Remembering Your Baptism in Counseling
When the troubled waters of your problematic emotions come crashing upon the shores of your soul, remember and improve upon your baptism.
This is, of course, a summary statement of the counsel contained in both the Scriptures, and, secondarily, the Westminster Larger Catechism Question 167, but it is counsel that warrants fresh consideration as it contains great hope.
Throughout broader evangelicalism today, there may be no more important a doctrine neglected by the church, that offers more hope to the suffering believer, than that of the sacrament of baptism and all that it signifies and seals to us.
As the church has modernized, psychologized, and become more "sophisticated," she has in some very important ways drifted from the common means of grace, most often identified as the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments (i.e. baptism and Lord's Supper).
This is an unfortunate condition, especially as regards counseling and the care of souls, as each of these three means offers the church at large, and the individual believer an opportunity to have their faith renewed in the face of life's most dominating circumstances.
More Than a Symbol
Have you ever considered how your baptism relates to your troubled emotions, such as sadness, depression, anxiety, fear, anger, and lonliness? If you hold to the most common assumptions about baptism found within evangelicalism today, the answer is probably something like "Not really."
Despite what the church, and in particular the Reformation era church, has historically confessed about baptism (see WLC Q.165 or 1689LBC 29.1), the evangelical church of today has to some degree emptied the sacrament of its useful force in the Christian life. Here's how one popular Christian church describes baptism:
Baptism is a symbol. It’s meant to show the world that that you love, trust, and have put your hope in Christ. It’s like a wedding ring.
Is that right? Is baptism most properly considered to be an act of the human will in obedience to the NT command of Christ? Or, is there more to the story?
One helpful excercise for us to undertake as we consider how "remembering" and "improving upon" our baptism might help us in times of trial and distress is to consider OT Israel's exodus out of slavery to Egypt, and in particular, her miraculous and typological Red Sea crossing.
This historical event, told for us in Exodus 14, is notably referred to as a type of baptism by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 10:2. And, throughout the OT, the post-exodus generations are repeatedly encouraged to "remember" what the LORD did in leading his people out of slavery to Pharoah.
Why these exhortations to "remember"? Because Israel needed constant reminding of God's enduring faithfulness to his covenant promises in the face of their own national and individual trials. The people needed to be reminded that despite everything they saw with their eyes, that hope was not dependant on hopeful circumstances.
The Red Sea crossing, as a type of baptism, was a key moment in the life and history of the nation, and perhaps most importantly, a profound reminder of God's promise to his people to be God to them and to their children (Gen. 17:7).
A Visible Gospel
In similar fashion, Scripture would have us remember, as NT Christians, all that is signified in our own baptism. To be sure, if our "stirring of the waters" is merely held to be our outward profession of faith in and faithfulness toward God, then this sacrament may be reduced to a matter of law, a battering ram to drive us toward repentance when we are faithless (i.e. Remember your profession of faith in baptism!).
But, this is hardly (i.e. not uniquely or primarily) what it means to hold baptism as a "means of grace" (see WLC Q.162).
When we are called upon to remember and "improve upon" our baptism, we are being called to look back upon all that God accomplished for us in Christ, in accordance with his covenant promises to the church, despite the difficult and troubling circumstances we might be facing, whether they were brought about by our own sinful deeds or through some form of natural suffering.
If we are God's adopted children by faith, that is, if we are "in Christ," then the promises of God abide for us always. The call to improve upon our baptism is not a call to add our own works to something lacking in the sacrament itself, but to consider and apply the fruit of salvation by grace alone to our troubled minds, preaching the gospel to ourselves as we recall the truths that were sealed to us at the moment of our baptism.
John Calvin, in his sermon on Galatians 3:26-29, said, "If we had no hope to comfort us, we would surely sink in despair. But let us return to thoughts of baptism, and assure ourselves that God did not call us in vain to partake of the purity of his only Son and unite us to him" (emphasis mine).
This, Calvin would say in keeping with the Scriptures, is how we might properly think of and use our baptism for our encouragment and sanctification in grace when troubled emotions and troubling circumstances come against us.
Properly considered, your baptism is the sign and seal of God's promise to you (Acts 2:39).
Remember it. Improve upon (your application of) it. Use it.
1. Write down the circumstances surrounding your coming to Christ by grace alone through faith alone, followed by your experience of baptism. If you were baptized as an infant, speak to your parents about the events of that day, or consider how the promises of God worked in your life in the years that followed.
2. Write a short list of the emotions and thoughts you've experienced in your current trial. How do the promises of God, sealed to you in baptism, stand contra the false gospel that our hearts are compelled to believe when circumstances appear hopeless.
3. Make a list of ways in which you can "remember" seeing God at work in your life, and then relate them specifically to what is signified in your baptism. Write a prayer to God, expressing your gratitude for his covenant faithfulness, despite those times in which you have been faithless (see Heidelberg Catechism Q.2).