Sermon – “Baptism and the Covenant”

Sermon for Sunday, January 31st, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[Isa 59:21 ESV] 21 “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the LORD, “from this time forth and forevermore.”

New Testament reading:

[Act 16:25-34 ESV] 25 About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, 26 and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. 27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. 34 Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

Gospel reading:

[Luk 18:15-17 ESV] 15 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

INTRODUCTION

I spent much of the past week agonizing over the doctrine of baptism and how best to preach upon it. There are, as you know, many denomination of Christianity and a diversity of views among them on the subject of baptism. Our views, being a Presbyterian church, are traditional (and Biblical), in agreement with the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, which is an excellent summary of the teachings of the Bible.

I hope you will understand that my agonizing over the subject of baptism is due to the respect that I have for my Christians brothers and sister who hold to other views, even though I am thoroughly convinced that the Westminster Confession got it right.

Questions abound on the subject of baptism. Is it regenerative or absolutely necessary for salvation? How is it to be performed? Must one be fully submersed in water or even in living (that is, flowing river) water for it to be valid? Or should the water be sprinkled or poured out symbolizing the descent of the Holy Spirit into the Christian’s life?

These indeed are questions on which Christians have had considerable disagreement. But perhaps on the subject of baptism no question has been more thoroughly discussed than that of the nature of the recipients. The question is, who should be baptized?

No human can pry into the secret knowledge of God. Thus, it is impossible to know with absolute certainty that a person’s profession of faith is genuine. Thus, so-called “believer’s baptism” is most honestly called “professor’s baptism.” It is a baptism on the profession of a person’s faith, taking their word that they do indeed believe.

As Presbyterians, we do of course practice “professor’s baptism.” We do baptize adults when they have professed faith in Jesus Christ. But, this is only a subset of our full doctrine of baptism, for we baptize ultimately upon the basis of God’s Covenant. And thus, we baptize both professing adults AND members of their household who are too young to profess faith, or who, by reason of mental incapacity, may never be able to express faith.

Today, as we have baptized two young children, I’d like to focus upon this topic of the Covenant and the baptism of children, and, for the time being largely skip over those questions regarding the mode and effectivity of the sacrament.

I’ll be presenting a number of arguments to the reason why we baptism infants as well as adults. And, if you are previously persuaded otherwise, then my arguments may be of little avail. Yet, if you are unfamiliar with these arguments, you may at least least something even in opposition to them.

My own background – being brought up in the Lutheran church -– never questioned the baptism of infants. At first the Lutherans (Martin Luther himself and his colleagues) were determined to reform the Roman Catholic Church, to rid it of those abominable practices of indulgences and the mass. They saw no reason to overturn the practice of infant baptism which went back to the earliest days of church history and likely to time of the apostles.

As I studied my way into Presbyterianism, I found a tradition much more active in its defense of the practice of infant baptism. And Presbyterians are not so much interested in what the practice of the historical church has been, but what the teachings of the Scriptures themselves are.

So we’ll be looking at some of these Scriptural arguments.

Since the Scriptures neither explicitly say “baptize infants” nor “don’t baptize infants,” to answer the question requires deeper analysis. The doctrine of baptism must be determined by “good and necessary consequence” from the Scriptures.

I. Children of God – Exodus 20:12

Included in the 10 commandments is the command “honor your father and your mother.” This is a commandment especially for children. But note the preface to the commands. This preface applies to all of the commandments. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Thus God says he is “thy God” even to the children. God is the God of children as well as adults. God has sent a redeemer for the children as well as the adults. “And if God is their God, if they too are redeemed, then they must bear the sign of such redemption as well.” (Hanko, p. 52)

Thus we find in the Old Testament that the children of the people of God are included as belonging to God and do receive the covenant sign of circumcision.

None of this is debated. All agree upon the status of children in the covenant in the Old Testament.

II. A Rule of Interpretation

Now, several weeks ago, in a sermon series in which I covered large sections of the Scripture, I spoke of a rule of interpretation that I believe is right and necessary.

The rule is this: We must keep to all of the teachings of the Old Testament except where they are changed in the New Testament.

So if something is taught in the Old Testament, we do not need for it to be repeated in the New in order for it to be valid. We accept the Old Testament as fully the word of God. And its teaching is valid until God has announced some modification.

While in the New Testament, the sign of the covenant changes from circumcision to baptism, there is no explicit change in the recipients of that sign. Without such a change, we must maintain continuity. And so as children (like adults) received the sign of the covenant in the Old Testament, they are to receive the sign of the covenant today.

III. Some New Testament Light

As God gives the command to children, and includes them as “his people” in the preface to the commandments in Exodus, so Paul repeats the commandment to children in Ephesians 6:1-3, and this in a book he has written to “the saints who are in Ephesus.” Paul includes the children as saints of the Lord. He writes to the saints, and includes children.

He does the same in Colossians 3:20 saying “Children, obey your parents in everything for this pleases the Lord.” And this book, as Paul says in the second verse, is written “to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ.” Paul includes children as saints. And there are surely no saints who are outside of the church. And so being in the church, children too are to receive the sign of the covenant.

IV. Baptism, not of man but of God’s promise.

There are a number of other arguments that could be made. But I want to focus on one main point. Baptism is not of man, but of God’s promise.

In our New Testament reading today we heard about the conversion of the Philippian jailer. Paul and Silas, the apostle’s traveling missionary companion, had been thrown into prison in the city of Philippi. They had cast an evil spirit out of a slave girl whose fortune-telling ability was being used for financial gain by her masters. These masters, consequently, were upset with Paul and Silas for interfering in their profitable scheme, and so they told the magistrate that “These men are Jews, and they are disturbing our city.” The magistrate then had Paul and Silas beaten and thrown into the prison.

But as we see so often in the Scriptures and indeed in our own lives, God had a plan for good despite the circumstances. He sent an earthquake and it caused the doors of the prison to open. The jailer was in great fear supposing that the prisoners had escaped. To avoid whatever punishment the authorities would lay on him, he thought to kill himself. But Paul and Silas said “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.”

The jailer, now understanding that Paul and Silas were blessed of God, responded, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved.”

And this is that greatest question. What must I do to be saved?

We saw a similar question in John’s Gospel. The disciples came to Jesus and asked “What must we do, to be doing the work of God?”

In each of these questions, the questioner asks about himself. But the answer focuses on the Lord.

To the disciples, Jesus responds “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

It is the work OF God. Not of man, but of God.

Salvation, as Paul says in Romans, “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

What must WE do? The question is ill put. The answer is that salvation is a work OF GOD.

While it is the person who does the believing, even belief is a work of God, for it is God who is working through His Holy Spirit to cause you to believe and to continue you in belief. Belief, faith, is a work of God.

Now the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” But the answer is not an “I” or a “You” at all, it is “of God.”

Paul and Silas do not say “YOU must live in perfect accord with the commandments” nor do they say “YOU must make so many prayers or donate so much money” but rather they say simply “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”

The ground of salvation is the grace of God in the death of Jesus Christ, as a substitute for the sins of God’s people. And the instrument of salvation, through which we are saved and come to a knowledge of the Lord is faith; it is belief. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.

If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are to be assured of your salvation, not as if it is conditioned upon you living to a certain standard, but given as an unconditional promise of God, that He has forgiven your sins and continues to forgive your sins. It is not “believe and work” but “believe.” Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you WILL be saved.

But what Paul and Silas say next is of great interest in understanding the covenant of God and its relationship to Baptism.

They continue in saying “you AND YOUR HOUSEHOLD.” Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved, you and your household.

It is interesting that they do not say “maybe your household will be saved.” And they do not say “your household will be saved IF they also to come to faith.” But rather, because God’s covenant ordinarily extends through families — through the generations — Paul and Silas say with confidence “and your household.”

Paul is not expressing a wish that this household might be saved, but he speaks of it as a certainty, as certain as the Jailer’s own salvation with which it is grouped. And this certainty is expressed BEFORE Paul and Silas ever speak to the jailers household.

And so the account continues,

“And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”

The covenant is, or contains, a promise OF God. And Baptism, which seals this promise, is OF God. Baptism is not a time of pointing to oneself. It is not a declaration of YOUR faith or of anything YOU do. It is a declaration of the Grace of God. And thus, because it is of Grace, and it is of God, the sign and seal of the Covenant in the sacrament of Baptism is not only for those who have professed their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, but also for the members of covenant families who being unable to express faith — either by want of age or reason of mental incapacity — are yet included as children of God. Just as they were included as children of God in the Old Testament and given the sign of the covenant then, so they are children of God now are given the sign of the covenant today. Simply put, the New Covenant did not kick the children out.

Baptism is no doubt, a difficult subject. It is one of those Christian doctrines that — in explaining — feels a bit like walking a tight rope. Baptism is neither so unimportant that it may be delayed, nor so crucial to salvation as to be regenerative in itself.

Baptism, as our confession explains, is a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace.

When God had created man, he [first] entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil upon the pain of death.

This “covenant of life” – explicitly called a covenant by the Prophet Hoseah, was broken at the fall of man.

Then comes the “covenant of grace.” In this covenant, God, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery and bring them into the estate of salvation by a redeemer.

But this is where it may be a bit difficult to follow, for many covenants are mentioned in the Scriptures. God has a covenant with Noah, and with Abraham, and with Moses, and with David. And he promises a “new covenant” to come which is fulfilled in Christ.

But all of these covenants we understand to be connected or united as one over-arching Covenant of Grace. It is a covenant fulfilled BY THE GRACE OF GOD, not by the work of man.

It is the same Covenant of Grace from God’s first Gospel promise in Genesis, until now and even forever. But the way in which God administers the covenant has changed.

In Romans 4:11, Paul explains that Abraham “received the SIGN of circumcision as a SEAL of the righteousness that he had by faith.”

In that time God administered the covenant through the sign of circumcision.

But the sign of new Covenant is now administered not through circumcision but through baptism.

In Colossians chapter 2, baptism is referred to as “the circumcision of Christ.”

It is a putting off of the body of the flesh, just as circumcision took off part of the flesh.

A sign is simply something that points to something else.

What is a seal? A seal is an ocean going mammal. No, that’s not right. A seal is a confirmation of what the sign points to.

It is God’s seal. So I must agree with an acquaintance of mine — a minister who converted to Presbyterianism — who said “I would encourage you to have a God-centered view of sacraments.”

CONCLUSION

Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s promise of salvation for His elect in the Covenant of Grace. It is a seal of God’s work; of what He has done, not what we have done. Again, I want to emphasize that fact – Baptism is a seal of God’s work, not of our own. And so we see His promise in every baptism. Let us praise the Lord, who loves the little children (in Greek the paidia or infants) even those so young as to be brought to Jesus by their parents. And he said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” Amen.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *