The Baptism Debate
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The Baptism Debate

Acts 16:11–15  (ID: 2191)

Does salvation occur through baptism? If so, where does Jesus fit in? If not, what purpose does baptism serve? Alistair Begg walks us through various theological beliefs surrounding baptism and points to Christ, the only one who can save us from sin. A consideration of baptism ultimately requires us to examine our willingness to trust Christ alone and to publicly confess Him.

Series Containing This Sermon

What Is the Church?

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23901

Encore 2017

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25908

Encore 2010

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25901

Sermon Transcript: Print

Father as we worship you in our song, so we come now to worship you in the study of the Bible. For if to study the Bible is to declare your mighty deeds, then it is to make much of you and your truth. And so we ask that you will be our teacher by the Holy Spirit, that you will grant to us clarity of thought, sensitivity of spirit, obedience in heart and will, in order that we might become the people that you have designed for us to be. For we ask it in the name of Jesus, the head of the church. Amen.

I want to pick up from where I left off last time. We began last time by saying we were going to look at both ordinances of the church, the Lord’s Supper and baptism, and as those of you who were present know, we managed the Lord’s Supper, but we did not manage baptism. I had thought simply to leave it since we have given a fair amount of attention to it, and baptism has been and continues to be a part of our ongoing gatherings. We baptize people with regularity. And yet the more I thought about it, and on account of a number of conversations that I had and a couple of communications that I had, it occurred to me that there is a whole dimension of understanding in relationship to this subject that is actually missing from a large part of this congregation. The reason that it is missing is not because of any desire on the part of the leadership to deprive the congregation of it, but just because of the way in which we deal with the subject of baptism. I’ve chosen always to simply set forward positively our understanding of how the subject falls out from the pages of Scripture. However, last week when I made the point that, as in the teaching of our children, if you do not distinguish between a horse and a cow, then you will discover that your children call them all horses or call them all cows. And so in the teaching on the Lord’s Supper, we sought not simply to say positively what we understood the Bible to say, but also to identify in a negative way the issues that we felt fell outside the orb of the instruction of Scripture. In the same way, as I listen to people talk about baptism, and particularly infant baptism, I think it’s important for me to do this for you at least in part. And I’m going to have to ask you to be patient, because what I want to do is I want to quote for you from a Presbyterian perspective, then from an Anglican perspective, then from a Roman Catholic perspective, and then we’ll go to the New Testament. So, if you would listen carefully, then I’ll speak as quickly as I can so that we can get to the Bible as fast as we might.

We need to recognize in saying all of this that baptism remains a controversial subject— that tragically and unnecessarily so, Christians are often divided over the issue. I also recognize that there is little hope on my part of convincing those who disagree with me. My friends who are committed paedobaptists (that is, infant baptizers) are able to marshal their facts with great clarity. They understand the Bible; they are sincerely devoted to Jesus. And although we play theological ping-pong with it from time to time, they remain convinced of where they are, and I remain convinced of where I am, too. That doesn’t unsettle us in any way, because we are united on the fundamentals, we are committed to all of the issues of the gospel together, and this matter of the meaning and the mode of baptism we would not want to put in a primary position, but in a secondary position. I say that in relationship to those who are within the framework of believing Christianity, the disagreement that exists there. Out with that, where the notion would be that baptism possesses saving efficacy, then we would not regard that discussion as a secondary discussion, we would regard it as a primary discussion. But I would want to distinguish, as I hope to show you now.

I decided what I would do is I would quote to you from people that I admire, living or dead. First of all living, so that we would allow, if you like, a good evangelical proponent of the view to speak concerning the view in order that we would not be setting up in any way a straw man and then being able to tear it down. It’s relatively easy to do that in argument and in debate; many of you are familiar with that, and it’s a very unhelpful way to go because it creates all kinds of impressions, most of which are absolutely wrong.

Now what I want then to do is to quote to you from a book that you can find in the bookstore. It’s called A Faith to Live By: Christian Teaching That Makes a Difference. It is authored by a man by the man of Donald Macleod, a man with a great name, I suggest to you. He is the professor of theology at the Free Church College in Edinburgh, Scotland, the capital of Scotland, which sits up there on the mound—for those of you who have been there, in behind the statue of John Knox. And in speaking concerning this to a congregation and then providing it for us in its written form, he points out that,

At its most fundamental, [baptism] signifies union with Christ. It is baptism in the name of Christ, identifying us with Him and incorporating us into Him. It signifies our being one with Him and seals our participation in His crucifixion, burial and resurrection. It attests and consolidates both our covenant union and our spiritual union with the risen Lord. We live with Christ. We are built on Christ. We are rooted in Christ. We share His status and privileges. We enjoy His inheritance. We have His rights.[1]

Not a problem, right? I hope not. “Baptism,” he says, “represents to us all the blessings that flow from our union with Christ.”[2] In identifying these, he also makes the point that baptism is a sign and pledge of our being in covenant with God. “It is,” he says, “our public acceptance of Christ as our Lord, and our public affirmation of ourselves as His servants. It is our confession that we are His: His property, His slaves, [and] His pupils.”[3] Again, no problem, at least not from me, and I hope not from you.

So where does it begin to get sticky, if at all? Well, when it comes to the question of who are the realistic recipients of baptism, namely, who should get baptized? And the question is this, he says, “Do believing parents have the right to have their faith in Christ registered in an act of baptism which includes not only themselves but their families? Should baptism, in other words, be organic, embracing not only the individual parent who believes, but his whole family?”[4] Then he goes on to say, “Yes,” and unequivocally so, explaining that the “argument revolves around the fact that when God established His covenant with Abraham He stipulated that the sign of the spiritual covenant should be administered to the physical seed.”[5] So he establishes a spiritual covenant with Abraham, and then he says, “Now I want you to mark your children with this physical sign, which includes them within the framework of the covenant that I am making with you.”[6] Therefore, he argues that baptism ought to apply to the children of believers. Writing further, “although it was so clearly a spiritual covenant, the sign was to be administered to the physical seed …. The mere fact of descent from covenant parents is itself no guarantee.”[7] So the people say, “Well, if somebody says that you ought to baptize your children, and that to put a physical sign upon them in baptism is to include them within the orb of the covenant relationship which exists as a result of the faith of the parents then, ipso facto, that person is arguing that somehow or another these children, by dint of the physical sign that marks them, are included in the spiritual dimension to which the sign points.” But is that what Presbyterians teach? No, he says, “The mere fact of descent from covenant parents is itself no guarantee. After all, it was to one such, Nicodemus, that Jesus Himself said, ‘You must be born again.’”[8] In other words, Nicodemus was a child of the covenant. And to the child of the covenant, he said, “You must be born again.”[9] He didn’t say, “You’re okay, Nicodemus.” “The sovereignty of God and the imperative necessity of the new birth overshadow the sacrament of baptism just as they did circumcision. God knew that Esau was not elect. Yet He said, ‘Put the sign on him’ because the sign, by divine appointment, belonged to the physical seed. This is a solemn business. Even within Israel God dispenses salvation sovereignly … [Both] the circumcised and the baptized need to be born again.”[10]

Now I want you to understand that very, very carefully, because I listen to a number of you talk, and you talk about Presbyterian people and you say, “You know, these Presbyterian people, they baptize infants, and because they baptize infants, they believe this.” Loved ones, you may be speaking of a certain group of people who believe all manner of things; but if you want to know what evangelical Presbyterianism really teaches, then it doesn’t teach that. This is one of the great proponents of Reformed covenant theology, and he says, “the circumcised and the baptized need to be born again.”[11] So, they are not attaching saving significance to the baptism of children. I’m speaking to you concerning this Presbyterian view. Well, we might ask him, “Why do you baptize children?” And that’s what he addresses.

Why do I baptize children? Is it because I believe that the infants of all believing parents are elect? No! Is it because I believe that the infants of believing parents will one day be born again (all of them)? No! Is it because I believe that one day they will all accept God for themselves? No! It is because God gave me an ordinance (namely): put the sign of the spiritual covenant on the physical seed. At the very beginning of this arrangement God put Ishmael and Esau there to remind us that we were not to do this on the ground that we knew theologically how the thing worked. We were to do it because God said it. In the cases of Ishmael and Esau it seemed not to work. It wasn’t related to any rationale of its effectiveness. It was done (and it is still to be done) on the ground that God said, ‘Put the sign of my promise, not only on yourselves, but also on your children.[12]

Now Bannerman’s two volumes on the church contain extensive material arguing for this position, and I cannot even begin to quote it to you now. But what he argues—and this is the orthodox Presbyterian position— what he argues is this: that infant baptism gives to the baptized child an interest in the church of Christ as its members, and at the heart of the discussion over baptism is the question of the visible and the invisible church. Does the church comprise those who are identified with the covenant family of God, believers and unbelievers alike, or does the church, as we would teach, comprise a gathered community who, on the basis of their profession of faith in Christ and subsequent baptism, are distinguished from the unbelieving community? If you argue the former, then you can understand the logic whereby Bannerman and the others say what they’re saying. Not that this child is regenerate, but that this child has, and this is the phrase they use, “a share in the property of the church in order that one day it may come to have a possession of that to which its property purports.”[13]

Now I don’t want to get all tied up on this, but I want to say this to you, that …  and this is Bannerman, let me give you just a slight quote of it. He says, “Infants are not capable of faith and repentance; and Baptism can be to infants,” this is Presbyterianism, “no seal of the blessings which these stand connected with, at the time of its administration. But it may become a seal of such blessings afterwards, when the child has grown to years of intelligence, and has superinduced upon his Baptism a personal act of faith, and thereby become possessed of the salvation which he had not before.”[14] He never had salvation in baptism. He was included, says Presbyterianism, within the framework and orb and benefit of the visible church and all that attaches to that. When that individual then professes faith in Jesus Christ, then that, if you like, validates the believing articulation of the parents on behalf of their children in his infancy. In such a case, “he can look back upon his Baptism with water, administered in the days of his unconscious infancy; and through the faith that he has subsequently received, that Baptism which his own memory cannot recall, and to which his own consciousness at the time was a stranger, becomes to him a seal of his now found salvation.”[15] That’s why Presbyterians, in baptizing adults as they do, would say that in baptism it is a seal of their relationship with Christ. In baptizing infants, they would say it is not a seal but it is a sign. And when faith follows, then the sign which points to Christ and his keeping is validated in the life of the professing individual. Now you see that is a far cry from what most of us deduce when we hear people talking about it. I don’t want to argue for a moment that the average Presbyterian is able to articulate it with this kind of clarity. Many of our friends are in all kinds of churches and they don’t know really a great deal about what they’re supposed to believe at all or what anything is; and the fact is that in that confusion, they may embrace many things. But loved ones, in the middle of confusion here, people can embrace all kinds of things too.

The real question is this: does, as they teach, baptism replace the Old Testament right of circumcision in the same way that communion replaces the Old Testament’s celebration of the Passover? That’s the argument. In the Old Testament, you have circumcision and the Passover; in the New Testament, you have baptism taking the place of circumcision, and you have communion taking the place of the Passover. Now when you keep your head square on your shoulders and begin to think it out, you say, “You know, there’s an inherent logic in this kind of position.” There is no doubt about that. I don’t doubt for an iota the logicality of it; I doubt the biblicality of it, if you like. I’m not unconvinced by the logic. I just, as I’ll show you as we draw to a close sometime in the next year, that when you take all of that and you lay it down before the template of Scripture, you’ve got to do some pretty interesting theological and biblical gymnastics in order to make sure that everything coheres. And I say that, as humbly as I can, recognizing that my friends …  and many of them I’m not worthy to untie their sandals.

I think it will become clearer when I go to the Anglican position, Episcopalian position. Let me quote something that we would respect in large measure, Jim Packer. Speaking of baptism, he says, “The outward sign does not automatically or magically convey the inward blessings that it signifies.”[16] We would agree with that, wouldn’t we? And he says, “the candidates’ professions of faith are not always genuine.”[17] We would have to believe that as well. We don’t baptize people here upon assurance of salvation; we baptize people here upon profession of faith. They said, “I believe in Christ and I trust in Christ.” And they said, “I want to follow him in baptism,” and we said, “Fine, let’s baptize you.” But time will tell whether their profession was genuine. Simon Magus, in Acts chapter 8, got baptized, and he was a total fraud. Did it invalidate baptism? Interestingly, Packer says no. Listen to this: “As a sign of a once-for-all event, baptism should be administered to a person only once. Baptism is real and valid if water and the triune name are used, even if it is of an adult whose profession turns out to have been hypocritical. Simon Magus received baptism once, and if he came to real faith later it would have been incorrect to baptize him again.”[18] Now again, there is a logic in this position. The question is, does the logic emerge from a clear and straightforward understanding of the unfolding instruction of the Bible?

It gets more complicated when you move from Dr. Packer’s ability to articulate it, to the Prayer Book itself, because he argues largely in a fairly Presbyterian kind of way. I’m not sure that he’s a bona fide Anglican; I think he might be a sort of English version of a Presbyterian, because listen to the Anglican Prayer Book. The minister prays in the context of the baptism of the infant:

Almighty, everliving God, whose most dearly beloved Son Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of our sins, did shed out of His most precious side both water and blood, and give commandment to his disciples, that they should go to teach all nations, and baptize them in the Name of the Father, and ... the Son and ... the Holy Ghost; Regard, we beseech Thee, the supplications of Thy congregation: sanctify THIS WATER to the mystical washing away of sin: and grant that this Child, now to be baptized therein, may receive the fulness of Thy grace, and ever remain in the number of Thy faithful and elect children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[19]

He then goes on to say, “We receive this Child into the congregation of Christ’s flock, and do sign him with the sign of the cross.[20] And then he prays: “We yield Thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased Thee to regenerate this Infant with Thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for Thine own Child by adoption, and to incorporate him into Thy holy Church. And [so] humbly we beseech Thee that he [might become what you have made him in this act of baptism].”[21] So I hope, skating through that as quickly as I can, that you will be paying attention enough to recognize that that Anglican position is different from the Presbyterian position I’ve just indicated. Because at least the Anglican position is trying with the notion that somehow or another in baptism, what is signified is actually sealed to the infant. Whereas as I pointed out to you, the Presbyterian view would be that there is no seal to the individual, because it is simply a sign of the fact that this child is included within the covenant family.

I should just mention something that crosses my mind as well. One of the things that I always say to my Presbyterian friends is, “OK, given that that is true of infant baptism, and that baptism as a sign brings these children of a Christian home within the framework and orb of the church,” I always say to them, “How does that differ from my kids? Because they have been born into a Christian family; and as a result of having been born into a Christian family, they have been nurtured in the training and instruction of the Lord Jesus. They have been brought up within the framework of the church. Does baptism put children in a more secure relationship with God, potentially, than unbaptized children?” Because the answer to that question is crucial. If you answer “yes” to that question, then clearly baptism is more than a sign, there is significance to it. If you answer “no” to that question, then I want to say, “So what’s the big deal?” Because after all, when we dedicate children here, if you listen carefully, my language comes pretty close to this: “These children of a Christian home have a claim upon their parents.” Why? Because their parents, having a spiritual union with God in Christ and having been entrusted with the physical fruit of their loins, to use Old Testament language—they now have a responsibility to operate out of this spiritual relationship with God upon the physical frame of their children so as to see them grow up and, in God’s providence and goodness, one day come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But does it mean that, since many of our children in running around here this morning, the thousand-plus of them—they’re all over the building in the hours of this day—that somehow or another are in some tenuous position?

It is an immense providence to be born into a Christian home.

Now, Donny Macleod answers this question and somewhere, and I just …  oh yeah, here we go. And I’m sorry, I went back to Presbyterianism, but it just came across my screen. You may wish that it didn’t, but it did. So he says, “We have to note …  that it is not the sign, whether circumcision or baptism, that makes us covenant-children or that puts us in a special relationship with God. We had that special relationship before we received the sign.”[22] How? Because of who our parents are, they argue. That it is an immense providence to be born into a Christian home. That makes sense, doesn’t it? You’re off to a head start, potentially at least. There is somebody reading the Bible to you. There is someone saying your prayers with you at night. There is someone bringing you into the framework of church. That is not granted to you, he says, in the sign of baptism. That is already there before there would be any sign stamped on the child. “Indeed,” he says,

the sign was put on us only because of the special relationship. We have to say, therefore, that the children of our Baptist friends are as much covenant children as our own children. The fact of their not being baptized does not mean that they are not covenant children. It means only that the sign of the covenant is not put on them. It was because the children of Abram were within the covenant that the sign was put on them. They did not become covenant children because of the sign itself. The sign is the attestation of their special bond with the children of God, and the believing parent wants the sign of the covenant, not only upon himself or herself, but upon his family. And he does so, not because that sign is going to put them in a different relationship with God, but because being his children, they are already in a special relationship to God. Not only so, this physical link with the people of God immediately carries with it great privileges, and baptism is a sign of these. The children of believers are linked organically to the Word, which dwells among the people of God, and linked to the care and prayers of the people of God.[23]

But since he is prepared to say in the middle of that that the children are in no position of difference, whether marked by this sign or unmarked by this sign, then I say to him, “So where did you come up with this sign?” In Acts chapter 15, when you have this great debate over the issue of circumcising the Gentiles in the Council of Jerusalem, it has always struck me as interesting in relationship to this subject that, when they come to the matter and they say, “Listen, the Gentiles having professed faith in Jesus Christ are not getting circumcised, and they need to get circumcised,” Paul argues, “Listen, this is a matter of grace. It’s not a matter of works. You don’t need to do this.” But if the early church had made the link that my Presbyterian friends say exists, namely, that circumcision was now superseded by baptism, don’t you think that Paul would have stood up in the Council of Jerusalem and said, “Guys, why are you having a big hassle over circumcision? Circumcision was replaced with baptism. It’s obvious. End of story.” He didn’t. Why not? Well, it’s an argument from silence, so I’ve got to be careful. Jesus, circumcised and baptized. Jesus’ followers, circumcised and baptized. The first century of the church, at least, circumcised and baptized, continuing to do both, pointing to the fact that this clear line between one and the other that finally is formulated in the developing centuries of the church was not immediately apparent to the minds of those who were the apostolic foundations. Now some of you, I know, are just completely out to lunch at this point, and I am sorry. I asked you to be patient. You’ve been as patient as you can, and you’re about to go crazy.

Well, let me just finish it off with a little bit of Roman Catholicism. I’ll not spend a lot of time on this, and purposefully not. Let me simply quote to you from the catechism. “What is baptism? Baptism is the sacrament by which we are reborn to God, cleansed from original sin and personal sins, and made a member of the church.”[24] How difficult is that to understand? Not difficult at all. Roman Catholicism, like all Christians throughout the centuries, have understood that it is necessary to be born again. Roman Catholics believe that you have to be born again. Don’t ever go to them and say, “You know, you don’t believe in being born again.” Yes, they believe in being born again. But for Roman Catholics, the transformation that is signified in the new birth is tied in their theology directly to the sacrament of baptism. So they agree, I must be born again, but they will answer it by saying, “Of course, I’m born again. I was baptized, was I not? And the catechism told me, it is the sacrament by which I am reborn to God. I have been cleansed of my sin and my personal sins, and I’ve been made a member of the church. So what else is there?” So they sit and listen to the kind of preaching that happens here at Parkside, and they say to themselves, “Well, this is very interesting, but it’s not for me. To whoever he is speaking or to whoever they are speaking, they must somehow or another not have got the package that I got. And so he’s saying to them that they need to be born again. And they need to be born again in their way, and I need to be born again in my way.”

And of course, this is a perfect context in which for this kind of confusion to flourish, because postmodernism argues this all the time: there is no right way for anything; history itself is a social construction. There is no verifiable data to which we can turn and say, “this says this” or “this means that.” Because what does “that” mean? What does “is” mean? What does “was” mean? What is sex? What is not sex? What is a count? What is not a count? What is a chad? What is a ballot? What is an election? What the world is anything? And the children are growing up in this and they’re saying, “You know, I don’t think I can make any sense of this at all.” And the one person you must beware of is somebody who will stand up in the middle of it all and say, “Let me tell you what it is.” Say, “Get rid of him. Run him out of town. Because if we know anything, we know that everybody knows nothing.” Then if anybody knows something, they are immediately suspect. So the person says, “Thank you for sharing that with me. I’ve been born again in my own way, and you go ahead and get born again in your own way, and after all, let’s all get together, because God loves everyone and it’s Christmastime and let’s go home.”

That’s fine, were it not for the fact that we’re dealing with the eternal destiny of men and women. And if, in baptism, the matter of salvation is secured, then let me say to you today, those of you who have come out of Roman Catholicism, return directly. If it is not, then let me say to you, accept none of the nonsense about not evangelizing Roman Catholics. For if their trust and confidence for eternity is in this, rather than in this, what hope do they have? And that’s why they’re paralyzed, so many of them. That’s why my heart goes out to them. That’s why I want to talk with them.

“You got baptized?”
“What about mortal sins? Have you committed any mortal sins?”
“What happens when you commit a mortal sin?”
“I fall out of a state of grace.”
“Are you out of a state of grace?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, don’t you think that’s an important discussion?”
“Well, how do you get back in a state of grace?”
“Well,” says the devout Roman Catholic, “as a result of the sacraments.”
“Which do you have in mind?”
“First of all, penance.”
“How do you do that?”
“Well, you come and you have an act of perfect contrition.”
To which I say, “Have you ever had an act of perfect anything in your life?”
“Well, are you planning on coming up with perfect contrition?”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“It sounds shaky to me. What else have you got on the burner?”

“Well, there’s the Eucharist. So I was baptized, and my original sin and my personal sins were dealt with. I committed mortal sins. I fell out of grace. I had to go back to the dispenser of grace, namely the church that holds in its containers my life and my destiny.”

Despite the fact that if I read the Bible for fifty seconds, I realize that he has made a mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus.[25] But, [he says], “I go there so that it can dispense to me penance, so that it can dispense to me the Eucharist, so that by means of the sacrifice and the reenactment of it, of the death of Christ, I may then get back on track again.” That’s why, when you read their catechism, it says, “When should they take the Mass?” The answer is “Every single day is desirable and twice a day in the high holy times,”[26] to import a Judaistic notion into the Roman Catholic framework; but in other words, in the big hot and heavy periods and festivals, twice a day. It’s logical. It’s logical. Because you had the Mass on Monday morning before you went to work, you’re driving to work, and you called somebody something really profane out your car window. What do you do with that? Well, maybe you go back for the twelve o’clock Mass. Or maybe you pull over into the side of the street and try for a perfect contrition. And I don’t mean to make light of this. But don’t let anybody tell you that, “Hey, baptism is baptism, and whatever it means, it means, and don’t worry unduly about it because after all, it’s really not a concern.”

The Presbyterian view, then, speaks of its signifying, the Roman Catholic view speaks of it conveying grace, and the Anglican view bounces somewhere around in between. I’ve left the Lutherans alone for the time being.

Now let me, in just a phrase or two, give you four words that summarize what we have taught here consistently, and there are myriad tapes concerning this that I can refer you to that we have taught concerning baptism. That, as in the Lord’s Supper, it is a sign, which is secondary, it’s outward, and it’s visible. It points to the reality of conversion, which is primary and inward and invisible. Jesus gives to his apostles the command to go out and preach the gospel, to make disciples, and to baptize them,[27] and when you come to Acts chapter 2, Peter is immediately out on the streets of Jerusalem and doing that very thing. And as a result of telling them about who Jesus is, we’re told that the people were cut to their heart and they said, “What shall we do?” Peter’s response was, “Well, you need to do two things. One, in terms of your own heart response, you need to believe. And in terms of your public profession, you need to be baptized.” And it is that your response of heart in repentance and in faith will then be symbolized and identified in the fact of your baptism.[MOU1] 

Baptism is a Confession of Faith in Christ

And here’s the first of four words, and I’m just going to give you the words. Number one: baptism is a confession of faith in Christ. It is a confession of faith in Christ. When Levi and Miriam, Mr. and Mrs. Abrahams, got baptized in Jerusalem that day, their friends and neighbors said, “What in the world happened to Levi and Miriam? In fact, they’re not alone, there are thousands of them there being baptized,” possibly in those pools for cleansing that lead up, I think, to the east side of the Temple Mount. If you’ve been in Jerusalem, you will have seen it. One of the things that I always wondered: ow do you baptize 3,000 people? And then when I stood there, Sue and I stood there earlier this year, and we looked at all these pools of cleansing which were there in relationship to the Old Testament sacrificial system, scattered all the way in the entry to the Temple Mount, I said to myself, “Well, I can see how all these people were getting baptized simultaneously,” ’cause these pools are dotted all over the place. And the people were drawing close and they say, “What is it that they are saying? What is it that they are testifying to?” “Well,” he says, “they’re not saying a great deal, but they’re saying this: ‘Jesus is Lord!’” And the Roman soldiers are ticked, because their normal greeting was “Caesar is Lord.” And the Jews were ticked, because they believed in monotheism and that there was no possibility that this Galilean carpenter was Adonai, was Lord, Messiah, Jehovah, Christ. And it cost these believers to stand up and say, “In my baptism, I confess my faith in Jesus Christ.”

Baptism is a Communion with Christ

It is secondly a communion with Christ—a communion with Christ, in that in Romans 6, we are identified with him in his death and in his resurrection. In baptizing as we do, in a pool here, we’re not actually arguing for a certain amount of water being necessarily involved, at least I’m not. I know that Baptists with a big “B” are very concerned about how deep the tub is and everything else. That to me is a very, very secondary issue. The issue is not about the amount of water involved, for me. The issue is about whether faith precedes baptism, or whether baptism precedes faith; and intellectually, I came to the conclusion that faith preceded baptism, rather than the other way around, even though all of the logic of my background in Scottish Presbyterianism pushed me in that direction, and by all accounts I really should be a Presbyterian minister somewhere in Scotland. My father was discharged from the Second World War to train at Glasgow University as a Presbyterian minister. My roots in the north of Scotland are riddled with all of this. How did I end up in this predicament? Well, I’d like to argue, as a result of thinking. Thinking, and recognizing that when we put somebody down into the pool, there’s a symbolism even in the pool itself. That’s why I’d rather do that. Buried with him in baptism. Raised with him to newness of life.[28]

Baptism is Consecration

I love the story that came out of Yorkshire, of the proud arrogant businessman that everybody knew. He was master of his own destiny and champion of his own decisions, and he had it made in the shade, and his house and his cars and everything testified to it. And somebody led him to faith in Christ; and they prepared him for baptism and they said, “You know, we have baptismal robes and you come and you change at six o’clock and you put these on and everything else.” He said, “Forget the robes.” He said, “I’m wearing a three-piece suit.” “Oh no,” the guy said, the minister said. “Don’t use a three-piece suit,” he said, “you’ll destroy it in the water.” He said, “That’s exactly what I want to do in the water, because my three-piece suit is as much a symbol of my arrogance and my pride and my endeavor and everything that I am. So baptize me in my three-piece suit.” And they did. Buried and raised a new man. As a result of the water? No, as a result of the transforming grace of Christ to which the water pointed. Incidentally, that is the same argument that is used by our Presbyterian friends, if you listen carefully. Not as a result of the baptism, but to which this points as a sign. You could argue that Presbyterians have water at the beginning and then a dry baptism in the confirmation, and the people in our situation have a dry baptism in the dedication and then a wet baptism in the baptism.

Baptism Looks Forward to Consummation

Confession, communion, consecration, and consummation. I’ve covered consecration. Three-piece suit says it all, doesn’t it? And we’re looking forward to the day when it will all be consummated in the same way as, when we take communion, we look forward to the day when we will no longer drink it in this way, but we will be gathered to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb.

Let me ask you one question and we’re through. This is the $64,000 question: where do you fit into all of this? Where do you fit into all of this? Are you trusting—have you been trusting—in an outward, visible sign without any experience of an inward spiritual change? Do you understand that if you take the Bible, and you must take your Bible and read it, that salvation is portrayed by the ordinances, it is not performed in the ordinances? That only Jesus can save, it is not the water of baptism nor the cup of communion that saves? And one of the reasons, I think, for the ineffectiveness and weakness of the church in our day is on account of the confusion that surrounds these issues. Some of you are out of a military background. I heard somebody in a call-in show just yesterday say, “And I was 20 years in the military,” and if he said it once, he must have said it half a dozen times in the space of three and a half minutes. I never met the man, I’ve never seen his face, but I learned a great deal about him, and one thing in particular: he was in the military for 20 years. And I bet he loved his uniform. And I bet he wore it on every available opportunity, so that people would know that he was in the military. And justifiably so. If I was in it, I’d wear my uniform, too. Who would enlist in the Marines, go through the basic training, go through all of that agony, and then when finally it becomes the passing-out parade, you say to the guy at the end of line (pardon me, I know he should have a proper name) but you say to the gentleman, the great commander-in-chief, “I’m not going to take the uniform. I don’t want the uniform. I want to be a Marine, no uniform. I love being a Marine, thanks for getting me in; it’s been a great time. No uniform”? Do you know how many people are sitting listening to me right now, and that is exactly what you’re saying to the commander-in-chief, Jesus Christ? “Yeah, what I want is Christianity light. I want to believe in Jesus, but no uniform for me. No, no, I would like the version ... I would like the thief-on-the-cross version where you die and go immediately to heaven with no baptism at all.” Well, this may be a little harder to achieve.

So, there are two questions: one, “Have I come to trust in Christ, rather than rely on sacraments?” And, having come to trust in Christ, “Am I prepared to indicate my devotion to Christ by confessing him and my consecration to Christ and the prospect one day of it all being consummated when I see him?”

Thanks for your patience. You must be like the people in Berea in relationship to all of this. Acts 17, it says the Bereans were more noble than the folks in Thessalonica because after Paul preached, they went back and they studied the Old Testament Scriptures to see if these things were so. That is exactly the mandate that I give to you. You go read your Bibles and see if these things are so, and on the strength of that, go forward accordingly.

Father, thank you for this morning and for the privilege of the worship in both song and in study. I pray that you will bring clarity to all confusion; that you will bring a sense of dependence upon the Lord Jesus for faith and for grace and for salvation; that we would trust in no external ceremony or sign; that we would thank you for the signs you have given to your people throughout all the ages; that we would thank you for the ordinances of the church; and that we would understand and, in understanding, that we would obey. May grace and mercy and peace, from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Donald Macleod, A Faith To Live By: Christian Teaching That Makes a Difference (Fearn: Mentor, 1998), 210–211.

[2] Ibid., 211. 

[3] Ibid., 211.

[4] Ibid., 214–215.

[5] Ibid., 215.

[6] Genesis 17 (paraphrased).

[7] Macleod, A Faith To Live By: Christian Teaching That Makes a Difference, 216.

[8] Ibid., 216.

[9] John 3:6 (NIV 1984).

[10] Ibid., 216–217. Put the full bibliography again since there was a different source in between the bibliography and this footnote

[11] Ibid., 217.

[12] Ibid., 219–220.

[13] Source not available.

[14] James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, Volume Two (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1960), 116.

[15] Ibid., 116.

[16] J.I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1993), 213. 

[17] Ibid., 213.

[18] Ibid., 213.

[19] John Henry Blunt, D.D., ed., The Annotated Book of Common Prayer (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), 415.

[20] Ibid., 416.

[21] Ibid., 418.

[22] Macleod, A Faith To Live By: Christian Teaching That Makes a Difference, 217.

[23] Ibid., 217.

[24] James Tolhurst, A Concise Catechism for Catholics: A Simple Explanation of Catholic Doctrine (Herefordshire: Gracewing, 1993), 19.

[25] 1 Timothy 2:5 (paraphrased).

[26] Source unavailable.

[27] Matthew 28:19 (paraphrased).

[28] Romans 6:4 (paraphrased).

 [MOU1]Your response of heart in repentance and in faith will then be symbolized and identified in the fact of your baptism.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.