Today we will be baptizing the Larandeau children - praise God! And Gary and I will be tag-teaming. I will give the talk, and he will apply the water. And I want to give an introduction to what it means to (as the Larger Catechism words it) improve upon our baptism. Those may seem like strange words, but Westminster Larger Catechism 167 asks, "How is our baptism to be improved by us?" And I have included the answer in full in your bulletins. I won't go over every way that the catechism calls for us to improve upon our baptism, but I do want to at least introduce you to that idea.
It claims that this is a much neglected duty. And if it is a duty, we should understand it. The word "improve" in its older usage does not mean to make baptism better as if baptism had bad qualities. Webster's dictionary gives the older meaning as "to employ to a good purpose; to make productive; to use to a good advantage." The catechism says that every time you view a baptism, you should consider ways that you can become more consistent with the claims your baptism has upon your life. It continues to have a call upon your lives. And responding appropriately to that call is improving your baptism - or employing it to a good advantage. Let me give you six things that baptism continues to call you to. And I'm going to take these from the book of Galatians - a book that shows baptism to be the sign of the Abrahamic covenant.
Baptism calls us to remember that we are saved by grace alone through Christ alone
First, baptism calls upon us to remember that we are saved by grace alone through Christ alone. Galatians 3:8 says that God, "preached the gospel to Abraham..." Abraham was saved in exactly the same way that we are: by faith in Jesus Christ alone. In chapter 3 Paul makes the big point that Abraham was saved before he was circumcised, which logically means that circumcision didn't save him. Though he was also commanded to circumcise his children, Abraham knew that it didn't save his children; instead it was a call upon their lives and was a promise by God that he believed.
Well, the same is true of baptism. We baptize all the children of believers, but baptism itself doesn't save. It calls those baptized to put their faith in Jesus rather than in the sign. I kind of think of it like a donut shop that has signs sticking in the different kinds of donuts. I don't confuse the sign with the cream-filled donut and eat the paper sign, thinking it is the donut. No, I eat the donut that the sign was pointing to. And in the same way, the Heidelberg Catechism 72 asks,
"Is then the external baptism with water, the washing away of sin itself? Answer: Not at all; for the blood of Jesus Christ only, and the Holy Spirit, cleanses us from all sin.”
Baptism calls us to continue to live by grace
Second, baptism calls us to continue to live by grace even after we have come to faith. The whole of chapter 3 rebukes the Judaizers for being so focused upon the sign of the covenant that they forgot that our entire life must be lived by grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit. He says in 3:1,
Gal. 3:1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? 4 Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?
Every time we do a baptism where water is poured upon the head, it reminds us that unless the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us, we cannot achieve anything of lasting value. We are saved by grace and we must continue to live by grace. So baptism calls us to continue to live by grace.
Baptism calls us to confess our faith
Third, baptism calls us to boldly confess our faith before men. Abraham certainly did so. But so did Isaac his son - eventually. Initially Isaac benefited passively by his father's faith, but eventually God's call upon his life resulted in his own bold confession of the faith of his father. That's what we pray each of our children will do. John Calvin said, “The first object of the sacraments is to assist our faith towards God, the second, to testify our confession before men.” Baptism calls each of our children to have faith in Christ and to eventually confess their faith before men.
Baptism calls us to give up all to God
Fourth, baptism calls us to give up all to God. It is God's claim upon us and upon everything we have. That's why God called the saved person a "steward" in chapter 4:2. When we live for ourselves, we fail to act like stewards, and baptism should remind us that we do not belong to ourselves; we belong to the Lord. He brought us into His flock and branded us with baptism as His own.
Baptism calls us to dedicate our children to God
The fifth point logically follows - it is that baptism calls us to dedicate our children to God. So chapter 3:26-28 speaks about the baptism of believers since their faith makes them heirs. That paragraph says that all heirs can be baptized. But chapter 4:1-2 speaks of the children of believers as being heirs as well (just as Abraham's children were) and therefore subject to the covenant's responsibilities and privileges. Even the teenager Ishmael (who was not yet a believer), received the sign of the covenant. And it makes sense that if God is the shepherd, and if we are His sheep, that the offspring of the sheep are claimed by God. As our children grow up, this baptism will be a constant call to follow the shepherd. Don't wander; follow the shepherd. We've given our children to Jesus. They too wear his brand of baptism. So chapter 4 says that even before our children come to faith, we parents should dedicate those children unreservedly to God in baptism. All heirs are baptized according to chapter 3, and chapter 4 says that the children of those believers are heirs as well. Ergo - baptize them.
But that means that we parents should relate to our children as stewards of the children, not as owners of the children. And you see that in chapter 4. So just as Abraham washed his family with the water of the Word and led his family to Christ, Nick and Maryann must relate to their children as stewards who will give an answer to God. And each one of us parents who witness this baptism should be reminded that we are accountable to God for how we relate to our children, and actually to all the sheep in His flock. They are God's property.
Baptism calls us to act as heirs
And finally, baptism calls us to act as heirs. The believers of chapter 3 are called heirs, and the children of believers are called heirs in chapter 4, so we should act as heirs.
What does it mean to be an heir of the Great King of this universe? It means we should act differently from the world. We are part of God's flock and should act the part. It also means the potential of being disinherited like Ishmael was if we do not come to Jesus. It also means that an heir is potentially rich, and Ephesians says that we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. An heir has promises according to 3:29, including promises to our children. So baptism calls us to have faith in those promises. An heir should desire to have an Abba Father relationship with God that chapter 4:7 talks about. Every time we have a baptism it should remind us that we are heirs, and should act like heirs and think like heirs.
Initially children don't know what being an heir means, but if their parents are doing their job, they will train each child over his or her lifetime to live more and more consistently with the glorious privileges of being heirs of the covenants of promises. So brothers and sisters, as you witness this baptism, improve upon your own baptisms. Amen.
Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 167 How is our baptism to be improved by us? A: 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.