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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Title:Holy baptism is all about the promises of our God
Text:LD 26 and LD 27 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 3:1-2

Psalm 105:1-4

Psalm 89:1-2

Hymn 1

Psalm 135:1,2,9,10

Scripture readings: Genesis 17:1-14, Hebrews 8

Catechism lesson:  Lord's Days 26 and 27

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

Beloved congregation of our Lord Jesus,

What is baptism all about?  We can’t take it for granted that we know the answer to that question.  For many other Christians, baptism is about us.  Baptism is about us making a commitment to Christ.  Baptism tells God that we really mean business.  That often ties into two other trends around us.  One is the rejection of infant baptism and the other is a compromising of God’s sovereignty in our salvation.  Of course, infants can’t express a commitment to Christ so of course you don’t baptize them.  And if your doctrine of salvation gives a prominent place to human decisions and a lesser place to God’s grace, then it shouldn’t be all that surprising that your view of baptism is similar. 

But closer to home, there’s the potential that we could develop a similar approach to baptism.  Every time we witness a baptism the parents answer some questions.  They make vows before the LORD.  It could happen that we view those vows as the essence of baptism.  That baptism is really about parents making a commitment to raise their child in a way that pleases God.  Baptism is then really about the promises the parents make regarding their child.  But it would be a big mistake to think that way.  The promises made by the parents are connected to the baptism of their child, but those promises don’t make up the essence of what baptism is really about.  When we read the summary of biblical teaching found in Lord’s Days 26 and 27, did you hear anything there about people making promises?  No, there’s nothing about people making promises there.  And it’s not found in the summary of biblical teaching found in article 34 of the Belgic Confession either.  At its heart, baptism is not about people making promises to God.  It’s quite the other way around.

That’s what we’re going to learn about this afternoon.  We’re going to consider how holy baptism is all about the promises of our God.  We’ll learn about:

  1. What those promises are
  2. Who those promises are for
  3. How those promises are to be embraced

Each time we have baptism administered we first listen to the Form for the Baptism of Infants.  It’s a beautiful little sermon about baptism.  At the beginning, there’s that wonderful section explaining why we are baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  It all has to do with the promises of God in the covenant of grace.   

Being baptized into the Father means that God the Father tells us that we are in the covenant of grace with him.   He has marked us off and separated us from the world.  We’re his children.  We are his heirs -- we’re those in line to receive an inheritance from him.  He promises us he will give us good things in this life and in the life to come.  He’ll turn evil away from us, or he’ll turn it into something good.  He promises he has a hand of power and a heart of love for every Christian. 

Being baptized into the Son means that Christ promises us that we are washed in his blood from all our sins.  We’re united to him in his death and resurrection.  That means he promises our old nature was crucified with him on the cross and our new nature has come to life with his resurrection.  The consequence is that sin no longer can send us to hell.  God looks at us and he sees us through the lens of his Son.  He counts everything that Christ has done to our account.  We’re right with God because of Jesus.  Christ promises us freedom from the curse of sin. 

Being baptized into the Holy Spirit means the Spirit promises us he will live in us.  He’ll connect us to Christ each day.  He’ll pass on what we have in Jesus.  Through the ministry of the Spirit, we find our hope for forgiveness through Christ and then we also hate sin and fight against it.  He promises to work that in us until the last day when we appear before the judgment seat without any blemish or defect.  In our baptism, the Holy Spirit promises us he will help us run the race and finish the race, all through Christ. 

Loved ones, these are beautiful promises, encouraging, awesome to reflect on.  Our Catechism speaks along the same lines as the Form.  But the focus there is on washing, washing with Christ’s blood and spirit.  Through the waters of baptism, God promises us we’re washed from our sins with Christ’s blood.  That means we have the promise of forgiveness.  But we’re also promised the washing of the Holy Spirit.  That means God promises his Spirit to work in us and renew us.  That means we have the promise of sanctification.  Sanctification is the process of change in the life of a Christian.  We’re promised that in baptism.

Those same promises are found in what we read from Hebrews 8.  That passage speaks of the covenant of grace after the coming of Christ.  There are better promises after the coming of Christ and then the author of Hebrews quotes from Jeremiah 31.  There we find God promising to put his laws in the minds of his people.  He will write them on their hearts.  How?  Through the Holy Spirit.  The Spirit will be poured out and he will guide believers to walk in the ways of God.  Not only that, but God promises radical forgiveness too.  He says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”  Forgive and forget.  That’s what God promises to do.  The sins of God’s people will not be an obstacle in their relationship with him.  There will be a clear line of fellowship between God and them.  How can he promise that?  Through Christ.

So, at its heart, baptism is about the promises of God relating to redemption from sin through Christ’s blood and the promises of God relating to the Holy Spirit, who works faith in our hearts and who works sanctification in our lives.  To put it succinctly, baptism is about the promises of God for our salvation.

Then the next question is:  who are these promises for?  We should look at the answer to that in connection with the covenant of grace.  Throughout the Bible, with whom does God enter into covenant relationships?  As we survey the Bible, taking the big picture approach, to whom does God give the promises of the covenant of grace? 

That’s where Genesis 17 is so crucial.  God comes to Abram.  He changes his name to Abraham because he will be the father of many nations.  Not only that, but God will be in a perpetual relationship with Abraham – a covenant of grace forever.  Yahweh promised to be his God.  But did God restrict that covenant to Abraham?  Did he restrict it to the adults in Abraham’s household who might be able to independently express a commitment to Yahweh?  No, God said that he was covenanting with Abraham and his descendants, with Abraham and his children.  As a sign and seal of that, all the male members of Abraham’s household were to be marked with circumcision.  Young and old alike were to be circumcised because they were all taken in to the covenant of grace established with Abraham.  They were all recipients of the promises made to Abraham.

Now some might object and say that’s from the Old Testament.  But in Acts 2, when Peter addressed the crowd on the day of Pentecost, didn’t he also say, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call”?  The promise is for believers and their children after Christ just like it was before Christ. 

Think of it this way.  Before Jesus died on the cross, Jewish believers and their children were included in the covenant of grace.  About that there is no question.  Even the most ardent Baptist will agree with that.  But how can it be that Jesus dies on the cross, rises from the dead, ascends into heaven, and then all of a sudden the children of believers are excluded from the covenant?  All of a sudden, in the blink of an eye, God’s covenant promises are no longer for them.  The idea would have been horrific to first century Jewish Christians.  That wouldn’t have made any sense.  That would have stripped some of the goodness away from the good news.  And we would certainly expect to see some controversy over such a radical departure in the book of Acts somewhere.  But there’s nothing about that.  Instead, what we find suggests continuity on this point between the Old Testament and the New Testament administrations of the covenant of grace.  Children were included in the Old and they continue to be included in the New.  The children of believers continue to be recipients of God’s covenant promises and therefore ought to be baptized. 

Here we can bring in Hebrews 8 again.  The covenant of grace after Christ’s death is said to be a better covenant.  It has been improved.  The question our Baptist friends need to answer is:  how can the covenant of grace be said to be better and improved by suddenly casting out the children of believers?  And didn’t Jesus himself show such remarkable compassion and love for covenant children in the gospels?  Why would he suddenly cast them out after his work on the cross?  What kind of sense does that make?    

And, last of all, didn’t Paul regard children as being under the promises and obligations of the covenant?  Here I’m thinking of what he said in the first three verses of Ephesians 6.  He refers to the fifth commandment – one of the Ten Words of the Covenant.  He tells the children of believers to obey their parents “in the Lord.”  Why?  It’s a commandment that comes with a promise, “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.”  There’s a promise and an obligation.  This is a feature of a covenant and Paul’s appeal to it here shows concretely how he regarded the children of believers as belonging to the covenant of grace.  He says you have to keep this commandment because you’re part of God’s covenant people.  If they belong to the covenant, then they’re recipients of the promises and they should receive the sign and seal in holy baptism. 

Now all that being true, we shouldn’t assume that receiving these wonderful promises means the same thing as receiving what is promised.  We shouldn’t assume that being baptized means you automatically get what’s being signed and sealed in baptism.  A promise is exactly that – it is a word which states you will get something.  But the promises in the covenant of grace come with a condition or an obligation.  There’s something that has to follow. 

An illustration will help to make this clear.  If someone gives you a gift card for $1000, you’ve received a promise of $1000 worth of goods from whatever store the gift card is good for.  You can take that gift card and use it online or use it in a brick and mortar store and get the goods.  But what if you’re careless and lose the card before using it?  Did you receive what was promised on that gift card?  Of course not.  You treated it carelessly and you received nothing.  You lost out.    

Baptism and the promises signed and sealed in it are like that.  With the promises of God in baptism, you’re told you are very blessed in Jesus Christ.  What each of us has to do with that is respond in faith.  We have to appropriate or embrace those promises for our own.  The condition to receive what is promised is faith.  You’re called to believe what God says about himself and you in your baptism.

If you don’t, you won’t receive what is promised.  This is where the illustration of the gift card fails, actually.  If you don’t use the gift card, you just get nothing.  You’re no richer or poorer for not having gone to the store with it.  But in the covenant of grace, those who spurn God’s promises will face horrible consequences for their actions.  You’re then what’s called a covenant breaker.  The Bible is clear that God has far more wrath and displeasure stored up for covenant people who slap him in the face than for just regular vanilla unbelievers.  If you doubt that, I’d invite you to give a careful reading to Hebrews 10.  It’s all there in black and white. 

Loved ones, what the Word of God is saying is this:  there’s nothing automatic in the covenant of grace.  Yes, receiving God’s promises is beautiful.  Those promises are rich and they’re not only for us, but also for our children each and every one.  But no one should ever think that what is promised in the covenant of grace comes to us apart from faith.  If we’re not personally believing what God says in his Word, we won’t receive what is promised.  If we’re not personally resting and trusting in Christ alone for our salvation, turning from our sin and turning to him, we won’t receive what is promised.  Salvation is by grace alone, but it’s also received by faith alone. 

There are two things that follow from that.  The first is the personal responsibility of each of us to hear the call to faith this afternoon and heed it.  It doesn’t matter how old you are.  You could be 8 years old or 88 years old.  Hear the beautiful promises of God with regard to your salvation and say, “Yes, God, I believe you.  I believe that what you promised at my baptism is true for me.  I believe that you are my God through Christ.”  That’s the response of faith to God’s promises. 

The second thing has to do with our children.  At the beginning of the sermon I mentioned the vows of parents at baptism.  Yes, we do have to instruct our children in the promises of the gospel.  There’s a calling there for all the parents among us.  Only a cruel father and mother would keep quiet about the promises of God and never speak to their children about them.  But then there’s something else too.  That has to do with prayer.  Since the promises are to be embraced through faith, and since faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, we need to pray for the work of the Spirit in each of our children.  We need to pray that he would be present and that he would regenerate them and give them hearts of faith so they trust the covenant promises, that they would look in faith to Christ alone for their salvation.

It’s true that there’s nothing automatic in the covenant of grace.  You won’t be saved just because your parents were believers or because you were baptized.  Now when we say that, we do have to add a couple of qualifiers.  There are exceptional situations.  We think of the children of believers who die in infancy or perhaps before they’re born.  As we confess in the Canons of Dort, we need not doubt their salvation.  We can trust in God’s grace.  These are situations where these children never took up a place of responsibility within the covenant of grace – an exceptional situation.  We need not doubt.  The same has to be said for those with disabilities.  Some simply cannot take up a place of responsibility where they can respond to God’s promises with faith.  With them too, believing parents ought not be concerned or doubt in any way.  God will be gracious and merciful.  You can trust him.  He only holds people accountable for what they know and for they do with what they know. 

Loved ones, baptism speaks beautiful things to us.  It’s been described as a visible preaching of the gospel since the time of the church fathers.  It speaks to us of God’s grace and his initiative in the covenant of grace.  Each time we see a covenant child baptized we’re reminded again that our gracious God has inclined his heart toward us in love.  As his covenant people then, we’re also called to believe him and embrace everything promised in faith.  AMEN. 


O God in heaven,

Thank you for your precious promises signed and sealed in baptism.  We’re glad that we have your name upon us, that you promise us washing with Christ’s blood and Spirit.  Please help each of us to embrace what is promised in faith.  Lord, we also pray for all our children, that you would give them faith through the working of your Spirit in them.  We pray that none of them would miss out on what is promised to them in the covenant of grace.  We pray that because we love them, but more importantly because we love you and we want to see you praised through them.

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

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