It’s one of those inescapable sayings that has become so cliché in the milk toast nondenominational evangelical world I live in that one would assume it was translated right out of the Bible: “Baptism is a public celebration of a private decision” or maybe “Baptism is an outward expression of an inward faith.” But that expression is expressly not found in the Bible. 1 In fact, when we search the Bible to learn about baptism, a very different picture emerges. And you don’t actually have to wait until the New Testament to see it.
So let’s start at the beginning.
In the earliest pages of our Bible, a beautiful and orderly creation arises out of a watery chaos. Human beings, God’s children (image bearers), were created last and given the royal task of spreading God’s beauty and order to the end of the wild world. Of course, everything goes massively wrong with the humans and so their stewardship of the earth becomes a reign of terror, so God steps in and dumps water all over His work of art. Everything is again watery chaos, but if you squint hard enough you will see a man named Noah, his family, and a ton of animals on a giant boat. God saves a family through a watery judgment and a new creation begins.
But once again, everything falls apart and humanity spirals toward oblivion (ironically through building a tower to the heavens). So God chooses a man named Abraham and promises that through his descendants, God is going to get everything back on track: a new creation of sorts. Through Israel (the nation descended from Abraham), beauty and order will finally flood God’s good world.
When the plan seems to be in trouble and Abraham’s descendants are enslaved in Egypt, God again steps in miraculously and delivers His children from bondage. As the people flee the Egyptian war chariots, they reach a massive body of water: the Red Sea. A dead end. You know the story: the sea splits, the Israelites pass through, and the water closes behind them drowning the fearful Egyptian army. God again saves a family through a watery judgment. Israel then receives the law which reflects God’s beauty and order. The next generation then crosses through the Jordan River into “the Promised Land” to live as a light for all the nations, showing the way to a new creation marked by love of neighbor rather than by fear and murder.
But of course, things don’t quite work out that way. Israel fails to love, fails to live beautiful and orderly lives before God and their neighbor, and so find themselves exiled in Babylon. Even when they return, things are never quite the same and all of God’s promises are left hanging. And that’s how the Old Testament (the first three quarters of your Bible) ends. To be continued.
All of this is meant to form a picture in our minds (we’ll leave the question of which details to take “literally” from these accounts aside for another day). God apparently will just not give up on heaven coming to earth and therefore, the world stands under the judgment of God. I know that sounds scary, and in many ways it is, but think instead of a morally perfect judge taking the place of a crooked one that takes bribes. That’s actually good news…if you’re not a criminal.
And that’s where Jesus comes in. Have you ever wondered why He was baptized by John if John’s baptism was for “repentance?” What did Jesus have to repent of? Nothing, of course. The man was sinless. But in His baptism in the Jordan River, Jesus chose to be identified with unfaithful humanity/Israel as the true “Son of God” in whom the Father is well pleased. The Spirit of God descends upon Him in the form of a dove, marking Him off as the New Noah, the New Moses, and the Last Adam, the true Image Bearer of God tasked with bringing order and beauty to God’s good world, that God’s Kingdom would come and His will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. 2
Well, first and foremost by being obedient unto an inglorious death on a filthy Roman cross. Jesus the Judge was hung as an ordinary criminal so that we cosmic rebels might be counted righteous in God’s sight, that we might pass safely through the judgment that has been taking place for millennia and will one day come to an epic conclusion when Jesus returns as the politician all our hearts are yearning for.
So what does our baptism have to do with all of this? Well, the New Testament authors explicitly tie Christian baptism to Noah’s ark, to the Red Sea crossing, and to the death and resurrection of Jesus. 3 As a recipient of baptism, you are therefore identified as a member of God’s people who have been delivered graciously and miraculously through the judgment of God and called therefore to bear the image of God (Jesus) by living a new life of love to bring order and beauty to God’s good world. As the church, we are called by our baptism to show the world that there’s a Way that all of us—liberal, conservative, black, white, male, female, and even those that fall outside of those neat little categories that our world is less and less defined by—can not merely get along but can truly love one another.
Do you see why the “private decision” language just isn’t enough? As a sign of the gospel, baptism (like the gospel) is first a promise from God that we receive and respond to, not merely a promise to God that we offer.4 For instance, was the Red Sea first about Israel’s decision or God’s faithfulness? Or for a more contemporary example, would you say that a wedding ceremony is a “public celebration of a private decision”? Sure, it involves a private decision, but isn’t it much more than that? Isn’t there more than one person saying vows? Is “something” actually happening when two people get married or is it just a fun excuse to get dressed up? My fear is that in the way we have adapted marriage to our culture’s worship of the individual’s freedom to choose, we have done the same with baptism and therefore destroyed its effectiveness (and offensiveness) as a radical act of witness to the gospel of grace. When we make a wedding or a baptism all about us and our decision, that makes sense to the world and so everyone claps along. But when they’re about the glory of Jesus who died for His bride, we become signposts of sacrificial love and grace in a world that is starving for it. Maybe this is why so many people today get baptized multiple times (me) or get married multiple times: when we don’t know the purpose of something, it just doesn’t seem to “work.”
So what did your baptism actually mean? What is baptism and what is its purpose? How about this: it was “a sign of safe passage.” 5 That’s pithy enough to remember, right? Fortunately, the world stands under the judgment of a good God…but unfortunately, you are not good. So baptism is a reassuring signal from the judge that you will pass safely through when sentencing comes…because in a sense it already came for you on Calvary. By His grace, you were cleansed by the water and the blood rather than destroyed by “the flood.” Jesus was the dam that saved you from the floodwaters of damnation. 6 You are now identified with Him, a beloved son or daughter in whom God is “well pleased.” 7 In Peter’s words, you who were once not a people are now God’s people, a recipient of divine mercy that you might praise the One who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light. In Paul’s words, that old you died, and a new you has risen to new life! You are a new creation and a citizen of heaven! So don’t be like the Israelites in the wilderness pining to go back to slavery in Egypt. Baptism means you are no longer a slave to sin, and you are no longer under the law. You are under grace, set free to love all people out of delight and not mere duty. That’s good news!
As the Israelites wandered through the desert, Moses constantly reminded them of their baptism, of their Redeemer who split the sea and delivered them from Egypt. Though they survived off bread from heaven, still they grumbled and made everything about themselves, and so they perished in the desert, never laying eyes on the Promised Land. Instead of dying to themselves and trusting God’s promise, they despised their baptism and chose sin and death over life and love. Paul wrote that all of this happened as examples for us, so that we who have been set free from bondage to sin and death might take heed lest we fall as they did.
So, beloved brothers and sisters, the promise still stands. Instead of making baptism about us and our response, let us respond to our baptism. Let us be in awe of God and His mighty work of salvation lest we fail to “live out” our baptism. As long as it is called “today,” let us gather together and warm one another’s cold hearts with the living truths of our baptism, stirring the tepid waters of one another’s affections to love and good works until the Day comes and God’s beauty and order flood this good world. “He who promised is faithful.”
And if you aren’t baptized…what are you doing with your life!? Join us this Sunday at Valley Community Church and we’ll get that taken care
Thanks for reading this far. I did warn you.
- This expression is a corruption of Augustine’s description of the sacraments: “A visible sign of an invisible grace.” This is a great definition of the sacraments that puts the emphasis back where it belongs: grace. At VCC we say that the sacraments are “signs and seals of the New Covenant to be received by faith as visible declarations of the gospel.”
- In the beginning, the Spirit “flutters” over the waters of creation. After the flood, Noah sends out a dove to search for land. And in the Exodus, the Spirit of God “flutters” over Israel and leads them through the sea. In Jesus baptism and anointing for ministry, the Spirit takes the form of a dove to mark Him off as the fulfillment of all of these stories and promises. Cool, right? If nothing else, you have to admit the Bible is really, really, really good literature!
- It also ties it to the covenant sign of circumcision in Colossians 2:11-12, but that is a can of worms to be opened another day.
- To be fair, 1 Peter 3:21 says baptism is a pledge to God for a good conscience. But do you see how we’ve made our promise more primary than God’s?
- I slightly abbreviated this from J.V. Fesko’s epic book on baptism, Word, Water, & Spirit where he describes it as “A sign of safe passage through troubled waters.”
- I know, damnation is a heavy word. But the wordplay was too good to pass up.
- Just stop and let that sink in for a minute. How much of your life and anxiety is fueled by pleasing yourself and others? God gave you baptism to free you from that.