Over the course of the next couple articles, pastor Mike Hovland will help us understand the question, “What is baptism?” This question is especially important when considering how we as believers obey Jesus Christ, our Lord, and how we think about church membership. Without baptism, church membership cannot be. But have we stopped to give a thoughtful consideration to what baptism actually is?
At the simplest level, baptism is a religious ceremony. It is a ceremony that was commanded by the Lord Jesus. And it is a ceremony that has been entrusted to the church. In Matthew 28, we read of this entrusting:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘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.” (Matt. 28:18-20).
The church has a commission to make disciples, and that involves baptizing them. Each individual believer ought to be baptized; in Acts 2:38, Peter makes this point: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” This is the proper response to the preaching of the gospel: repentance and baptism. In fact, according to Robert Stein’s study, Acts lists five related elements that go together and are collectively used to describe conversion: repentance, faith, confession, receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, and baptism. These terms are used interchangeably in Acts to describe conversion or salvation. In light of this, we are led all the more to argue that baptism is a religious ceremony that is to be done by the church to every believer as part of the right response to the Gospel. Repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38).
Baptism is a religious ceremony which is meant to serve as a picture.
Throughout the Old Testament God gave Israel many pictures to teach the next generation His ways. The Jews were to bind the words of God on their hands and on the door posts so that they would remember God and teach their children (Deut. 6:4-24). Circumcision functioned like that – it was a picture that symbolized a spiritual truth. It was meant to create an opportunity for teaching the next generation that their hearts were corrupt and they needed a cleansing and a removal of their sin nature. The whole temple system was also a picture. It was a picture of the need for a sacrifice to atone for sin – a picture of the reality that sin had to be paid for, that it was worthy of death, and that the only way to be forgiven and so enter into God’s presence was through the death of an innocent representative.
When we come to the New Testament era, all the pictures have been fulfilled in Christ and are no longer required for believers to practice; all, that is, except two. The Lord has given us two pictures in the New Testament: the Lord’s Supper and baptism. The Lord’s Supper is a picture of the atonement. In it, we see Jesus’ body broken for us. We see His blood poured out for the forgiveness of our sins. Baptism is a picture too. It is a picture of the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection as well as of the believer’s union with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Or, if you prefer, baptism is a picture of our immersion into Christ.
The picture of baptism can be clearly seen in Romans 6:
"What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Rom. 6:1-4)
Paul answers the hypothetical objection to what he just said, “Should we continue to sin that grace may abound?” His answer is, “by no means!” And the reason is that the Christian is one who has died. We have died to sin. So, when did we die? We died when we were baptized (Rom. 6:3). All of us were baptized into Christ. This is not speaking of water baptism; this is speaking about a baptism into Christ. We were immersed into Christ, and in that very moment, we died to sin. Our old self was crucified with Christ. We were united to Him. In our baptism (our spiritual baptism, not our water baptism), we were buried just like Christ was buried. We died even as our Lord died, and we rose, even as He rose. Christ was raised from the dead, and being united to Him in this baptism, we too are raised up to walk in newness of life! Paul goes on to say in Romans 6,
"For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin." (Rom. 6:5-6)
We should “by no means” continue in sin because have been crucified with Christ and united with Him in His resurrection.
Now, our physical baptism is designed to picture this immersion into Christ. We are immersed under the water which symbolizes our death and burial. It symbolizes the fact that our old self is crucified with Christ, that our old ways have been put to death, and that we are dead to the world and the devil and life in the sinful flesh. But we don’t stay under the water. We come up out of the water, which pictures our resurrection with Christ. We come out of the tomb. We are alive with Christ! The second picture here is that our sins are washed away through this union with Christ. Sop baptism is this amazing picture of our salvation, or our conversion. It pictures our union with Christ; all the benefits of salvation are in Him. That’s the picture of baptism.
So, baptism is a ceremony performed by the church to every individual believer. Along with the Lord’s Supper, it is one of two New Testament pictures given to the church. Baptism is a picture of our union with Christ and of our regeneration. A saved person is a new creation. These two are our only pictures in the New Covenant – thus, they must be important to our Lord!
Next, we will be considering the history of baptism as well as its significance.