What is Christian baptism? What does it represent, and what do the scriptures teach about it? I would like to devote some time to this important element of the Christian faith, that is often misunderstood and neglected by a great portion of the professing Church of Jesus Christ. Let’s begin with John the Baptist, as we explore this topic.
John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. And there went out unto him all the land of Judea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins. Mark 1:4-5 KJV
John’s purpose was to prepare the way of the Lord. He was the voice of one crying in the wilderness. We see him point to Jesus and say, “Behold the Lamb of God which taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:23, 29) However, before one can see, the thing that blinds them to the truth of Jesus must be dealt with.
The baptism of John was a baptism of repentance for the remission of sin (Luke 3:3). In the spirit and power of Elijah, John was declaring to the people that they must repent. To put it in simple terms, repentance is turning around. We are going in one direction, indulging in sin, and living for ourselves. To repent is to turn around, now walking in the opposite direction, serving God; living for Him in obedience to His commands and will.
Baptism, the immersion of oneself in water, was the outward sign of this inner change of heart that the people experienced. To undergo the rite of baptism publicly was a “loud” statement for a Jew of this time period to make. In order for a Gentile to become a convert to Judaism, he must undergo baptism. Imagine now an Israelite, having been circumcised, a member of the faith by birth, coming to the realization that “having Abraham for a father” was not sufficient, but that if they would know God in truth, they must repent of their sins, in submission to Him (Luke 3:8)! It must have been a humbling thing to go down to the river and be immersed, confessing their sins!
In John’s baptism, something was required! The people coming to him were repenting of their sin. Their baptism was a sign of this repentance. They were urged to bear fruit in keeping with repentance (Matt 3:8. In other words, if they were truly repentant, they would live it; they would cease to sin, and start to live right. To be merely baptized without this change of heart and life meant nothing. The baptism of John was no empty ritual, instead it was life changing, as people came to get right with God.
In the book of acts we see Peter also exhorting his audience to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins (Acts 2:38). John pointed the people to Jesus. Now we see Peter, portraying Christ crucified, risen, and ascended. This is the fulfillment of John the baptist’s words,
I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire. Matthew 3:11 KJV
On the day of Pentecost three thousand were added to the Church. In repentance, they were baptized into Jesus Christ. Again, this was no empty ritual. These individuals were cut to the heart, and in godly sorrow they repented, and turned to Christ for the remission of their sin, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We read that this promise was not limited to Peter’s audience, but the promise of the Holy Spirit remains for us today as well (Acts 2:39). Those who believe in infant baptism will use this to “prove” that infants should be baptized. Take a careful look however, and you will see that the promise is not baptism, but the Holy Ghost, and the requirement in this passage of scripture is repentance and baptism.
The Apostle Paul gives us a wonderful picture of baptism in his epistle to the Romans,
Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. Romans 6:3-4 KJV
To be baptized into Christ is to be dead to sin! The inward reality of baptism is the change of heart; the giving up of sin, and the turning to Christ. Death, burial, and resurrection are represented by baptism. The one baptized (immersed) in the water is dead and buried, and comes up out of the water resurrected unto new life. If any man be in Christ Jesus, he is a new creation. The old is passed away, behold, all has become new (2 Cor 5:17). Baptism is no empty ritual. It is a proclamation made by faith, that the one being baptized has committed his or her life to follow Christ. This “identification” with the cross of Christ, and His resurrection, becomes a living reality in the life of the one who has been washed in the water of rebirth, and experienced the renewal of the Holy Ghost (Titus 3:5). Sadly, many miss the point, being baptized as infants, and believing that the mere ritual alone has saved them; that they are dead, buried, and resurrected with Christ in a figurative sense only, but it is all God requires. They are terribly misled.
There is another aspect to baptism as well, it is faith in Christ. Jesus tells us that the one who believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16). Faith is essential to our salvation. True Biblical faith however is much more than mere head knowledge. We can believe all of the historical facts about Jesus, but still find ourselves lost in sin. The repentant sinner comes to Christ in faith, trusting Jesus to not only deliver from the guilt and penalty of sin, but also the power of it as well. Faith in Jesus is a faith that acts upon what is believed. Linked closely with repentance, it is a faith that submits to Christ; a faith that surrenders to His Lordship and control over ones’s life.
In Mark’s account of the great commission, Jesus commands His disciples to go into all the world with the gospel. He who believes and is baptized will be saved, he who does not believe will be damned (Mark 16:15-16). Here Jesus places faith as a requirement for salvation, and links it with baptism. In the mindset of the people in Biblical times, a conversion without baptism was unheard of.
Look at the Ethiopian eunuch in the book of Acts. He hears the gospel of Jesus Christ, and immediately upon seeing some water, he asks, “What hinders me from being baptized?” He wanted to convert! He desired to now follow Jesus. Philip’s answer was that if he believed with all of his heart he could be baptized, and he was (Acts 8:36-38). The jailer at Philippi was baptized with his entire house upon their belief (Acts 16:30-34). Note that it states in verse 34 that he rejoiced, believing in God with all of his house. It was not only the jailer who believed, but his entire house as well. This was not a household baptism based upon the faith of one individual.
We have seen that Christian baptism requires the repentance and faith of the one being baptized. It is a conversion experience, something that an individual deliberately contemplates. It involves a choice, often agonizing, to break from sin and to surrender to Christ by faith. This is not something that can be done as a mere ritual, or performed on an infant who does not yet have the capacity for neither repentance or faith. It is a physical representation of the new birth, the reality of which is spiritual. Coupled with repentance and faith, the act of baptism becomes a powerful identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. We die to sin, and are raised to newness of life, a life now lived out for Christ. It is a symbolic expression of the reality of the washing of rebirth, and renewal of the Holy Spirit. It, as Peter says, is not the removal of dirt from the body, but an answer of a good conscience before God, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21).