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07.09.17 Baptism for Children Too Galatians 3:21-29 Sermon Summary

by on July 17, 2017

The difference between God’s Law and God’s Promise is the dynamic that continually reforms the church. This is nowhere more evident than during the Reformations of the sixteenth century.

Summary Points

  • The difference between Law and Promise
  • How context affects the interpretation of the Bible
  • How the promises of God apply to our children
  • The biblical, theological answer to the Anabaptists

The Bible has a complex relationship with the Law of God. In some passages, it is the Law that reveals God and guides us to life. But in other passages, it is the Law that contributes to our condemnation. This is because the Law reveals sin. It convicts and imprisons us. It cannot save us. The rediscovery of this truth started the reformation of the 16th Century.

But the Law also separates us from one another. It encourages the making of rules—of categorizing who’s in and who’s out.

By contrast, God’s Promise reconciles us to God, and reconciles us with one another.

The Swiss Brethren surrounding Zurich at the start of the Reformation adhered to Luther’s position of sola scriptura. Instead of the Pope, the priesthood, the councils, or tradition, Luther argued that the Bible alone was the ultimate authority for the church and the Christian. Zurich’s reformer Ulrich Zwingli was attracted to the Swiss Brethren for application of this principle.

But upon further theological reflection, Zwingli abandoned one of the Swiss Brethren’s signature reforms, the rejection of infant baptism. Zwingli’s turn from critique of infant baptism to staunch defender illustrates how “the Bible says so” is an insufficient impetus for reform. He realized that the Bible must be read in context, or better, contextS. When done so, other truths emerge that govern how we read the Bible and how we conduct our worship and our lives.

Zwingli began with the surrounding verses. For example, the Anabaptists appealed to Acts 2:38 in which Peter urges a response of repentance and baptism. It was clear to them that since children cannot repent, they should not be baptized. But in context, Peter goes on to say that the promise of God, “is for your children.” The question asked by the text is, What does “to our children” mean?

Grammatical context is also important when considering the Great Commission. The Swiss Brethren’s “Bible says so” approach paid careful attention to the sequence: Go, make disciples, baptize, teach. Children should not be baptized until they have been made disciples. But the grammar suggests something else.

The principle verb is to make disciples. This is the verb that governs the others. The others are secondary. (Imperative vs. participle, for your grammar geeks. And further, completed action verses ongoing present action.) Most precisely, the Great Commission is translated, “Make disciples, having gone, baptizing and teaching.” The irony is, if we were to be literalists with this sequence, we wouldn’t teach until we baptized. This would lead to the baptism of children as soon as possible, wouldn’t it? I point this out in jest.

What about other verses from last week’s message? These verses describe the baptism of converts, who understand the Bible, who believe, who repent, and who request baptism. Children can do none of these things. Zwingli’s ultimate conclusions address all these circumstances.

How DO God’s promises apply to children? To answer, Zwingli broadened his reading.

In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul is answering questions posed to him by the congregation. They have asked about mixed marriages, where one spouse is a follower of Christ but the other is not. Paul says the Christian spouse should not separate, because the unbelieving spouse is made holy by the believing spouse. The entire household is made holy, Paul argues, including the children (see verse 14). Such a perspective challenges the understanding that an individual and “mature” response to the promises of God is the criterion for recognizing those promises. The mature spouse rejects the promises, and children are incapable of such a response. Nevertheless, they are holy.

This line of thought leads to a question about the nature of God’s promises. Here the clearest answer comes from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In his defense of justification by faith rather than works, Paul asserts that all are heirs according to the promise of God. All are children of Abraham. All are justified by the faith of Jesus. This includes Gentiles and Jews, slaves and free, and men and women. We may wonder, Does it also include young and old?

The sign of God’s promise to Abraham is circumcision. It is given before individual and mature consciousness. It is administered outside the will of the one receiving it. It is performed on the basis of parentage and community. Circumcision is a sign of belonging. It is given once, it is not repeated, and it is permanent.

Paul’s thought in Galatians is described in Colossians 2:11-12 with relation to baptism. Baptism is recognized as the new sign of the covenant community that is created in Christ. Like the Older Testament sign, it applies to the children of the community of faith, long before they can appreciate what being a child of the covenant means. Baptism never needs repeating because God’s promises, symbolized by circumcision and baptism, are valid before or even after our individual belief. For God to be faithful to his promises does not depend on us. That is the definition of grace.

For these reasons, Zwingli rejected the reform movement of the Swiss Brethren, who re-baptized those who were baptized as infants. (That’s what “Anabaptism” means.) Zwingli’s theology recognizes the continuity between the Older and Newer Testaments. His position is thus thoroughly “biblical”—a comforting observation for those who say infant baptism isn’t biblical because it isn’t attested to directly in the Bible.

Zwingli’s theology emphasizes God’s faithfulness to God’s promises even while at the same time expressing the faith of the community. And one of my favorite implications of Zwingli’s argument is that it now recognizes girls. We are all, regardless of age or sex, recipients of the promises of God. The baptism of children proclaims this good news in a unique way, and we have Zwingli to thank for keeping us mindful of that.

 

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