Saving Water (1 Peter 3:18-22)

Baptism 03

Over the years I have had a number of friends who belonged to churches from different Christian denominations. As we discussed the differences and similarities in our faith, at some stage we would begin to talk about baptism. No matter how much we had in common, one key difference we had was our understandings of baptism.

The difficulty was usually around the question of whether baptism saves a person or not. My friends argued that baptism doesn’t save people because lots of people who have been baptised don’t live in ways that are consistent with believing in Jesus. For my friends, salvation comes through a decision we make for Christ, and then baptism gives a public testimony to that salvation. That could be why the New Living Translation describes baptism as ‘a response to God from a clean conscience’ (v21). The belief behind this translation of the text is that people’s consciences are made clean when they are saved and baptism is their response to that salvation.

However, Peter clearly says that baptism saves us (v21). To illustrate this salvation, he points to Noah and his family who were saved from a world that ‘had become corrupt’ and ‘full of violence’ (Genesis 6:11 NLT) through the flood. Peter argues that this becomes an illustration of how the water of baptism saves us by washing us clean of everything that makes us unacceptable to God and giving us new and clean consciences through, as the English Standard Version puts it, ‘an appeal to God.’

The problem we face is that the Greek word for ‘response’ (NLT), ‘pledge’ (NIV) or ‘appeal’ (ESV) is very difficult to translate, so we naturally prefer the interpretation which fits better with how we understand baptism. When we look at other texts in the New Testament, however, a strong case can be made that God saves people through baptism.

For example, Peter goes on to say that baptism saves because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ (v21). This is consistent with what Paul writes in Romans 6:4, that

we were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (NIV)

For both Paul and Peter, in baptism people are united with Jesus in his death and resurrection through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is why we can have a clear conscience: Jesus made himself one with us, putting all of our sin and brokenness to death by taking it to the cross, and then raised us up with himself to a new life as God’s children.

We find this idea of adoption into God’s family through baptism in Galatians 3:26,27 where Paul writes,

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (NIV)

For Paul, we are given a new relationship with God through baptism as his children when we were washed clean and given the family clothes of Christ. This isn’t something we do for ourselves or a decision that we make. Instead, it is the saving action of God in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit who is at work through the water of baptism and the word of God that is spoken with it.

The danger with identifying baptism as something we do for God is that it removes God from being the one who saves and places ourselves, along with our words, actions or decisions, in God’s place. If we are to trust in the God who saves that we meet in the person of Jesus, then we need to allow him to save us by whatever means he decides, including the water of baptism, just like he saved Noah and his family through the waters of the flood.

This can sound very theological and theoretical, and some may wonder how it makes a difference in our lives. How we understand baptism is important because if our consciences accuse us of things we have done wrong, or if we begin to doubt our salvation because of a guilty conscience, we can remember that Jesus has taken our sin, our wrongs and our brokenness from us. Our baptism is God’s pledge to us that we are forgiven for the sake of Jesus and we can live every day with a guilt-free conscience. This grace isn’t something to be misused or abused, but instead is a gift from God so we can stop worrying about our own salvation and start loving the people around us the way he wants us to.

It is also important to remember that baptism is the start of a new life as God’s children, not a free entry, ‘access all areas’ pass into heaven which we can ignore during our lives and then pull out when we die. If we think about baptism as an adoption, it gives us a new identity into which we grow as we learn more and more about who God has called us to be as Jesus’ disciples. We can also think about baptism in terms of our congregation’s Discipling Plan. God doesn’t want us to connect with him and leave it at that. Instead, he connects with us through baptism in order to grow us as his children, to equip us for the work he is calling us to do, and to send us into the world to work with him in his mission to restore, redeem and renew all of creation.

Ultimately, the question of whether baptism saves or not comes down to whether we see baptism as something we do for God, or something God does for us. I understand the reasons why people have difficulty with the idea of baptism saving us, but it seems to me that the problem is not so much with God’s work in baptism, but our own misuse and abuse of the grace God gives us. Noah and his family didn’t live perfect lives after God saved them through the flood, and one of them was cursed as the result (see Genesis 9:20-25). After the Israelites followed Moses into freedom through the waters of the Red Sea, all but two failed to enter into the Promised Land because of their lack of faith (Number 14:39,40). In a similar way, what we do with the new life God gives us through baptism doesn’t mean his saving work in baptism is invalid. Baptism saves us because it gives us clean consciences and incorporates us into the resurrected life of Jesus.

As people who have been saved through the waters of baptism, then, what are we doing with the new life Jesus has given us?

More to think about:
I know from first-hand experience that discussing baptism can be a very emotive & potentially divisive exercise. My hope in offering these questions for discussion is that we might be able to learn to listen to each other’s perspectives, understand the different points of view we have as sisters and brothers in Christ, and ultimately point to the God who saves lost & broken people in Jesus through the work of the Holy Spirit.

  • Do you tend to understand baptism as something through which God saves people or more something people do as a response to being saved? Or is there another way you think of baptism? Can you explain why you view baptism that way?
  • We can usually think of Noah’s ark saving his family from the flood more than the waters of the flood saving them. Why do you think Peter may have interpreted Noah’s story in this way?
  • Peter has previously written that ‘Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (1 Peter 3:18 NIV). How might Jesus use baptism to bring us to God?
  • Do you think it is possible for a baptised person to lose their salvation? If we think of baptism as adoption into God’s family, is there hope for sisters or brothers who have fallen away from the family? (maybe the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32 can help us)
  • Why is it important for us to be living as God’s adopted children in the world?

Born Again (John 3:1-17)

Holy Spirit Dove 02 cropped

A couple of weeks ago I saw a movie called Fury about an American tank crew towards the end of the Second World War. At the start of the movie, one of their crew members had been killed and he was replaced by a recruit called Norman who was trained to be a clerk typist. As he was being introduced to the rest of the tank crew, one member, nicknamed ‘Bible’, asked him if he was born again. Norman looked a bit puzzled before answering that he grew up a Roman Catholic. So ‘Bible’ asked him again if he was born again.

It got me thinking – if someone asked me if I was ‘born again’, what would I say? If someone asked you if you were ‘born again’, what would you say?

The reason I ask is because the term ‘born again’ can be understood in a few different ways. For some, being ‘born again’ means having a particular conversion experience, displaying certain gifts of the Holy Spirit, or belonging to a specific branch of the Christian family. However, when we hear Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in this reading from John’s gospel, it sounds like his understanding of being ‘born again’ is broader than how we might understand it.

When each of our three children were born, it really hit me that life is a gift. None of us chose to be born, or worked for it, or made a commitment to be born. We talk about ‘giving birth’ because life is a gift that was given to us when we were born. In the same way, Jesus is saying here that the new life we have as God’s children is given to us by our heavenly Father. It comes from him as he begins a new relationship with us as his children.

This new birth is given to us through water and the Spirit of God (v5). We understand Jesus’ reference to water and the Spirit as pointing to baptism. This is where we believe God gives new life to us. We don’t make a distinction between water baptism and baptism of the Holy Spirit, but believe that in the gift of baptism, we are ‘born again’ as God’s children through water used with God’s Spirit in his word. That is why, in Galatians 3:26,27 Paul writes,

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. (NLT)

Paul identifies here that in baptism we are made children of God and are ‘clothed’ in Christ’s righteousness and goodness. As baptised people, we have been born into a new relationship with our heavenly Father, given new identities as his people, and given a new life to live as God’s children.

Another thing that really struck me as I held each of our three children just after they were born was that they have a whole life to grow into. Birth is the start of something new, a journey that will take a lifetime and, by the grace of God, will continue after they leave this world and go on to the next. The new life we have as God’s ‘born again’ children is the same. Baptism is not just about a once-off event. Baptism is the start of something new that we grow into every day of our lives.

There are a lot of different ideas about what this life looks like, and what it means to live by the Spirit of God. Paul again gives us a good idea of what living by God’s Spirit looks like when he writes this in Galatians 5:22-25:

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! Those who belong to Christ Jesus have nailed the passions and desires of their sinful nature to his cross and crucified them there. Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives. (NLT)

According to Paul, then, to live according to the Spirit of God as people who have been born again by water the Spirit, is to be growing in and displaying the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. It means producing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in our lives and in our relationships with each other. To live the new lives God has given us as his born again children is to be growing in these qualities every day, moment by moment.

This is the journey of disciples of Jesus who have been given this new life through water and God’s Spirit. As we continue to explore Discipleship, then, we can be thinking that

Discipleship is …
… following Jesus into the new life God gives us as his born-again children by the power of the Holy Spirit.

By following Jesus, we can learn how to live as God’s children who live by the Spirit and bring God’s goodness into the world.

If we think about being ‘born again’ as people who are given a new life to live as children of God, then being ‘born again’ is much broader than how some Christians understand it. Being ‘born again’ is about our identity as God’s children and growing into his gift of new life to us through Jesus by the power of his Spirit. The life of a disciple, then, begins at our baptism where this new life is given, as Matthew says (28:19), and is a lifelong journey of growing into the life the Spirit gives us.

More to think about & discuss:

  • If someone asked you if you are ‘born again’ how would you answer that person?
  • What would your answer say about how you understand what it means to be ‘born again’?
  • List a few words that describe the life of Jesus. If we think of birth as the start of a new life, what does it mean to you that his life is now your life? (see Galatians 2:20)
  • When we look at Jesus, we get a picture of what it means to live as God’s child. How might keeping your eyes on Jesus and following him help you grow into the new life God has given you as his born-again child?
  • If you had the chance to start your life over, what would you do differently? As a born-again child of God we are able to start every day fresh. How will you live your life differently today?

Baptized with Jesus (Matthew 3:13-17)

baptism-of-the-christ

For a long time, I never really understood why Jesus was baptized. I grew up being taught that baptism was pretty much exclusively about the forgiveness of sins. What I struggled with was that if Jesus was sinless, as the Bible teaches, then why did he need to be baptised when he had no sin to be washed away? I sort of understood when people explained that Jesus’ baptism was also God the Father commissioning him for his ministry ahead and identifying him as his Son for the crowds that witnessed the event, but I was still stuck with the connection between Jesus’ baptism and our baptism.

Then I found the idea that through faith we are united with Jesus. For example, in Romans 6:3-5 the Apostle Paul writes,

Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. (NIV)

Baptism doesn’t just wash our sins away, even though forgiveness is a key part of baptism. Baptism also unites us with Christ through faith so that we participate in his death and resurrection. That’s why our sins are washed away – we are made one with Christ through baptism so his death becomes our death to remove our sin, and his resurrection becomes our resurrection to new life by the power of God’s life-giving Holy Spirit. According to this idea, faith isn’t just agreeing with a doctrinal idea about Jesus. Faith is more about living in the life of Christ with whom we are one through faith.

Suddenly, Jesus’ baptism made a lot more sense. If we are united with Jesus through baptism, then the voice that spoke over Jesus also speaks over us because we are united with Jesus in his baptism. Just as the voice of our heavenly Father identified Jesus as his Son whom he loved and with whom he is please, in the same way that same voice speaks over us, identifying us as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased!
This can become significant for anyone who has struggled with their own sense of identity and worth. We can spend our whole lives trying to find a sense of who we are and our value by trying to please others. The problem with being a people-pleaser is that when we try to find our identity and worth in trying to please others, we can easily lose the identity and value that we are searching for.

Imagine what it would be like to live believing what the voice from heaven said – that you are God’s child whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. The promise that we have in Jesus’ baptism is that God does in fact love us and is pleased with us, not because of the good things we do or the wrong things we avoid. God loves us just because we are his children. Through baptism into Christ, God fills us with everything that is loveable and pleasing to him. Nothing can shake his view of us because Christ fills us and we have God’s promise that nothing in all creation can separate us from Jesus (Romans 8:38,39). So God’s opinion of us is set and nothing will change that.

What’s more amazing is that God pronounces this over Jesus before he had done anything! Jesus’ baptism and the Father’s pronouncement over him comes at the start of his ministry to show us that God’s love for us and his pleasure in us does not depend on what we do or how well we do it. Instead, God’s love and pleasure give us the ability to live in ways that are pleasing to him. Jesus could go into his ministry confident in his Father’s love and pleasure and was shown in all he said and did. In the same way, when we live in God’s love and pleasure, is shapes and forms us and is revealed in everything we say and do. What difference could it make to your day to trust that you go into is as God’s child whom he loves and with whom he is pleased, and nothing can change that? No matter what might happen, no matter what people might say or do, no matter whether other people are pleased with us or not, we can live each and every day of our lives in the confidence that God loves us and is please with us because we are one with Jesus through faith. We can find the freedom and the strength to do what is good, right and true, living as children of God in faith and love as Jesus’ disciples, bringing the goodness of Jesus into the lives of the people around us.

Jesus’ baptism is vitally important for our sense of who we are and what we are here to do. Yes, baptism washes our sin away and adopts us as God’s children. Baptism also unites us with Jesus and fills us with his goodness. My hope and prayer is that these words spoken over Jesus would be the foundation of our understanding of who we are and what we are worth, so we can live every day in the freedom and joy that comes through the faith that we are God’s children, he loves us more than we will ever know in this life, and no matter what we do or others might do to us, our Father in heaven is pleased with us because of what Jesus has done for us in his life, death and resurrection.