THE BAPTlSM OF JESUS.*
I desire to invite attention to what may seem a somewhat new, but what I trust will be esteemed an entirely legitimate, defense of a fundamental article of our denominational faith. I propose to approach the subject of baptism and its symbolism from a single side, and that, not the dogmatic or polemic, but rather the historical. There was such a baptism as the baptism of John ; and Christ himself, the embodiment of Christianity and the pattern for the church, was baptized by John in the Jordan. I am persuaded that the proper understanding of that baptism of Jesus will throw a new and valuable light upon the meaning of baptism in the case of Christ's followers. Let us first, then, try to put ourselves back in those far-off times, and figure to ourselves how the baptism of Jesus came about in the natural order of his life, and expressed the meaning of that life. We shall find doctrinal and practical lessons all along, but at the end we may stand aside, as it were, and look at the great truths which, like separate colored rays, converge and meet and blend in that scene upon the banks of the Jordan.
Let us put ourselves back, I say, — back into the times preceding the ministry of John the Baptist, when the gospel of the kingdom was just preparing to break in upon the world. The thirty peaceful years of Jesus' early life were past. The vast work, which at the first had appeared dim and distant as a form in the mist, had drawn nearer and nearer, and had now assumed the hard outline and definite proportions of tremendous and inevitable fact. What prophets had foretold, what his own being demanded, that must be. Connected in every fibre of his being with the common nature of mankind, he saw that he must suffer, the just for the unjust. It could not be that human nature should fail of enduring the settled and necessary penalty of its sin. And he not only had a human nature, but in him human nature was organically united as it never had been before except in Adam. If the members suffered, should not also the head?
When he was but twelve years of age, the consciousness of this divine commission had dawned upon him. Sitting as an humble questioner before the doctors of the law, the conviction had become overmastering: "I am he — the teacher and prophet promised long ago, the fulfillment of this spiritual law which the doctors cannot comprehend, the suffering Messiah against whom their pride rebels; I am he — the Sent of God, the Son of God." And the eighteen years that followed had made this conviction part and parcel of his very being. Growing with his growth and strengthening with
* Originally prepared as a sermon upon the text, Mat. 3:15— " Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness," and preached before the Cincinnati Baptist Union; printed in the Examiner, February la, and February 19, 18S0.
his strength, it had taken up into itself all the energies of his soul, conscious or unconscious, until his life and his work were identical, and he could say: "Lo ! I come to do thy will, O God!"
Can we imagine that such years as these were free from agitations and anxieties? Can we imagine that the looming-up before him of so grand and yet so terrible a destiny was accompanied by no struggle and no temptation? We know little, it is true, of those early years. But we know that Jesus was very man as well as very God, and tried in all points like ourselves. Peaceful years these doubtless were when compared with the conflict and agony to come, but only peaceful as years of preparation for that conflict and agony — peaceful as the quiet stationing of batteries and filing by of troops on the morning of some day whose sun is to set in blood — peaceful as Niagara above the cataract, whose smooth waters, possessed with an irresistible gravitation, break at length into rapids as they go, as if in conscious preparation for that final moment when, agitated to their utmost depths and with one consent of majestic self-abandonment, they hurl themselves into the chasm below.
But now at last even such peaceful days as these were over. A voice sounded out like a trumpet-call from the wild region near the Jordan, summoning the nation to repentance, and proclaiming the speedy approach of the Messiah. It was the voice of John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the prophets, the new Elijah, in his shaggy herdsman's dress of camel's hair, the appointed herald and forerunner of the Kingdom. If the whole land had been a whispering-gallery, the news could not have gone on swifter wings. The all-penetrating power of Luther's theses in Germany was not more wonderful. It roused whatever there was left of patriotic and religious feeling in Judoea and Jerusalem. Sunk as they were in formalism and worldliness, thousands upon thousands flocked from city and country, and were baptized in Jordan, confessing their sins. The voice pierced even to the distant valleys of Galilee, and the villages around Nazareth poured forth their recruits to John's army of penitents. For nine whole months the work went on ; spring, summer, autumn went by, and winter came at last; the wave of excitement had swept over all Palestine; the whole land was in a fever of expectation; every eye was looking for the appearance of that grander Personage, the latchet of whose shoes John was not worthy to unloose.
And where was Jesus? In the carpenter's shop of Nazareth, calm, silent, unrecognized, yet nourishing a world of mighty thoughts, feeling within him a thousand forward-moving impulses, yet waiting in patience and selfrestraint the time appointed by the Father. Strong as were the inward impulses that urged him forward to his work, he could not move from his place till John's preparatory ministry had accomplished its purpose. And so, while Nazareth was full of rumors, and scores departed every week for the Jordan, the household of Mary remained undisturbed. Only Jesus recognized in John's work the sign that his time was at hand.
There came a day, however, when, just as calmly as he had performed his humble duties of son, brother and citizen, he left these duties forever, left the home of his childhood and the carpenter's bench at which he had worked so many years, to enter upon the labor and struggle and suffering that belonged to him as the world's Redeemer. It would be matter of intense interest if we could follow each separate step of his journey as he made his way, humble and unnoticed among the crowd of pilgrims, "to Jordan, unto John." But we are left to conjecture here. Whether he held himself aloof from the multitude and proceeded in silence, or mingled in the talk and wayside worship of his townsmen, we do not know. But we do know that it was with solemn mind he went. The crisis of his life was just before him. He was to break all the ties that bound him to the pa^t. He was to give himself to the greatest work man ever had to do. He was to receive his final anointing as Prophet, Priest and King. Not in the might and glory of his divinity, but as a lowly and agitated son of man, seeking divine grace to help in time of need, did Jesus come to John to be baptized of him.
And here is the first great meaning of his baptism. It was essentially a self-consecration. He came to commit himself to the vast work that was before him. He felt just as you or I feel on the eve of some great enterprise that is to task to the utmost our fortitude and patience and virtue. He felt the weakness of mere human nature, and the need of strengthening it by solemnly and publicly pledging himself before God and angels and men. So — if we may compare great things with small — so Gustavus Adolphus felt, when, on leaving Sweden to fight for Protestantism in Germany, he assembled the States-General, committed his infant daughter and successor to their care, and before all the magnates of his kingdom vowed to deliver Germany or die. So the disciple of Christ only follows in the footsteps of his Savior, when he strengthens his resolves and commits himself to the service of his Master by publicly and solemnly expressing his allegiance and devotion in his baptism. For there wns a human side to every action of Jesus' life. Here, when he came to meet his destiny, and give himself to that mighty work whose distant prospect had been at once so fearful and so grand, we cannot doubt that there was all the natural shrinking and anxiety, all the overwhelming burden of responsibility, that could rest upon the heart of any son of man. And we lose sight of a most important feature of Jesus' baptism if we fail to see that it was a solemn inauguration of his public ministry, in which he strengthened his soul by publicly consecrating himself to the unmeasured toils and trials which that ministry in its very nature involved.
But this was only the first element in its meaning. It was also a symbol of his death. The consecration was a definite consecration — a consecration to death,—and this was the second thing expressed in his baptism. What baptism meant to Jesus, he himself intimated nearly three years after this, and about four months before his death. He had been speaking of the power of the gospel when his work should be completed and the full glory of it should dawn upon the world. To his imagination, the mighty effects of it could only be compared to those of fire and flame, seizing upon human nature and purifying it in every part, but destroying all that refused to be refined. "I am come to send fire on earth, and what will I? Oh, that it were already kindled!" But even while he looked forward with longing to that day, the thought came to him that he himself must be baptized in blood before he conld baptize with fire; all the dreadful pains of the cross rose before his eyes; the gulf of death that was to swallow him up yawned at his feet; his soul was the scene of an agony and a conflict such as fell on him in the temple and in the garden; he cried in distress: "I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!"
Still another incident in Jesus' life needs to be compared with this, that we may see what idea was in Jesus' mind when he spoke of a future baptism. You recollect the request of the ambitious sons of Zebedee, who desired to sit, the one on his right hand and the other on his left, in his kingdom. It occurred only three or four weeks before Jesus' crucifixion. Examine Jesus' answer to this request of James and John, and you cannot fail to see that the "baptism " he referred to was his death. He told them that the pathway to glory with him must be through a death-suffering like his own. "Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" Here the cup was the cup of suffering which was pressed to his lips in Gethsemane, when he cried to the Father: "If it be possible, let this cup pass from me ;" and the baptism was the baptism of death on Calvary aud of the grave that was to follow.
But how could death present itself to his mind as a baptism? I answer, the being immersed and overwhelmed in waters is a frequent metaphor in all languages to express the rush of successive troubles; und to our Savior's mind the dreadful sufferings and bitter death before him seemed like deep and dark waters, into whieh he must go down until their heavy floods swept over him and his life was drowned beneath the billows. In the words of the Psalmist, Christ could say: "I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me. All thy waves and thy billows havo gone over me. Then the waters overwhelmed me; the stream went over my soul; then the proud waters went over my soul." The suffering and death and burial which were before him presented themselves to his mind as a baptism, because the very idea of baptism was that of a complete submersion under the floods of waters. So apprehended, there is an untold sublimity in the figure that flashed upon his mind. Death was not poured upon him,— it was no sprinkling of suffering which the Savior endured, but a sinking into the mighty waters with which death and the grave overwhelmed him.
See the significance of Jesus' baptism in Jordan. It was no merely formal and ritual act — there are none such in Christ's religion — least of all were there any in the life of Christ himself. All his words and deeds were instinct with life and meaning. There was nothing arbitrary in this transaction which signalized the beginning of his ministry and the public consecration of himself to the work he had to do. No, the essential feature of that work was his death, — that was ever in his eyes from the beginning to the end. All his teaching and his suffering was but the prelude to that. The cross, the grave, the resurrection — these were the crown aud consummation of all, coloring all the events that came before with their own matchless and crimson light. And so the baptism of Jesus was not only his public consecration of himself to the work before him, but it expressed the essential nature of that work,— in other words the baptism of water at the beginning of his ministry consciously and designedly prefigured the baptism of death with which that ministry was to close.
Stop here one moment to mark the incidental proof which this fact gives us of Jesus' understanding, from the very commencement of his public life, the meaning and the end of that life. The final agony and death-struggle, when they came, were not, as some skeptics have maintained, unforeseen and surprising contingencies to him, but were the precise events for which he had long been preparing, and to the accomplishment of which he had voluntarily and knowingly devoted himself in his baptism. With full knowledge of what was to come, Jesus "gave himself for us." In the words of one of the purest of religious poets :—
"As at the first, thine all pervading look
Saw from thy Father's bosom to the abyss,
Measuring in calm presage
The infinite descent,
"So to the end, though now of mortal pangs
Made heir, and emptied of thy glory awhile,
With unaverted eye
Thou meetest all the storm."
I have spoken of Jesus' baptism, first, as an act of self-consecration, and secondly, as a symbol of the death to which he devoted himself. Let me speak of it now, in the third place, as a proof of Jesus' connection with humanity, with its sin and its desert of death. Jesus' connection with human sin, and his consecration to death for the sins of the world — how clearly that stands out in the baptism! Jesus came to Jordan to submit to John's baptism of repentance. And what was John's baptism of repentance? Nothing less than the total immersion of the body in water, the plunging of each penitent beneath the swift-flowing current, in token that he who submitted to it "buried himself into death as one laden with guilt and defilement, and rose as a new man to a new and holy life." But Jesus personally, and in every act and thought of his life, was sinless; upon what possible ground could he undergo this rite which properly belonged to sinners? And here we come to the greatest mystery of God's grace, the person of Jesus Christ, and his assumption of the common nature of us all. If Jesus had no connection with a sinful and lost humanity, or if that connection with a sinful and lost humanity had been merely a factitious and forensic one, then it would have been the grossest breach of justice, the sheerest insult to purity, the most extravagant of absurdities, that the Lord Jesus should have submitted to an ordinance which was in itself, in some sense, a confession of sin and a declaration that this sin deserved nothing less than death.
I am persuaded that we can never explain the baptism of our Lord, unless we remember that Jesus was "made sin for us," taking our nature upon him, with all its exposures and liabilities, yet without its hereditary corruption, that he might redeem it and reunite it to Qod. But this one mighty fact, the taking upon him of our nature, this does explain it. As one with humanity, he had in his unconscious childhood submitted to the rites of circumcision, purification and redemption, appointed by the law, and all of these were rites appointed for sinners. As one with humanity, he was yet to "put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." *' Made in the likeness of sinful flesh," he foresaw that the crowning act of his earthly work must be to "descend into death, laden with the guilt of humanity, and as a glorified conqueror rise from the grave, the head of a new and holy race." This was the truth to which he testified in his baptism, that since "without shedding of blood there was no remission," and he had taken to himself the nature that had sinned, he had taken to himself death also, and "it must needs be that Christ should suffer." So Christ's baptism was an emblem of the burial of a sinful humanity into death, that it might rise in him to life and glory.
It is in the light of Jesus' participation in our nature and consequent connection with human sin, that Jesus' words: "Thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness," stand out in their full splendor of meaning. John, you remember, had refused to baptize Jesus. Either from previous acquaintance or from prophetic insight, John had recognized him, at his coming, as the holiest being he had ever known. It seemed to him most unfit that the greater should be baptized by the less. Baptism belonged only to such as were in some way under the power and penalty of sin,—how could one who was "holy, harmless and undenled" testify that he was under sin's curse and misery? Ah, how dim and imperfect even then were the Baptist's conception of Jesus' work! Not yet had he reached that loftiest summit of Old Testament revelation from which his eyes beheld the cross and he could cry: "Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh, and so taketh away, the sins of the world."
It was to remove this very reluctance of the Baptist, that Jesus uttered those memorable words: "Suffer it to be so now, for thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness." And what did he mean but this, that only through the final baptism of suffering and death which this baptism of water foreshadowed, could he "make an end of sins," and "bring in everlasting righteousness" to a condemned and ruined world. It is that final baptism which is chiefly, if not altogether, in the Savior's eye when he says: "Thus it becometh us." The righteousness of which humanity had come short he was to fulfill — that which humanity had lost he was to restore. But he could not be "the Lord our Righteousness," the head of a new race and the source of righteousness for all mankind, except by first suffering the death due to the nature he had assumed, thereby delivering it from its exposures and perfecting it forever. Therefore he came as the lowest and hnmblest of all that crowd of pilgrims, came as one laden with the guilt of humanity, to submit himself in symbol to the death that was its due. How fully John understood the words of Jesus, we do not know,—we only know that "then he suffered him." Those words about "fulfilling all righteousness," uttered by one who was himself so righteous, overbore his doubts, and "the Redeemer descended with his forerunner into the rapid waters of the sacred river," and there was buried in the likeness of his coming death, and raised again in the likeness of his coming resurrection.
The coming resurrection, did I say? Yes, there was a foreshadowing of the coming glory, as well as of the coming sorrow. The events that followed had each their separate meaning. Think with what profound emotion Jesus must have come up from that Jordan-flood. The die was cast; the step was taken; henceforth there was no possible retreat; it was as if the marks of death had already been sealed upon hands and feet and brow. The past was past forever. No longer the isolated meditative days of Nazareth, but a public life of continual struggle and temptation, with the staring eyes of the whole world upon him. And on a little way further were the shame, the agony, the cross, the grave. How shall he enter these shadows, how shall he endure these pains, how shall he perform this work? I point you to the scene itself for your answer. See the Savior going up that river-bank — see those uplifted hands — see the great soul, unconscious of the crowds that gaze upon him, and only rapt in one intense desire for the comfort and strength of God, beseeching even there the help and blessing of his Father
— aye, even while his eyes are lifted to the hills whence alone his help can come, see the quick answer from above : "the heavens opened and the Spirit of God," the Spirit of grace and power, of wisdom and comfort and peace, "descending like a dove and lighting upon him "— never more to leave him till his work is done, and he receives his crown and his reward.
Nor is this all. The Spirit and the Son are there, but this is not enough. About this transcendent scene the lustre, not of one or two, but of all three persons of the blessed Trinity must shine. The Father also speaks from the heavens above: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." As the descent of the Spirit is the anointing and qualifying of Messiah for his work of Prophet, Priest and King, so the voice from heaven declares the acceptance of his consecration to death, and attests his commission from God as divine Redeemer of mankind. Jesus not only went forward knowingly to his final baptism of death, but he went forward in conscious accord with God's eternal plan and as executor of the counsels of heaven.
What blessing and relief came to that overburdened heart with this double answer to his prayer, we can but poorly conceive. What assurance must have flooded his soul — assurance that in all the dreary road before him, his humanity should never be left to its own native weakness, but should find in God a very present and almighty help in time of trouble! More than this, the descent of the Spirit was a pledge of victory — a pledge of victory grander than ever was vouchsafed to ancient warrior on the eve of battle. It was God's own seal set at the beginning upon Jesus' work — the seal of Him whose counsels never fail, and who is omnipotent to execute his purpose of salvation. These divine attestations, what do they signify but this, that the descent into the grave should not be forever; he should rise again trinmphant — the heavens should be once more opened to receive him; attended by thousands of angels and with ten thousand times ten thousand coming forth to meet him, he should be welcomed to a seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, while to all the universe God should say: "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."
Thus far I have endeavored to set forth, in its historical connections and aspects, that most impressive and sublime act with which Jesus inaugurated his public ministry. I have described his baptism as a self-consecration, as a consecration to death, as a consecration to death for human sin. Let me conclude my presentation of the subject by summing up the symbolic teaching of this momentous transaction, and so exhibiting what seems to me its great doctrinal and practical value.
I see in the baptism of Jesus, first of all, a vivid representation of the illdesert and fearful penalty of sin. I recollect a picture of the Deluge by Gustave Dore1, in which the rising waters have submerged all but the highest hill-tops. On these, under an angry sky, lit up only by vivid lightnings, are gathered the only survivors from among the wicked. Pale and frantic, they fight with wild beasts and with one another for the topmost place of safety. They hold appealing hands up to the heavens, but the heavens are black and mutter thunder. They look down to the surging waves beneath, but these gain upon them every moment, until conquered and despairing they fling themselves upon the bare rocks and there await their dreadful inevitable doom. A few moments more, and the ravenous waters will engulf them and sweep away their name and memory forever. That picture of Gustave Dore is a picture of the destiny of the human race, a picture of your destiny and mine, left to our sin and to the judgments which follow in its train.
But there is another picture of the desert and end of a sinful humanity, more striking still. The baptism of Jesus, how solemnly that speaks of the floods of divine anger that must envelope a guilty race! What! must one who is purity itself, nay, divinity itself, go down into death, merely because he has united himself to my nature? Then my nature must be under the ban and curse of death. Must Jesus be overwhelmed with suffering, simply because of that which he has in common with all men that have ever breathed? Then all men must by virtue of that same nature be under the wrath of God. Aye, ten thousand times more than he, for all men have not only inherited this nature, but have wilfully perverted their way and set themselves against the law of God. I see, then, in this sinking of Jesus beneath the waters of the Jordan, the declaration that all mankind are doomed to hopeless burial. If Jesus, personally sinless as he was, found that the taking of human nature involved death, how much more shall we, who are personally guilty and defiled, find that "the soul that sinneth, it shall die."
Secondly, Jesus' baptism presents to us a picture of human nature delivered from the penalty and power of sin. If it had been God's purpose to set forth simply the death that was due to sin, we should have seen Jesus drowned beneath the waves forever. But this was not all. God purposed also to represent humanity as coming up new-born from the grave where its sin and guilt were buried. I need not only to see an emblem of the death that is due to sin — I need also to see that this death has been endured for me. I need not only to see that human nature has borne the penalty — I need also to see that human nature has exhausted the penalty, and has risen from it trinmphant and free. And this I see depicted in the baptism of Jesus. His sinking beneath the Jordan-current typified a death actually endured by human nature in him. His rising from the stream once more, and his recep" tion of those attestations from on high, typified the resurrection of that same human nature, its deliverance from the last remains of sin, and its new condition as redeemed from the bondage of the law, filled with the Spirit of God, admitted to the honors of sonship in God's family, and glorified in and with Jesus Christ its Lord.
Years ago I saw in a European gallery that masterpiece of Thorwaldsen, the Danish sculptor, Christ and his Apostles. The eye wandered from one to the other of those twelve marble forms, and in each there was some characteristic expression that riveted the attention. There was the impulsive boldness in the very lines of Peter's face. The tender melancholy of Thomas, the artless openness of Philip, the seraphic ardor of John, were all imaged in the solid stone. But then each face reminded you also of its possessor's peculiar weakness. Peter's rashness and instability, Thomas's doubting, were there. The more you gazed upon the statues of the apostles, the more you felt a lack — here were only fragmentary virtues,—and with these virtues were defects and sins. But, standing in a half circle as they were, each form by its attitude or look or gesture seemed to point you to the centre, as if all their hopes and affections gathered there. And there was the figure of the Christ, greater than they in height, and far transcending them in dignity. In that one majestic form all the good in them seemed united, and on that calm commanding brow there was ineffable holiness and peace. How often, as I have vainly sought through the ages for an example of perfectly emancipated humanity, have I thought of Thorwaldseu's Christ! How often, as I have struggled with the forces of evil in my own nature, have I seen in that remembered master-piece of art the mute assurance that there is one who has conquered sin and death for me, and who has lifted human nature up into union with God and likeness to God! Towering above all the forms of men I see the risen Jesus, and in him my nature ransomed, purified, perfected, glorified. Aud this sublime fact, this sublime hope of humanity, I see symbolically represented in Jesus' baptism. His rising from that watery grave teaches me that there is now a human nature "without sin," and over which "death hath no more dominion " forever.
But some are doubtless saying: "How difficult it is to believe that this external work of Christ has anything to do with us! Christ's risen and glorified humanity — that is not ours — that cannot be made ours." Yes, I answer; yes, it may be made ours — it is ours. And this is the third lesson taught us by Jesus' baptism. That baptism affords me a picture also of the method of my personal salvation, by union with the crucified and risen Jesus. I also must die to sin by having Jesus' death reproduced in me. I must rise to a new life by having Jesus' resurrection reproduced in me. I must enter into communion with the death and resurrection of my Lord — yes, I must participate in both. The putting away of the sin and guilt of humanity, which was the essential feature of Jesus' work, must take place in me; and this I must do by having my life incorporated with his life, so that his mighty life within lifts me out of the dominiou of sin and death into his own region of life and peace. It was humanity that bore the curse in his death, and all the true life of humanity rose from the dead in his resurrection. Now if I am united to him and participate in this new humanity of which he is the head, I may take for mine not only all that Jesus has done, but all that Jesus is. In other words, my union with Christ must result in a change within me; and I can never be saved unless I so appropriate the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus that there results within me a corresponding death to sin and resurrection to holiness.
Lot me illustrate what I mean by a curious tract which I once saw. It was entitled: "The Seven Togethers." It was nothing more nor less than a combination and exposition of seven remarkable passages with regard to the union of the believer with Christ. These "seven togethers" are seven links of a golden chain that binds us indissolubly to the Eedeemer. They .are: 1st, Crucified together with Christ; 2dly, Quickened together with Christ; 3dly, raised together with Christ: 4thly, Seated together with Christ in heavenly places ; Othly, sufferers together with Christ; Gthly, Heirs together with Christ; 7thly, Glorified together with Christ. In these Scripture phrases is the whole essence of the Gospel; for it is nothing else than union with a personal living Christ that saves us, a union with him by faith, such that what he has done in the past becomes ours, and we know in the present "the fellowship of his sufferings, and the power of his resurrection, being made conformable unto his death." And this great truth of salvation for all, upon the simple condition of uniting themselves to Jesus by faith, I see set forth in the baptism of Jesus. I see not Jesus only, going down into the grave and coming up a conqueror, but myself also — yes, and every believer, too — giving to death the body of the sins of the flesh, and rising in him to life and glory.
Finally, we should see in this transaction a picture of the duty of those who have believed in Jesus. To all such there comes the obligation to profess his name before men. And in what way should they profess his name? If what has been said is true, then the entrance of the soul into the communion of Christ's death and resurrection should be signified to the world by a baptism like his. Nothing but the total immersion of the body in water will answer the design of the ordinance, on the one hand, because nothing else can symbolize the greatness and radical nature of the change effected in regeneration — a change from spiritual death to spiritual life. Nothing else will answer the design of the ordinance, on the other hand, because nothing else can set forth the fact that this change from spiritual death to spiritual life is connected with and wholly dependent upon the death and resurrection of Jesus. We owe all to Christ's work for us. Is it too much that we should signify this obligation in the symbol by which we declare our change to the world?
Just here is the reason why we cannot alter the form of the ordinance. We cannot alter it, because we cannot take out of it its reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus, and to our spiritual death and resurrection with him. As Jesus' baptism pointed forward to his death and resurrection, so the baptism of the believer points backward to the same. And wheresoever baptism is administered, whether by John the Baptist, or by the apostles, or by the later ministers of Christ's church, it points evermore to that great .central fact of the Christian scheme, that one death by which we live, the death of the God-man for the sins of the world. Thus "it becomes us" also "to fulfill all righteousness," first, by dying to sin in spirit and rising to a new life of penitence and faith, and then by symbolizing our dependence upon Christ's death and our consecration to a life like his, by following in his footsteps who was buried by John beneath the waters of the Jordan. The course which the Savior took is the course for those who profess to follow him, for '' the servant is not above his master, neither the disciple above his Lord."
In this common reference to the death of Christ we have the link which binds the two ordinances of Christ's church together. They both and equally are symbols of the death of Christ. In baptism we show forth the death of Christ as the procuring cause of our new birth into the kingdom of God. In the Lord's Supper we show forth the death of Christ as the sustaining power of our spiritual life after that life has once begun. In the ordinance of baptism we honor the regenerating power of the death of Christ, as in the Lord's Supper we honor its sanctifying power. Thus both the ordinances are parts of one whole -— setting before us Christ's death for men, in its two great purposes and results. The two ordinances combined constitute a double monument to the historical fact of Jesus' death for the sins of the world. As the children of an Israelitish family, gathered at the Passover festival, asked of the father, who sat at the head of the board, the question: "What mean ye by this service?" and the father answered: "It is the sacrifice of the Lord's Passover," thus handing down to the coming generation the memory of the great deliverance which God had wrought in old time for their nation, so now the world asks and the church explains what she means by this double service of Baptism and of the Lord's Supper. And her answer, according to the Scriptures, must evermore be this, that in these two ordinances, she preserves a symbol of that great historical fact of her own past deliverance through the shedding of Christ's blood. To change the form of the ordinance of baptism is to break down a mighty monument to the great central fact of the Gospel — to break down a monument which God himself has set up, that it may witness to all the world that Christ has died to save it. A form that signifies purification simply, is not sufficient. Baptism symbolizes purification, indeed, but purification in a peculiar and divine way, namely, through the death of Christ and the entrance of the soul into communion with that death. The radical defect of sprinkling or pouring as a mode of administering the ordinance is this, that it does not point to Christ's death as the procuring cause of our purification. In baptism we are bound to show forth the Lord's death as the original source of holiness and life in our souls, just as in the Lord's Supper we are bound to show forth the Lord's death as the source of all nourishment and strength after this life of holiness has once begun. To substitute for the broken bread and poured-out wine of the Communion some form of administration which leaves out all reference to the death of Christ, would be to destroy the Lord's Supper, and to celebrate an ordinance of human invention. And in like manner, to substitute for Baptism any form of administration which excludes all symbolic reference to the death of Christ, is to destroy that ordinance. Without immersion, you have baptism no longer, but an ordinance of human invention. It is for this reason that we stand for baptism in its integrity — not because of the form itself, but for the sake of the unspeakably important truth which the form embodies; not for the sake of indulging private preference or fancy, but that the church may witness continuously and consistently, in her ordinances as well as in her preaching, to that truth which constitutes the soul of her soul and the life of her life.
I have somewhere read that the mortar which cements the stones of the great mosque of St. Sophia, at Constantinople, still retains the fragrance of the musk that was mingled with it when Justinian built the edifice in the sixth century as a temple of the Lord. The infidel Turk has captured and spoiled it; the worship of Christ has given place to the religion of Mohammed; the cross has been humbled, and the crescent seems to utter over it from year to year a silent and symbolic boast of growth and conquest; yet still a keen sense can discern exhaling from the very substance of the structure the imperishable aroma of that early devotion that counted the costliest perfumes none too precious to enrich and sanctify the house of God. The ordinance of baptism is like the church Justinian built,— the fragrant spices of Jesus' burial are wrought into its very structure, and yield their perfume from age to age. Through all the vicissitudes of Christian history, its due administration is a visible witness and memorial of the death of Christ, a proof even to the senses of that matchless love that endured the agony and bloody sweat, the cross and passion, and that weut down into the darkness of the sepulchre that it might "open the kingdom of heaven to all believers." Wonderful symbol ! combining in one picture all the essential truths of the Christian scheme, expressing not only the fact of death to sin, and resurrection to righteousness, but also the method of that fact— through the union of our souls with a dying and a risen Savior! Let this ordinance in which the believer follows his Master's example of consecration be forever sacred to us. Let us preserve it in its integrity, as the Lord has delivered it to us. Witnessing it, may we ever find it an encouragement to hope and an incitement to duty. And as the life and death of Jesus answered to the consecration which he made on the banks of Jordan, so let our lives witness that at our baptism we truly died to sin and rose to newness of life!