In dealing with the numerous struggles in the Christian life and growth toward maturity and sanctification, I am constantly drawn to the same question that was raised by the apostle Paul in Romans,
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:3)
Paul’s question in this passage appeals to the fundamental meaning of baptism in the Christian life. At an essential level, baptism points to Jesus Christ and to our union with Him by faith. In Devoted to God, Sinclair Ferguson teaches that baptism functions as a type of “naming ceremony that does not so much speak about faith but to faith”
“You are being named for the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father has sent His Spirit to unite us to Jesus Christ. In Him, we are given the rich inheritance of all the gracious resources, we will ever need to be brought from sin to salvation, from death to life, and from earth to heaven.”
In this way, we are called to focus and look at what baptism means. Baptism is a visible sign of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection. It is a picture of our “ingrafting into Christ, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God, through Jesus Christ, to walk in the newness of life” (2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith, 29.1). As our faith clings to this truth of the gospel, we are called to remember what it tells us about who we are in Christ. The Westminster Catechism further asks us to “improve” upon our baptism.
#167 – How is our baptism to be improved by us?
Answer: The needful but much neglected duty of improving our baptism, is to be performed by us all our life long, especially in the time of temptation, and when we are present at the administration of it to others; by serious and thankful consideration of the nature of it, and of the ends for which Christ instituted it, the privileges and benefits conferred and sealed thereby, and our solemn vow made therein; by being humbled for our sinful defilement, our falling short of, and walking contrary to, the grace of baptism, and our engagements; by growing up to assurance of pardon of sin, and of all other blessings sealed to us in that sacrament; by drawing strength from the death and resurrection of Christ, into whom we are baptized, for the mortifying of sin, and quickening of grace; and by endeavoring to live by faith, to have our conversation in holiness and righteousness, as those that have therein given up their names to Christ; and to walk in brotherly love, as being baptized by the same Spirit into one body.
Johannes Vos’s commentary states:
“By improving our baptism, the catechism means using it to good purpose in our daily life, thus it means experiencing its meaning and working out its implications, in actual life. Baptism is a) sacrament, b) doctrine, c) an obligation to progressive Christian experience and service. We are to receive the sacrament by being baptized, to believe and understand the doctrine, that is, the nature and meaning of baptism and to live out the implications as growing Christians” (The Westminster Larger Catechism, A Commentary)
In my early Christian days, I understood the truth of Christian baptism intellectually. In reflecting on my Christian life, I realized that it has taken many more years to grasp this truth emotionally and instinctively because baptism directly challenges all earthly conceptions of identity. This was not because I struggled with concepts of identity when I was a teenager. To the contrary, I had a very firm and well-established identity in my mind as a young man. Before I was a Christian, when I described myself to others, I would identify myself with my ethnicity (Black), my nationality (American), my vocation (aspiring scientist), my political views (paleolibertarian), and my religious views (agnostic/atheist). When I was converted, those primary identification markers remained, except that I exchanged agnosticism for Christian. I was taught by my pastors that Christ must have preeminence over all, but honestly, in my early Christian life, my self-image could be pictured as a Venn diagram of various identification markers (with the Christian identity as one of them).
Over time, I’ve realized that reflecting on the meaning of baptism has a profound impact on matters of identity. Baptism does not point to a new identity which exists alongside other earthly identities; rather baptism points to the Scriptural truth that says “you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). In other words, Christian baptism doesn’t create a new identity crisis; Christian baptism serves as a reminder that the old life in Adam is gone and the new life in Christ has begun.
For many, the old man/new man dynamic is usually interpreted solely in the context of sin within individual Christians. However, the old man/new man dynamic has a wider context. The death of the old man occurs within the context of being severed from our union with Adam (Romans 5:12-21) and of being delivered from this present evil age (Galatians 1:4). Likewise, our new life in Christ occurs within the context of being united to Christ (Romans 6:1-3) and of being delivered to the Kingdom of Christ (Colossians 1:13). Thus, when one is in Christ, he is a “new creation” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Our Christian baptism signifies that the new age (with its new powers and its new ways) has broken into this evil age to deliver us from the present evil age. This implies that the old lenses in which we view each other and view this world has ended.
How does this apply to identity? For many Americans, if we were honest with ourselves, we have been trained to view ourselves, not in light of what our baptism signifies but in light of all of these other identities. We currently live in a highly racialized, genderized, and politicized society, and much of the identity politics common in America has entered into local churches and denominations. This has led to unnecessary discord and division among Christians.
However, Christian baptism points to the reality that we are united to Christ and that we are united to each other. Baptism signifies that we have all been clothed in Christ. Our union in Christ and with each other is not an statement of aspiration, but is a very real fact because of what Christ has done for us and for our salvation. Within the scope of our union with Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free (i.e. class distinctions), neither male nor female (i.e. gender/sex distinctions), and neither Scythian nor barbarian (i.e. ethnic/national distinctions) [Colossians 3:11, Galatians 3:28]. The lenses which our society has trained us to view each other and this world are not valid for those in union with Christ.
Because of the gospel, the Church is the place where those who were formally enemies (whether for social, historical, or political reasons) now genuinely love one another. This point cannot be emphasized enough because human history is truly a history of conflict. We see this in the biblical narrative starting from Genesis 4 and these various conflicts remain in the background through Old Testament history. In light of human history, the true question is NOT why nations and societies have conflicts; rather, the true question is how do nations and societies have peace with each other? In the gospel, not only has Christ removed the long-standing hostility between Jew and Gentile; Christ has broken down the hostility between people groups and has formed one new people – the Church (Ephesians 2:11-22). This is why it is remarkable that the Church will be known for its love for one another, regardless of their history (John 13:35).
Baptism points to all of these marvelous realities that form our new identity in Christ and unite us together. However, our current condition is that we live in the midst of two ages (“the present evil age” and “the age to come”) and the powers of these two ages remain competitors for Christians who have regenerated hearts. This is why we must constantly remember the meaning of our baptism. It is known that when Martin Luther was fighting temptation, he would remind himself
“I am baptized”.
I believe that same exhortation is needed today. When we are tempted to question our identity in Christ or to judge our brothers and sisters in Christ based on non-Christian criterion, we must constantly remind ourselves that we have been baptized into Christ and that our baptism symbolizes this reality. When we are tempted to be absorbed into conversations of race/ethnicity and to view ourselves and others through the lens of ethnic identity and culture, we must still constantly remind ourselves our baptism points to a fundamentally new identity. We must remember that our baptism heralds the truth that we have been baptized into His most holy name and that we have been “renamed” in Christ.
As we remember our baptism more and more, we will develop a visceral and gut reaction to anything that seeks to undermine the truth of our baptism. When we remember our baptism, we are also spurred on to live by faith, to have our human relationships defined by holiness and righteousness, as is proper for those who have given up their names to Christ, and to walk with each other in brotherly love, as is proper for those baptized by the same Spirit into one body (1 Cor 12:13)
“Do we ever really fulfill our duty in improving our baptism?”, Vos questions.
“No, for even the most faithful Christians break the law of God daily in thought, word and deed. Therefore in thinking of our baptism and what it should mean in our life, we are always humbled because of our past unfaithfulness and failures in living up to our solemn vows. Some people who are not very earnest about seeking holiness yet have a very complacent feeling about their own baptism, sometimes even counting on baptism to get them to heaven when they die. Such a wrong attitude. The more fully we appreciate the real meaning of our baptism, the farther will spiritual complacency be from our hearts, instead, we will have a real humility because of our personal failure to attain what was our duty to attain.”