Not that you asked…
This article was originally published on August 21, 2006 while the author was Stated Clerk of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
One Baptism – “NIB”
Have you ever been perplexed by “netspeak?” The world wide web has introduced a flood of new vocabulary, especially acronyms – www, http, aol, ftp. Instant- and text-messaging possess a language practically their own – lol, imho, btw. “ASAP” is old school.
As an occasional eBay shopper, I’ve even had to learn its unique nomenclature. When I forget that I can only write with one fountain pen at a time, I’ll browse eBay for bargains. Besides typing “fountain” and “pen” and possibly “Parker” or Pelikan” in the search line, I’ll occasionally add “NIB.” When I first spotted this term as a shopper, I thought it simply meant that the pen had a nib – a point with which to write. It seemed superfluous to me that the seller had to explain that the pen had a point – unless, of course, pens were often sold without them. Though they wouldn’t be the first pointless things sold (or written). Then I realized it was an acronym. “NIB” means “new in box.”
Fountain pens are a male version of the purse. For some people, one is enough, for others a regular rotation is called for. But they are also like male jewelry and pristine condition is a real plus, especially when buying from an individual seller. Because throwing away the box is one of the first things people do with new gifts, the seller still having the box can corroborate other representations that the pen is unused. “NIB” is a reassuring label on eBay.
But “NIB” in other contexts can be the very opposite – lack of assurance, lack of confidence. Nowhere is this the case more than when it comes to Christian baptism. Show me an unused baptism and I may well be able to show you a struggling, doubt-wracked Christian. Show me a well-worn baptism and chances are a sinewy, time-tested faith will be close at hand. Not an infant, naïve or presumptuous kind of faith, but a strong grip on the gracious work of God in Christ that brings perseverance and hope.
And it’s my sense that most of us have baptisms that look a lot newer than they really are, in some cases shiny, unworn and still-packaged. And we’re the worse for it.
What does it mean to have a “used” or “unused” baptism? We make use of our baptism when we “improve” it. Westminster Larger Catechism 167 explains:
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.
As you can see, our baptism is to be used by us constantly in perpetuity – “all our life long.” As visible words, the sacraments are visible signs through which “the benefits of the new covenant are represented…” (WSC 92) What else do we mean at the Lord’s table when we say that we “proclaim the Lord’s death” until he comes again except that we are proclaiming the Gospel? (1 Cor. 11:26) The sacrament preach the Gospel visibly.
With all of the debate in the broader church about baptism, the most fundamental and frequent misunderstand is to insist on limiting its benefits to the time of administration. As Presbyterians, we insist to our Baptist friends that the efficacy of baptism is not tied to the moment of administration, that infant baptism looks forward to saving faith that is yet future. But the point of WLC 167 is that the appearance of saving faith is to be but one of countless moments in life when we derive benefits from our baptism. So whether someone is a Presbyterian or a Baptist, she can look back to her baptism through faith in Christ in order to continually draw saving grace from it.
Simply put, whenever I am in doubt, discouraged, hard-pressed, tempted, lonely, forsaken, persecuted, fearful, anxious, indignant or beset, I can gaze through the eyes of faith upon the Gospel when I remember my baptism and when I see others baptized. I can see in baptism Christ dying for my sin, my union with him such that my death became his and his resurrection became mine. I can see the purging of my sins in the washing of the water. I can see final judgment rendered against my old nature as the flood waters overwhelm it. I can be sure that the old man will surely die just as God’s word pronounces that the soul that sins shall surely die. I can be confident that I am not my own, but the Lord’s, because I have died to the Law and it has no claim over me. I witness the new man borne out of the watery womb. A faith-worn baptism will never wear out but will grow more useful and blessed with use.
Some will object – almost impulsively at times – that such a view of baptism invites presumption. In their minds, infant baptism inevitably leads to false confidence. They will say that drawing confidence from an external sign is dangerous. After all, hell has many baptized members who had the form of true religion but not its substance.
Presumption is real and it is an insidious danger. Just as pornographers will bend marriage sensuality into smut, unregenerate hearts will smear baptism into sensual self-confidence where there is no ground for it. But just as we must pity the husband and wife who lie apart when their covenant bond has opened the door to a world of comfort and pleasure, we should also pity the believing soul who refuses the warm embrace of Christ held wide if he would remember his baptism.
We improve our baptism not just by remembering that we were baptized, but as well when we witness the baptism of others. Whenever we witness a baptism in worship, I try to remember to lean into the ear of each of my children to say “You are baptized. God made promises to Mommy, to you and to me. You belong to him.” More than once I have seen their eyes widen – especially in their little years. I want them to know that the devil sees the water when he wants to cause them harm and he sees the mark that they belong to the Lord. I want them to know that, even though Satan got to them first in Adam’s sin, that God has asserted His claim over them as children of the covenant.
I’ve often participated in and witnessed debates about rebaptism. It’s been a while since someone was executed for rebaptizing, but it still can cause a stir. During the presbytery examination of an ordinand, it’s a good bet he will be asked his view of the subject and whether he would perform a rebaptism. The subject can still bring division. Disagreements over baptism still cause Christians to break fellowship. Sometimes pastors capitulate when asked to rebaptize someone because the person is so insistent, hoping the person’s weak faith will be strengthened. But we would do far better to teach that person to improve the baptism he already has, the one that is still neatly packaged in its original wrapping, rather than give him another one to place upon the shelf. If the plaintiff hasn’t used his first baptism, what assurance is there that he will use his second, or his twelfth baptism?
We pastors compound the ignorance about improving baptism by making the child the exclusive focus at infant baptisms. It certainly is appropriate to celebrate the child’s promises from God, even if the child is not yet sensible to them. And they are so cute before they can talk back or spend money. But I have rarely (if ever) heard a minister say to the congregation, “Watch and remember, for this is what God has done for you!”
For Martin Luther, the lifelong usefulness of baptism was a frequent refuge. The stories are well-known of how, when under the oppressive hand of Satan and his pointed barrage of accusations, Luther would shake his fist at the ceiling and shout back “I have been baptized!” It was out of such a life that he wrote
Heaven is given unto me freely, for nothing. I have assurance hereof confirmed unto me sealed by covenants. That is, I am baptized, and frequent the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Therefore I keep the bond safe and sure, lest the devil tear it in pieces. That is, I live and remain in God’s fear and pray daily unto Him. God could not have given me better security of my salvation, and of the Gospel, than by the death and passion of His only Son. When I believe that He overcame death and died for me, and therewith behold the promise of the Father, then I have the bond complete. And when I have the seal of baptism and the Lord’s Supper prefixed thereto, then I am well provided for.
One of our last acts in Michigan as a family (I’m still commuting, but Vicki and children are in the Sunshine State) was to attend the finale concert of my daughter’s music camp at the University of Michigan. During the concert at Hill Auditorium, a spectacular acoustic site, the boys’ chorus sang a sea chantey about love for the sea – “Bound to the Wave” by Dietrich and Moore. That song evokes the life of a sailor for whom the sea is home and the land is strange. The chorus emotes the rise and fall of the swells and includes the refrain
Water our mother, water our grave
And we shall be bound to the wave.
The true sailor’s life begins and ends with life upon the water. The Christian’s surest life draws upon the waters of baptism. Baptism preaches to us our union with Christ in his baptism so that we have resurrection life –water our mother – which enables us to die to self and live to him because we have been bought with a price and we are the Lord’s – water our grave.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
With no apologies to Kevin Costner’s infamous movie fiasco Waterworld, we are invited to live out our lives in the water world of our baptism – the world to come which has come near in the dying and rising of Christ our Lord, the world in which we are now citizens and this world’s claims against us have been voided, the water world of judgment flood through which righteous Noah, the Israelites out of Egypt and we have emerged because the judgment due us flooded over our Savior Jesus Christ. Pull your baptism out of the storage trunk and put it to good use next Lord’s Day.
As he that sees a dark and shady grove,
Stays not, but looks beyond it on the sky;
So when I view my sins, mine eyes remove
More backward still, and to that water fly,
Which is above the heav’ns, whose spring and rest
Is in my dear Redeemer’s pierced side.
O blessed streams! either ye do prevent
And stop our sins from growing thick and wide,
Or else give tears to drown them, as they grow.
In you Redemption measures all my time,
And spreads the plaster equal to the crime;
You taught the book of life my name, that so
What ever future sins should me miscall,
Your first acquaintance might discredit all.
–George Herbert (d. 1652)
Tabletalk (Orlando, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 2004), p. 232.