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1. Baptism and Union with Christ

Chapter 1

Baptism and Union With Christ

1 Corinthians 6:17
Liverpool, England, 1975


In today’s message and throughout this book, we aim to arrive at a practical understanding of the mean­ing of bap­tism. Today we begin by looking at a few fundamental aspects of baptism as they are taught in the Bible. One reason for doing this is that some peo­ple here are consider­ing bap­tism, so they need to know what it means to take the step of bap­tism. Then there are Christians who don’t understand the mean­ing of bap­tism despite hav­ing been baptized. And lastly, there are non-Christ­ians who are not going for baptism just yet, but would like to know more about it.

In this book, I will avoid using technical language, and will explain baptism in a plain and concrete way so that everyone may under­stand what it means in practice. Many have tried reading books on baptism but soon gave up on them after finding them too academic and abstract.

For those of you who have already been baptized, it would be good to revisit some crucial questions: At your baptism, what exactly took place between you and God? On the day of your baptism, did anything in you undergo a transformation? Is your baptism a con­cluded matter, or does it continue to have meaning for you today?

A more general question: If a person has never been baptized, is he or she even a Christian? When I was studying at a Bible college, a fellow student asked me, “I have never been baptized. What is the mean­ing of baptism? Why should I be bap­tized?” He had been a Christian for many years and had even dedicated himself to God’s work, yet he didn’t know the meaning of baptism, which was why he was not baptized. Then he and I got into a discussion on what the Bible teaches about baptism, and he event­ually got baptized.

Baptism is the covenant of union with Christ

We begin today’s message with a concise one-sentence definition of baptism: baptism is the sacrament of union. You might say to your­self, “That definition may be concise, but I don’t understand it.” That’s fine, we just need to focus on the word “union” whose meaning is familiar enough to us. Baptism is of course more than a union, but the concept of union lies at the heart of baptism.

The less familiar term here is “sacrament,” a word which means the out­ward expression of some­thing that takes place in you. In the church we have two sacraments: the sacrament of union, which is baptism, and the sacrament of communion. (We will look at the sacrament in more detail in chapter 3.)

We can also depict baptism as a cov­enant: baptism is the coven­ant of union. Again the word “union”. Union with whom? Union with Christ.

To understand all this, it would be helpful to use the illustrat­ion of marriage, which too is a coven­ant of union between two per­sons, just as baptism is a covenant of union between us and Christ.

What is the Biblical basis for comparing baptism to a wedding? There is much Scriptural evidence for it, but I will touch on only one or two verses. Our starting point is 1 Corinthians 6:17: “But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”

Meditate on these vital words, especially “joined”. If you have been joined to Christ, where and when did this union take place? The Bible’s answer is that you were joined to Christ at your baptism. Romans 6:3-5 says that it is at baptism that we are “united” with Christ.

In the verse we just read (1Cor.6:17), the Greek word for “joined” (kollaō) is the same word that is used in Matthew 19:5 to speak of husband and wife being “joined” in marriage.

There is also Ephesians 5:22-33, a whole passage on marriage which is often read at weddings. Inter­estingly, right in the mid­dle of this passage, in verses 25 and 26, is a reference to baptism: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (vv.25b-26, ESV). A few verses later, Paul repeats what we have just read in Matthew 19:5, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Ephesians 5:31).

Lastly, the Bible speaks of Jesus Christ as the bridegroom of the church. Paul says to the Corinthians, “I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband” (2Cor.11:2, RSV). Here again is the picture of marriage which appears several times in the Bible to illustrate the union of God’s people with Christ.

Baptism, like a wedding, cannot be dispensed with

For a man and a woman to be united as husband and wife, do they need to go through a wedding? Can they become husband and wife without marriage? The universal answer to this is “no”. [Editor: This statement was generally true in 1975, the year in which this sermon was given.] You are not husband and wife apart from marriage, and this is generally true of the societies of the world, whether primit­ive societies or advanced countries. No society would recognize two persons as husband and wife who are not married to each other.

But why can’t we just dispense with marriage? The reason is that a wed­ding is not just a ceremony but a covenant. A covenant is a contract between two parties, a committal or commitment to each other. Where there is no covenant or contract between two persons, their love for each other is not yet concrete for it has not yet mater­ialized into a specific trans­action. No matter how much they may love each other in their hearts, they are not husband and wife.

In speaking of a covenant or contract, we don’t mean that they have to go to a church to get married. Even if they don’t get married in a church, they must still go to a marriage bureau or registry to sign a statement such as, “On this day we become husband and wife.” The non-Christian knows as well as the Christ­ian that with­out a covenant or a contract between man and woman, they are not husband and wife.

At the marriage registry they would have two or three witnesses who also sign the marriage certificate. Why the witnesses? They are there to testify that a contract has been established and ratified in their presence. This is based on the premise that the union of man and woman is not formally established until there is a covenant of union.

Similarly, one might declare that he believes in God and in Jesus Christ, and that he loves God and wants to follow Jesus. But so long as he has not entered into a covenant with God through Christ, he is not yet a Christian, for it is through a covenant that we com­mit to each other. Previously there had been no formal committal. Even if there was a committal in the heart, it had not yet been established and made con­crete in the presence of wit­nesses. Baptism is not just a ceremony but a covenant.

The word “covenant” is used many times in the Bible. That is why we have the Old Covenant or Old Testament, and also the New Covenant or New Testament. Here the English word “testament” is the equivalent of the Greek word for “covenant” (diathēkē).

To summarize, it is at baptism that we are united with Christ. The union is not just a love feeling but a definite commitment, a covenant.

Seven points of comparison between baptism and marriage, both covenants of union

We now look more deeply into this by comparing the union of man and woman in marriage and our union with Christ in baptism.

First, when two persons commit to each other at a wedding, it is out of mutual love. So likewise in baptism we com­mit ourselves to Christ to express our love for him. You would not marry someone just because you happen to “like” him or her in some vague sense. Such a marriage could easily fail. On the contrary, you must truly love the other person to the extent of sharing your life with him or her in total commitment. So too with the Christian in relation to Christ. We don’t simply enter into a union with Christ just because we happen to like or admire him in some sense, but because we want to commit ourselves total­ly and uncondition­ally to him and ultim­ately to God. We want to share our lives with Christ.

Second, baptism, like a wedding, is a public de­claration of love for the other per­son. At baptism I declare before all witnesses—before all people and before all spiritual powers in heaven and on earth—that I love the Lord Jesus Christ and ultimately God the Father.

Third, in declaring my commit­ment to Christ, I break with my old way of life. That is also true in a marriage. After you get married, your life is no longer what it used to be, for you have now entered into a new life of partnership with someone else. It is not a self-centered life in which I do my own thing, for I now have someone to whom I show love and concern. My life is completely changed.

At baptism I die to the old way of life—to a life of sin and the self—having been united with Christ by dying a death like his. I now enter into a new and righteous life of fellowship with Christ, united with him in his resurrection (Romans 6:5,11).

Fourth, where there is true love between two persons, each will put the interests of the other above his or her own. Each will think of the other, not himself or herself. Some in their devotion have given up their own interests, even professional careers, to be where their husbands will be. Likewise in baptism we say, “From now on, Christ’s interests come before mine. His interests—which are always in line with his Father’s will—now take priority over my social ties and professional aspirations. His interests are central to my heart.” I hope that every Christ­ian will search his or her own heart, and ask, “Have I been true to my baptismal commitment?”

Fifth, when husband and wife are united in marriage, they do not wander off in different directions, for where the one is, the other is also. They walk together and share common interests together. What kind of a marriage would it be if the two parties do their separate things and avoid each other? In a marriage, you want to be toget­her and have fel­lowship together. The true Christian likewise lives in constant unity with Christ in his death and in his resurrect­ion to a new life, for only then will the Christian be reconciled to God the Father and be in constant fellow­ship with Him. The one who doesn’t pray or delight in communing with God doesn’t know what it means to be a Christian.

Sixth, in a marriage, the devoted wife says to her husband, “I would like you to be the head of this household.” In every adminis­tra­tion there has to be a head. The family is a social unit as well as an administrat­ion that has to be led by someone. Someone has to take up the responsibility of sign­ing documents and making legal decis­ions for the family. It doesn’t mean an in­equality between husband and wife, but that in their love for one another, they give honor one to the other even if in different ways. So likewise, at baptism, the Christian wants to give Christ the honor in all things, and to glorify God, the Father of Jesus Christ. The true Christian declares, “God is King and Lord of my life, and I will follow His Christ, the one whom God has exalted as Lord (cf. Acts 2:36).”

Seventh, at the wedding the husband and the wife exchange a gift, usually a ring. What does the ring signify? It is a pledge: “I present you this ring as a token of my vow to never leave you or forsake you.” So likewise when we are baptized, God gives us a gift, His own Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God’s pledge to us (2Cor.1:22; 5:5; Eph.1:13) by which He promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” We will deal with this important topic in chapter 4.

The ring signifies further that “I will fulfill what I have promised you”. The wife knows that her hus­band will protect her in times of danger, pro­vide for her needs, and give her counsel. God likewise promises us that He will fulfill all that He has promised us: He will provide for us, protect us, guide us, and give us eternal life.

Two points of difference

In comparing baptism to a wedding, we are not saying that bap­tism is a wedding. Although there are genuine parallels between the two since both are covenants of union, there are also points of difference between baptism and a wed­ding.

First, the problem of sin is a central matter in baptism. When you see someone being immersed into the water and then lifted up out of the water, you may wonder, “What’s going on here? What does it signify?” To grasp the significance of all this, we must see the com­plica­ting factor of sin.

Although baptism and a wedding are both sacra­ments of union, our union with Christ is a far more complicated matter than the mar­riage union because of the deadly reality of sin. Sin stands between us and God, making this union not only difficult but impossible.

This problem doesn’t normally exist when two persons get mar­ried, at least not to the same extent. If they truly love one another in mar­riage, that alone may resolve most of the complicating issues.

By contrast, the immense complication of sin in our relation to God can be compared to the scenario in which the two partners in marriage come from families that are mortal enemies of each other. Here we see the extreme problems of such a union.

Sin blocks our union with God; it is a deadly obstacle that must be removed. As a result, God—the One who loves us and wants to reconcile us to Himself in Christ (2Cor.5:19)—had to send the Lord Jesus to die on the cross to remove the barrier of sin.

When you are immersed into the water at baptism, you declare that you are prepared to die to sin—to turn your back on sin—such that your old way of life is finished. And when you rise out of the water, it signifies that you are being raised to a new and righteous life given to us in Christ. Baptism confronts the deep­est and dead­liest aspects of sin. It is not an initiation rite for joining a religion. In any case, we are not inter­ested in joining a religion.

Secondly, at baptism we move from sin to right­eous­ness and from darkness to light. From the moment we are baptized, we com­mit ourselves to doing God’s will for all time. But in most marriages, the husband and the wife are anxious about worldly things, and are eager to please each other even when it goes against one’s own principles (1Cor.7:33-34).

We have covered baptism very simply and I hope clearly enough for everyone to understand what it basically means. Those who are contemplat­ing baptism must think through the matter carefully. Baptism is a big step to take, just as marriage is a big step to take. Those of us who have already been baptized and united with Christ must never lose sight of its meaning.

On the other hand, we also keep in mind the privil­eges and the responsibi­lities. Yes, I also speak of privileges. When you are faced with diffi­cult­ies, remem­ber that God loves you and that you are united with Him in Christ. Put your trust in God. Never doubt His love and care for you. He sees your tears, knows your sorrows, and cares about your every situat­ion. Bring your cares to Him, and you will find out just how much He loves you. Live right­eously to glorify Him, so that He may have joy in you and you in Him.

(c) 2021 Christian Disciples Church