Baptism: Sign and seal of God’s grace in Jesus Christ

Declared mercy

Scripture Readings

  • Acts 8:26-40
  • Colossians 2:8-15


My dear brothers and sisters, when it comes to grace and salvation, there is sometimes this sinful appreciation of the self.

Captain George Von Trapp in the Sound of Music, finds in Maria, the governess, his new love.  The two of them sing a song, Something Good.

Perhaps I had a wicked childhood
Perhaps I had a miserable youth
But somwhere in my wicked, miserable past
There must have been a moment of truth

For here you are, standing there, loving me
Whether or not you should
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good

Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could, I must have done something good.  This is quite a telling expression of a theology of works.

The message of the Gospel stands diametrically opposed:  something comes of nothing in the hands of God.

In Ephesians 2 Paul writes about what God does with nothing to bring about something.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. (Ephesians 2:1–3, NIV)

That’s the nothing part.  But God wants something.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, (Ephesians 2:4–6, NIV)

What is the end result?

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:8–10, NIV)

So, to this saving action of God we add nothing; we only accept the grace given to us.  What God has done is to unify us with Christ. The significance here is that we get and become what Christ is and what belongs to Him.  We need nothing more.  Christ is our justification.  By faith we are justified, not by works. As such God adopts us as his children and take us in under his roof to live in his household.

What follows now is sanctification – this means that we now we start living as God’s people.  His house is holy, He is holy, and He demands of us to be holy.  Not only do we repent once, but our whole live becomes a life of repentance – daily do we take up our cross to follow Him.

When God takes us in under his roof to live as his children in his household, he gives us a sign and a seal of his grace.  And this is where what we started to look at last week comes in.

The Ethiopian and Jesus Christ

Turn to Acts 8 in the Bible.  The context here is the speed of the Gospel after the persecution that broke out in Jerusalem.  Some Christians were scattered to the north, and now, the Gospel is spreading into Africa.  The instrument in the hands of God is Philip. This high Government Official who had been in Jerusalem to worship got hold of a copy of the book of Isaiah and, sitting on his chariot, he was studying it. He did not understand what he was reading.  God used Philip to open the Scriptures to him.

It is an amazing expression of the Gospel right there in the Old Testament.  The fulfilment was in Jesus Christ.

This Ethiopian was a eunuch, which means he was emasculated.  There was a prohibition in Deuteronomy to exclude these folk from the people of God.  He was a nothing; that was his first disqualification.

No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord. (Deuteronomy 23:1, NIV)

His second disqualification was the fact that he was, like all of us, a sinner in need of grace.  Reading this chapter, Philip, as the Bible puts it, “told him the good new about Jesus”. (Acts 8:35)

Jesus is the Servant of God in Isaiah 53:

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. (Isaiah 53:3, 5, 7–8, NIV)

This is the good news about Jesus:  He took our punishment upon Him and became our righteousness.  He was rejected, so we will not be rejected by God.  God afflicted Him in our place by having Him die on the cross of shame, so we can go free.  Our transgressions caused Him to be punished.  He was the Lamb before the shearers, and yet He did not open his mouth.

My dear friend, this is good news.  God took us who were nothing and dead in our trespasses, with no place in the congregation of the Lord, and made us his masterpiece, enabled for good work in his Kingdom.

We did nothing to deserve it – and we can’t.  It therefore doesn’t matter how bad we are before the grace of God was revealed to us; it does not matter how good we were before we learned about grace; all that matters it that we understand that God calls us to be his children through Jesus Christ, and that without Him we are dead, destined to eternal destruction of hell.

Leave everything behind, stop trying to be good, and see that something can indeed come from nothing.  That’s grace.  No one is too good be be lost; no one is too bad to be saved.

I trust that this message of grace will now, at this moment, be printed in your heart and that, if you have not done so yet, you now come and bow before Jesus Christ, your only hope of salvation.  He is the only one who make it right for us before God.

This is what the the Ethiopian heard.  This is what he believed.  He, by grace, has become one of the household of God.  God’s grace in Christ became alive in his heart.

The Ethiopian received God’s sign of grace

No doubt he had heard what had happened in Jerusalem during the time of Pentecost.  Like him people from all nations and tongues were saved.  In Christ God became their Father.  When they understood that Jesus Christ was the promised Messiah, the Son of God, the King in the line of David, the Lamb who took away the sins of the world, they asked Peter what they should do; Peter answered:

“Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38–39, NIV)

Yes, they repented – and so did the Ethiopian upon hearing the message.  And because the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with his body and blood being the beginning of the New Covenant, introducing a complete new era for God’s Kingdom in history, although most of them had been circumcised, they were then baptised.  That was the sign that God gave them forgiveness and that He gave them his Holy Spirit.

Baptism did not save them, but baptism was the sign and seal, like circumcision in the old Testament, that God placed his mark of grace upon them and that they now belonged to the family of God.

This Ethiopian did the same.  He was no Jew to begin with, and was probably never circumcised.  He in no way completed his salvation be being baptised.  Baptism was his sign and seal that he now, as a saved child of God who received the righteousness by faith in Jesus Christ, indeed belonged to the people of God.  The God of the Covenant, the God of the Promise who revealed Himself to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, now put his seal on him and said, “You are mine!”  Baptism says, “You are united to Christ – what He already did for you, is yours by faith; He gives you his Holy Spirit to live in you to make the promise of the Gospel new every day.  And when the tough times come, remember, God has promised to be your God in Christ Jesus.

Baptism is God’s sign, not mine

The problem many people have with baptism lies in the fact that they want to do something to complete their salvation, as if the water of baptism will complete their salvation.  Instead of seeing the sign as a sign from God that He took them on as children in his household with the promise that He will be their God, they understand baptism as their sign to God and other people that they now believe in Jesus Christ.  It is almost as if some understand it as the rounding off of salvation.

Sacraments were never designed to more than signs and seals – and that then, God’s signs and seals, not the sign of my faith.  The perfect place to proclaim that you belong to God, is to partake of Communion.  When you take that wine and bread your proclaim that you believe that Jesus Christ died for you.  Any other reason to partake of the Communion would bring judgement on the partaker.   And Communion, my dear brother and sister, is something we can do over and over again.  This is your place to proclaim your faith – baptism happens once, we are not baptised over and over again, because by faith we are admitted once into the household of God.

The rings wedding couples give to one another on their wedding day, are exchanged after they made their vows.  In effect they are already married when they exchange rings.  But they indeed give rings as a sign of their pledge to be faithful to one another. If someone would want to know if they are married, the rings would surely be a good give-away sign; but if they have to proof that they are married, rings are not good enough; they would require a certificate of marriage, issued by the authorities after the marriage celebrant produced paperwork which was signed in the presence of witnesses.

What makes one a Christian is not the fact that he/she is/was baptised (Catholics and some other believe in baptismal regeneration).  One cannot say I was baptised and that makes me a Christian.  What makes us Christians is the fact that, by grace we are saved and sealed in the blood of Christ.  Baptism is the ground for appeal to live as Christians.  The Sacraments reinforce this appeal.  As the ring of the married man reminds him of his wife and their vows to be faithful to one another, so baptism reminds us that God made a vow to be faithful to us in Christ, and Communion reminds us that God indeed was faithful.  Both sacraments appeal to us to live as those who have been included into the Covenant of Grace.

So, it speaks for itself that if you indeed and truly believe in Jesus Christ as your Saviour and God, and you are not baptised, that you would want to receive the sign and seal of God’s grace – it is not to complete your salvation; it is a sign that God already accounted the righteousness of Christ as your righteousness; by being baptised you accept humbly what God has done in Christ.  Please consider this very carefully.

Circumcision and Baptism

Paul’s letter to Colossians, Chapter 2, tells of how the members of Colossae, who were not all Jews to begin with, were included into the family of God.  In verse 11 he argues that they, like the people of the Old Covenant, were circumcised too.  They would in response argue that they were never circumcised, and Paul would continue his argument.  When they were baptised they were circumcised.  Their baptism was the new sign of the same Covenant of grace of the Old Testament. As Abraham and all who believed like him was saved by grace, so the Colossians received by grace what God in Christ had done for them.  Their “circumcision”, baptism, unified them with Christ.

In Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, (Colossians 2:11, NIV)

The reference in the next verse to being buried with Him in baptism, is no reference to adult baptism as if one goes into the grave of sin and rises as a new person in Christ.  The reference to the grave and being raised is a reference to what happened to Christ:  he died and was buried; Him God raised from the dead.  By faith his death and resurrection has become mine, and baptism is the sign that what was already accomplished in Christ, has now become mine.

The pattern then in the New Testament is that those who were not baptised when they heard about the good news in Jesus Christ, were baptised.  The majority of them were adults.  But Peter said the Promise is for them and their children, because right from the start God included children of believing parents into his Covenant of grace.  There are references in the New Testament that whole families were baptised when there was faith in the Christ by the parents.  As a matter of fact, Paul argues that if only one of the parents was a believer, it would make the child holy.

For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:14, NIV)

From the Old to the New – the same Covenant different signs

Let’s draw the lines from the Covenant of Grace through the Old Testament to the New Testament.

There is one Covenant of Grace, with two signs in the Old Testament and two in the New Testament.  Both the signs point to the ultimate and final sacrifice that would make peace with God possible – the Person of Jesus Christ.  The signs of the old Testament were therefore signs associated with blood – circumcision and the Passover Lamb.  After Christ and the blood of the New covenant, there are no signs of blood.  The water of baptism and bread and blood of Communion signify the blood and body of Christ who is our righteousness before God.

God instituted the Old Testament covenant of circumcision with Abraham as an everlasting covenant.  How old was Abraham when he was circumcised? 99 years of age.  Why?  He had not been circumcised. How old was Ishmael? A young boy.  Why? He had not been circumcised.  How old was Isaac, who was born the next year?  Eight days.  Why? That’s what God commanded.

Those who were not Jews by birth, but converted to faith in God and became Jews, had to be circumcised before they could partake in the Passover.  Why?  They had not been circumcised.  When were their children circumcised?  Irrespective of their age, they were circumcised with their fathers, until it was only those who were added by birth, who were circumcised on the eighth day of their life.  Why?  God commanded it.

It could not be required of the children to first believe before they were circumcised? But, their parents were required to believe and make covenant promises to teach them all about God’s love and covenant grace as they grow up to the point where they too could enjoy the Passover.

If we take the same line for the same Covenant of Grace in the New Testament, we find remarkable agreements -and baptism is by no means so hard to understand.

Christ died, was buried and was raised to bring us to the Father.  He is the Head of the New covenant.  His blood saved us from sin and his body is the new covenant.

Who were baptised in the New Testament?   Those who believed in Jesus Christ.  Why?  They were united with Him in his death and resurrection and they were included into the household of God.  How old were most of them?  Like Abraham when circumcision was instituted, most of them were adults.  And likewise today, if a person was not baptised when they become believers, they are baptised as adults.  Now what about their children?  Like the children of those who came into the Covenant people of God in the Old Testament, they also receive the sign of the Covenant.  When? When their parents became Christians, and after that, all children born to that family while they are still babies.  Do they need to understand all of this?  No, God did not require children of the old Testament to understand or believe anything; but He places the parents of believing parents under the obligation to bring their children up and teach them about the grace of God, until the point in life when they are old enough to make their confession of faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord.  They are then admitted to the Communion Table where they, with the rest of the body of believers in Jesus Christ, proclaim his death until He comes again.

Sermon preached by Rev D. Rudi Schwartz on Sunday 3 November 2013

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