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A passion for conversion and baptism

A sermon by Rod Benson

What makes us who we are as Christians known as Baptists? Last week I suggested that one of our distinctive characteristics or qualities is a passion for reading the Bible for ourselves, expecting God to supply fresh light and spiritual nourishment to us through his written word.

Today I want to focus on another key quality that Baptists have always championed, that defines our movement, and that powerfully expresses who we are: our insistence, based on our reading of Scripture and experience, that everyone needs to be “converted” from spiritual darkness to light, and from spiritual death to new life through Jesus Christ, and our conviction that everyone so converted should be “baptised” by immersion in water, as a faithful believer in Jesus Christ.

You might be surprised to learn that not every so-called Christian church sees the need for church members to be Christians. You will not be surprised to learn that not every Christian church teaches that baptism of believers (whether adults, teens or children) is warranted by Scripture.

And then there is the vexed question of how much water is appropriate – should we sprinkle a few drops (as is the practice when “Christening” babies); or should we pour a jug of water over the head of the believing candidate (as some of the early Baptists did); or are we expected to fully immerse the candidate in water (as is our usual practice today in Baptist churches)?

First, a few words about conversion. The essence and heart of Christian experience, as I understand the teaching of Scripture, is to discover and enjoy a living relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, so that we share in the redemption he provides and all its blessings. Theologians call this “union with Christ.”

It is utterly impossible to unite ourselves with Christ using our own means and cunning plans. We need to be converted, to be regenerated by the Holy Spirit, to repent of our sins and put our whole faith (personal trust) in Jesus Christ, the only one who can forgive sins, the only one who can commend us to God on the basis of his death and resurrection (Rom 4:25; Jn 1:12; 3:16-17; 5:24; Ac 16:30f; Rom 10:9).

You cannot inherit Christianity. Your parents or guardians cannot make you a Christian through any act or investment they may make. Genuine Christian faith is about union with Christ. It is about personal identity with the risen Christ who died to save you.  Christian faith is about a growing relationship with Jesus, a growing awareness of who he is, a deepening understanding of what he has done, and a dawning acceptance of his sovereign claims on your life.

In one sense, Christian faith is about placing ourselves, or being placed by God, in the story of the New Testament, the story of the first Christians, and identifying with Jesus Christ, and learning from him, and growing to full stature and understanding and purpose in Christ. Christian philosopher Dallas Willard puts it like this:

The story of the New Testament is the story of people’s increasing understanding of who Jesus was. Those among whom he was reared said, “This is Mary and Joseph’s boy. We know him.” His own disciples thought he might be Elijah or one of the old prophets risen from the dead. In a flash of divine revelation Peter announced, as Jesus quizzed the disciples on his identity, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16).

Only in the later parts of the New Testament does there emerge the concept of Jesus as a cosmic Messiah: a ruler spanning all geographic and ethnic differences, providing the glue of the universe (Col 1:17) and upholding all things by the word of his power (Heb 1:3) … Thus he is, as described in the book of Revelation, the Alpha and Omega, the Faithful and True, the Word of God, who leads the armies of heaven, the King of kings and Lord of lords (Rev 1:8; 19:11, 13, 16).[1]

That is who we are united with when we are united with Christ. That is who we are united with when we trust in Jesus, when we “get saved,” or “make a decision for Christ,” or “become a Christian.” That is who we are united with when we are baptised into his death.

It’s a miracle, comparable to the miracle of ordinary human conception, but also comparable to the creation of the universe, and with both personal and cosmic consequences. No less.

It can happen to you. It may already have happened to you. It happened to me. It happened to many of those here today. It happened to an Ethiopian eunuch driving his chariot home from Jerusalem one day, soon after Jesus rose from the dead and returned to heaven. Read Acts 8:26-40.

The man had some understanding of God, and some motivation to honour God and worship God according to Jewish custom. His interest in the word of God had been kindled, and he was reading Isaiah chapter 53 about the death of Jesus for us, but without understanding the identity or mission of the Suffering Servant.

An angel guides Philip the evangelist to catch up to the chariot, and the man asks for spiritual guidance, and Philip has the awesome privilege of telling him “the good news about Jesus” from Isaiah 53.

And the eunuch’s mind is opened to the truth of God as it is in Jesus, and he sees his spiritual need, and God’s provision, and right then and there he is converted. He is saved by grace through faith. He becomes a Christian. He becomes a living part of the new creation that Jesus has begun to bring into being as a result of the completed work of redemption achieved through his death and resurrection.

And then a strange thing happens.

His conversion is not enough. His new understanding is insufficient. He feels a need for more. He wants to do something – or, more properly, he wants to have something done to him – to confirm this new identity, to signify what God has just accomplished in his life, to declare his union with Christ.

He asks Philip to baptise him. And the chariot stops beside some water, perhaps a river or lake, and as Luke tells the story:

both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.[2]

The early church practiced baptism of believers by immersion in water. Part of the process of becoming a Christian is being baptised. The Ethiopian eunuch was led to Christ by Philip and subsequently baptised by immersion. The Apostle Paul was converted through a miraculous vision on the road to Damascus, and subsequently baptised by Ananias (Ac 9:1-19). The business woman named Lydia (Ac 16:11-15), and the Philippian jailor (Ac 16:25-34) both came to saving faith in Jesus Christ and were baptised by Paul.

It was normal for Christian converts to be baptised by immersion. Indeed, it would appear from the New Testament record that, in those days, there was no such thing as an unbaptised Christian.

Baptism signifies my union with Christ. It is more than a dramatic statement of belief. It is an act of revolution, whereby I commit myself to die to my sinful nature and rise with Christ to “live a new life” (Rom 6:4).

There is no magic in the act of baptism, but it is a sign of spiritual cleansing (Ac 22:16; Tit 3:5; Eph 5:25-26; Heb 10:22; 1 Pet 3:21).

It is a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit in your life as a direct result of your conversion, your regeneration (Ac 1:8; 2:38; Rom 14:17).

It is a confession of your faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 10:9; 1 Tim 6:12). Indeed, every act of baptism by immersion is a powerful symbol of what salvation is all about, and a glorious opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ so that others may believe and be baptised.

Baptism is also a rite of initiation, the normal way of entry into the membership of the local church (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:26-27). British Baptist Paul Beasley-Murray puts it like this:

Baptism is God’s way for you to join the church. This is one reason why, in most Baptist churches, baptism and church membership are closely linked. Through baptism we become a member of Christ’s church. We give concrete expression to this fact by becoming a member of our local Baptist church. Baptism is not for spiritual gypsies.[3]

If you are a Christian, you should ask to be baptised as soon as you have believed. In my case, I waited five years after my conversion, and I wish now that I had not. Some people wait decades. I had the privilege of baptising a husband and wife aged in their seventies in 1998 when I was pastor of Blakehurst Baptist Church.

Some Christians never get around to being baptised. Don’t be one of them. If God has saved you, and you have not experienced baptism by immersion since your conversion, make arrangements to do so without delay. Don’t wait until you are more mature, or older. Don’t do it because it’s what you have to do to be a Baptist. Don’t put it off because it feels like nothing more than ticking a box so you can vote at church business meetings.

Do it because you belong to Jesus and you want to obey him (Mt 28:19; 1 Jn 2:3), because you want to identify with biblical Christianity, because you want to demonstrate your union with Christ and his indwelling of you through his Spirit.

Do it because your baptism may be the means through which someone else sees the gospel performed before them, and is converted, and is also united with Christ.

If you are an unbaptised Christian, it is my prayer today that God will give you the clarity of mind, and the conviction of spirit, and the strength of will to ask to be baptised by immersion as a follower of Jesus, who himself was baptised by immersion in the waters of the river Jordan by one of his followers (Mk 1:9).


Sermon 666 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 10 April 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).


References

[1] Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), pp. 167-168.

[2] Acts 8:38-39.

[3] Paul Beasley-Murray, “Believers’ baptism,” in Derek Tidball & Gerald Ball (eds), Baptist Basics (Sydney: Baptist Foundation of NSW, 1996), p. 9.

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Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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