Theology, the truth that is from God and about God, is for the life of the church. Jesus is building His church by making disciples who follow Him, confessing the truth that He is “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). Disciples are those to whom Jesus gives life so that they will walk in His way according to His truth. As Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31–32).
In the Great Commission, Jesus sends His disciples to make disciples and build His church throughout the world. How are the disciples to make disciples? Jesus sums up that huge task in two remarkably brief points: His disciples will make disciples by baptizing them and by teaching them. If these words of Jesus were not so familiar, many of us might find this summary somewhat surprising. We might well expect the commission to teach, but including the commission to baptize in such a short summary is perhaps unexpected. But surprises invite reflection and meditation. As we think about it, we can see how appropriate and helpful this is.
We see in this commission that the making of disciples has two parts: bringing them in and building them up. Disciples are those who have been brought in by baptism and are built up by teaching that changes lives.
Jesus directs our attention to baptism not in the narrow sense of just the water ceremony but in the broader sense of all that baptism involves. We can see this clearly in the ministry of John the Baptist. His ministry of baptism includes his preaching of good news (Luke 3:18), his call to repentance (v. 3), and his insistence on the fruit of repentance (v. 8). Baptism includes both preaching the promises of God and calling for the proper response to those promises. Baptism truly brings disciples in, calling them to begin the life of faith.
Baptism in this sense is properly foundational to being a disciple because baptism holds forth the promises of God and also calls for the faith and commitment of those baptized. The central promise of God to sinners in baptism is that God will wash away their sins and forgive them. When Jesus in the Great Commission specifies that His disciples will baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, He shows that the promise of baptism comes from the triune God and is guaranteed by the Trinity.
The baptismal liturgy of the Dutch Reformed churches, written in the sixteenth century and used for centuries in those churches, helpfully elaborates on the distinctive roles and promises that relate to each person of the Trinity. This liturgy declares what baptism means and what baptism promises to the people of God, not what the water of baptism accomplishes in each person baptized. In baptism, God the Father promises that He “makes an eternal covenant of grace with us and adopts us for his children and heirs.” In baptism, God the Son promises that He “washes us in His blood from all our sins, incorporating us into the fellowship of his death and resurrection, so that we are freed from our sins and accounted righteous before God.” In baptism, God the Holy Spirit promises that He “will dwell in us, and sanctify us . . . till we shall finally be presented without spot among the assembly of the elect in life eternal.” These promises in baptism declare the heart and center of our gospel hope. Baptism is not simply an external ceremony or simply the action of the church or of a believer. It is in the first place “a visible Word” expressing the preached Word of the gospel promise as we read, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).
In this Dutch Reformed baptismal liturgy, the theology of baptism is laid out for the church. It shows the meaning of baptism from God’s side in the promises proclaimed, but also from the human side in the call to commitment. That call to commitment is powerfully expressed:
Whereas in all covenants there are contained two parts, therefore are we by God, through baptism, admonished of and obliged unto new obedience, namely, that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; that we trust in Him, and love Him with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a godly life. And if we sometimes through weakness fall into sins, we must not therefore despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin, since baptism is a seal and indubitable testimony that we have an eternal covenant with God.
To be a disciple is to hear the promises and then believe and live them.
Baptism necessarily connects us to the church. Baptism is never simply individual because it must be done by another. Baptism is by the church and into the church. The Christian life is not a solitary life but is lived in the community of faith. Christ is building His church, and we are to be members of it, not just as a formal connection but as a key part of our lives as disciples.
In addition to commanding baptism, Jesus directs us to teaching to build up the lives of God’s people. Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus taught the truth as to what His disciples should know and how they should live for Him. His Apostles continued that work of teaching with His full authority. Jesus’ teachings, both from His earthly ministry and from His Apostles, were gathered and preserved for His church in the Holy Scriptures. The church that follows Christ faithfully teaches His theology from the Bible so that Christians will know the truth and live it.
Such teaching is a great undertaking. Jesus does not call His church to teach basic truths or some of the truths or even many of the truths of God’s Word. He commissions us to teach all that He has commanded. We may prioritize truths, but we have no right to eliminate any of them. He calls us to a comprehensive knowledge of this will and a complete and full life consecrated to Him.
One of the most serious dangers that churches can create for themselves is to tamper with the teaching of the Bible. They can do that by rejecting, distorting, ignoring, or adding to some of the teaching of Jesus. Liberal churches eliminate teachings that are not intellectually or morally acceptable to their minds. Evangelical churches have too often tried to make Christianity more attractive to unbelievers by teaching only a simple or streamlined gospel.
By contrast, the Reformed churches have tried to be comprehensively biblical in their teaching, which is reflected in their confessional standards, full of doctrine and ethics.
In the church, both the ministers and the people are responsible for thorough teaching. The ministers must plan carefully what they will teach and how to communicate in a way that truly builds the people up. The Word of God is the repository of truth for the church, and the ministers must teach it. They must resist the pressure to become entertainers or pop psychologists.
The people of God, especially in a democratic culture, also have a very serious duty. They must encourage the ministers to teach the whole counsel of God and eagerly seek and support such teaching. Otherwise, the church will remain seriously immature. Paul wrote warning the Corinthians: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still in the flesh” (1 Cor. 3:1–3). The same point is made in Hebrews:
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (5:11–14)
Immature churches and immature Christians are still caught up in the flesh and so have become dull of hearing. The mature church listens eagerly to the Word to learn and be trained in discernment and righteousness. The church needs theology to make disciples, both those who are brought into the church and those who are built up in the truth. Ligonier is dedicated to providing faithful teaching materials to help build up disciples in the truth.
Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples will not be fulfilled completely until all God’s elect have been brought into the church. We have much to do in difficult circumstances. But we have the great promise of Jesus to sustain us in our calling: “Behold, I am with you always to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).