Recently I shared with a friend of mine who serves as a Presbyterian minister that I was preaching a series of messages on Baptist Distinctives. He laughed, and jokingly said well that should be a pretty short series since the only real distinctive happens to be that you immerse instead of sprinkle. We both had a good laugh but to tell you the truth, most who think about what makes us Baptist probably identify this issue as the key practice that makes us distinct.
Don’t misunderstand me, this impression comes in large part because Baptists do understand this ordinance as central to their identity. Even so, the significance of baptism does not come primarily from the practice of immersion over against other methods. Baptists understand believer’s baptism by immersion to most faithfully practice what the Bible to teaches in several convictional areas. First, baptism personally celebrates the believer’s regeneration in Christ. Second, baptism publicly celebrates the believer’s voluntary submission to Christ’s Body, as well as that church’s voluntary reception of the believer into fellowship. This week let’s look at the first area as we examine Colossians 2:6-15.
Like the conversation with my Presbyterian friend displays, Christians can come to agree upon certain practices without ever considering why they practice things as they do. This seems to be at least a part of the reason Paul pens Colossians. The church there met, worshipped, and even had some impact upon the communities around them. Even so, the Colossian church practiced church faithfully, but evidently did not understand exactly why the practiced what they practiced. This type of situation can quickly lead to a legalistic adherence to practices instead of obedience to Jesus. Paul’s letter in large part attempts to correct this by grounding Colossian practice in convictional trust in Jesus and his gospel.
Paul begins the letter by commending their faithfulness, but encouraging their strengthening by increasing of knowledge of God. Then he discussing with them the great truths about Christ’s existence as both God and man and the gospel purpose of his ministry and suffering. By the time he comes to chapter two, Paul begins to discuss how these truths about Jesus and his Lordship apply to the Colossian believers as a church and in their everyday lives. Baptists cannot ignore these important applications which help us to understand the practice of baptism as a personal celebration of God’s regenerating work inside of each believer.
- Verses 2:6-7 points to the distinction between baptism and regeneration. Paul begins by discussing the source of a lifestyle centered and grounded in Christ alone, not the single activity of baptism. Just as a flower grows from a planted seed, so too does baptism and obedience to Christ grow out of the regenerate seed God plants in the life of a believer. What is the regenerate seed? God plants into the soul of the believer the conviction that Christ is Lord. Since the believer has been connected to Christ by the conviction that he is Lord, with each act of obedience, of which baptism is one, the believer celebrates with thanksgiving God’s regenerating work as he lives out these new convictions.
- Verse 2:8 further indicates caution by measuring one’s regeneration against any reasoning, lies, or practice of the world. When it comes to man-made convictions or practices they promise that which only Christ can give. While Paul addresses this to combat the influence of pagan Gentiles with their idolatrous worship as well as to combat the legalistic influence of the Jews most certainly this advice does not fall upon deaf ears. When it comes to baptism, some believe they must be baptized in order to be saved. Others would say that baptism does not matter at all, and even would resist being baptized because it is unnecessary. Further different church traditions encourage the baptism of infants or young children rather than delaying baptism for various reasons. Paul reminds believers not to listen to man’s philosophies or a church’s traditions when it comes to obedience, but to measure them all according to the revealed Word of Christ. When we are faithful to Christ’s Word we celebrate God’s regenerating work.
Verses 2:9-10 makes clear that regeneration must precede any obedience to Christ. Why? Just as the fullness of God’s power filled the earthly body of Jesus, so too does the fullness of God’s power enter into those whom God has connected to Christ as Lord. Only those connected and filled with Christ can respond to his rule and authority as Lord by surrendering to his will. This fundamental attitude change from seditious rebel to a surrendered servant sees no better display than when the believer submits to baptism by immersion. Visibly the believer puts his life in the hands of the one who baptizes him, but inwardly the believer puts control of his life into the revealed rule and authority of Christ according to his Word. Without the inward regeneration baptism is nothing more than initiation rite into a human institution.
- Verses 2:11-12 now direct the believer to the ways regeneration integrates with baptism. Verse eleven speaks of the circumcision not done by hands that puts off the body of the flesh. Christ works in regeneration to remove from mankind the mark of sin which left him separated from God. While circumcision in the OT also outwardly signified God’s covenant people, in the New Testament, God’s regenerating work occurs only upon the inner man. Therefore it cannot be an outward sign of the covenant people. In the New Testament baptism signifies those who take part in the New Covenant of Christ. So, when God regenerates the inward man with the conviction that Christ is Lord, baptism occurs to celebrate God’s handiwork inside the believer. Baptism by immersion visibly celebrates the believer’s death to sin as pastor immerses the person. Similarly, the believer celebrates surrender to Christ as Lord as the pastor raises him up to new life in Christ. For the regenerated believer, baptism marks the definitive beginning of his outward celebration of Christ’s Lordship.
- Verses 2:13-15 further indicates how a baptized believer integrates his baptism into regenerate living. Once a believer has been baptized, that public celebration serves as a constant reminder of the replacement of sinful living with new life in Christ. When we remember baptism, it should cause us to celebrate Christ for forgiving the high price of our sin upon the cross. As if each of us had an itemized bill which showed the debt for each particular sin, upon our regeneration and baptism, the believer turns himself over to Christ as the claims judge. Instead of punishing us, he publicly assumes the debt for each of our sins, and personally protects us from any claimants against the debt. Every day we live in the newness of life we live celebrating that began at our surrender to Christ in baptism.