This morning I’m starting a sermon series at Grace Anglican Church that will go through most of Lent. Of course, this blog post is an adaptation, not a transcript. Certain things will be explained more carefully in person than here.
Typically, when Christians think of Baptism, we have a tendency to simplify it down to something really basic. Those who grow up Catholic or Episcopalian or Presbyterian may be tempted to think of Baptism as that thing you have done to your newborn babies. Those who grow up in most non-denominational circles or as Baptists may be tempted to think of Baptism as the declaration of mature saving faith. Both perspectives have a lot of differences behind them, but one thing is true for both: Baptism is considered the beginning of a person’s Christian life.
One difficult question that challenges both sides is this: how do we explain people who are baptized that eventually wander off from the faith? If they come back do they need to be rebaptized? Was there something wrong with their baptism? The Evangelical stream of Christianity informs us that it isn’t baptism that saves us, but God’s grace, through faith. So how does Baptism play in at all? To make some sense of this, we have to go deeper. Simply the surface-level explanations of Baptism aren’t gonna cut it when we want to appreciate its full place in the Christian life.
In the Anglican tradition, we receive the historic teaching of the Church that Baptism is a Sacrament, literally a “means of grace.” And as Fr. Jürgen once put it, Sacraments are like onions: they have layers. But not only do onions have layers, they are the layers. Many churches today have given in to this cultural tendency to strip things down, simplify, dig for the lowest common denominator in the hopes of finding unity with everyone else. But this is superficial – if you strip away the layers of an onion, there’s nothing left. The layers make up the onion; there is no perfect and simple center inside. So it is with Baptism: there are many layers of meaning and truth packed into this Sacrament. Over the course of Lent this year we’ll have opportunity look at four of them: 1) a source of hope, 2) a preparation for suffering, 3) the beginning of a new life, and 4) a link to Christ.
So how is baptism a source of hope? The best place to start is by looking at how Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant. The OT & NT readings this morning give us this excellent parallel between Noah’s flood and the Christian’s baptism. Basically, the flood is the protoype (or a foreshadowing) and baptism is the antitype (that which is foreshadowed): they both involve salvation and a covenant.
OT Prototype: Noah was saved by the flood.
- The flood took him out of a sin-filled world.
- Then Noah received a new covenant which involved…
- God making a binding promise not to repeat the flood,
- Noah & his descendants receiving instructions & blessings,
- and the giving of the rainbow as a sign (or reminder) of this covenant.
NT Antitype: We are saved by Baptism.
- Baptism takes us out of a sin-filled life.
- Then we enter into a new covenant which involves…
- God making a binding promise to make us His children,
- us receiving instructions & blessings,
- and the giving of Baptism as a sign (or reminder) of this covenant.
If you take a careful look at the two scripture readings linked above, you can see how they inform one another to set up this parallel I’ve just described. However, there is one verse in the reading from Peter’s epistle which merits special attention here because it can be really difficult for certain Christian perspectives to understand. I am talking about I Peter 3:21. Let’s break it down slowly:
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you…
The waters of the flood being used to save eight people in the days of Noah are set up as an exact type of the water of baptism now used to save Christians. As the flood rid the world of the unrighteous people that surrounded the righteous few, so does baptism rid the person of the unrighteousness that permeates them, allowing righteousness to endure in its place. Evil still existed in the world even after the flood, as a person still sins even after baptism.
…not as a removal of dirt from the body…
Although the world was cleansed of idolaters who despised God, evil was not vanquished. As is evident in the latter of half of Genesis 9, sin was still alive even in Noah’s own family. Similarly, baptism may well remove our sinful record, but it will not prevent us from sinning thereafter.
…but as an appeal to God for a good conscience…
The mere act of Baptism is itself a request to God for purifying the person! Does this make Baptism some magical act? No! Why? Because it works…
…through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The act of baptism takes the resurrection of Jesus Christ and applies it to the one being baptized. Just as Noah’s earthly salvation was a lasting one and God promised never to repeat the flood, so too the condition of the Christian is something permanent. Incidentally, this is also why we do not allow re-baptizing people.
For most people, this is a sufficient explanation, but some people who like to theologize more than others may still be wondering how this doesn’t conflict with the reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith. For those asking such questions, I’d like to point you to the 39 Articles of Religion, which provide a basic outline of general Anglican theology. In particular, Articles 25, 27, 11, and 18 are the most relevant to this subject. In short, Baptism is not the whole story when it comes to salvation – just look at what’s said (and not said) in Mark 16:16 – Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
After all this talk about covenants and salvation and stuff, how then is Baptism a source of hope? Precisely because baptism has this role in entering the new covenant of salvation, baptism can be a source of hope…
- when we’re feeling disconnected from God! God has bound himself in an eternal promise. Just as he will never destroy the world again by a flood, so too he will never abandon us to the world and to the devil.
- when we’re tempted to think salvation relies on our own works and worthiness! Baptism is no more something we do than the flood was something that Noah orchestrated. Baptism reminds us that God acts first, then we respond.
- when we’re running out of things to thank God for! Remembering our baptism, we can thank him for his covenant promises of sanctification, glorification, and eternal life, as well the covenant blessing of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us, as well as the gifts that he bestows.
In closing, if you’re a “head kind of person,” there’s a lot of theology and doctrine that you can explore and work out here, deepening your appreciation for Baptism and what God does through that. But if you’re a “heart kind of person,” the bottom line of all this theology and doctrine is hope. Not a blind hope in baptism as a magical act, but a living hope that God gave us through baptism – a hope that we can draw upon in times of spiritual trouble and despair. As Martin Luther exclaimed on more than one occasion of turmoil and isolation, “but I have been baptized!”