Our Side of Baptism (2/2)
Note: this video also includes the Wesley Covenant Renewal portion of the worship service. This link to the hardcopy of this service is also the bottom of the page.
Scripture: Psalm 50 and John 15:1-8
Other sermons in this series
You might have heard that the someone in Maine has the winning ticket for Friday’s $1.35 billion Mega Millions jackpot drawing. But he or she is not yet a billionaire because to the best of our knowledge, they haven’t come forward to claim their winnings. They may have the winning ticket in-hand, but until they come forward and go through the process of proving they have the winning ticket, their life is no different today than it was on Thursday.
In that same vain, what good would it do me to have a car if I didn’t have the keys to it or, if I did have them, never put fuel in it? A computer can do a lots of amazing thigs, but what good is having one if I never turn it on? How is having food set before me going to benefit my body if I don’t eat it? I think you see my point. Possessing something doesn’t automatically mean we’re experiencing its intended purposes. And that’s because one must appropriate whatever they have into their lives for it to be of any benefit or use.
What if I said this is also true when it comes to matters of faith? At first, this might sound contradictory to the Christian view of God’s grace, which is that we can’t do anything to earn God’s love or acceptance. With that I wholeheartedly agree. But I’m talking about what comes after that. Yes, Scripture makes it very clear that God loves me, and that on account of that love he sent his Son to die for me and take the guilt of my sins upon himself so that I might have eternal life. The question I’m asking is, does the reality of what Jesus did for me automatically make me a beneficiary of his atoning death on the cross apart from anything I do or say or believe? Admittedly, some very intelligent and faithful Christians will say yes, that’s exactly what happens. But that’s not the historical view of the church. Historically, the church has maintained that the effects of Jesus’ atoning death and subsequent resurrection are given to those who profess faith in Jesus. That is, those who appropriate Jesus’ saving act into their lives. But that until that happens, it’s like being given a car and never driving it.
So, what I’m talking about is the necessity of responding to the gift of God’s saving grace. Based on my reading of God’s Word, I maintain that the degree to which we respond to God’s gift of salvation determines not only our earthly experience of that gift but also its intended innate and eternal effects.
Last week I talked about baptism and focused on what God does in a person’s life when they’re baptized. I said that regardless of their age or their cognitive understanding of the theological implications of baptism, water baptism has the effect of washing away the guilt of original sin.
I believe it does one more thing, although I didn’t mention this last week. I believe that water baptism sets up a spiritual hedge of protection around the baptized person so that until the day they take their breath in this world, they’ll be protected from wandering so far away from God that they can no longer hear him or respond to him. In other words, they’ll always be able to hear God speaking with the ears of their heart. Both things—being washed of the guilt of original sin and being protected against wandering too far away from God—are what God does in baptism. And nothing we do or say from that day on can nullify those actions of God.
Today, I want to flip that coin and talk a bit about their other side of water baptism—what we do. Or, as I said just a moment ago, our response to the gift of salvation; our response to what God’s done and, just as importantly, continues to do. And what I’m going to suggest to you is that what we do has a bearing on the big picture effects of baptism. Again, it doesn’t affect what God accomplishes in baptism, but rather, the overall intended purposes of baptism.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s revisit one of the promises a parent or guardian makes when an infant is baptized. Baptisms always begins with making a public profession of faith. Because infants can’t do this for obvious reasons, parents make their own profession of faith on behalf of the infant after which they are asked this question:
[Having professed faith in Jesus Christ] will you nurture this child in Christ’s holy church, that by your teaching and example they may be guided to accept God’s grace for themself, to profess their faith openly, and to lead a Christian life?
Let’s first look at the intended results of baptism. Our liturgy names three things which are all tied together: Eventually, it’s hoped that the baptized person will
- accept God’s grace for him/herself
- make a personal profession of faith in Jesus Christ
- live in the world as a committed follower of Christ
The question is, what will get them to the place of making those personal decisions for Christ?
Well, first and foremost is the fact that when they were baptized, God marked them with his Holy Spirit and made it possible for them to always hear, or sense, him in their own spirits. Beyond that, though, is the human element. And our baptism liturgy identifies two very important actions which are designed to go hand-in-hand. They are:
- nurturing the child within the body of Christ
- showing them how to live a life of faith by personal example and intentionally teaching them the Christian faith through words
This is what a parent or guardian promises to do to help achieve the desired result of choosing Jesus for themselves.
So, let me ask. If a parent fails nurture the spiritual life of that child within the body of Christ (a local church), what effect is this likely to have on the spiritual life of that child? Probably the same affect that taking a child out of school will have on their academic development. And how about the failure to lead a Christ-focused life by example? Or the failure to use those “teachable moments” in a child’s life to instruct them in the ways of God? If a child is raised in such a manner, can you see how the effects of their baptism are likely to diminish over time? That’s because we recognize the important role we play in our own faith development. What we do matters! Although there’s no guarantee, living into both of those baptismal promises significantly increases the likelihood that a child will eventually come to understand the claims of the gospel and make the choice to follow Jesus.
Now, assuming one makes that personal choice, then what? Is saying yes to Jesus all that needs to happen? Well, in one sense, the answer is yes. That’s all that’s needed to receive the gift of salvation. (Just like taking legal possession of a car is all that’s really needed to become a car owner.) But from a Wesleyan standpoint, the gift of eternal life isn’t intended to be a one-time event. By design, God intends for us to spend our entire lives living into the salvation we’ve been given. Baptism itself is a one-time event which comes with immediate and long-term effects. A failure to live into the promises made at baptism tends to reduce those long-term effects. Likewise, not taking intentional steps to develop spiritually and grow in our walk with Jesus tends to result in a lukewarm faith. (And if you want to know how God feels about a lukewarm faith, take a quick look at Revelation 3:16—it’s not good!)
When it comes to the Christian faith, both words and actions matter. In Romans 10:9-10, Paul speaks to the importance of the spoken profession of faith. He writes, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart, leading to righteousness, and one confesses with mouth, leading to salvation.”
But what then? Is saying “I love Jesus” enough? Is pronouncing verbal blessings upon others enough? Well, not according to James. James 2:14-16 is probably the most direct passage in the whole Bible about the importance of a life which reflects by way of action a verbally professed faith. He states quite plainly: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Surely that faith cannot save, can it? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily foodand one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” The truth is there’s such a thing as dead faith.
From a Wesleyan standpoint, the gift of eternal life isn’t intended to be a one-time event. By design, God intends for us to spend our entire lives living into the salvation we’ve been given.
Psalm 50 pretty much makes the same point. The author is quick to remind the Israelites that their religious practices rang utterly hollow to God when they weren’t accompanied by a lifestyle which reflected God’s heart. I’ll paraphrase the gist of psalm.
You continually offer me animal sacrifices as your act of worship as though I myself needed them.No, I don’t need them because every animal on the planet is already mine. Here’s the sacrifice I’d rather you give me: how about bringing me a sacrifice of thanksgiving—continually expressing your gratitude for all I’ve done for you? How about actually fulfilling the promises you make instead of just paying lip service to them? In the distant future, they’re going to come up with a saying about where the road paved with good intentions ultimately leads! Also, I’m tired of you simply talking about my laws and saying how important they are. I’d much rather you actually live them out by doing what they tell you to do.
800 years later, Jesus echoed that same sentiment. Likening himself to a vine of grapes and our Heavenly Father to the keeper of the vineyard and us to the branches on the vine, he said that that Father “removes any of my branches that don’t produce fruit” (John 15:2). Notice that he speaks of “my branches,” branches belong to him. In other words, he’s talking about Christians, persons who’ve professed faith in him. He says that some Christians-by-profession-of-faith will be removed from the vine. Why? Because of their failure to “produce fruit.”
What does it mean to “produce fruit”? Well, a proper answer to that question could be the topic of an entire sermon series. So, for the time being, I’ll simply offer this: “Bearing fruit” is a phrase used to describe the outward actions which result from the inward condition of a person’s heart, specifically, the heart of someone who’s been made new in Christ. What does this look like? Well, this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, but in part it looks like
- working on growing deeper in our relationship with God
- spending time in God’s Word
- looking for opportunities to give of ourselves for the sake of others
- putting the difficult teachings of Jesus’ into practice, such as loving one’s enemies, forgiving those who hurt us, serving the poor, visiting those in prison, etc.
In short, it looks like outwardly living the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ which reflects the inward heart-change that happened when we said yes to Jesus, all in response to the grace which he poured into us through his Son, Jesus.
But what’s important to note is that, at least according to Jesus, just making a verbal profession of faith doesn’t automatically result in producing the kind of fruit that glorifies God. Our lives glorify God when we respond to God’s amazing grace by living a life of discipleship. Which is what I’m going to begin talking about next week. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to answer the question, what is a disciple of Jesus Christ? And in case your initial response to that is, “Why on earth would it take four weeks to answer that one question,” I’ll say that entire books have been written about what it means to be a disciple. Please know that there will be plenty to digest over the next four weeks. Part of what we have to deal with is the fact that while most of us are familiar with the concept of being a disciple of Christ, it’s not really been a large part of our denominational culture for a number of generations. This is not meant to be a slam, but my guess is that if right now you had to write out a one sentence definition of a disciple of Jesus Christ, most of us would struggle with doing that. Let alone defining the general meaning of “discipleship,” or being able to speak to what is entailed in “making disciples” of Jesus Christ. Believe me, there is a lot to learn about what’s entailed in consciously living as disciples who disciple others. Disciples who disciple. You’re going to hear me say that a lot this year. And next week we’re going to begin by first talking about what a disciple of Jesus Christ is.
At this point, however, we’re going to return to the important work of responding to God’s saving grace. And when all is said and done, that response is something we undertake every new day. After our initial “yes” to Jesus in which we’re made new and right in God’s eyes, we say a daily “yes” in which we agree to live a fruitful, God-glorifying life. John and Charles Wesley, co-founders of the Methodist movement which eventually became the Methodist Church, understood the importance of regularly renewing our covenantal relationship with God. John Wesley pulled together resources and practices of his own day and put together a kind of covenant renewal service which has become what we have today. It was originally designed for a “watch night” worship service, which typically happens on December 31, as a way of beginning the new year with a renewal of that covenant. Some churches will do it the first Sunday of the new year. Through the years, I’ve been happy to fit it in somewhere in January. But for many years I’ve made it a part of our January worship because I think it’s important to remind ourselves every year what our response to God’s saving action looks like. And the fact is, living a life of faith is challenging. Jesus tells us that following him requires a daily “taking up of our cross.” But when we do that hard work, we discover a deep joy and purpose in living for Jesus more than for ourselves.
So, with this in mind, I invite you to turn your attention either to the insert in your bulletin or to the screen. You’re invited to participate to whatever degree you’re comfortable or willing. Please know this: if you read aloud the words that are printed in this service, you’ll undoubtedly say things you may not feel you can actually live out. You’ll say things you’re not sure you truly mean. This was my experience the first few times I participated in the Wesley Covenant Renewal Service. But if you do choose to say the words, despite your initial internal reaction, I encourage you to ask God to give you the heart to receive them, to be challenged by them, and to accept them over time.
Finally, at the end, you’ll see in the printed insert a place for you to sign your name as a way of making a physical record of your promise. Sign it and post it where you can see it, and periodically return to it over the course of the year.
[WESLEY COVENANT RENEWAL SERVICE]