Over the past few months, we’ve been having a little series of sermons looking at what it is that Christians believe. What’s at the heart of the Christian faith? And we’ve been doing that by looking at, and unpacking, the Nicene Creed, which we read together before that last song. We’ve thought together what it is that we believe about God, the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ his Son, and the Holy Spirit. Last week we thought about our belief in one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. Which brings us this morning to the subject of baptism.
“We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”.
Now there’s a great deal that we could say about baptism. But we’re not going to try and say everything that the Bible says about baptism this morning; that would take far too long and wouldn’t help many of us. Instead we’re going to limit ourselves to drawing out what the creed wishes to teach us, and we’ll leave the rest for another day.
Specifically, we’re not going to look at the subject of infant baptism. That’ll be a relief to some of you, and a disappointment for others. That’s not because I’m reluctant to talk about the subject; if any of you want to ask me about infant baptism, please feel free to do so later. But we’re not going to be able to work out whether we should baptise small children, and in what circumstances, and what it means if we do, until we’ve worked out what we’re doing when we baptise anyone. And I think just unpacking this little statement on baptism will give us plenty to do this morning. We’ll lay the ground for a discussion of infant baptism, but we won’t actually go there.
So then, “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”.
This isn’t a lecture. It’s a sermon. So let’s come at this phrase from the practical, applied, how it affects us today angle. We’re going to draw out three implications from this line of the creed.
Here’s the first: Be baptised. Be baptised.
That has to be the first thing to say. I wonder if you’re surprised that this line is in the creed. Imagine you sit down to write 250 words that summarise what it is that all Christians must believe, that get to the heart of the most important topics the Bible addresses. You’d certainly talk quite a bit about what God is like. You’d probably want to talk about him as three persons, which means you’d give a section on the Father, and then on the Son, and then on the Spirit. But once you’ve done that, is baptism really one of those topics on which you have to say something? Really?
The writers of the Nicene Creed thought so. So, interestingly, does the writer of Hebrews. In chapter 6, he laments that his readers have been so slow to mature as Christians that he has to go over the basics again. And one of the topics he includes in what he calls the foundation of Christian teaching is washings, or baptisms. For him, too, baptism is part of the foundation that you lay when you teach someone the basics.
So why do the writer of Hebrews, and the authors of our creed, thing baptism is so foundational? And the answer is: That Jesus did. The end of Matthew’s gospel is very familiar. It’s what we call the “great commission”, as Jesus left his followers with a task. “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
Jesus wants us to be making disciples of every nation. And that means firstly baptising them, and secondly teaching them to obey everything he has commanded. Which means that when you become a disciple, being baptised isn’t just one of the things that Jesus has commanded you to do. When you become a disciple, you are baptised, and then you learn what it means to live obediently in practice. Baptism is how you become a disciple. It’s how you become a Christian. If someone wants to become a Christian, we baptise them. And then, obviously, we teach and instruct them how to live as a Christian. Baptism isn’t the end of the matter, but it is the start.
So if baptism is how you become a Christian, no wonder the writer of Hebrews and the authors of our creed include baptism as one of the foundations. It is.
Which is why I say that the first practical implication of this line of the creed is to be baptised. It’s how we become a follower of Jesus Christ. Clearly there are exceptional cases, like the thief who hung next to Jesus on the cross. But they are exceptions.
Other than that, you can live as a follower of Christ. You can trust his promises, you can pray to him, you can seek to live day by day in a way that pleases him, you can share your faith with others, you can eat at his table. You could even be enjoying his forgiveness, and go to heaven when you die and then enjoy the new creation in the fulness of time. You can do all those things. But if you haven’t been baptised, you’re living exactly like a follower of Jesus without actually being one. If you haven’t been baptised, you’ve not yet become his disciple.
And if that fits anyone here, if anyone here would like to become a follower and disciple of the risen Christ, then do talk to me afterwards about being baptised.
Recognise the Baptism of Others
The second practical implication is this: We need to recognise the baptism of others. Recognise the baptism of others.
That is picking up on the reading we had from Ephesians 4. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Paul is drawing attention to the fact that there is one God who is three persons. Did you notice the Trinity in those verses? It’s a bit like a word-search puzzle where the words are allowed to go up and backwards as well as down and forwards. Verse 4: One Spirit. Verse 5: One Lord, that’s the Lord Jesus. Verse 6: One God and Father. The one God is three persons, but he is nevertheless totally united. He is, still, one God.
And Paul says that it’s a bit like that with the church. God’s made us different. He’s given us different graces, different abilities and gifts to use in serving each other. Yet, for our differences, we are one. Totally one. Seven-times one. Paul lists seven ways in which we are one. One body. One Spirit. One hope. One Lord, One Faith. One baptism. One God and Father.
Now we’re not going to look at these verses in detail now. Let’s just notice this: When you split the way in which we are one church into the seven colours of the rainbow, one of the seven colours you get is that there is one baptism. “We acknowledge one baptism” For all our variety and difference, which is God-given, we are united around the fact that there is one baptism. One thing we all have in common is that we have all been baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
If there were two different baptisms, then you’d have two churches. People baptised in one way, or with certain words, or at a certain time of day would be in a different church from those baptised in another way, with other words, or at a different time of day. One group wouldn’t need to recognise that the other group were proper Christians. But there aren’t two baptisms. There’s one, so we need to recognise the baptism of others.
Some people are baptised in a Church of England church. Others in a Methodist church. Others in an independent church. But provided what they had was Christian baptism, they were baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Some people are baptised by being sprinkled with water, others have water poured over them, others are dipped into water, and others are totally immersed under water. Different churches will have different practices, and they will have their reasons for doing what they do. But one thing they all have in common is that they share one baptism. Sometimes Christians speak in hushed tones about the fact that someone they know was “baptised by full immersion, you know”, as if that somehow makes someone a more genuine Christian. But whether you were baptised with lots of water or only a little, you have been through the single ritual that is Christian baptism. Which means you are as much a Christian as anybody else, however much or little water was used in their baptism.
So, as I say, we need to recognise the baptism of others. God has made us different from each other, and that is something to celebrate. Sometimes, Christians find it hard to agree, and that is a shame. But for all our delightful differences and regrettable disagreements, we have one baptism. There are even occasions where, precisely because baptism unites us into one family, the loving thing to do is to say some hard truths to each other. But we say them because we’re Christians, and we say them as Christians.
That’s the second practical outworking of this line of the creed. “I acknowledge one baptism”, so we recognise the baptism of others.
Recognise our own Baptism
The third implication is this: Recognise our own baptism. Yes, I think we need to recognise our own baptism.
The whole line reads like this: “I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”
Now, that sounds like it is saying that those who have been baptised have had their sins forgiven. Which quite probably makes a few of us feel a little nervous. It makes it sound a little like the water of baptism is some kind of magic potion to wash away sin. It conjures up pictures of nervous parents, who misunderstand the Christian faith, baptising their new baby to make sure they get a place in heaven. Words like “superstition” come to mind. “I acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” Doesn’t sit very comfortably, does it?
Perhaps we’d better say that part of the creed with our fingers crossed. Confess that we are happy to say the creed because we believe most of it, but this line would be better off not in there. Perhaps we should apologise for this statement, and politely take a different line.
There’s one trouble with doing that: The creed is quoting Scripture at this point. This is biblical language. Consider that Acts 2 reading that we had a moment ago. The crowd of Jews have just realised that they crucified the one God has appointed Lord and Judge. In horror they cry out to Peter: “What shall we do?” And he replies: “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”. “Be baptised, for the forgiveness of your sins.” The reason people in this crowd would be baptised is so that their sins might be forgiven.
And it’s not just Acts 2. In Acts 22, verse 16, Paul recounts his own conversion. He recalls Ananias saying to him: “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptised and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” Paul has met the risen Jesus on the road, so he should be baptised and wash away his sin.
Or take Galatians 3. In verse 26, Paul says this: “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” One of Paul’s metaphors for being born again and becoming a Christian is that of changing your clothing. You take off your old set of clothes, your ways of sin, and you put on a new set of clothes, you put on Christ. And Paul says here that every single one of them who has been baptised has gone through this new birth.
And the last example I want to give us is 1 Peter 3:21. This verse is in the middle of a dense paragraph about the flood in the days of Noah. Whilst there are lots of details in that paragraph that we could work through very carefully, one verse that is quite transparent is verse 21: “This water symbolises baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience towards God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The waters of Noah’s flood symbolise the waters of baptism. And the waters of baptism save a person in this day and age. Not just an external washing, like you’d find in Old Testament days, but a washing that reaches right to a person’s heart and conscience – a new covenant washing. Baptism brings a person salvation.
So you see the problem? We can respond with embarrassment to this line of the creed if we want. We can bring our scissors to it and cut it out. After all, unlike the Bible, the creed is just a human document. But the writers of our creed are only quoting the Bible at this point. They’ve put together Ephesians 4, verse 5 and Acts 2, verse 38 to come up with the phrase “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” If we want to take the guillotine to this line of the creed, we’re going to have to chop out those passages of Scripture as well. And I take it that surgically removing bits of the Bible that don’t suit us is not something we want to get into.
No, we don’t dismiss this. Instead, we need to work to understand these parts of the Bible. When we’ve done that, we’ll understand this line of the creed as well.
So what’s going on? Why does Peter say to the crowd that they need to “repent and be baptised” to be forgiven?
We’re more used to the pairing: “Repent and Believe”. That’s the answer many of us would give if someone asked us how we respond to the gospel. We repent – we turn around and start to live with Jesus as Lord. We believe – we trust the promises of God. And as we trust God to give us his forgiveness as a free gift, he does so. Repent and believe the gospel.
And if we think that’s how we respond to the gospel, we haven’t got it wrong. Jesus, as he preached the gospel around Galilee, is summarised by Mark as saying: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel.” And Paul says that Abraham is a case in point; God counted him as righteous because he believed God’s promises. No: Repent and believe is right.
And yet Peter, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, calls on the crowds to repent and believe, only it comes out “Repent and be baptised.” Which suggests that asking someone to trust God’s promises, and asking someone to be baptised, is the same thing.
So: What does belief, trust, receiving God’s promised blessings with an open hand, faith look like? The answer is baptism. What does baptism, as an outward, public, physical act mean, such that God can forgive those who are baptised? It symbolises our faith in God and his promises? Trust in God has an inward and an outer aspect, a private and a public dimension. Faith and Baptism. Being baptised is an outward and an inner act, it is a public thing and a personal thing. Baptism and Faith.
So to tell someone that they need to repent and be baptised, and to tell someone that they need to repent and believe is the same thing.
So we don’t need to be embarrassed by this line of the creed. We are saved, forgiven, adopted, welcomed onto the new heavens and the new earth, made holy by faith in Christ alone. It is only Jesus death and resurrection, received with an open hand by faith, that allows anyone to have these blessings. Nothing we do or think or say can earn such favours from God. They come only by grace, through faith. None of that has changed.
But the faith that I’ve just described looks like being baptised.
Once we’ve seen this, we are protected against two quite common, equal but opposite, errors when it comes to baptism. We are protected against thinking that baptism is irrelevant. That becoming a Christian is all about saying a prayer in the quiet of my heart. That becoming a Christian is purely a private business. It isn’t. Sure, prayer and private response may be part of how someone becomes a Christian, but the fact that the New Testament inseparably ties that faith to baptism means that cannot be all that is going on. Becoming a Christian is a very public act. Everyone in Audley potentially knows that you’ve become a Christian, because you publicly had water poured over you when anyone could witness it.
But we’re also protected against the superstition that treats baptism as a magic potion. It isn’t that. Baptism symbolises trust in God. It symbolises our faith. It isn’t some magic trick that impresses God. Instead it’s the moment we put our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Without that faith, it is empty, something we’ll come back to in just a moment.
So, as I say, one of the ways this line of the creed impacts on our lives today is the need to recognise our own baptism. Because the baptism we acknowledge is for the forgiveness of sins. You can look back to your baptism as a day of great joy, as the start of a new life, as the day when God washed away your sin and looked down on you as a new creation. That’s the day it all began. That’s why last Sunday was such a joyous occasion: Three people in this church can look back to Sunday 22nd June as the day when their sins were forgiven. Hallelujah!
What of Those Who…?
But what about those people for whom baptism does not express the reality of a living faith? For those who begin the Christian life in baptism, only to turn their back on it. Years later you find them not living by trust in Christ and his promises, not caring about God’s priorities for their lives. They’ve turned their back on the whole thing, and renounced their baptism. What about them?
The first thing to say is that the question is really “what about us?”. Many of us will sadly go through seasons of life when we don’t live like those who have been baptised into Christ Jesus. But the work of God’s Spirit, through the prayers and patient friendship of others, restores us to trust in God and actively living as part of his people. We repent. We turn back to God. And we discover the wonderful truth that there is only one baptism – we don’t need to be baptised again. Because we are God’s children, and we have come back home like the prodigal son into the arms of our heavenly Father. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and that is a wonderful truth.
The really sad thing though is that there are some who never come back. If only it were the case that everyone who has been baptised would eventually turn back to God. Sometimes, that season of living in defiance against God, in denial at our baptism, becomes the rest of our lives. If one baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, can the person who does this look forward to a joyful welcome when they meet God as judge. Tragically: not. Baptism is a public expression of our faith; it is the hand with which we take hold of Christ and trust him. But if we don’t take hold of Christ then, ultimately, there is no forgiveness for us on the cross.
So then what of such people? Does their baptism mean nothing? Is it an empty shell, a meaningless ritual? Sometimes people have thought that. The waters of baptism just washed over them like water poured over fresh gloss paint or varnished wood. But sadly, we find several places in the New Testament where it is made clear that those who join the people of God but turn their back on it are in a worse position than before they began. When it comes to the final judgement, it’s better never to have been a Christian than to have been one and packed it in.
This becomes obvious when we think of some of the analogies the Bible uses for being a Christian. Christians are Christ’s servants or slaves, branded with his name. Christians are soldiers in Christ’s army. Christians are children of Christ’s Father, younger siblings of Jesus himself. Christians are Christ’s bride, betrothed and wedded to him. We use some of those images in the baptism service when we welcome the new Christian.
And if you are one of those things and you pack it in, where does that leave you? Worse than before you began. In the ancient world, the runaway slave was not just a free person again – if their master caught up with them they were in deep trouble. The person who deserts or defects in the army isn’t a civilian again, they’re a deserter. The family member who betrays members of their family aren’t just being disloyal friends, they are blood traitors. The husband or wife who is unfaithful doesn’t sleep around, they commit adultery. A single man or woman cannot be unfaithful.
So you see why such a person’s last state is worse than the first. The person who is baptised, and then turns their back on it, living under God’s frown until the day they day, is not just a non-Christian once again. They are an unfaithful Christian. They are still a baptised member of the family of God, a runaway slave, a deserter, an adulterer.
So we need to recognise our own baptisms. If you have been baptised, it can never be undone. It is a fixed date in your past. It is what makes you who you are. If you have been baptised, you are a Christian. We need to recognise this. You can be an unfaithful Christian, who treats their baptism with contempt, and has no faith in Christ. That is a terrible thing to be, but you are still a Christian.
But that is not the case for most of us here, I’m sure. Hebrews 6:11, after raising exactly these warnings says this: “Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation.” For most of us here, all the evidence points to our baptisms being the beginning of a joyful life, experiencing the forgiveness of God. There is no better master to serve than Christ. No army more certain to win than his. No family more privileged to belong to than his Father’s. No husband who takes better care of his bride than Jesus.
So this little line in the creed on baptism is of great relevance for us today.
It’s in the creed. Baptism is how you become a Christian. It’s one of the foundations. So let’s all, if we are living as Christians, make sure we’ve become a Christian by being baptised.
We acknowledge one baptism. So let’s recognise the baptism of other Christians. The variation, the differences, even the disagreements are still there. But we vary, we differ, we disagree – as Christians.
And we acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. So let’s recognise our own baptism, the day life began again, the day God forgave our sins. Let’s recognise that event by persevering in the faith we expressed that day. And let’s recognise that event by looking back on it with great joy and wonder.