Improving Your Baptism
Eating disorders can fall towards two extremes. Some abuse God’s good gifts by eating too much food or bad food; others starve themselves, perhaps attempting to lose weight or control their body in some other way. Similarly, baptism is often either abused or neglected. For example, some treat it as a savior rather than a means of drawing us to the Savior. While baptism is a great means of representing, sealing, and applying Christ to believers, it makes a poor Christ. Water without the Word is water only. Water with the Word is a sign. Only water with the Word and the Spirit’s blessing through faith seals saving grace to people.
For many Christians, baptism has little day-to-day relevance in the Christian life. This is why the Westminster Larger Catechism referred to “improving” (or applying) our baptism as a “needed, but much neglected duty” (WLC 167). In the conclusion (praxis) to his treatment of baptism, Peter van Mastricht presents eleven ways that believers can learn to apply what baptism signifies throughout their lives. These eleven instructions remind us that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the time of its administration, but that it pervades our entire lives (WCF 28.6). We should follow Mastricht’s instructions especially when we witness baptisms, though the NT reminds us that its benefits should not stop there.
Mastricht’s first four exhortations reflect our relationship with God generally.
- Baptism should lead us to acknowledge the corruption of our nature and our personal sin. God’s people should receive circumcision (in the OT) and baptism (in the NT) as the washing of regeneration and renovation of the Spirit, without which no one can see the kingdom of God. This means that we should receive the thing signified—not the sign only—as we lay hold of the Christ who is set forth in baptism.
- We should give thanks to God for regenerative washing in the blood of Christ and by the purifying Holy Spirit. These are the things that God seals to us in baptism . In other words, baptism should make us thankful as well as humble in light of the work of the Son and the Spirit.
- We should put off more and more the body of sinful flesh, because in baptism we have died to sin. Baptism requires death to sin because we are united to Christ in his death.
- We should walk in newness of life in the renovation of the Spirit. Baptism presses new life in Christ, reminding us that putting off sinful practices is never enough. We must replace ungodly qualities with godly ones. Conviction of sin, hope in the saving work of the divine persons, putting off sin, and putting on righteousness fits well how Paul taught us to use our baptism in Romans 6.
Mastricht’s remaining seven exhortations show, in some measure, what following the first four look like in practice:
- We should cultivate communion with the church into which we have been planted by baptism. Just as baptism solemnly admits people into membership in the visible church, so also baptism promotes the communion of the saints in the church. This is why private baptisms should ordinarily be unthinkable. Taking baptism out of the worshiping congregation robs the church as a whole of its continued benefits.
- We should pursue actual spiritual union with Christ above all other things. After all, it is Christ whom we have put on in baptism (cf. Gal. 3:27).
- Baptism leads us to persevere in sound doctrine, into which we have been baptized (cf. Acts 2:41-42).
- Baptism teaches us to hold fast the promises of the covenant, which are held forth in baptism. By these promises, we renounce Satan, the sin of the world, and our own sins, committing ourselves wholly to God, who will faithfully keep his covenant promises.
- We ought to be assured of the remission of our sins, since this benefit is held forth and sealed to us in baptism. In this way, baptism not only promotes repentance and obedience, but faith in the promises of God and in the God of the promises.
- We should use baptism to help us long for the Holy Supper so that we might be nourished and confirmed in the grace of the covenant. This is an excellent way of showing how the two sacraments should work together in the Christian life. Sacraments are covenant signs that seal covenant promises.
- Baptism directs us to keep faithfully whatsoever Christ commands us. This point virtually echoes the Great Commission and it serves as an excellent summary of the whole.
One of the greatest benefits of applying (i.e. improving) our baptism throughout our lives relates to our understanding of God: God designed baptism to help us keep the Gospel and the persons of the Trinity central throughout out lives.
Perhaps Mastricht should have said more about the relationship between baptism and the church. The Apostle Paul certainly did. He could have added other things as well, such as the benefits of our adoption by the Father. Yet his exhortations on how to use baptism, without abusing it, provide us with something that we need. Baptism is not as important as preaching (Paul says as much in 1 Cor. 1:17). However, subordinating the sacrament to the Word does not mean that the sacrament is not important alongside the Word. Without the Word and the Spirit of God, the sacraments mean nothing and do nothing; with the Word and the Spirit of God, the sacraments become powerful instruments in God’s hands to teach us to live thankful and godly lives before him and with his people.
Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.
Why Should Pastors Read Peter van Mastricht? by Ryan McGraw
When We Are Tempted to Sin, Look to Our Baptism by Leon Brown