant. It could not change the human heart. Its repeated sacrifices could not deal finally with sin and its tablets could not make our hearts worship God. It was never intended to. Rather, it was intended to prepare us for something new:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD.” —Jeremiah 31:31, 32

This covenant is the answer to how God will truly restore our relationship with him.

How will it do this? In a few ways. First, this new covenant will give us a new heart. “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts,” he says, not just on stone for us to read (33a). Second, this covenant will give us a new relationship with God, for we will worship and love God from the heart. God’s repeated promise will come true: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (33b).

Third, these new worshipers will form a new community. Israelites entered the covenant community by birth, but this community is entered by new birth, by faith. For that reason, “No longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me” (34a). This new community has a new nature, but also a new structure. For this new community, access to God won’t be mediated through the priests and kings at the temple, but all will have direct access to God. That’s the answer to the problem raised by what Jeremiah wrote, “In those days they shall no longer say: ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But everyone shall die for his own iniquity” (30:29, 31). In other words, God will deal with us directly and he will save us directly.

Fourth, what’s the basis for these incredible blessings given the problem of human sin? What of our guilt? What about death and judgment before a holy God? This covenant comes with a new sacrifice. “I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sins no more” (34b). This new covenant brings a new and complete forgiveness of sins through a better sacrifice (Heb. 7:27; 9:26).

In other words, God’s new covenant is God’s perfect and complete answer to our age-old problem of sin.

How Does Baptism Picture the New Covenant?

We know what the rainbow, circumcision, and the Passover meal symbolize. But how specifically does the sign of baptism dramatize entry into the new covenant? The answer is beautiful and simple.

First, Baptism dramatizes of the work of Jesus Christ which brings the new covenant. In baptism we go under the water, picturing his death and burial, and we come up from the water, picturing his resurrection.

But second, baptism also pictures our union with Christ in his death and resurrection. United with him in his death, our judgment falls on Jesus. United with him in his resurrection, his resurrection life is our new life. Paul puts this plainly, “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Ro. 6:4, 5).

Finally, baptism pictures our union with God’s new people in Christ. The Spirit is the one who brings the new covenant blessings, and this includes the creation of a new regenerated community. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1Cor 12:13). Baptism is used here metaphorically. However, water baptism pictures this invisible reality. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:27, 28). In other words, we are not only baptized into Christ, but into his body.

Clearing Up the Water

If you’ve been at Heritage long enough, none of this will be new, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t in need of a fresh look at this doctrine. Jeremiah 31 doesn’t course-correct us so much as it helps us get clearer on what baptism pictures, giving us the reasons why we do things we’ve always done. As with any doctrine, if we’re not seeing new things then we are seeing old things in sharper focus. Here are some of the things we’re clearer on.

First, the new covenant is a regenerate community and not a community mixed with believers and unbelievers like Israel. This is why we baptize believers only.

To baptize infants is to misunderstand more than the sign, but the nature of the new covenant and the people it creates. Circumcision and baptism are both covenant signs, but baptism is the sign of a new and better covenant. Circumcision pointed to the need for spiritual heart surgery and baptism pictures the accomplishment of that new life. This is what Paul meant when he carefully related circumcision to baptism in his letter to the Colossian church:

“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses — Colossians 2:11–13

This is somewhat obscure to our ears, but here’s what it means. Jesus was cut (circumcised) in his flesh through his crucifixion so that we could be cut in our hearts through regeneration. Baptism does not replace circumcision. Baptism pictures its fulfillment.

Second, we enter the new covenant community by faith, and for that reason we do not trust in our baptism.

This is a common trap and a common misunderstanding that springs from hearts that at the same time love to boast in what we do partly because we can’t imagine a God who does it all for us. No, we do not trust in the sign; we trust in the One to whom baptism points.

Third, baptism pictures our union with Jesus in his sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection. For that reason, we don’t sprinkle or pour but plunge someone under the water.

That baptism, or immersion, is a violent image makes sense of how Jesus spoke of his own death: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” (Mk. 10:38). By plunging someone under water, the sign of baptism pictures that to which baptism points: Christ’s death and our death with him.

Fourth, the new covenant brings full access to God through a new and better mediator, Jesus Christ. There are no priests or kings to mediate the presence of God to us, and for that reason we don’t emphasize the role of the baptizer in baptism.

The only time the matter of who baptizes gets any attention in the New Testament letters is when it’s a problem for the Corinthian church (1Cor. 1:13–17). The emphasis seems to lie elsewhere. What we read about is baptism into Christ and baptism into the body (Gal. 3:27; 1Cor. 12:13). For that reason, our focus is on the person’s confession and on the congregation.

With that summary, we have now explored the invisible realities to which baptism points. The most important point of doctrinal clarity I hope you gained from this is the nature of the new covenant as a regenerate community. If the question of infant baptism is something you’d like to pursue further, this question about the nature of the covenants is the heart of the matter. For a deeper dive, read this interview with Stephen Wellum based on his chapter “Baptism and the Relationship Between the Covenants,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. If you aren’t hung up on the question, read the interview anyway, as this post was a good primer for the topic.

What’s in the Water?: Baptism as a Sign of Addition

What’s in the Water?: Refreshing the Sign of Baptism

This is the first in a three-part series on the sign of Baptism. Read Part 2 and Part 3.

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Judging from the labels on our bottled water, we Americans like to know what’s in our water. Did it come from a spring? A mountain? Is it pure? We’re mostly made of water, so that makes sense. Well, the church is made of water too, the water of baptism. Yes, more important than drinking water is dunking water.

In this three-part series, I want to answer the question, what’s in the water of baptism? I don’t mean water in the tub on Sunday morning. I mean theologically. Or, put a few different ways, what does baptism involve? What are God’s intentions for it in his plan to gather a people for his name? In other words, what does the Scripture say about the sign of baptism?

This post comes at a moment in our church where we are getting more clear and more consistent on how we understand and practice this sign. But before I summarize in blog-form what we just preached through, let me offer some backstory.

Superstition, Sentimentalism, and Scripture

It seems to me that we tend to go wrong with the sign of baptism in two ways. Some of us can be superstitious about the sign. We treat it as a kind of religious token. We trust in it. We may even think that it is our baptism that saves us. Perhaps we’ve received this teaching from another church. Or perhaps this has come out of our own heart. This is a typical way in which our sinful tendency to trust in ourselves and our works sneaks up on the sign of baptism.

Perhaps a greater vulnerability for regular church-going folks would be sentimentalism. If your understanding of baptism is largely shaped by your experience with baptism and the people involved, then this may be the case for you. When you talk about your baptism, do you usually mention the person who baptized you? They are significant! But are they what makes it special for you? Perhaps you were baptized in the Jordan river on a trip to Israel. Does that place make your baptism special? Or maybe you had a child baptized by pouring at a different church and so you’re adamant about the legitimacy of that mode of baptism.

When it comes to baptism, we want to avoid making too much of the sign. Salvation is by grace through faith in Christ, not through the sign of the new covenant. There are many faithful gospel preaching churches with a different mode or understanding of baptism and we thank God for them. On the other hand, we should not make too little of it. God has a very particular purpose for this sign, and we want to get it right so that we can get all that God intends for us in it. This sign is worth the work.

Refreshing the Water

If we’re going to get baptism right, we need our thinking and practice shaped by Scripture.

That’s why our elders entered a study about baptism. We study the Bible, like you do, to grow in our knowledge of God but also to lead you more faithfully by the Word. Sometimes we are confirmed in the things we believe and do. But not always. In the course of that eighteen-month study, we came to some conclusions. We do not believe that we have understood baptism wrongly, but that we have not led you clearly enough or consistently enough in this sign. We are excited to bring you in on it and to refresh our teaching and leading on this sign.

What should we think when our church’s elders come to some new conclusions? Is this a sign that Heritage is changing in some deep way? I suppose it depends on the change. But our first instinct should be to see this as a sign that we remain committed to the Bible over our traditions. In other words, change is a sign of life.

So, what’s in the water of baptism?

In short, there are some invisible things and then there are some visible things going on with this sign. In our sermon, “Baptism: A Sign of the New Covenant,” we sought to get clearer on some the invisible things to which baptism points. And in our sermon, “Baptism: A Sign of Addition,” we sought to get more consistent on some of the visible things which baptism involves. In the next two posts I’ll rehash some of what we learned in a way that will help it stick. Join me in exploring some of these lessons in the days ahead.