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.