December 18, 2017

Baptism – An Enacted Sermon

Don Johnson

Recently I had the privilege of baptizing three young men upon their professions of faith. This is one of the great joys and privileges of Christian ministry and marked a red-letter day in our ministry. On that Sunday, in the providence of God we came upon some thoughts published by the late Dr. Warren Vanhetloo in his post-retirement ministry, “Cogitations.” I expanded on some of his thoughts to prepare our congregations for the baptisms themselves.

As Baptists, of course, we are known particularly for one thing – the immersion of converts. Dr. Van says:

There is but one form of water immersion anywhere in Scripture, one person submerging another and raising that other one up out of the water. There are no specific words to be said at such a time. There are no restrictions as to where it might be done (in early Michigan, people chopped a hole in the ice for immersions).

We heartily agree, but are very much appreciative of an unfrozen pool within our own comfortable auditorium for the purpose. But more to the point, I call your attention to Dr. Van’s further remarks about what baptism says or proclaims to those who are observing.

For practical appreciation of water immersion, each time a new convert is put under water, it is important to remember that the teaching significance is really threefold, past, present, and predictive. When John Doe is immersed, he is portraying his trust in the historical death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ centuries ago. John Doe is also bearing witness to his own current experience of Spirit immersion, that by simple faith in Christ he was declared dead unto his former sin life and made spiritually alive in a new, eternal realm: raised unto newness of life. In his symbolic action, John Doe is also proclaiming his confidence in the future bodily resurrection, when this physical body will be raised anew, as that of Jesus was when He was raised from the dead.

Expanding those thoughts, I’d like to point out three things baptism proclaims as a kind of “enacted sermon” to the watching world.

Baptism is a declaration of personal belief in the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

When someone is baptized, they are looking back to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ and testifying to the truth of these two propositions:

  1. The death burial and resurrection of Christ is a real event that occurred in the past.
  2. The candidate proclaims personal faith in that work of Christ, claiming it for his very own and applying its effect to his own life in the here and now.

We find the description of this significance to baptism in Romans 6.3-4. Baptism cannot mean anything unless it is connected with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. This connection should be the obvious meaning of baptism, the apostle expresses surprise that disciples could miss the significance, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (By the way, if pouring or sprinkling were legitimate forms of baptism, it would be less surprising if disciples missed this point. Our passage precludes accepting either method as legitimate baptism.)

In addition, since baptism proclaims prior faith in Christ, it is impossible to baptize infants. Infants are incapable of exercising faith. We should also be cautious about baptizing young children. They are rarely able to proclaim a clear testimony of personal faith in the work of Christ. Since baptism proclaims faith in Christ’s work, we must be sure that our candidates are really making this statement – young children need to be able to testify to faith in Christ (without coaching) before they are baptized.

Baptism is a personal testimony that the candidate has been born again by the Spirit of God and thus is already immersed into the body of Christ.

In addition to proclaiming faith in the past work of Christ on our behalf, with baptism the candidate also proclaims that he is born again right now, in the present time, by the power of the Spirit. Jesus promised a new, eternal life by the power of the Spirit (Jn 3.5-7). Everyone is born of water (physical birth)[1] Believers are born of the Spirit. When someone is baptized, they proclaim that they have experienced the new birth, they are indeed born again by the Spirit of God and are already vitally connected by the Spirit to the body of Christ.

Since the candidate is already born again, he is also saying by his baptism that he is committed to that “newness of life” Paul speaks of in Romans 6.4 and the transformed life Paul describes in Romans 12.1-2. It is not a mere perfunctory ritual, but a ceremony proclaiming this commitment in the public eye (and calling for public accountability in the church and in the community to the life of Christ).

Baptism is a statement of confidence in the hope of ultimate resurrection as a part of the Bride of Christ, the Church.

Dr. Vanhetloo terms this aspect of baptism’s proclamation “predictive,” in keeping with his alliteration of the previous two points. Indeed it is true, baptism predicts something. Baptism doesn’t merely symbolize faith in the resurrection of Christ, it proclaims the resurrection hope of the believer. It says, “I shall rise on the last day.” The great hope of the Christian is the return of the Lord and the resurrection of the body. If this were not so, Paul says, we would be of all men most miserable (1 Cor 15.19). But we are not miserable! We rejoice in hope (Rm 12.12 – literally, ‘the hope’).

Our life on earth is full of struggle, pain, and sorrows. It ends in sorrow, as far as earthly life is concerned. Baptism proclaims, and predicts, that my earthly life is not the end, rather, it is the beginning. Our life on earth is plagued with sin and the power of the flesh. Baptism proclaims, and predicts, that the earthly failures will be swallowed up in the heavenly victory of purified existence. The old life is to be buried, the new life is to come.


Of course, with these confident proclamations, we must also raise this caution: just as men can make false professions with their lips, so too they can make false professions in the pool. Baptism is no cause of eternal life. Eternal life comes by faith in Christ alone. In consequence, we must urge every baptized believer to “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col 1.10, cf. Eph 4.1; 1 Thess 2.12). It is no light thing to make a profession of faith in Christ with one’s lips, and a proclamation of that faith before the eyes of men with baptism, and then fall away from that profession in the end, or to fail that profession by moral or spiritual indiscretions. May God keep us all in his ways from now until the end of our days.

Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.

  1. I recognize the interpretation of this phrase in Jn 3.5 is debated. []

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