Thoughts on Baptism

February 21, 2009

Thoughts on Baptism

 The New Testament teaches very plainly that we are saved by faith. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved" (Acts 16:31; see also John 3:16). "By grace you were saved through faith and that not of yourselves" (Ephesians 2:8). "For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith" (Galatians 3:26).

The New Testament also teaches that faith is an act of the heart; it comes from the spring of our emotions and will. Romans 10:10 reads, "With the heart man believes unto justification." We must decide to take Christ as our Lord and our Saviour and we must love him for the beauty of his holiness.

But the transition from death to life, from darkness to light, from hopelessness to hopefulness, from slavery in sin to slavery to God is not merely a matter of ideas or emotions. It includes the whole person, and therefore the New Testament calls not only for faith in the heart but also confession on the lips. "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead you will be saved" (Romans 10:9). Of course this doesn't mean that a person who is paralysed and can't speak can't be saved. Such a belief would treat confession as a mechanical addition to faith. But Jesus said, "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34). Confession with the mouth is simply the overflow of faith. When Paul insists on confession he means: the heart must be full of faith, and we must never limit life in Christ to a merely emotional or internal affair.

To preserve this truth the New Testament calls for one more act in the process of passing from death to life, from separation from God to reconciliation to God, namely, baptism. Jesus' final words to his disciples were: "Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you." So Peter concludes his first sermon after Jesus is gone with the words: "Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins."

Sometimes we refer to baptism as a symbol. That may be saying too little, unless we remember that there are two ways to symbolize something. If you write the word LOVE on a blackboard for a group of young children and say that is the English language symbol for a commitment of the heart to someone's welfare, that's one kind of symbolism. But if you take your girlfriend out to a lake or the botanical gardens or a park and sitting with her under a tree you pull a diamond ring out of your pocket and ask her to marry you and offer the ring as a symbol of your love, then you are doing something very different—you are expressing love through a symbolic action. The teacher who writes LOVE on the board need not have any love. But the giving of a diamond ring is love in action.

Baptism is a symbol of faith in that second sense. It is an expression with the whole body of the heart's acceptance of Christ's lordship. Why is this so fitting that Jesus commanded it of all his people? I think it is fitting because what happens in becoming a Christian involves the body as well as the heart. In conversion the heart is freed from sin to be enslaved to God. But in Romans 6, Paul really stresses that our bodies too are involved in this change over. For example, verse 13: "Do not yield the members of your body to sin as instruments of wickedness but yield yourselves to God as men who have been brought from death to life and your members to God as instruments of righteousness." It seems fitting that since the lordship of Christ lays claim to our whole body, we should express our acceptance of that lordship with an action of the whole body. And the action Jesus commanded is baptism. Baptism gives expression to our faith that we are God's from head to toe.

The earliest church baptized by immersion and came to see this act as an acceptance of death with Christ and resurrection to new life. When the whole body goes under the water, the believer symbolizes and expresses his desire that no aspect of his person escape death with Christ and renewal by his Spirit.

Paul said in Romans 6:3, 4: "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 so that as Christ was ytght wonder why Jesus ordained the act of baptism. Why is there such a thing as baptism? If salvation is by grace through faith, why institute a required ritual or a symbol to act out that faith? That is a question the Bible does not answer. But experience teaches some interesting things.

For example, after my teaching of this message in New Jersey, a former missionary to the Philippines came up to me and expressed her appreciation for the exposition and then said why. She said that in the Philippines, where there is a good bit of nominal and syncretistic Catholicism, converts were tolerated and scarcely noticed by their family - until they came to be baptized. Then the Biblical predictions of hostility and separation came to pass. There is something about this open ritual of new-found faith that makes clear where a person stands and what he is doing. In other words, in many cultures today the situation is a lot like the situation with John the Baptist. He came preaching a baptism of repentance and those who thought they already had all they needed were often furious.

I was reading a mission magazine (The Dawn Report, May 30) and on page 7 there is a picture of a man baptizing in a missionary setting in a river, with this caption under the picture: "Outdoor services and river baptisms are sometimes the best vehicles for growth." We simply do not know the whole collection of reasons God had in his wisdom for prescribing baptism as a normative way of expressing faith in Christ and identification with him and his people. We can think of several reasons why it is a good thing, but we probably cannot come near to thinking of all the good effects that God intends. In the end it is an act of trust in our Father that he knows what he is doing and we are happy to act on his command.

Immersion or Sprinkling?

But today I will try to show from Romans 5:20-6:4 a little more of the meaning of the act. This will also address the question that some of you have regarding the mode of baptism - that is, immersion rather than sprinkling. In fact, let me begin with a general word about the mode of immersion as opposed to sprinkling. There are at least three kinds of evidence for believing that the New Testament meaning and practice of baptism was by immersion. 1) The meaning of the word baptizo in Greek is essentially "dip" or "immerse," not sprinkle. 2) The descriptions of baptisms in the New Testament suggest that people went down into the water to be immersed rather than having water brought to them in a container to be poured or sprinkled (Matthew 3:6, "in the Jordan;" 3:16, "he went up out of the water;" John 3:23, "much water there;" Acts 8:38, "went down into the water"). 3) Immersion fits the symbolism of being buried with Christ (Romans 6:1-4; Colossians 2:12).

We won't linger over this, but let me say a word about how we may look at the fact that our church and our denomination make baptism by immersion a defining part of membership in the local covenant community (but not in the universal body of Christ). We do not believe that the mode of baptism is an essential act for salvation. So we do not call into question a person's Christian standing merely on the basis of the mode of their baptism. One might then ask: should you not then admit to membership those who are truly born again but who were sprinkled as believers? There are two ways to account for why we do not.

1) Should we call a manmade method of baptism "baptism," if we believe on good evidence that it departs from the form that Christ inaugurated? Would this not run the risk of minimizing the significance that Christ himself invested in the ordinance?

2) Local Christian communities, called churches, are built around shared Biblical convictions, some of which are essential for salvation and some of which are not. We do not define our covenant life together only by the narrowest possible set of beliefs one must have to be saved. We believe rather that the importance of truth and the authority of Scripture are better honoured when communities of Christian faith define themselves by clusters of Biblical convictions and stand by them, rather than redefining the meaning of membership each time one of their convictions is disputed. When different Christian communities can do this while expressing love and brotherly affection for other believers, both truth and love are well-served.  

What Baptism Portrays

With that background let's look at Romans 5:20-6:4 to see what baptism portrays, and only secondarily what implications this has for the mode of baptism. My aim here is to help you see the glorious reality that baptism points to so that, mainly, the reality itself will grip you, and that, secondarily, the beauty and significance of the act will rise in your mind and hearts. Romans 5:20 and 6:4:

(20) And the Law came in that the transgression might increase; but where sin increased, grace increased all the more, (21) so that, just as sin reigned in death, even so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

(6:1) What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? (2) May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? (3) Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? (4) Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life [we too may live a new life].

One of the great things about this text is that it shows that, if you understand what baptism portrays, you understand what really happened to you when you became a Christian. Many of us came to faith and were baptized at a point when we did not know very much. This is good. It is expected that baptism happens early in the Christian walk when you do not know very much. So it is also expected that you will learn later more and more of what it means.

Do not think, "Oh, I must go back and get baptized again. I did not know it had all this meaning." No. No. That would mean you would be getting re-baptized with every new course you take in Biblical theology. Rather, rejoice that you expressed your simple faith in obedience to Jesus and now are learning more and more of what it all meant. That is what Paul is doing here: he is hoping that his readers know what their baptism meant, but he goes ahead and teaches them anyway, in case they don't or have forgotten. Learn from these verses what you once portrayed in the eyes of God, and what actually happened to you in becoming a Christian.

I am going to deal with only two things that baptism portrays, according to these verses.

1. Baptism portrays our death in the death of Christ. Verses 3-4a:
"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," Here is a great truth about us Christians. We have died. When Christ died he died our death. This means at least two things. 1) One is that we are not the same people we once were; our old self has died. We are not the same. 2) Another is that our future physical death will not have the same meaning for us that it would have had if Christ had not died our death. Since we have died with Christ, and he died our death for us, our death will not be the horrible thing it would have been.  
"O death where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?"
(1 Corinthians 15:55). The answer is that the sting and the victory of death have been swallowed up by Christ. Notice the repetition of the word "into" in verses 3 and 4. Baptized "into Christ Jesus," and baptized "into his death" (verse 3), and baptism "into death" (verse 4a). What this says is that baptism portrays our union with Christ, that is, we are united to him spiritually so that his death becomes our death and his life will become our life. How do we experience this? How do you know if this has happened to you? The answer is that it is experienced by faith. You can hear this in the parallel verses. Galatians 2:20 makes the connection with faith: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God. . ." In other words, the "I" who died was the old unbelieving, rebellious "I" and the "I" who came to life was the "I" of faith - "The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God." And the basis of all this is union with Christ - "Christ lives in me." And I live in him - in spiritual union with him. His death is my death and his life is being lived out in my life.

Another illustration of this would be Colossians 2:6-7a: "As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith." Here again you can see that faith in Christ is the way you experience union with Christ. You receive him as Lord and Saviour and in that faith you are united to him and walk "in him" and are built up "in him."

So when Romans 6:3-4a says that we are baptized into Christ and into his death, I take it to mean that baptism expresses the faith in which we experience union with Christ. This is presumably why God designed the mode of baptism to portray a burial. It represents the death that we experience when we are united to Christ. This is why we are immersed: it's a symbolic burial.

So know, believer, that you have died. The old unbelieving, rebellious "I" has been crucified with Christ. This is what your baptism meant and means.

2. Baptism portrays our newness of life in Christ.

Verse 4: "We have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life." Nobody stays under the water of baptism. We come up out of the water. After death comes new life. The old "I" of unbelief and rebellion died when I was united to Christ through faith. But the instant the old "I" died, a new "I" was given life - a new spiritual person was, as it were, raised from the dead.

The most crucial commentary on this truth is Colossians 2:12. Paul says, "Having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead." Notice: We are raised up with Christ just like Romans 6:4 says we walk in newness of life. And there is the working of God who raised him from the dead just like Romans 6:4 says that Christ was raised through the glory of the Father. And this happens through faith in the working of God who raised Jesus from the dead.

So Colossians 2:12 makes explicit [open] what Romans 6:4 leaves implicit [hidden] - that baptism expresses our faith in the working of God to raise Jesus from the dead. We believe that Christ is alive from the grave and reigning today at the Father's right hand in heaven from which he will come again in power and glory. And that faith in God's working - God's glory as Paul calls it - is how we share in the newness of life that Christ has in himself.

In fact, the newness of life is the life of faith in the glory and the working of God. "I am crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live . . but the life I live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God." The newness of life is the life of day by day trusting in the working of God - the glory of God.

Baptism Portrays What Happened to us When We Became Christians So let's summarize and come to a conclusion. Baptism portrays what happened to us when we became Christians. This is what happened to us: we were united to Christ. His death became our death. We died with him. And in the same instant, his life became our life. We are now living out the life of Christ in us. And all this is experienced through faith.

This is what it means to be a Christian - to live in the reality of what our baptism portrays: Stand and let us pray - day by day we look away from ourselves to God and we say, (Repeat after me) "Because of Christ, your Son, I come to you. In him I belong to you. I am at home with you. He is my only hope of acceptance with you. I receive that acceptance anew every day. My hope is based on his death for me and my death in him. My life in him is a life of faith in you, Father. Because of him I trust your working in me and for me. The same power and glory that you used to raise him from the dead you will use to help me. In that promise of future grace I believe, and in that I hope. That is what makes my life new. O Christ, how I glory in what my baptism portrays! Thank you for dying my death for me and giving new life to me. Amen."