Every week at our church, our worship service closes with these words:
We have been the church gathered for worship. We are now the church sent out on mission. In the words of Jesus, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This Great Commission is grounded in the universal authority and personal presence of Jesus with his people. All authority is his, and he is with us always. And this authority and this presence is what authorizes and enables us to accomplish his mission.
The mission of the church is to disciple the nations, to call people to trust in Jesus, to follow Jesus, and to obey Jesus. This is the what of the mission, and it is globally focused. All nations are called to the obedience of faith. But what about the how of mission? How should we accomplish this commission to disciple the nations?
Jesus gives us the how in the two subsequent clauses: We disciple the nations by baptizing them and by teaching them to obey Jesus. Discipling by teaching makes intuitive sense. A disciple is a learner, and increasing obedience to the commands of Jesus represents the life of discipleship. But why include baptism as one of the fundamental means of accomplishing this mission?
We commonly say that baptism in the triune name represents entrance into the people of God. But we ought to think more deeply about how we weave together baptism, the church, and its mission.
Called into the Invisible Church
In speaking of the people of God, we often distinguish between the invisible and the visible church, as well as the universal and the local church. These distinctions are not identical. The first distinction is based on visibility, on whether you can see it. The second is based on proximity, on whether the other members are near or far.
The church as universal and invisible is one body composed of all those, in every time and place, who are chosen in Christ and united to him through faith by the Spirit. This church is not yet seen with the eyes, nor felt by the hands, but known only by God. Indeed, the invisible church is created by the invisible effectual call of God.
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul distinguishes between the external preaching of the gospel and God’s secret work in calling sinners to himself. Paul preaches Christ crucified, which is a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23). In other words, some who hear the external preaching of the word reject it. However, others — whom Paul identifies as “those who are called” — hear the word and see Christ crucified, not as foolish and a stumbling block, but as divine wisdom and power (1 Corinthians 1:24).
This internal (invisible) effectual call is accomplished by the secret work of the Spirit, working through the external (visible) preaching of the gospel. We call it effectual because it effects the new birth. It creates what it commands by calling forth faith in those whom God calls. The called embrace Jesus as Lord, Savior, and Treasure, and are thereby united to him. And not only to him, but to each other as one body, the invisible church.
Baptized into the Visible Church
The church as universal and visible is composed of all those who are baptized in the triune name and do not undermine that profession by any persistent errors or unbelief that destroy the foundation of the gospel. The visible church is created and sustained by the external call, by the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments.
The visible church then gathers together at a local level. The church as visible and local (often in many local manifestations) is composed of all those in a given area who agree to gather to hear the word of God proclaimed, to engage in corporate worship, to practice the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, to build each other’s faith through the manifold ministries of love, to hold each other accountable in the obedience of faith through biblical discipline, and to engage in local and world evangelization.
How then does baptism relate to these? At Desiring God and Bethlehem College & Seminary, we define baptism as follows:
Baptism is an ordinance of the Lord by which those who have repented and come to faith express their union with Christ in his death and resurrection, by being immersed in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of belonging to the new people of God, the true Israel, and an emblem of burial and cleansing, signifying death to the old life of unbelief, and purification from the pollution of sin.
Drawing these threads together, baptism marks entrance into the universal and visible church and is a prerequisite for membership in the visible, local church. When we’re baptized, it’s as though we’ve been issued a passport that allows us to join the various embassies of God’s kingdom scattered throughout the world.
Once and for All
Though receiving the passport and joining the local embassy frequently occur in quick succession, it’s important to keep them distinct. Baptism doesn’t mark our entrance into the local church, but into the universal, visible church. Expressing it this way accounts for the fact that Christians are not re-baptized every time they join a new local congregation. Instead, their one baptism is recognized by all subsequent congregations as meeting this requirement for membership.
Now back to our weekly commission. Every week, the visible, local church gathers to hear the word of God proclaimed and to worship him in Spirit and in truth. And then, having been gathered, we are sent out on mission, scattered by the Spirit in the world in order to be salt and light. And as we do so, we mingle with members of other visible, local congregations. Often, we link arms with them as members of the universal, visible church, marked out by baptism and increasing obedience to Jesus.
And together we seek to preach the good news of Jesus to all people in hopes that through that preaching, Jesus will draw all nations to himself and unite us to himself and to each other by his Holy Spirit.