Baptism (Articles 27)

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This morning we are carrying on with our morning series of studies in the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. And we've reached Article 27 on baptism. In some ways, this is a very simple subject but in other ways, it is not. That is why an article on baptism is among the Thirty-nine. For in the Church down the centuries there have been disagreements over baptism. So I don't apologize for asking you to do some hard thinking as I try to explain why the mainstream of the Church has taught what it has taught, and as is expressed in this article. And I want to ask three very simple questions, and they are, first, Why? secondly, What? and, thirdly, When?

1. Why?

Why baptize? One answer is the first sentence of Article 27:

"Baptism is … a sign of profession and a mark of difference by which Christians are distinguished from those who are not baptized."

That is to say, it is an initiation ritual that distinguishes a Christian. Sociologically, human groups of whatever size find initiation rituals helpful for integrating members. So, for example, if you haven't already got it, and you want British nationality, after various processes you have to go for a ritual in the Civic Centre. And Jesus said the visible Church needed such a ritual for new disciples and, obviously, it would be a mark of difference from those not baptized. Look at Matthew 29.18-20:

"And Jesus came and said to them [the eleven disciples], 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.'"

So Jesus was establishing a teaching mission that involved an initiatory event for new disciples. And you cannot and must not ignore that initiation ritual. It is all part of discipling – not just something for the extra-keen. So as a Christian you start off doing not only thinking something different.

Acting differently, not strangely, but differently is so important for a Christian. You have got here the risen Jesus who recently was crucified on a cruel cross. He is now alive from the dead and claims: "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." That is amazing. He is now King of kings and Lord of lords. So he has authority over Theresa May, Donald Trump and all world leaders. And he has authority over all evil spiritual powers in the heavenly realm. However, what Jesus says, is not "go and start a political Arab Spring around the world to establish the kingdom of God." No! He simply says: "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations [not some]." Go and evangelize everywhere.

But that will involve being different. Jesus says, in effect, ignore as you make disciples those who say you must not only respect, but also accept, the beliefs of others; and who say you can't claim he is the only way, for "all religions lead to God." For he is the only way.

And what practically is involved in making disciples? As Jesus said it involves baptism – "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" which is fundamentally why, ever since, we baptize people. It is because of the command of Jesus who knows what is best for us and others in our helping to grow his Church. But that baptizing process is bound up with another command of Jesus that is highly relevant for today - namely "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you." So we are to teach "all that I [the one who has all authority in heaven and on earth] have commanded you [not the ethics of the latest atheistic humanist]". And that "all" includes Jesus' ethical teaching about finance and marriage – so today's obsessions with money and sex. He doesn't want people to stay ignorant.

Why? Again because Jesus knows best, and that is the way to lasting and genuine human flourishing. And all of this is quite possible for all of us, for his very last words were that wonderful promise:

"And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

Somehow by his Holy Spirit, if you trust him, he is with you always to give you the courage that you need to be "different" and "distinguished from those who are not baptized" as our article puts it. And that is not only different in your love and care for others but also as you care enough to stand up for Christ in making disciples and teaching his ethics. So he is with you, for example, when you are different from many and say to your children's school that as a Christian you think it is abusive to teach children that it is OK to change your sex and so on, when some children will follow this damaging advice.

So why baptism and why be baptized? Because Jesus has told us we need to, and this mark of difference in what we believe and how we live, as we shall see, is helpful in other ways.

However, we need to move on.

2. What?

So what actually is baptism? How do you define it more precisely? Well, this is what Article 27 tries to do when it says:

"It is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, through which, as through an instrument, those who receive baptism in the right manner are grafted into the church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin and of our adoption as sons of God by the Holy Spirit are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed and grace is increased by virtue of prayer to God."

At least three things are being said there.

  • One, baptism, is a "sign" and a "seal".

It is both a visual (or liquid) sign, and a tangible seal something like an inked signature on a cheque. So a sacrament like baptism is visible and tangible but relating to the invisible and the intangible. The Church of England's Catechism says a sacrament such as baptism is

"an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means by which we receive that grace and a pledge to assure us of it."

So if water is the outward and visible sign, what is the inward and spiritual grace? Well, the Catechism's answer is:

"death to sin and new birth to righteousness; for being born with a sinful nature and being children of wrath, we are by the new birth made the children of grace."

And when the Catechism asks, "what is required of persons to be baptized?" it gives the answer:

"Repentance, by which they forsake sin, and faith, by which they firmly believe the promises of God proclaimed to them in that sacrament."

But perhaps you are asking, how is baptism a means by which we receive that grace? Well, it does not work like a cable plugged into the mains that automatically then charges your mobile phone. No! It doesn't work automatically like that. It is more like the alerts on the screen of your phone encouraging you not to forget going to the dentist or the emails that promise you the best holiday if you book up immediately. That is how sacraments are means or instruments of God's grace – indirectly.

  • Two, the article is saying baptism "grafts you into the Church."

You must face the fact that some churches, even in New Testament times (read Revelation chapter 2 and chapter 3) had, and have, members and even leaders teaching and behaving wickedly. So you must distinguish the visible church on earth, in which are wheat and tares, and the church of true believers down the ages and across the world. All we now experience is the visible church and it is into that church that baptism seeks to graft you. But that grafting only really happens, as the article says, for "those who receive baptism, in the right manner [or 'rightly' as in the original 1662 text]." It only really happens when the implied warnings in the gospel that baptism signs and seals lead to repentance and the promises in the gospel lead to faith.

By the way, "manner" cannot mean "method". For both baptism by immersion and by pouring have been used from the earliest times. And with regard to the symbolism, don't think of rising from the dead, which baptism can symbolize, always as rising from a northern European cemetery. For Jesus (like his friend Lazarus) was buried horizontally in a rock tomb. Jesus cried, therefore, to Lazarus in his tomb was, "come out" not "come up" (Jn 11.43)!

So, one, baptism is a sign of difference; two, it grafts you into the church.

  • Three, the article says the promises of God are signed and sealed by baptism.

So what are those promises? First, we need to go back to Peter on the Day of Pentecost. He was telling people that Jesus had truly risen from the dead. And as he was concluding his sermon, he said this (Acts 2.36):

"Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified."

Then verse 37 and following go on:

"Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?' And Peter said to them, 'Repent and be baptized 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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.'"

The promise relates to the whole way God has acted graciously towards sinful men and women who then need to trust and obey him. And that starts in the Old Testament and is summed up with a special word, namely "covenant". For God makes a covenant with those he calls to be his people and especially highlighted is the covenant made with Abraham. In that covenant, God promised his purposes would be fulfilled through Abraham's descendants. And there was "a sign of the covenant" (Genesis 17.11). And the sign was circumcision for the males of Israel. But as history developed the Prophets saw more was needed. So Jeremiah and Ezekiel spoke about God's promise of a new covenant. And this would mean the giving of God's Spirit in full measure (Jeremiah 31.31ff; Ezekiel 36.23ff). Then, several hundred years later came the birth of Jesus and this great new covenant was established by his death for our sins and his Resurrection for new life.

Peter, therefore, on the day of Pentecost was offering the promised benefits of God's new covenant through Christ. And this was now possible, if his Jewish hearers repented and were baptized. He said:

"Repent and be baptized 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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself" (Acts 2.38-39).

Then 3000 repented and witnessed to that repentance by submitting to baptism. And they received forgiveness of their sins through Christ; a new status of adoption by God; and also the gift of the Holy Spirit for strength to begin living with a new nature more as God intended.

So note, the setting up of that early Abrahamic covenant had a sign-action to go with it – namely circumcision for all the males. Similarly, this new covenant had a sign-action and seal to go with it – namely baptism. However, it was more inclusive. Women as well as men were now baptized. Baptism, therefore, is God's sign and seal for the promises of the new covenant. So Article 27 says:

"It is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, through which… the promises of the forgiveness of sin and of our adoption as sons of God by the Holy Spirit are visibly signed and sealed, faith is confirmed and grace is increased by virtue of prayer to God."

More could be said but time-forbids, for we must answer our third and final question,

3. When?

When should a person be baptized? Only as adults? No! says our Article. For its last sentence says:

"The baptism of young children is undoubtedly to be retained in the church as that which agrees best with Christ's institution."

But why? Well, if Peter was the first Apostle to obey Christ's command to make disciples and baptize, other apostles and church leaders soon followed. And as they did so, we read, they could baptize the individual believer together with his or her household. These household baptisms happened, for example, at Philippi with both Lydia, a business woman, and a prison Jailer as you read in Acts 16. But were children involved in household baptisms? Over that there is disagreement. So how can you decide who is right?

In the second century (the 100s) we are told little to help us in this. However, in the third century (the 200s) we definitely know that children of Christian families were baptized. And we know that some people didn't like it. The problem, however, was not infant baptism but these other people's doctrine of post-baptismal sin and their (incorrect) fear that such sin could never be forgiven. So they thought it better to postpone baptism until much later in life to nearer your dying day than to your birth. But in their arguing, they never claimed that infant baptism was a second-century invention and not a practice of Jesus' Apostles. Rather infant baptism was now positively assumed to be from the time of the Apostles. And in the early 2nd century there would have been older people around who had learnt from apostolic generation older people. But why would the Apostles have baptized infants?

Answer: from their notion of family solidarity that included children and which they saw in the very first Abrahamic covenant of faith. For the male children of Abraham were circumcised before they came to years of discretion. Abraham was not told by God to wait until his children came consciously to share his justifying faith before he circumcised them. He was to circumcise them as children.

And we know that this family solidarity was still there in the New Testament. For in 1 Corinthians 7.14 Paul can say regarding marriage:

"the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy."

And while the New Testament doesn't positively say that household baptisms included children, it doesn't say they didn't include them. Nor does the New Testament have any positive command to children of Christian parents to get baptized when older. So, that is what we know about the early church and why at the Reformation, in the 16th and 17th centuries, all the great Reformers accepted infant baptism. They abandoned the idea that baptism was automatic. But they did not agree that infant baptism was a late invention and non-Apostolic. And after the Reformation, Jonathan Edwards, Wesley, Whitfield, Simeon, John Newton, Wilberforce, Shaftesbury, J.C.Ryle and many other great evangelicals all accepted infant baptism.

True, wonderful godly men like John Bunyan earlier, and then later William Carey and Charles Spurgeon rejected infant baptism along with other Baptists, Brethren and Pentecostals. The commonest argument against the practice of infant baptism (apart from children not being able to make a profession of faith), was and is baptism's abuse when it is nothing but a social occasion. But as the early theologian Augustine famously said, "the abuse does not take away the true use."

In all of this, a key issue is, "what do you believe about young children and eternity?" Because of Jesus' attitude to children and Paul's teaching that children of a Christian parent are "holy", most Christians think that if their children die before the years of discretion, they go to be with the Lord. So they are brought up as Christians and the mainstream practice has been that they are baptized in faith.

Certainly Paul treats children in Christian families as full members of the Church. So he writes to them in his letters as Christians. For example, in Ephesians 6.1 he says: "Children obey your parents in the Lord." Of course, if baptized as infants, children need a ritual when older, when they can publicly take on the promises that parents and godparents made for them as infants. Such is the confirmation service which, God willing, is to be held next Sunday evening.

Yes, some Christian parents prefer a thanksgiving service for their babies. That is a service suitable for parents who are not believers, but want other people to pray for their child. And such Christian parents can bring up their children well, of course. However, the fact is, and with this I must close, the majority of Christians in the period since Christ have agreed with the statement in Article 27 of the Thirty-nine Articles on baptism:

"The baptism of young children is undoubtedly to be retained in the church as that which agrees best with Christ's institution."

Amen

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