This week at Woodland we return to our study of healthy church partners (members, that is). Since the last two weeks were all about making much of Jesus as we celebrated our participation in His death, burial and resurrection, this Sunday’s mark of the healthy church member is an appropriate follow-up to Easter.
We’ve been experiencing storms in the Northwoods. With each gusty mix of wind and rain I’ve lost another half-dozen spruce trees. In our old life, that would have been tragic. Now, we have hundred, maybe thousands, to spare. So, no real damage. An unearthed tree is a thing of wonder. There’s the trunk and branches we’ve always seen. But then, there’s the sub-terrainian tangle of roots and earthen matter formerly concealed. That much of the tree has always been below the surface is a great discovery after a storm.
This week we’re thinking about baptism and the church partner: the healthy church partner makes the invisible work of God visible through baptism. In our understanding at Woodland, baptism functions, along with the Lord’s Table, as an ordinance. Together, they make visible the invisible work of God in the one who has trusted Jesus by faith. The spirit of the thing is that, soon after trusting Christ, the new believer makes a living picture of the Gospel through baptism, then reaffirms her participation with Christ at the Table throughout her life. It’s like a wedding that signifies the beginning of a marriage, but then an anniversary that reaffirms the ongoing permanence of the marriage as long as the marriage covenant lasts. Both ordinances serve to reveal the work of God that—like unseen roots connecting a great tree to the earth—connect the believer to God, through participation with Christ.
No passages makes this more clear than Romans 6.1-11. While the passage comes on the heals of Paul’s manifesto of justification by faith (3.21-5.21) and serves to demonstrate how the mastery of Christ leaves the believer forever changed in his self-estimation, it’s Paul’s picture of water baptism (verses 3-4) that illustrates all God has done in Christ.
Through faith (pictured by baptism) we participate in Christ’s death (verse 3). Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? There’s grammatical subtleties in these verses. Prepositions in the accusative case indicate movement: “into Christ” … “into his death”. Such movement indicates that, through faith, we’ve moved into the reign, the realm, the sphere where Christ is our representative. Then, there’s the “suv” prefixes attached to many of the verbs, which even a casual glance at the passage in the Greek New Testament makes obvious. The preposition means, simply, “with,” but, attached to each of the verbs, broadcasts our (with)burial, (with)uniting, (with) crucifixion and (with) living with Christ. All this brought about by faith.
While the thought of our participation in Christ’s death, burial and resurrection thousands of years before our birth might cause us to tilt our heads a bit in puzzlement, we’re not completely unfamiliar with the idea representation. We send representatives to our nations capitol to serve us in government. And, while we might find ourselves in the minority in voting and at odds with the final decisions of our lawmakers, it’s beyond dispute that we’re vicariously present in the halls of congress.
So it was at the cross. Credo-baptism (that is, “believers’ baptism”) serves especially to make a visible picture of our representation by Christ. We’re lowered into the water as Christ was lowered into the stormy waters of God’s wrath. (Think: Genesis 6-7, or Peter’s picture of Noah above the waters of wrath, 1 Peter 3.21). Ah, but here is the good news! Instead, of tasting God’s wrath, we don’t remain in God’s judgment …
Through faith we participate in Christ’ resurrection (:4). 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. Here again, in rising from the waters, baptism pictures our forgiveness for sins, in Christ (Col 2.11-13). And, as we rise, the cleansing, renewing work of the Spirit likewise is made visible (Titus 3.5).
The remainder of our passage serves to show that through faith we participate in Christ’s life (:5-11). We don’t have to sin anymore (:6). Just as a person who has died is finished doing things in the body that now lies in the casket, so we are done doing things in that old person who has died with Christ. Baptism, then, pictures the destruction of sin in the life of the believer. Likewise, we don’t have to go down to death anymore. The death Jesus died, he died once for all (1 Pet 3.18). Now, our inner-persons rest eternally with Christ.
All of this results in a new self-estimate (:11). Following Christ, not sin, is our new way of life, pictured in baptism.
A few implications follow form the powerful, multi-faceted picture of baptism. First, Baptism is really about Christ’s work, not us. And, while we might take joy in a new believer’s “decision” for Christ, that faith response is in response to something Jesus has done. It’s easy to see why the church, since ancient times, has celebrated its baptisms on Easter Sunday, together with its observance of the Lord’s work.
Second, the symbolism of water baptism reminds us that we don’t live the Christian life apart from Jesus. Jesus himself was baptized in preparation for his identification with us. It was at this identification with sinners that the three Persons of the Godhead met to rejoice. The Spirit descended as a dove and the Father applauded the Son: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matt 3.17; Mk 1.11).
The healthy church partner, then, makes the invisible work of God visible by taking baptism seriously.
Find a friend and answer a few questions about this mark of the healthy church partner:
How has our brief look at Romans 6.1-11 (verses 3-4 especially) changed your thinking about the significant of baptism?
What questions do you have, perhaps coming form your own religious upbringing or family background, about baptism?
Why is it important to remember that baptism is a picture of God’s work and not the means of salvation itself?
What thoughts do you have about the way we should speak to our children about baptism?