Baptism is Not a Graduation Ceremony! Back to all sermons

Date: March 21, 2014

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Category: Baptism

Tags: partnership, planting, church, missions

Synopsis: Today, between the services, we witnessed the baptism of 15 people. This message was for them (and for all who have been baptized in the past). The title is “Baptism Is Not a Graduation Ceremony!” Why is this important to know and to remember? Once we understand that baptism marks the beginning of a journey and not the end, what are some “rules for the road”?

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Let me start this morning by identifying my specific target audience. There is a primary audience and a secondary audience. My primary audience is all of those who will be baptized at the close of the first service this morning. This message is for you. It is what I want you to take away as you go on in your walk of faith. My secondary audience is everyone who is here this morning who has been baptized at some time in the past â€" whether that was last year or 50 years ago.

Now if you are here and you’ve never been baptized, you might be saying, “What about me? Can I listen?” My answer to you is, “Yes. Of course you can listen. But the message you need to hear is the one I preached last Friday. If you didn’t hear that message, I would encourage you to go onto the church website and listen to it.”

For those who will be or have been baptized, what I want to emphasize this morning is summarized in the title for my sermon. Listen carefully: Baptism is not a graduation ceremony! Let me repeat it: Baptism is not a graduation ceremony!

During the years that I was pastoring a church in Nairobi, Kenya, our church was part of a large denomination. This denomination had a rather rigorous program for people who wanted to be baptized, especially young people. At a particular age, the children in the church would be enrolled in what they called “Catechism Class.” The church catechism was a multi-page booklet of questions and answers about basic Christian doctrines. The classes usually lasted for about 2 years of weekly meetings. At the end of the classes, each young person would meet with the elders of the church to determine if they were ready for baptism and they would be quizzed to see if they could answer the questions in the catechism.

I chose a different approach. Rather than take 2 years, we did the course in a kind of 2 week summer camp during the school holidays, studying together for 4 hours a day. I did my best during those classes to make sure that the young people understood the basics of the Christian faith, and especially what it means to be born again and to follow Christ as Lord and Savior. At the end of the class, those who passed the interview with the elders were baptized on a Sunday in a nearby swimming pool. Then we would come back to the church where they would be presented with a baptism certificate. It was a great day in the life of each of the young people and also for their families.

But there was a major flaw in what happened next. Every year, no matter how hard I tried to explain things differently, following that baptism Sunday there would be a significant percentage of the young people we baptized who would disappear. We would rarely or never see them in church again. They treated baptism like it was a graduation ceremony. Been there. Done that. Passed the exam. Got my diploma. Ticked that box. Good bye!

But it’s not. Baptism is not a graduation ceremony. It is an initiation rite. It is not the mark of completing anything. It is a symbol of something beginning. It is not the mark of journey ending. It is a symbol of a journey that is just beginning.

To show this, I want to begin be going back to the same Scripture I preached from last Friday: 1 Corinthians 15:1-2:

15:1 Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, 2 and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to youâ€"unless you believed in vain.

Last week we focused on verse 1, and the two verbs there which describe how the Corinthians responded to the gospel message which Paul preached to them: they received it. This means they heard it, they understood it, they believed it and they welcomed it. The next verb tells us that they took their stand on the gospel. This is an internal act of the will, by which they exercised faith by putting their confidence fully in the gospel as their eternal hope. And we discussed baptism as being a very practical means of taking our stand publicly in front of witnesses.

But we stopped there. Today, I want to read on in verse 2: and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you â€" unless you believed in vain.

There is both a promise here as well as a warning. The promise is that the gospel saves us. This gospel which Paul preached to the Corinthians is described in the passage that follows that we looked at last week: Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried and that he rose again according to the Scriptures. That message, that word that Paul preached to the Corinthians and which we preach here at ECC. This gospel saves us from our sins â€" because Christ died for our sins. The gospel saves us from the penalty of our sin because Christ took that penalty on himself. This gospel also saves us from the tyranny and power of sin over daily lives as we trust in the power of the resurrection to live new lives in the power of the Holy Spirit now. This gospel will also save us from the very presence of sin in our lives in the future, when we go to be with the Lord and inherit new, resurrection bodies just like Jesus’ resurrection body. The gospel is good news about the finished work of Christ. The gospel is good news about the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in our lives to sanctify us. And the gospel is good news that we shall live forever with Christ, free from all taint or struggle with sin. That is the promise of the gospel.

But there is also a warning here. The warning is that it is possible to believe in vain. And I think we believe in vain when we treat baptism as a graduation ceremony. We believe in vain when we give only a mental assent to the gospel. We believe in vain when we raise our hands or go forward at an evangelistic meeting or fill in a response card, or pray a prayer, get baptized â€" and then walk away and nothing changes.

Look again at Paul’s words here: and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you.

That brings me to the first point I want to make in my sermon this morning. Baptism is not a graduation ceremony. It is not a sign of something ending, but the symbol of a journey that is beginning. I want to give you three instructions for the journey ahead. This is the first one:

Hold on to the gospel! Hold on to it fiercely and jealously. Hold it fast. Protect it and cling to it as your most precious possession. The basic truths of our faith â€" Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah the Son of God who died to pay the penalty for our sins and then rose again to proclaim his victory over sin and death. Hold fast to that. Never allow them to become old, out-dated. Hold them fast!

The gospel is like a ticket on the subway or the Dubai metro. You have to have your ticket to begin your journey. You swipe your ticket on the sensor and the little gate opens to let you on. But you don’t throw your ticket away. You keep it. You hold on to it. Because you need it to exit the metro at the end of your journey. You are going to use the ticket to swipe over another sensor at the end of the journey to let you out. The gospel is like that. Hold fast to the word. Hold fast to the gospel. This is of first importance.

There are numerous appeals and warnings in the New Testament to believers â€" telling us to hold on to the gospel and not become distracted or deceived by false teachers or false teaching. In Galatians 1, Paul makes such an appeal beginning in verse 6:

6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospelâ€" 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

The Bible is clear that there are many false teachers, and that they will become even more numerous as we approach the end of the age. We must hold fast to the clear and simple gospel which Paul preached and which is revealed to us in Scripture.

Now I can almost hear the wheels turning in your heads. Some of you are wondering: “Pastor Cam, don’t you believe in the eternal security of the believer? Don’t you believe in ‘once saved, always saved’? I recognize that in a church like ours there is a diversity of opinions on this subject. It so happens, if you are wondering, that I do believe, very passionately and very strongly in the eternal security of the believer. But I also believe very passionately, based on Scriptures like this, that true faith is lasting faith. That saving faith is persevering faith. I believe that there is a kind of believing that Paul describes here in 1 Corinthians 15:2 as “believing in vain.” It is empty faith. It is dead faith. It is not saving faith. “The gospel saves us…if we hold fast to the word that was preached.”

What kind of faith do you have? I don’t know. I only know that you need faith to begin the journey and you will need the same faith in the same gospel to complete the journey. Hold on to the gospel!

So, that is my first point and my first challenge to all of us who have believed and been baptized into the Christian faith.

My second point is this: Go on to maturity!

For this point, I want to turn to another passage of Scripture: 2 Peter 1:

3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. 10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This is an incredibly rich passage of Scripture. In fact I once preached a series of five messages from this single paragraph. I am just hitting the high points today. First of all, we are promised that God’s power has given us all the resources we need for life and godliness, and that these are available to us by virtue of our knowledge and growing relationship with Jesus Christ. We also find that Christian maturity can be defined as becoming increasingly partakers of the divine nature as we escape the corruption that is in the world because of our sinful desires.

But in the middle of this description of all that God has done for us and all that he provides for us, there is this strong admonition:

5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. 8 For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Do you see that? “Make every effort!” This is not a passive journey. This isn’t a case of “get in and go along for the ride.” This is a word that requires effort, diligence, discipline. The journey starts with faith. But we are challenged to supplement our faith with virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection and love. We are to make these qualities our own â€" and they ought to be increasing. We ought to be always growing in all of these areas. This is our course of study. This is our curriculum. These are the subjects of study in the school of Jesus. We haven’t graduated! We have only enrolled in his school.

Going on to maturity is one sign of those who have exercised true, saving faith. That is the point Peter makes in the closing words of this paragraph:

10 Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. 11 For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Do you see what he says? Going on to maturity confirms our calling and election. It doesn’t secure it. It confirms it. We are not saved by works. We are saved by faith. But works confirm our faith as genuine. The journey starts with faith. We are saved by faith and faith alone. But true faith is never alone. It always reveals itself in spiritual growth and a journey toward Christian maturity. And so to all who have taken the step of baptism â€" either today or many years ago â€" here is the second challenge. Go on to maturity. Keep on growing. Grow in your knowledge of Christ and in the knowledge of his will. To your faith, add virtue and all these other traits which are simply the character of Jesus Christ which he desires to reproduce in you and in me and in every true child of God.

Hold on to the gospel. Go on to maturity.

One final point: Pass it on to others!

Let’s go back again to the passage in 1 Corinthians 15. What had to happen before the Corinthians could receive, take their stand on and then hold fast to the gospel? What was the first link in the chain? Paul preached! See it in verse 1: Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you… We see it again in verse 2: …if you hold fast to the word I preached to you… And it is there again in the final verse in the paragraph, verse 11: …so we preach and so you believed.

Before anyone can believe the gospel, someone must preach the gospel. For everyone who was baptized this morning, there was someone and often many people who shared the message of the gospel. As Paul asks rhetorically in Romans 10:14: How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

So the question I would pose is this: To whom does this responsibility belong? Many Christians might say, “But I am not a preacher.” But the Bible will not allow us to escape so easily. The word that is translated “preach” in 1 Corinthians 15 is really the word “evangelize”. This word does not require a stage or a platform or a microphone. It simply means to share the good news â€" and makes no distinction relative to the size of the audience â€" whether one person or thousands. To tell someone the good news, the gospel which can save them. Whose responsibility is this?

To answer this question clearly, let’s turn to another Scripture. This one is found in 2 Corinthians 5, beginning in verse 17. Listen carefully:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

This is the description of new birth, of the beginning of the life of faith. It is the truth that we celebrate in baptism; new birth, new life, a new beginning. But let’s continue:

18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation;

Do you see that? If Christ has reconciled you to himself, he has given you the ministry of reconciliation.

19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

The ministry of reconciliation and the message of reconciliation have been entrusted to every one of us who has been reconciled to God. When we receive the gospel and take our stand on the gospel and are saved by the gospel we inherit this responsibility â€" to pass the gospel on. We become ambassadors for Christ, and God wants to make his appeal through us, imploring others in turn to be reconciled to God. So â€" for those being baptized today â€" you will each receive a certificate of baptism. But don’t think of it as a diploma or graduation certificate. Think of it as an appointment letter â€" you have been appointed as an ambassador of the King of kings!

Baptism is not a graduation ceremony. It does not mark the end of a journey. It marks the beginning of a journey. Here are three “commands for the road.”

Hold on to the gospel!

Go on to maturity!

Pass it on to others!