Sermon for Sunday, August 15th, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)
Baptism of Birch Renze Douma
Old Testament reading:
[Exo 4:24-26 ESV] 24 At a lodging place on the way the LORD met him and sought to put him to death. 25 Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26 So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.
New Testament reading:
[Act 9:10-19 ESV] 10 Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. 14 And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. 16 For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; 19 and taking food, he was strengthened. For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus.
[Mat 28:16-20 ESV] 16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Who baptized you? What was the person’s name?
In which church were you baptized?
And in what manner were you baptized?
The name of the man who baptized me was Rev. Lignell at the Faith Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids Michigan, where water was placed upon my head.
But the NAME in which I was baptized is infinitely more important. For I was not saved by Rev. Lignell but by Jesus Christ in the plan of God and later given faith through the work of the Holy Spirit.
So we want to look at this key for Today sermon: A valid baptism is done in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit with water by a minister lawfully ordained. [REPEAT: A valid baptism is done in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit with water by a minister lawfully ordained]
Before we look at these elements of what makes for a valid Baptism, let’s look at three things that are not required. We’ll look at these points in turn.
1. The validity of Baptism does not depend upon the mode. [REPEAT]
2. The validity of Baptism does not depend on the holiness of the minister. [REPEAT]
3. The validity of Baptism does not depend on the faithfulness of the church in which the baptism occurred. [REPEAT]
I. The validity of Baptism does not depend on the mode.
All protestant Christians agree that water is essential for baptism. For a baptism to be valid, water must be used. It would be inappropriate, even sacrilegious, to be baptized in something else, like sand or Diet Coke. Water is necessary, and in all New Testament accounts of baptism, water is present.
Just how the water is used has been a debate for centuries between Presbyterians and Methodists and Lutherans (on the one side) and Baptists and others (on the other side). The former put the water on the person, the latter put the person in the water!
When I preached in the South—in North Carolina—I was in the land of Baptists. In the town of Barnardsville there was 27 baptists churches, and 1 Presbyterian. And so it was routinely necessary to explain the Presbyterian view of Baptism for those who had never heard of it.
The idea of sprinkling or pouring water upon a person in baptism comes from a number of Biblical references. If it was just something that developed in history, we’d have no warrant to practice it. But we find the idea in a number of places in the Bible.
We find in the Old Testament, In Ezekiel, the promise of God that, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” [Ezekiel 36:25]
Then we find places in the New Testament, like in our reading today of the conversion of Paul, where the full immersion of the person under water is unlikely if impossible. Paul, it appears, was baptized in a house. And few, if any, houses are big enough to have a pond or a river or deep bathtub within them. Then also the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts chapter 8 was baptized in the desert. Again, it is unlikely that he was immersed in water.
But developing the idea of sprinkling or pouring positively, we find that when we connect the narrative in Acts there is considerable support for the position. First, in Acts 1:5 Jesus promises the disciples saying “you will be BAPTIZED with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” What then happens? How are they “baptized with the Holy Spirit”? At Pentecost the disciples are not dipped into a sea of Holy Spirit, but rather the Holy Spirit is said to have rested on them as of tongues of fire. And then the prophecy of Joel is said to have been fulfilled in that “in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.” All of this is the baptism Jesus promised.
And there are two other New Testament verses most worth noting
[Heb 10:22 ESV] 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
[1Pe 1:2 ESV] 2 according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood: May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
So, for these and other reasons, our Westminster Confession (of 1646) says:
“Dipping of the person into water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person.”
If these arguments are not convincing to you, it is wise to at least recognize that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians look to the Scriptures for their position. It would be uncharitable to say that somehow the church made up these ideas apart from Scripture.
So it is that most of the Western Church throughout the history of Christendom has not practiced immersion by rather sprinkling or pouring.
But, it is important to note, this does not mean that we do not accept immersion baptisms as valid.
While the confessions says that “baptism is rightly administered by pouring or sprinkling” this does not mean that an immersion baptism is invalid.
You might think of it this way: If you hire a painter to paint your house and you instruct him to paint in vertical strokes, but he paints in horizontal strokes, while you might say he has not done things “rightly,” yet all would agree, the house has been painted! The job is complete.
So it is with baptism.
We believe that the validity of Baptism does not depend on the mode.
We should here consider our Old Testament reading from the book of Exodus. There, when Moses failed to circumcise his son, his wife Zipporah stepped up and performed the operation herself. That the operation was done by a woman was entirely abnormal, yet it was still a circumcision and was accepted by God as such.
Ultimately, it is a comforting thing that none of us need worry about how our baptism was performed and whether our baptism was performed correctly. [REPEAT: You need not worry about how your baptism was performed] If you have been immersed you have been baptized. If water was poured upon your head you have been baptized. And if water was sprinkled upon your head you have been baptized. All to the glory of God.
II. The validity of Baptism does not depend on the holiness of the minister.
Then, we must understand the role of the minister in baptism in a similar way as we say “the validity of Baptism does not depend on the holiness of the minister.”
In baptism, water is necessary. And in baptism a lawfully-ordained minster to perform the baptism is necessary.
But just as the mode of baptism is not crucial, so the holiness of the minister is not crucial.
No doubt, we wish for the minister who performs a baptism to be a true believer in Jesus Christ. But if you have been baptized and your minister later departs from the faith, you need not be baptized again. For the promise of Baptism does not depend upon the minster, but upon God who gives the promise.
This has been the teaching of the church universal from the early centuries.
There was in St. Augustine’s time a major event in church history called the Donatist controversy.
The Donatists—largely in North Africa—argued that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. When some priests had abandoned Christianity in the face of government persecution, the Donatists concluded that the baptisms performed by those men were no baptisms at all. Thus they required rebaptism.
But consider the ramifications. Christians would forever be in doubt of the validity of their baptism, thinking that if their minister departs from the faith, their baptism would no longer be valid. You would have to constantly check up on the status of the minister who baptized you.
So St. Augustine, the greatest theologian of the era (and of most eras!), wrote against the Donatists arguing that “the effect of a sacrament is independent of the moral character of the minister.”
This is a good thing, for “all sin and fall short of the glory of God.” No minister is pure. And thus, if the views of the Donatists persisted, no Baptism would be valid, for no minister is perfect.
To the Donatists Augustine said, “Baptism belongs to Christ, regardless of who may give (administer) it.”
But we need not look merely at church history. We can also see the same point in the Scripture. Consider Paul’s statement to the Corinthians.
“it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name.” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13)
We are right to think of this passage as one against division in the church. But realize also that Paul is rebuking the Corinthians for saying “I was baptized by Paul or I was baptized by Apollos.” The person who baptized you is nothing to brag again. Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.
So we conclude:
The validity of Baptism does not depend on the mode.
The validity of Baptism does not depend on the holiness of the minister.
And now, third,
The validity of Baptism does not depend on the faithfulness of the church.
III. The validity of Baptism does not depend on the faithfulness of the church in which the baptism occurred.
Here again, on this subject, distinctions are in order. Clarity is needed.
Baptism is indeed a sacrament of the church. It is to be administered by the church, not independently of the church. If a person had been “baptized” by their cousin Jeb who is not called to the ministry and isn’t even a member of a church, I’d suggest they be properly baptized.
We certainly want the church in which one is baptized to be true to the faith. Yet, this side of eternity, as our confession states, “the purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error.”
So just as there are no perfect ministers, there are no perfect churches. And just as we should not worry about the validity of our baptism should the minister go rogue, so we should not worry about the validity of our baptism if the particular church should cease to exist or if the church decides to teach some grave error.
What then are we to think of the validity of baptisms performed in a church that has so departed from the faith that it is no longer a church at all?
This question often comes up with the validity of Roman Catholic baptisms. Should a person who was baptized in the Roman Catholic church be baptized again upon coming to understand the Gospel of God’s free grace?
We must remember that when the Reformation began Martin Luther was seeking to REFORM the church. He and later Reformers knew that the church was very corrupt with indulgences, prayers to saints rather than only to God, and with the elevation of Popes and councils above the teachings of the Bible. Yet, neither Luther, Calvin, Knox, or any of the other magisterial reformers required rebaptism.
They held to the same point that I am arguing for – the validity of the Baptism is not dependent on the church.
And this position has been held by Reformed churches ever since the Reformation. The Dutch Reformed churches have always accepted as valid the Baptisms of Roman Catholics who convert and join their church.
The situation in Presbyterianism is a bit more complicated. For the first few hundred years we Presbyterians were in full agreement. But in the middle of the 19th century in the Southern U.S., the churches began to say that Rome had fallen so far from the faith that her baptisms can no longer be considered valid. In the North, Princeton theologian Charles Hodge fought against this. And, in my opinion, he had the better argument against the Southern Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell. Not having the time to get into the arguments, let us just point out that the Northern Presbyterians have largely agreed with Hodge.
So, we can sum up, saying “baptism is not dependent upon the mode of the waters used, nor upon the minister, nor upon the church.”
But this doesn’t mean we are loosey-goosey with Baptism.
Let us look at what Baptism IS and what IS required for it to be valid.
We saw already that water is necessary. And we’ve seen that it should be performed by a minister installed in a church for that task. But there is something else that is extremely necessary and will help round out our understanding of this subject.
Baptism must be in the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
IV. Baptism in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Our catechism says that Baptism is a sign and seal of God’s of ingrafting into himself, of the remission of sins by his blood, and regeneration by his Spirit; of adoption, and resurrection unto everlasting life. (LC 165)
This means that we do not, and cannot accept, a “baptism” done in a cult that denies the Trinity. The Mormons, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Oneness Pentecostals, do not believe in the Triune God. Thus they are not baptizing into His name. And so their baptisms are not valid.
In Matthew 28 Jesus told the disciples, “God and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
This is one of the greatest Trinitarian statements in the Scriptures. In fact, so clearly Trinitarian is this verse, that our adversaries argue that this must not be the original text! They say the doctrine of the Trinity developed later in church history and must have been imported into this text. But, of the earliest known copies of this text, there simply are NO variants. There is no indication that Matthew’s Gospel ever said anything else than “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
This verse is Trinitarian not only because each of the three persons of the Godhead are mentioned by name, but also because they are said to of “one name.” We do not baptize in three names. The text does not say “the name of the Father, and the name of the Son, and the name of the Holy Spirit,” but rather they are of one name, united together as the Triune God in three persons.
So when the cults baptized only in the name of Jesus, and do not include God the Father and the Holy Spirit in this name, they deny the Trinity and they deny God. Baptism must be done in the one name of the Triune God.
Not to brag, but I’m friends with the leading theologian in one of the groups of Dutch Reformed churches. A man about 80 years old now named David Engelsma up in Michigan. And I asked him recently about the validity of baptisms, to which he responded so pointedly that I desire to repeat his answer to you. He wrote
“The thinking and practice our church is that we recognize Roman Catholic baptism as valid in that it is administered with water in the name of the triune God by a man installed in church office. I understand this to be the tradition of the Reformed churches. This involves no ignoring or even weakening of our judgment of Rome as a false church.”
There are indeed serious concerns I have with other churches: with the Greek Orthodox, with Liberal Protestants, and with “country club churches” with self-appointed ministers.
Yet, this is where we draw the line. Baptisms are valid not based on mode, or pastor, or church, but upon being done in the name of the Triune God with water by a man installed to that office.
Our confession indeed provides the same understanding:
WCF 27:3 The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it: but upon the work of the Spirit, and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers.
So I’ve said much on the validity of Baptism. But even so, it is not Baptism which saves you, whether valid or not. A minister once said, if it was Baptism itself which saved I’d rent a helicopter and baptized the whole town, spraying them from the sky with a water gun!
It is Jesus Christ alone who saves. And Baptism is his command for the church. We are to go and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy.
So when you think of your baptism rest not on the mode, or the minister, or the church, but rest in God. For it is in his name, our loving God, in which we are baptized.