What’s in the Water? — Combatting Superstition and Sentimentalism with Scripture (Part 1)
EDITOR’S NOTE: 9Marks is not just a ministry for credobaptist churches. We exist to serve paedobaptist churches, too. Nonetheless, we recognize that most of our readers are probably credobaptists. So we though it might be helpful to demonstrate how to teach those churches about baptism.
What follows is how one pastor began to teach his church. Even if you don’t agree on every single point, as we ourselves may not, we think you’ll find much useful material here.
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 the water in the tub on Sunday morning. I mean theologically. Or, to put it 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? What does the Scripture say about the sign of baptism?
SUPERSTITION, SENTIMENTALISM, AND SCRIPTURE
It seems to me that churches 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’s our baptism that saves us. Perhaps we’ve received this teaching from another church. Or perhaps this has come out of our own heart. 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. 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; we thank God for them. On the other hand, we shouldn’t 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 at my church our elders recently entered a study about baptism. We wanted to grow in our knowledge of God but also to lead our church more faithfully by the Word. Sometimes, when we do this, we’re confirmed in the things we believe and do. But not always. In the course of that eighteen-month study, we realized that we didn’t lead our church clearly or consistently when it came to baptism.
So we made some changes to our practice, not as a sign that we were veering off from a path of faithfulness, but as a sign that we remain committed to the Bible over our traditions. In other words, some changes are a sign of life.
So, what’s in the water of baptism? In the next two posts, I’ll discuss things both visible and invisible.
Join me in exploring some of these lessons.