Grace Glorifies Nature
Today’s sermon is a stand-alone topical message before we begin our new series on Abraham and Isaac next week. As a topical message, I’m not going to exposit a single passage, but instead draw together a few different passages from the Bible. What I want to do is draw some connections between three aspects of today’s worship gathering: child dedication, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. To do so, I need to say something about nature and super-nature, or the natural and the supernatural.
By “nature”, I mean God’s normal and ordinary way of acting which is experienced by all people regardless of their religious commitments. When we say something is “natural,” we mean that it is normal, common, everyday. It’s the same for everyone. We might call this “common grace,” in order to emphasize that it is a kind of graciousness and favor from God that everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, receives. For instance, The Psalms tell us that God’s mercy is over all that he has made (Psalm 145:9). Jesus says in Matthew that God causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall and the righteous and the unrighteous. Sunrise and rainfall are normal and natural.
By “super-nature”, I mean God’s extraordinary way of acting which is experienced only by his people. This is what theologians call “special grace,” because not everyone benefits from it. The new birth is supernatural. Being filled with the Holy Spirit is supernatural. Living the Christian life is supernatural. For simplicity’s sake in this sermon, I’m going to call the supernatural “grace,” and the natural I’ll simply call “nature.”
There’s a lot to say about these two, but for our purposes today, I want to highlight the simple claim that grace (or super-nature) glorifies nature. Grace brings nature to its highest and proper perfection. And I want to demonstrate this by focusing on the three elements in today’s worship service—child dedication, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Let’s begin by highlighting the natural features of each of these acts.
Having and raising children is natural. You don’t have to be a Christian to have a baby. You don’t have to be a Christian to adopt and raise a baby. Giving birth and raising children is something that Christians and non-Christians alike both do. Babies (whether birthed or adopted) are natural, normal, and common. Likewise, water is natural. You don’t have to be a Christian to take a bath or go for a swim. Water is normal and common and every day. So is eating bread and drinking wine. Everyone eats, and everyone drinks. These are natural and normal and common. There is nothing peculiarly special or Christian about babies and parenting and water and bread and wine. They’re just natural.
But here in this service, something happens. Grace takes these normal, natural, and common things and glorifies them. It takes them above nature and makes them special. To see how, we need to highlight how babies and water and bread and wine are situated in the acts of child dedication, baptism, and communion. So I’m going to walk through each of them and highlight a common thread. In each of these acts, there are two sides: a divine side and a human side, or what we might call “Grace” (from God) and “Faith” (on our part). When we speak of grace, we’re saying that God is the one who initiates, who gives, who starts things off, who gets the ball rolling. When we speak of faith, we’re speaking of our response to God’s gift and imitation. And our response is a paradoxical one—it’s an active receiving. In dedicating children, in baptism, and in Communion, we’re doing something. We’re active. We’re not passive bumps on a log. But our action is a particular kind of action. It’s a receiving, a resting, a hoping in, a clinging to, a relying upon, a delighting in. It’s what we call faith. So let’s think about how we see grace and faith in each of these acts, and thereby see how grace glorifies nature.
When we dedicate our children here, what are we doing? Think about it from the divine side and human side.
1. From the divine side, God is the Creator and Sustainer of Life, the giver of every good and perfect gift, including children. “You knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139). Children are a heritage from the Lord (Psalm 127). And that’s true, whether we bear children or adopt children. God is the giver of children.
2. From the human side, we are receiving the children as gifts from God. Think with me about an important passage on the gifts of God. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul warns about false teachers who will forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created. And what he says about marriage and food can equally be applied to children. God created marriage and food and babies “to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” So there’s faith. We are to receive the gifts of God, including children, with gratitude and faith. He continues, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy (or sanctified) by the word of God and prayer.” When we receive children with faith and thanksgiving, we set them apart (that’s what the word “sanctify” means).
Now in dedicating our children, we must remember that there is nothing magical or automatic about dedicating a child. Birth and parenting are natural; the new birth is supernatural. Dedicating these babies does not guarantee that they will grow up to follow Jesus and be saved from their sins. Instead it is a commitment on the part of the parents to raise their children in the instruction of the Lord, believing that God has placed them in our homes for a reason. In other words, when we talk about faith at a child dedication, we’re talking about the faith of the parents. Christian parents are spiritual, supernatural shelters for their children. Children are like birds nesting in the branches of gospel trees. And we shelter them in faith and in hope that one day they will grow up and embrace the faith of their fathers and follow Jesus for themselves.
So in our child dedication, we acknowledge God as the giver of life and children, and we respond in faith, committing ourselves to shepherding our children by grace into the truth of the gospel. And when we do that, we take something natural—having and raising children—and make it supernatural. Grace glorifies nature.
When we have our baptism here in a few minutes, what are we doing? Again we can look at both the divine side and the human side.
1. In baptism, God makes promises to us. “If you trust in Jesus, your sins will be washed away. If you lose your life for Jesus’s sake, you will find it. If you die with Christ, you will be raised with him.” God represents his very great and precious promises to us through immersion in water. It’s a visual promise to us from God.
2. In baptism, we believe God’s promises. We identify with Jesus and say, “Yes, God, I receive Jesus as Savior, Lord, and Supreme Treasure.” In baptism, God marks us as his children and his servants. In baptism, we take up the mantle of what it means to follow Jesus. It means we are worshipers, who put God first in our lives. It means we are servants, who seek to love and bless others in the church. It means we are missionaries, sent out by God to tell the good news of Jesus to everyone. Baptism, then, is like being knighted; it’s a public recognition of our adoption into God’s family, and an ordination to his service as a member of his household. That’s why we baptize believers when they profess faith. Following the biblical example, we believe that while baptism is something that is done to us (we are baptized), it is also something that we submit to. We enter the water willingly, of our own volition. We are willingly marked. We gladly take upon the yoke of following Jesus. We joyfully submit to the waters.
And when we are immersed in those waters, we signify our share in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Romans 6:3-4: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 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.” Baptism is a visual picture of the old sinful man dying, and the new spiritual man being raised from the dead. It’s a picture of the washing away of our sins that we might be holy and blameless in God’s sight.
So again, in baptism, God is the gracious giver of promises, offering us salvation and cleansing through the work of Jesus. And we respond in faith, gladly receiving that salvation and joyfully submitting to Christ’s calling upon our lives to be worshipers, servants, and missionaries. And so, when we baptize, God takes something natural—simple water—and make it supernatural. Grace glorifies nature.
The Lord’s Supper
Finally, when we take the Lord’s Supper together, what are we doing? Again, look at it from the divine side and the human side.
1. At the Lord’s Table, Jesus takes simple food and offers it to us in order to represent his body and his blood. His body was broken for us. His blood was shed for us. His death purchased for us every good thing we will ever have. And so at the Lord’s Table, Jesus offers himself to us afresh in a visual promise.
2. And, as in baptism, we receive the promises by faith. We believe that Christ’s sacrifice for us has in fact cleansed us from our sins and made peace with God. Through him, we are restored to fellowship with God and we are heirs of all of his promises. If baptism marks our formal, public entrance into the family of God, then the Lord’s Supper is the regular family meal. Which is why, we believe that before you participate in the Lord’s Supper, you ought to be baptized. At the Lord’s Table, we remember what Jesus has done for us in reconciling us to God.
But not just what he has done for us. I was reminded of this as I helped my son Sam prepare for baptism. At one point, I asked him to explain the good news of Jesus to me. And he said, “Jesus is going to come back and make a new world that is perfect.” And I stopped him and I said, “That’s true, but I’m asking what Jesus has already done?” And then he told me, “He died on the cross for our sins so we wouldn’t have to die.” But as I thought about it, I realized, he was right. The gospel, the good news, includes not just what Jesus has already done, but what he has promised to do when he returns. He will make a new world without suffering and sin and sorrow and death. A new world full of life and light and unending joy. And, Paul tells us, that’s what we proclaim when we take the Lord’s Supper. 1 Corinthians 11:26: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”
The Lord’s Supper anchors us between what Jesus has already done for us and our salvation, and what he will do for us and our salvation. At the Lord’s Table, we remember the Last Supper that Jesus shared with his disciples before he died, and we anticipate the First Supper, the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, in the new world that Jesus will make when he returns.
And so again, at the Lord’s Table, Jesus is the gracious giver of promises, the giver of himself to us. And, by faith, we receive Jesus and the benefits of his death, remembering his death for sinners and awaiting the glorious day when everything sad comes untrue. When we take the Lord’s Supper, God takes something natural—simple bread and simple wine—and makes it supernatural. Grace glorifies nature.
Now I’ve been highlighting two aspects of each of these acts—what God does and what each of us does as individuals (as parents, as those being baptized, as each of us comes to the Table in faith). But there is a crucial third dimension of child dedications and baptism and the Lord’s Table. And that’s that we don’t do these things alone. These are corporate acts, things we do together, as the body of Christ. When we dedicate children, as a church, we receive both the children and the parents in the name of Jesus, committing ourselves to loving and caring for them for Jesus’s sake. Child dedications aren’t just about God and parents and children. They’re about God and parents and children and the church. When we baptize new Christians, we receive the baptized as our brothers and sisters in Christ. We welcome them as fellow prodigals who have found their way home and we receive them as members of this body, worshiping with them, and serving with them, and seeking the good of the Cities with them. Baptism isn’t just about God and the baptized. It’s about God and the baptized and the church. And, of course, at the Lord’s Table, we eat and drink together. It’s not just you and Jesus with your bread and wine in a cocoon. We pass the bread and wine; we share it with each other. So much so, that when the pastors and deacons serve the elements, we don’t take the bread for ourselves, but we hold the basket for each other, as a reminder that this is a family meal. Through many hands, enriched by many kinds of love and labor, the gift comes to us. The Lord’s Table isn’t just about Jesus and you. It’s about Jesus and you and the church.
So here in this service we have seen and will see many natural, normal, common things—babies and parents and water and bread and wine. But when we see and receive these things with the eyes of faith, wondrous things happen. Grace glorifies nature. So receive and dedicate your children, trusting in the grace and promises of God. Enter the waters of baptism, trusting in the grace and promises of God. Take and eat the Lord’s Supper, trusting in the grace and promises of God. And do all of these things, for your joy and the glory of God.