“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Matthew 28:19
These last words of Jesus are marching orders for his followers, and they reveal the central importance of baptism. So what is baptism?
While there may be some differences between church traditions on the details, there are many points of agreement on the essence of what baptism is and why it is important. Baptism is a symbol of our union with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. It is an act of obedience by which we show our membership in the people of God and proclaim to a watching world our faith in God alone for salvation.
A Symbol of Our Union With Jesus Christ
“We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” Romans 6:4
Paul’s point here is that baptism is a symbol of the death of our sinful nature, which was crucified with Jesus, and of our resurrection with Jesus into a new life that is now under his control and reflects his character. When a person puts their trust in Jesus, they are no longer trusting in themselves, but are wholly trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice to pay the penalty for their sin. It also means they are committing to seek to follow Jesus’ leading in all things, trusting his indwelling Spirit’s strength to do so.
An Act of Obedience
Jesus’ command to make disciples is followed up with a description of what making disciples includes: “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 18:19b-20).
Examples in the New Testament indicate that baptism follows immediately after repentance and belief. In Acts 2:38 Peter said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.” The result was that all who accepted his message were baptized that day. When Philip shared the good news of Jesus with the Ethiopian eunuch, he was baptized immediately (Acts 8:36-38). When Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer that he needed to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ to be saved, he believed and was baptized that evening with his entire household.
A Sign of Membership in the People of God
“Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body.” 1 Corinthians 11:12-13
Our union with Christ also results in our union with the rest of the people of God. Baptism is the visible sign that we are a part of the Church of God, which is why for most church traditions, baptism is a prerequisite to becoming a member of a congregation.
A Proclamation to a Watching World
Baptism is one of the great ways to let the world know that you are a follower of Jesus. It was a significant part of Jesus’ affirmation and commissioning at the beginning of his ministry, and throughout Church history, it has been a clear testimony for believers to show their faith in him.
A symbol is something meant to be seen by others. Husbands and wives wear wedding rings so that the world knows that they are committed to their spouse. In the same way, baptism is an external sign of what God has done within the heart of a follower of Jesus; it’s a public proclamation of faith in him.
Throughout the Christian Church, most of these essentials of baptism are agreed upon, but there are different interpretations of what the Bible teaches about other aspects of baptism, which have resulted in different approaches. The most significant of these differences are infant baptism versus believer’s baptism, and baptism by immersion versus baptism by pouring or sprinkling.
Infant Baptism versus Believer’s Baptism
In Colossians, Paul makes a connection between the symbol of circumcision in the Old Testament and the symbol of baptism in the New Testament,
“In [Jesus] you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self, ruled by the flesh, was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Colossians 2:11-12
Both symbols (circumcision and baptism) are identified as signs of the removal of sinful human nature and of being included in the people of God. This has led some to suggest that baptism is the continuation of the Old Testament practice of circumcision and therefore a symbolic act of obedience on the part of believing parents for their children. This is why there are church traditions that baptize infants. In Acts 2, Peter elaborated on his statement: “The promise is for you and your children …” (Acts 2:39). Paul taught that followers of Jesus are Abraham’s offspring (Galatians 3:29). Since circumcision was given to Abraham as a sign that his children were heirs of the covenant, this has reinforced church traditions in which baptism symbolizes the inclusion of believing parents’ children into the people of God. As the children grow older, their parents' profession of faith is then confirmed by the child’s own personal profession of faith as they participate in special classes and ceremonies that reinforce the essentials of following Jesus.
The tradition of believer’s baptism, on the other hand, interprets the Bible as teaching that the faith of the individual is essential to salvation and so baptism should only follow personal belief and repentance. Those who hold to this view point out that the consistent formula given in the Bible is: “Believe and be baptized,” not “Be baptized and believe” and that all explicit examples of baptism in the Bible are of adult believers. The only examples that can be given of infant baptism come from vague references, such as, “and immediately he and all his family were baptized” (Acts 16:33). One can only speculate that there were young children in the family who were baptized because of their father’s faith, not their own.
The difference between these interpretations has created some division among Christians. Adherents to believer’s baptism accuse proponents of infant baptism of ignoring the principle of salvation through faith alone. At the same time, those who baptize infants accuse those who do not do so of disobeying God’s instruction to include one’s children in God’s covenant.
Baptism by Immersion Versus Baptism by Pouring or Sprinkling
A somewhat less divisive difference in church traditions has to do with the mode of baptism. There are some that baptize people by immersing them fully in water; they understand it to be the best way to symbolize union with Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The Greek word "baptizo" is almost exclusively used to describe the full immersion of an object into liquid. In ancient cultures, cloth dyers would "baptizo" the cloth in the liquid dye; a sunk ship has been "baptizo" in the deep. So it is logical to understand that for a follower of Jesus to be “baptizo” means they are to be fully immersed in water. It is also pointed out that all of the examples of baptisms in the Bible are best understood as full immersions.
Others choose to pour or sprinkle water over the head of the one being baptized. This comes from references in the New Testament that describe baptism as "washing." Paul was told to “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away” (Acts 22:16). They also suggest that some of the descriptions of baptisms in the New Testament could not have been done with full immersion. One example is on Pentecost when 3,000 people were baptized in Jerusalem; it is pointed out that there was no large body of water in Jerusalem to baptize that large a number.
While these differences have created conflict and division between followers of Jesus, the essential elements of baptism provide strong unity between church traditions. Baptism is a wonderful gift from God, intended as a sign of our union with Jesus’ death and resurrection. In addition, as we obey the command to be baptized, we show our membership in the people of God and proclaim to a watching world our faith in him alone for salvation.
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