What Is Baptism?
1. Baptism is an act of obedience to Christ's Lordship.
Jesus said, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15,16).
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
All believers are commanded to be baptized and to go and baptize. This command is based on Jesus' authority. The issue is not religious tradition but the Lordship of Jesus.
Our example is Jesus Himself. The only person who did not need baptism was Jesus, yet He submitted to it as an act of identification with sinners. How then can we, sinners in need of the cleansing which only God can provide, not submit?
2. Baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual work of grace.
As the Apostle Peter preached, the people were cut to the heart and cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do? Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’” (Acts 2:37).
As the people listened to the gospel message of a crucified and risen Savior, God did a work in their hearts, piercing them with the reality of their sinfulness and Christ’s saving work on their behalf. This inner conviction was so intense they cried out, “What shall we do?”
Only God can produce this reaction in our hearts. The Bible says that in our natural state, we were dead in our trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1,2), blind to spiritual truth (2 Corinthians 4:3,4) and completely indifferent to God (Romans 3:9-12). Only God can awaken the spiritually dead, give sight to the spiritually blind and arouse the spiritually indifferent.
Peter’s response to the cry of awakened sinners was, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38).
Repentance is a work of God in our hearts whereby we turn from our sins and turn to God in faith. Baptism is a public confession of the work which God has done in us. We are not saved because we are baptized. We are baptized because God has saved us.
Jesus said, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:15,16). Belief is the key but baptism is a visible expression of our faith.
I cannot say I have repented of my sins and placed my faith in Jesus if I then disobey Him. If I have truly turned from my sins and believed in Christ, then I also obey and receive baptism. Who linked belief and baptism? Jesus, not us.
3. Baptism is a representation of God’s act of cleansing through the blood of Christ.
On the cross, Jesus made an atoning sacrifice for our sins — He is the holy Lamb of God who, in dying, bore our sins and God’s judgmental anger against sin. When we place our faith in Christ’s atoning work on our behalf, we are washed, cleansed of our sin:
“The blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us of all sin” (I John 1:7).
It is not that the water or the words of baptism cleanse us of our sin. They represent the purifying ministry of the blood of Christ. In the same way that water washes dirt from our bodies, so the blood of Christ washes sin from our souls. Baptism is a representation of this washing.
4. Baptism is an expression of our union with Christ.
The Apostle Paul reminds us,
“Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:3-5).
When Paul says that we “have been baptized into Christ Jesus” and we “have been baptized into His death,” he is not speaking primarily of the ritual of water baptism but of our identification with Christ, our immersion into Christ through repentance and faith. We are now united with Jesus in His death and resurrection. Water baptism is an outward sign of this everlasting union between the believer and the living, resurrected Christ.
We were symbolically buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. Our old self was put to death and a new creation rises out of the waters, a new creation which is alive in the life of Jesus.
Baptism is a way of saying, “Jesus, I believe you died for my sin, I believe my sin was buried with you. Now let me rise in newness of life with you.”
Buried with Christ, dying with Him, dead to our old ways, buried in the waters, we then rise in the life of Jesus. The same Spirit which raised Jesus from the dead now indwells and quickens us (Romans 8:11).
5. Baptism represents the separation or consecration of the sinner to God.
We have been delivered from this world system, transferred into the kingdom of God and set apart for Christ and His purposes. Baptism represents this act of deliverance.
In I Corinthians 10:1,2 Paul reminds us that Israel “passed through the sea and all were baptized into Moses.” He is speaking of Israel’s identification with Moses as they passed out of slavery through the waters of deliverance. In the same way, we have been delivered from slavery to sin and death through the blood of the Lamb. Passing through the waters of deliverance, we are now united with our risen Lord and set free from the oppression, the addictions, all the entrance points of demonic slavery that once captivated our lives.
Separated from our former enslavement, we are now holy unto God. We live now to enjoy His promises and fulfill His purpose.
6. Baptism represents our entrance into kingdom service.
At the Jordan River, as Jesus came up out of the water of baptism, the heavens opened, the invisible realm of spiritual reality became perceptible. The Spirit of God descended upon Him and He heard the voice of God testify, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16,17).
Baptism represents the reality of God’s supernatural life penetrating the reality of our every day living. Through repentance and faith in Christ, we have now the indwelling presence and power of the Holy Spirit who cries out within us, “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6).
Empowered by the Spirit of God, led by the voice of God speaking through His written word, we rise from the Jordan River of our baptism and go forth to serve the Lord with gladness.
We must remember that salvation is only portrayed in the ordinances and sacraments of the church, not performed by ordinances and sacraments. We are not saved by or through any ritual. Only Christ can save by His power and grace and for His glory. Baptism is an outward and visible sign pointing to the reality of conversion, cleansing, union and consecration which is inward and invisible.
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19).
For centuries the church has held and practiced two different perspectives on baptism:
believer’s baptism and infant baptism.
Believer's baptism is the practice of baptizing those who have repented of sin and professed their faith in Christ and in His saving work. This is based on the commission of Jesus, wherein His disciples were commanded to make disciples and baptize (Matthew 28:19).
Those who are being discipled are the ones being baptized. This obviously speaks against the baptism of a non-confessing adult or infant. Since faith comes by hearing and hearing by the preaching of Christ, it follows that preaching and teaching must precede baptism.
It is not sacraments or ordinances of the church which make disciples. It is Christ who makes disciples, Christ revealed through His Word. Those who respond to that Word in repentance and faith are then candidates for baptism.
So it was for the apostles as revealed in Acts. After Peter preached a Christ-centered message, many in the crowd “were pierced to the heart” and cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter replied, “Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (2:38).
An Ethiopian man was reading from the prophet Isaiah as he traveled. The Scripture centered on the suffering and atoning death of the Messiah. The Scripture prepared the man’s heart for Phillip, who“preached Jesus to him.” The Ethiopian man then asked to be baptized and Phillip's response was, "If you believe.” The man responded, "I believe.” He was then baptized (Acts 8:34-38).
In the case of Cornelius and friends (Acts 10:34-48), Peter preached Christ and evidently they believed for the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them. Then they were baptized with water.
Paul and Silas presented Christ to the Philippian jailer, saying, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household. And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house” (Acts 16:31,32). The jailer believed, "With his whole household" (16:34). Their baptism followed preaching and believing. There is no indication that the phrase “whole household” included unbelieving infants or children. Who was baptized? Those who believed.
In Romans 6:3, Paul says, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” Paul is not speaking primarily of the ritual of water baptism but of our identification with Christ, our immersion into Christ through repentance and faith. He continues this thought in verses four through six, that we have been baptized, immersed, identified with the Lord in His death, burial and resurrection.
Water baptism is an outward and visible sign of this inward work of grace — union with Christ. To baptize infants who cannot understand the work of Christ or unbelieving adults who have not believed in nor identified with the work of Christ, makes no sense.
There is no direct prohibition of infant baptism in the New Testament but neither is there any commission. The commission is to baptize those who are being discipled. Those who are being discipled are those who have repented of sin and believed the gospel. It is possible that infants were baptized in the household baptisms mentioned in Acts but the text does not say this. We have no record of any child being baptized through a profession of faith on the part of a parent.
Christ's blessing of the children (Mark 10:13) shows us that the blessing of God and the gospel of salvation is for all, children included, and that we have a duty to bring all people to Christ, children included. We certainly have the duty to raise children in the blessing and nurture of Christian teaching. But there is nothing in that incident which would contradict the evident New Testament practice of baptizing believers.
Our only biblical record is of believers being baptized. And we have the teaching of the Apostle Paul, in which water baptism is the outward sign of an inward work of grace, the work of Christ on our behalf, whereby we have become united with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.
Some introduce the Old Testament ritual of circumcision to justify the baptism of infants. The argument is that just as God commanded circumcision as a covenant sign for males under the Old Covenant, so God gives baptism as a covenant sign for all under the New Covenant. Therefore, as Hebrew male children were circumcised early, so all children of Christian families should be baptized as early as possible.
But there is a great difference between circumcision and baptism.
1. First, in divine ordination. God commanded or ordained circumcision to all male descendants of Abraham as a covenant sign. Therefore, all male children were circumcised on a set day soon after birth. God has given no such command regarding the baptism of the children of Christian parents.
2. Under the Old Covenant, membership in the people of God was by physical birth — people were born into the Israelite race. Membership in the New Covenant family of God is by spiritual rebirth, spiritual regeneration through the Word of God applied by the Spirit of God. This produces repentance and faith which is our only entrance into the covenant.
On this note, the Apostle Paul says,
“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit” (Romans 2:28,29).
Circumcision of the heart refers to the work of the Holy Spirit in piercing our hearts with the word of the cross, bringing us to repentance and faith. Concerning that message, Paul says,
“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18).
The power of God for salvation is released through the preaching of the cross, not through baptism or any other ritual. God’s saving power is released into our heart when we hear the message of the cross and respond by humbling ourselves in repentance.
It is a manifestly unscriptural notion that the act of baptism is a means of saving grace, that saving grace is released into a child or an adult through the ritual itself. There is nothing inherently redemptive in water or words. It is not the sacraments or ordinances of the church which release saving grace into our lives. Only Christ Himself can do this. The ritual of baptism is only an outward, physical sign of an inward, spiritual work of grace.
In many rituals of infant baptism, the parents profess faith on behalf of the child, promising to raise the child in such a way that the child may someday profess faith for himself or herself. While this is a beautiful act insofar as it celebrates the prevenient grace of God (the grace already acting on the child, the grace that prepares us for grace, awakens us to grace and draws us to grace), it still obscures the truth that no one can profess saving faith for any other person.
From the writings of the early church fathers, it appears that in its first centuries, the church practiced baptism only after candidates had been discipled in the doctrines of the faith. It was only later, when Christianity became the approved religion of the Roman Empire, that the church began to baptize undiscipled infants and adults.
Those who practice infant baptism justify their doctrine with the following arguments:
1. In the types of baptism found in the Old Testament, we find God dealing with families rather than individuals.
a. Noah was saved from the flood and his whole family entered the ark with him (I Peter 3:20,21).
b. Abraham was given the covenant of circumcision, commanded to administer it to all the male members of his household ( Genesis 17, Colossians 2:11,12).
c. At the Red Sea, all Israel, young and old, passed through the waters (I Corinthians 10:1,2).
With all respect for my brothers and sisters, this argument is invalid. God surely does desire the salvation of all families, indeed, He desires that none perish but all come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4 2 Peter 3:9). But the means for our salvation is repentance and faith in the saving act of Christ on our behalf. Saying words or sprinkling water over an infant or child has no redeeming effect. We are not saved by the rituals or sacraments of the church but by the power of God released through the message of the cross.
2. In the New Testament ministry of Jesus, the Lord received and blessed the little children (Matthew 19:13) and was angry when His disciples rebuffed them (Mark 10:14).
Yes, as we have said, God loves all people of all ages, including children, and desires to pour out His blessing on all. But the blessing of salvation is accessed through repentance and faith — intentional acts on the part of a personality mature enough to know what he or she is doing.
3. In the first preaching in Acts, Peter says, "The promise is unto you and to your children" (Acts 2:39 ). Advocates of infant baptism say that this refers to the blessing of salvation being available to the children of those responding to Peter’s preaching.
But the people convicted of their sin by the preaching of a crucified and risen Savior had just asked Peter what they should do and Peter had responded, “Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Christ Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Children too young to understand the preaching would not have been able to repent. Peter may have been referring to children old enough to understand and repent or later descendants who would someday believe. We have no record of unbelieving children being baptized
4. In 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul speaks of the children of mixed marriages (a believer married to an unbeliever) as "holy."
Practitioners of infant baptism interpret this passage to mean that children who have a believing parent are included in the New Covenant through the baptismal vows spoken by the believing parent on behalf of the child. They would say that baptism is not primarily a sign of repentance and faith on our part, nor a sign of anything that we do. It is a covenant sign of the work of God on our behalf which precedes and makes possible our own response.
They would say that baptism is a sign of the gracious election of God who establishes covenant and calls us into covenant with Himself. Abraham, and through him his descendants, was called into covenant (Genesis 12:1). Israel was separated to the Lord, "I shall be your God and you shall be my people" (Jeremiah 7:23). Of all disciples it is said, "You have not chosen me but I have chosen you" (John 15:16).
Infant baptism then is said to be a sign to those that are near — those professing Christ — and those who are far off — those children growing up in the sphere of divine choice and calling.
The Scriptural response is that yes, it is God who calls us into covenant with Himself. Yes, repentance and faith are works of God in the human heart. But there is a human response — we must choose to surrender to God’s work at a time when we are mature enough to make that choice. Only God can awaken us from spiritual death, only God can bring us to repentance, only God can gift us with saving faith, but we must humble ourselves and turn from our sin and accept the gift of faith by believing with our heart and confessing with our mouth the saving work and Lordship of Jesus.
Neither an infant nor a non-discipled child can make this response to God’s work.
Related to the previous thought, those who practice infant baptism contend that it is a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit, by which work persons are brought into covenant with God. The Holy Spirit, being sovereign, works how and when and in whom He pleases. He is present before His ministry is perceived and His ministry is not necessarily perceptible to those on whom He works.
It is expected that those who are baptized as infants will grow to maturity in faith and someday make their own confession of faith. But it is not this that saves them, rather, the work of God already done for them before they believed. Even if the child grows to an adult who does not make a confession of faith, the prior baptism is a sign of the work of God on their behalf and is a witness to their calling and salvation or to their calling and condemnation.
Again, with all respect for my brothers and sisters, this is an incorrect understanding of baptism. It is true that the Holy Spirit awakens us to grace and prepares us for grace, brings us to repentance and offers the gift of faith. It is true that He is working in our lives long before we are aware of His work or His presence.
But in order to be saved, we must act on these gifts of the Spirit — we turn from our sin and confess a living faith. Baptism is an outward sign of this inward work of the Spirit, following repentance and confession. An immature personality can neither understand the message of the Gospel nor respond to the work of the Holy Spirit.
The far greater weight of Scripture testifies of the truth of believer’s baptism. Those who have turned to Christ in repentance and faith are then baptized.
However, many noteworthy saints through the ages have practiced infant baptism and we should respect all who love Christ and believe in His virgin birth, atoning death and resurrection.
We may not preach in absolute unity but we may, with a common heart, worship the Christ who has redeemed us. In our common worship of our Lord and Savior, the final word is not spoken by theologians or teachers but by musicians, poets and artists and the faithful men and women who live their faith day by day, whose creative acts express mysteries far greater than we will comprehend until we stand in the light of God’s eternal glory.