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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Baptism is the Mark of God’s Loving Relationship with Us
Text:LD 27 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Baptism
 
Preached:2018
Added:2018-11-08
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 111:1,5                                                                                                                                         

Ps 89:1  [after Nicene Creed]

Reading – Deuteronomy 30

Ps 25:2,5

Sermon – Lord’s Day 27

Ps 25:6,7

Hy 56:1,2,3,4

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, very few of us can remember the event of our baptism. Most of us were little babies when we received the sign and seal of the covenant, presented at the front of the church by our parents. We just have to take their word for it that it happened. You might still have the certificate of baptism, or a photo of you in a frilly baptismal gown, but apart from that, there’s nothing physical to mark the event.

But all the same, we know that it happened. We also know what baptism points to: it’s a sign of God’s covenant with us, his people. That’s something we all recognize, that we’re in the covenant. Yet what’s the true impact of that? What does being in the covenant look like in ordinary life? Because we’re in a relationship with God, what’s the difference?

Out of all the Questions & Answers in the Catechism, the covenant is most central in Q&A 79 under the question, “Should infants, too, be baptized?” In Lord’s Day 26 we learn that baptism signifies the washing of our souls with the blood and Spirit of Jesus Christ. Now the Catechism wants to find out who this baptism is for.

And in the answer, “covenant” is at the forefront straightaway: “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation.” Then, a bit further: “By baptism, as sign of the covenant, [children] must be incorporated into the Christian church.” And in the final sentence, it says baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of “the new covenant.”

So what is this covenant of which we speak? Something essential to fix in your mind is that the covenant is a relationship. In a covenant, two people come together in committed love. In that spirit, they make promises to each another, and accept obligations. And it’s an official relationship, one sealed in a ceremony.

For an example of this, think of marriage. In a few places, the Bible calls marriage a covenant between husband and wife. That’s a very good illustration of how the covenant isn’t meant to be a stale or lifeless agreement, but a relationship that thrives and grows. For think of what makes a good marriage: love and loyalty, communication, commitment. These same things must describe the covenant between God and us: love and loyalty, communication and commitment! Let’s consider what Scripture and the Catechism teach about the covenant,

Baptism is the mark of God’s loving relationship with his people.

  1. covenant promise
  2. covenant obligation
  3. covenant curse
  4. covenant blessing

 

1) promise: If “covenant” is a special word for our faith, there’s a few other key words related to it. The first of the four we want to look at is “promise.” A promise, very simply, is a commitment for the future—like when I promise my kids that I’ll take them to McDonald’s sometime. By promising something, we commit ourselves to acting in a certain way. In his covenant with us, our God makes promises—He commits himself. He says, “This is how I’ll treat you. This is what I am going to do for you.”

There’s an important lesson in how we begin with “promise,” and not with something else. It shows that the covenant is entirely God’s undertaking—it’s existence really doesn’t depend on us. In this sense, it’s quite different from the relationships that we have with one another. For a friendship or a marriage to happen, both parties have to agree from the beginning. Yes, one side might take some initiative—for example, if a courting couple will get engaged, the young man has to get down on one knee, pull out the ring, and ask the question. Still, the young lady must answer with a “yes” for the engagement to happen.

The Lord God has a relationship with us—it’s even a mutual, two-sided relationship—yet the whole thing is his project. God didn’t take the first step, and wonder where it would go. He didn’t put in his request, then depend on us to answer. He decided to start it, and then He also brought the covenant about. As the Scripture says, we didn’t choose him, He chose us! The whole covenant is founded on what God is going to do. Without his promises, we’d be empty-handed. So we begin with his promises, with his covenant love!

In the covenant this is how it’s always gone. Earlier we read from Deuteronomy, a book that’s chock-full of covenantal language. When God speaks these words to his people through Moses, the Israelites were on the doorstep of the Promised Land. After so many centuries of waiting, after so many years of wandering, it was now time for the people to receive their lasting possession. But before they get carried away in excitement, God wants his people to remember what is shoring up all his gifts. Not their own goodness or attractiveness, but the LORD’s promise, made in love!

The book of Deuteronomy has been called a long ceremony of “covenant renewal.” Throughout, the people are being reminded of who they are, being reaffirmed in who God is: that they are the covenant people, and God is the covenant LORD.

You might compare this ceremony in Deuteronomy to a husband and wife who’ve gone through a period of unfaithfulness. One of them, or both, have broken their wedding day commitments. But having repented and come back together, one day they “renew” their vows, as it were; they promise again that they’ll be steadfast, from here on in. In Deuteronomy God is doing the same with his people. God hasn’t been unfaithful, but Israel has, in all their whinging and complaining and not trusting in the LORD. After forty years it was high time to re-affirm their love for God.

And as the covenant is renewed, see how God first re-commits his promise of steadfast love. When Israel would sin in the future—and even when they were punished with exile to far-off lands—God would forgive them. See 30:3, “The LORD your God will bring you back from captivity, and have compassion on you, and gather you again from all the nations where the LORD your God has scattered you.” His abiding promise was to keep loving in spite of sin. We know the later history of Israel, that without this promise, they would never have survived!

A few things have changed since Deuteronomy 30. God no longer promises us a special land, a land flowing with oil and money. God no longer promises us great numbers of children, nor guarantees our long life. Yet God’s core promise abides: He will have compassion on us, and He’ll restore us. We read that in Q&A 74, “Through Christ’s blood, the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit… are promised.” There’s no promise that is more precious!

Though we sin grievously, there is forgiveness in the blood of Christ. Though we are corrupted in mind and heart, there is restoration by his Spirit. Though we chase after so many idols, God takes back those who repent. He vows that He loves us still, his precious bride!

If God’s love is the source of the covenant, then his faithfulness is the guarantee. Think of God’s dedication to us: He has never left us, never forgotten or given up on us. Can anyone say that the LORD has been unfaithful? That He’s left you all alone, and not provided? He keeps his covenant. In times of anxiety, He gives rest. In times of guilt, he gives relief. In times of weakness, He gives great strength. He always has compassion for sinners who seek him.

We’ll talk about our duty in the covenant too, yet be clear on our starting point. We depend on his grace. We stand on the promises. Because of what He’s given us, we can live for worshiping his Name.

 

2) obligation: We all know the line from the Form for Baptism, “Every covenant contains two parts, a promise and an obligation.” God is gracious, but He hates for his grace to be rejected. He’s merciful, but He doesn’t want his mercy taken for granted. And so God has built into this relationship a second key feature: obligation.

What are the obligations placed upon us? As we read Deuteronomy 30, the LORD’s covenant demands ring out: “The LORD will rejoice over you for good… if you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commands and his statutes which are written in this Book of the Law, and if you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (vv 9-10). We hear it again, a few verses later: “I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his judgments” (v 16). Sounds clear, doesn’t it?

Yet some will say: “That was Old Testament. In the New Testament, God doesn’t expect his people to live by laws and regulations, keeping commandments. That’d be trying to save yourself, wouldn’t it?! What God wants now is faith and love, pure and simple!”

And He does want that. Even more emphatically than He did before, God calls his New Testament people to live by faith alone. Because by his life and death, it was Jesus who kept the obligations of the covenant—He kept all of them, without fail! He did what we could not, and obeyed God’s law perfectly. Now Christ invites us to join ourselves to him by believing, so that all his many merits become our own.

So it is by faith alone. But what does faith do? Faith does what it’s always done, what it did already in the Old Testament. As Romans 1 says, each of us must be busy with “the obedience that comes from faith” (v 5). If we say we love God and Christ, what does such a love do? John tells us, “This is love for God, to obey his commandments.”

Beloved, our covenant obligation is to do the will of our loving Father in Christ! We hear the Ten Words every Sunday, not only to be reminded of our sins, not only to be reminded of how Christ fulfilled the law, but to be given our assignment for a new week. This is what God’s people must do! This is how the disciples of Christ ought to walk!

If that’s your calling, then it’s something to think about carefully: How can you better keep God’s Word? How can you fight against the devil’s insidious temptations, and resist the world’s constant pressures, and how can you contend with your own stubbornness? More than that, we should ask: How can I more faithfully serve other people? How can I walk closer to the LORD? Because these are our obligations, we should think about them in a serious way.

Already when we were baptized, we were called to this kind of life. As the Catechism teaches, by baptism our children are “distinguished from the children of unbelievers” (Q&A 74). “Distinguished” it says, distinguished by that mark on the forehead (which is invisible), but also distinguished by the manner of our lives (which should be very visible!). If you’ve been baptized, do you live as a child of God? Do you stand apart as one devoted to the Lord?

It’s not about repaying God’s kindness. It’s about bringing great honour to God by showing ourselves to be children of the Father: good and gracious like He is, faithful and true like He is, holy and pure like He is.

That’s a tall order. It can feel like these obligations are too heavy, too demanding. Yet what did God say, already back in Deuteronomy 30? “This commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off” (v 11). It’s do-able! God goes on to say, “The word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it” (v 14). God inscribes his law on our heart, then enables us to obey. Beloved, ponder this grace of God: He grants the ability to od what He demands!

It’s our great privilege to present to the Father a life of faith and service. People don’t like the word obligation today, but covenant obligation is not a burden, but an honour. It’s an honour because of who it’s for. Think of the privilege that it is to be on staff in the Prime Minister’s office, or to be a member of the Queen’s entourage. People want these positions, because there’s an honour in serving someone powerful, an honour to be connected to greatness.

So for being in covenant with God. Covenant obligation means we get to be active for him, we get to worship him! We get to be slaves of Christ, soldiers in the Lord’s army, children of the Father who do his perfect will. If we appreciate even a little of how much God has given, we’ll keep our obligations with joy.

 

3) curse: Now we need to consider a word that’s more uncomfortable, the covenant “curse.” Sometimes it’s called the covenant “sanction.” A curse or sanction is, very basically, a penalty. This aspect of the covenant too, is grounded in God’s character. Covenant promise springs from his love, and covenant curse is rooted in his justice. Because God is a perfectly just God, He has the right to punish those who don’t serve him. If someone will scorn and break God’s covenant, that person will experience God’s anger.

The Israelites knew about this. A couple chapters before the one we read, God threatened the disobedient with piles of curses like plagues and famine and exile. Consider Deuteronomy 28:15-19 where Moses says, “If you do not obey the LORD your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees… all these curses will come upon you and overtake you: You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country… You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.”

We find the same in our chapter: “If your heart turns away so that you do not hear and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish; you shall not prolong your days in the land” (30:17-18). This is covenant curse!

Was this the Old Testament way—old, and out of date? Can we say that God doesn’t treat people that way anymore, no longer threatens penalties? If you read it, you see that the New Testament too, is full of God’s justice. Think of how often the Lord Jesus warns that those who don’t repent of their sin will be shut out of God’s kingdom.

In fact, here’s a really hard truth: the punishment of those who break God’s covenant is even more severe. Jesus taught in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” We’ve been given much as God’s covenant people. We have his Word of promise, and we know of redemption through Christ.

So God demands much. He expects that we’ll receive his promises with glad and believing hearts. He expects that we’ll make it a priority to bring him praise. He expects that we’ll cherish our baptism and become living members of his church.

But if we don’t, if we discard our baptism as meaningless, what is left for us? A curse. If a person stubbornly rejects God’s mercy, refuses to walk in the way of the Lord’s Word, the time comes when there’s no more reason to expect his mercy. In the book of Hebrews the Spirit says if a person has continually scorned the blood of Christ—if a person has trampled the Son of God underfoot—there is no excuse. For this rejection, it says, there is left no sacrifice for sins. If you won’t believe in Christ, the sin will remain on your account, and you will die unforgiven.

Talk of “covenant curse” is uncomfortable. But let it also be convicting. Let the warning of God’s curse shake you out of your bad habits. Let it dissolve your complacency and stir you up to more faithful living. The truth of God’s curse should move us to reach out to those who are straying from his ways, and to pray fervently for those who have already left. And may it move us to desire God’s blessing all the more!

 

4) blessing: Speaking in Deuteronomy 28, God listed dozens of curses for disobedience. But He also announced blessings for the faithful. We find echoes of those blessings in our reading, like in verse 5: “He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers.” God would show his favour to Israel when they lived according to his ways—something else proven in every century of their history. When Israel rejected God, they were oppressed by enemies and famine. And when they served God, the land was prosperous and at peace.

At the risk of repeating myself, this Old Testament principle remains today: God blesses our obedience for Christ’s sake! When we devote ourselves to doing God’s will, we can count on his reward. God tells us that life is always better when we walk with him.

Does this mean that if we’re faithful, we’ll never get sick? Does it mean that we’ll always receive the desires of our heart? We all know that it doesn’t happen. But those Old Testament promises haven’t expired, they’ve been replaced—replaced by things far greater in Jesus Christ! Because those who walk with God will always be able to say: “The LORD is faithful. God has blessed me! His love is greater than anything else that I have or that I need.”

For when we know Christ, we have the blessing of his peace, his strength, his Spirit. When we nurture our relationship with God, we can expect not just blessing in this life, but peace and freedom forever, and the knowledge that nothing can separate us from his love.

Moses presents it so simply to Israel: “I have set before you today life and good, death and evil” (30:15). He recalls the beautiful blessings, the terrible curses, and he says the choice is clear. These are your options! “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey his voice, and that you may cling to him” (vv 19-20).

Beloved, today we still hear those powerful words. For God has made a relationship with us too. In our baptism in Christ’s Name he has said, “You are my people, and I am your God. You are my children, and I am your Father.” The blessings He holds out are too many to number, while his faithfulness is beyond question. But what about ours? Will you walk with the LORD? Will you live with him in a committed love? What will you do to strengthen your relationship with God, and to deepen your bond with Christ? Cling to him, for He is your life!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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