John the Baptist called sinners to a baptism of repentance. Why, then, did the sinless Jesus come to baptized by John? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his expositional series in the gospel of Luke to underscore the eternal significance of Christ’s baptism on behalf of His people.
We’re going to continue this morning with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. We’re still in the third chapter, and I will be reading from Luke 3:15–22.
Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all, “I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”
And with many other exhortations, he preached to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, being rebuked by him concerning Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done, also added this, above all, that he shut John up in prison.
When all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened. And the Holy Spirit descended in bodily form like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven which said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.”
This is, perhaps, the briefest account of Jesus’ baptism in the Gospels. Nevertheless, the content is of extreme importance. We need to engage our minds in seeking to understand the full significance of it, and to receive it into our hearts and souls as the Word of God. Let us pray.
Again, our Father, as we seek a fresh understanding of this event in the life of our Lord, we need Your help, and we ask that the same Spirit that descended upon Him as a dove, might come to our aid this morning, to illumine this text for us and to bring it to our hearts and to our souls. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Machen’s Final Telegram
In 1929, things were critical theologically in the Northern Presbyterian Church. The theology called liberalism that had spread through Europe in the nineteenth century, which was basically and foundationally a theology of unbelief, had infected the mainline denominations in our country. Sadly, it had even infected the seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, which had been the greatest seminary in American history.
In 1929, several of the faculty members of Princeton left to start a new seminary in Philadelphia that would be committed to orthodox Christianity. The brain trust that came to establish Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia included such stalwart theologians as Oswald T. Allis, Robert Dick Wilson, Cornelius Van Til, Paul Woolley, and a host of others. They were led by J. Gresham Machen, who became the first president of Westminster Theological Seminary. I doubt that there was ever before, or since, a group of such profound scholars and faithful theologians gathered in one place as these men were in Philadelphia.
In 1937, at the Christmas break, Machen became ill with an upper respiratory infection. This, of course, was before the time that widely used antibiotics such as penicillin were available. He had committed to go to North Dakota to give a series of lectures over the Christmas holidays. His colleagues on the faculty pled with him not to go. They urged him to stay to recover his health because he was so desperately needed for the work there in Philadelphia. Machen, however, refused to heed their advice, saying, “I made this commitment to the people in North Dakota, so I’m going.”
He made the arduous journey by train, bus, and other means to a small town in North Dakota, where he was going to give these lectures. But by the time he got there, his illness had become much more serious, and he became literally sick unto death. As was the case, he would not be able to return alive to Philadelphia.
While he was dying there in North Dakota, he sent a telegram to his friends and colleagues on the faculty at Westminster Seminary. It was a brief telegram, but pregnant in its meaning. He said in the telegram, “Grateful for the perfect active obedience of Christ.” That was it—the sum and substance of his last words to his friends and colleagues: “Grateful for the perfect active obedience of Christ.”
My guess this morning would be that there are many in this congregation today who have never heard of the idea of the perfect active obedience of Christ. However, it is an extremely important doctrine in Christian theology. Historically, the distinction is made between the active obedience of Jesus and the passive obedience of Jesus.
The passive obedience of Jesus refers to His willingness to acquiesce to the Father’s mandate that He offer Himself as a sacrifice and an atonement for the sins of His people on the cross. Jesus did not resist His executioners. He told them, “You have no power over Me, but I lay down my life for My sheep.” He was passive in His reception of the penalty for sin as our sin-bearer.
In contrast to passive obedience, which really was an action even though it was a passive action, we have the active obedience of Jesus, which refers to His whole life of living under the law in total subjection to the Father, actively and willingly obeying everything the Lord God commanded Him to do. It was said of Him that His meat and His drink were to do the will of the Father, and zeal for His Father’s house consumed Him.
The Reason for Jesus’ Baptism
Christ’s active obedience is directly related to our text about the baptism of Jesus. Many people are perplexed with the question, “Why was Jesus baptized at all?” Wasn’t the baptism of John the Baptist a baptism for repentance of sin? Wasn’t the very ritual itself a cleansing rite, in which John the Baptist commanded people to come be cleaned and to repent of their sins? Jesus had no sins to repent of. He was the lamb without blemish. He, so far in His life, had already lived a life of perfect active obedience without sin.
If we’re perplexed by why Jesus submitted to baptism, we have to recognize that nobody was more perplexed than John the Baptist. The people were asking questions among themselves with reference to John: “Is John the Christ? Is He the Messiah that is to come?” John put those rumors to rest. He said: “There is One coming after me who is mightier than I am. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He must increase, and I must decrease. I’m not even worthy to loosen the straps on his sandals.” John pointed people toward Jesus.
Then came the day when Jesus walked through the crowd up to the river and presented Himself to John to be baptized. John was shaking his head: “What are you doing? I’ve been announcing to the people that You’re the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. I can’t baptize you. You should be baptizing me.”
John protested and tried to engage Jesus in theological argument about this procedure. Finally, Jesus cut him short. He cut the Gordian knot and said: “John, I don’t have all day to engage you in a theological discussion. We can cover these matters later on if you’d like, but suffer it now, John. Just do it. It has to be done. It’s necessary to fulfill all righteousness.”
Let me speculate for a second. Jesus could have said to John the Baptist: “John, this is just a covenant ritual that we’re doing. No harm, no foul. Just go ahead and baptize Me, and I’ll explain it later.” He could have said that, or He could’ve looked John in the eye and said, “John, you need to do this because this is a matter of life and death.” We have no record that Jesus ever said that to John, but the concept that I’ve just made up is completely sound because whatever else Jesus’ baptism was, it was a matter of life and death. Why is that?
The Greater Adam
To understand Jesus’ baptism, we have to understand something about Jesus’ role in His earthly ministry as the new Adam—or, as Paul calls Him sometimes, the second Adam—the One who comes after the first Adam. Adam was the father of the human race who was, we are told, a type of the One who was to come. The greater Adam would come to bring salvation to the human race.
Let me briefly read a portion of Paul’s teaching on this matter in the fifth chapter of the book of Romans. He also covers the same material in 1 Corinthians 15, but briefly, he writes to the Romans these words:
Therefore, just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned—(For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those who had not sinned according to the likeness of the transgression of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come. But the free gift is not like the offense. For if by one man’s offense many died, much more the grace of God and the gift by the grace of the one Man, Jesus Christ, abounded to many. For if by the one man’s offense death reigned through the one, much more those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of righteousness will reign in life through the One, Jesus Christ.)” (Rom. 5:12–17)
This was a matter of life and death. Through Adam’s transgression, the whole world was plunged into ruin, and death came upon the entire human race. In contrast, by one man’s obedience comes life. Without the perfect active obedience of Jesus, He would not have done for us what Adam failed so miserably to accomplish. To understand this, we must go back to the Old Testament and look at it in the context of covenant.
The First Covenant
There are covenants throughout the Bible. For example, we have the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with Moses, and the new covenant that we have with Jesus in the New Testament. There are covenants all through the Scriptures, but the first covenant made with human beings was made with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. We call this the covenant of creation.
The word adam means “man.” Adam represented the entire human race, so that when God entered a covenant with Adam, He was entering into a covenant with every human being who would ever live. God promised eternal life, the benefit and blessing of this covenant of creation, if Adam obeyed the provisions and the stipulations of the covenant. The negative sanction, however, was this: “If you disobey the terms of this covenant, you will surely die.” He did not only say, “You will die,” but, “The day in which you eat of that fruit, you will surely die.”
You know the story. The serpent came into the garden, first to Eve, with a subtle, crafty, leading question: “Did God say that you’re not allowed to eat of any of the trees in the garden?” Of course, God didn’t say that. Satan knew perfectly well that God had never forbade them to eat from all the trees in the garden. But Satan is subtle. He is crafty. The implication is: “God might as well have forbidden you from all of them. If He put any restriction on you, you weren’t really free.”
Initially, Eve fought for the angels and said: “No, God didn’t say that. He gave us this wonderful garden. He said that of all these trees in the garden, we could freely eat, but there’s one tree, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that we’re not allowed to touch, or we’ll die.”
Then came the direct assault. The serpent said: “You won’t die, and God knows you won’t die. God doesn’t want you to touch that tree, because He knows that if you eat from that tree, you’ll be like Him, knowing good and evil.” Seeing that the fruit appeared beautiful, Eve ate the fruit from the tree and then encouraged her husband to join her in this rebellion.
The First Redemptive Act
You would expect that at the moment Adam and Eve put that fruit in their mouth and tasted it, they would’ve dropped dead right there. They did drop dead right there spiritually, but not physically. Their physical deaths were postponed, and God tempered His judgment with mercy and grace.
Do you remember the first experience Adam and Eve had when they ate of the forbidden fruit? They suddenly became aware of their nakedness, and they were ashamed. They went and hid themselves, so when the Lord God came in the cool of the evening, He said, “Adam, where are you?”
He discovered that they were hiding from Him. He asked, “Why are you hiding?” “We’re ashamed,” they responded. “Why are you ashamed? Did you eat from the tree?” “Lord, we’re naked.” “I made you naked, and when I made you naked you weren’t ashamed. You didn’t have any guilt. Why, all of a sudden, do you feel naked? Why do you feel exposed? Why do you want to hide from Me?”
In His first act of redemption, God condescended to fashion clothes for Adam and Eve, to cover their nakedness and shame. He made a promise to them. By the same time He cursed the serpent, He was promising that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. In that promise, God was saying that there would come another Adam, a new Adam, who would do what Adam failed to do and bring life rather than death.
Justification by Works
In recent years, there has been a movement among professing evangelical Christians to reject the doctrine of the perfect active obedience of Jesus. Why would they want to do that? They reject the idea of this first covenant that we call the covenant of works. We distinguish between the covenant that God makes with Adam, the covenant of works, and every covenant after that, the covenant of grace.
Those opposed to the idea of the covenant of works say: “Any covenant that God gives to human beings is an act of grace. They don’t deserve to be in a covenant relation with God.” Nobody argues that point, but when we distinguish historically between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, we know that God never was required to make any covenant with us all. We won’t argue that point, but those covenants that He made differ regarding how the benefits would be received.
In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were on trial. They were on a period of probation. If they obeyed and kept the faith, they would receive life. If they disobeyed, they would receive death. In other words, if their works were righteous, they would live. If their works were evil, they would perish.
I don’t know if there is anyone in this world who has labored more in our day on behalf of the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone than I have. I speak as a fool, but as much as I believe in the doctrine of justification by faith alone, I tell people: “Remember, at the end of the day, there’s only one way to be justified in the sight of God, and that’s by works.”
You ask, “How can you say that you believe in justification by faith alone, and then turn around and say at the end of the day that justification is by works?” My answer is this: “The covenant of works that God gave to Adam and Eve is still in effect. The only way to satisfy the demands of God is through good works. Nothing less will do.”
The reason the covenant of grace is called the covenant of grace is because God now says, “It’s not by your good works that you’ll be saved, but by somebody else’s good works.” You perish because of the first Adam’s bad works. You’ll be saved by the perfect righteousness of the new Adam, whose works are without blemish, and whose works are given to you, if you put your trust in Him.
I know that there are people who still believe that their good deeds and trying to live a good life will get them into heaven. If you walked into this church building this morning with that belief in your head, let me beg you to leave it here and forget it, because you have no chance. Only one person has ever satisfied the law of God, and that’s Jesus.
That is why Jesus’ submission to the baptism of John the Baptist was a matter of life and death. God required it of everyone, and as the new Adam, entering a corporate solidarity with His people, He submitted to that requirement of the law, so that His acts of righteousness may be perfect. What I am saying is that you are justified by works, and not your own works, but the works of Jesus. He is our righteousness.
Recently, I was in another church performing a funeral memorial service. Before the service, the pastor was leading me back to his office where I could get ready for the service, and Vesta was with me up to the door. Just as I was ready to go in, she said to me, “I’ll be here after a while, darling boy.”
The minister turned and asked me, “Darling boy? What’s that?” I said, “That’s just one of those terms of endearment Vesta uses for me.” Don’t we all have terms of endearment for our spouses? That’s just one of many. I like it, “Darling boy.” I like it when she calls me, “Robbie, dear heart,” or, “Robin dearest,” or sometimes, just simply, “Bunny.”
I think her favorite term of endearment for me is one that many people have never heard her use. She calls me “Spot.” She doesn’t call me that after the dog in Dick and Jane, or See Spot Run. There are other better reasons for her calling me Spot. She calls me Spot because I use blood thinners, and every time I bump my arm against the wall, or my dog scratches my arm, I might bleed. I have spots all over my arms. She calls me Spot for that, but that’s not the only reason, or even the chief reason.
When we go out to eat, Vesta says, “I know this is embarrassing, but would you please put your napkin under your collar, like the Godfather in an Italian restaurant?” and then she says, lovingly, “Spot.” If I don’t put that napkin there, I’ll come home with spots all over my shirt and all over my tie because I make a mess of myself, then she has to clean those spots out. She sees those blemishes. There is no napkin in the world, however, that can hide the spots on my soul, the blemishes that would be there indelibly, unless the covenant of grace and the righteousness of Jesus, the Lamb without blemish, could remove those spots from my soul and from yours.
The Father’s Pleasure to Save Us
Jesus went into the water and was baptized by John. This marked the beginning of His earthly public ministry, the moment He was anointed and became the Christos, Messiah. The heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him like a dove to empower Him for His redemptive mission.
This One, who had only known a perfect active obedience in His entire life, heard the voice from heaven: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” It is because of the Father’s pleasure that we escape from the consequences of the sin of Adam, who plunged us into ruin. The new Adam, the second Adam, is the only One who can help you if you have ever sinned. There’s no other name under heaven through which men may be saved but the name of Jesus.
I hope you understand what J. Gresham Machen was saying to his colleagues with his telegram, “Grateful for the perfect active obedience of Christ.” He was obviously restricted by space and vocabulary. We ought to be deliriously grateful for the perfect active obedience of Christ, for without it, we perish. Let’s pray.
Father, how we thank You for the perfect righteousness of Jesus, whose righteousness You have transferred to our account and imputed to us, where we don’t deserve it, where we cannot earn it. We know that He alone can fulfill the covenant of works for us. Our works are worthy only of being burned with unquenchable fire. The only merit we have of our own before you, O God, is demerit. But by Your grace, You give to us the merit of Jesus, now and forevermore. Amen.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.