I. What is Christian baptism?
The ordinance of Christian baptism is a command of Jesus; the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ. It is a congregational act of a gospel-believing local church in which a professing believer in Christ is immersed (“baptize” is a Greek word that means “to immerse”) in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Baptism signifies the professing believer’s (and the congregation’s) union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. In the act of baptism, we are reminded that the entirety of redemptive history centers on Jesus. Baptism, rightly understood, is not simply something we do, but it is a declaration of who we are in Christ.
II. Understanding How Baptism Works Biblically
There is no part of the true religion of Christ that is merely empty ritual, but everything that Christ has commanded is designed to sanctify his church and aid in conforming them into the image of Christ. Baptism is a divine command and a sign of the kingdom of Christ.
Baptism is a Sign of the Kingdom of Christ
Baptist pastor and theologian Andrew Fuller (1754-1815) once said, “Nor is this ordinance adapted merely to separate between believers and unbelievers individually considered; its design is also to draw a line of distinction between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan. (“Practical Uses of Christian Baptism,” Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, vol. 3, 342).
Shadows of Baptism in the Old Testament
In the older covenant, there were events and practices that bore a shadowy resemblance to Christian baptism in the New Covenant.
The salvation of Noah and his family in the ark (Genesis 6-8):
Because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:20-22)
The passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea (Exodus 13-15):
For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. (1 Corinthians 10:1-5)
Various washings and purification rites commanded in Mosaic Law:
The Law of Moses required purification washings on the part of priests following certain sacrifices and on certain individuals who were unclean because of an infectious disease (Num. 19:1-22; Lev 14,15, 16:24-28).
And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (Acts 22:16)
Fullness of Baptism in the New Testament: John
Christian baptism itself did not exist until the time of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. John the Baptist proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand and that he had received from God the command to baptize. John called the Jewish people to repent and obey the command to be baptized.
I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire. (Matthew 3:11-12)
Fullness of Baptism in the New Testament: Jesus and His Followers
Jesus sanctions, affirms, and transforms Christian baptism by his own example and instruction after his resurrection from the dead. Jesus’ own baptism was not a baptism of repentance because he had no sin; rather, his baptism inaugurated his saving mission as Lord and Christ. Those baptized according to the command of Christ provide a picture of their repentance and faith in Christ. After his crucifixion and resurrection, he commanded his church to preach the gospel to all the nations, making disciples, who are to be baptized and taught all that Jesus commanded.
Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ (Matthew 3:13-17)
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.’ (Matthew 28:18-20)
Baptism visibly declares the ultimate Lordship and triumph of the Jesus Christ and reminds His church, the world, and the principalities and powers, of the truth that there will be a day when, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15)
Baptism as a Picture of Believer’s Eternal Union with Christ
Put on Christ
Those who are in Christ by faith are the adopted children of God and are described by Paul as those who “have put on Christ.” Baptism signifies this life-transforming union. Paul’s allusion refers to putting on clothing appropriate for the occasion. The image signifies a death (the believer putting off Moses and the Law) and a resurrection (the believer putting on Christ). Baptism is our public profession of Christ as Lord and Savior. It is a declaration that our only hope of salvation is in Christ alone and that we have abandoned hope in everything else. The person being baptized declares that he or she no longer maintains any hope for salvation in personal righteousness, ethnicity, family, or social status. That old person has died, and by the grace of God, he or she voluntarily obeys King Jesus by joyfully making a practical profession of faith, a public oath of allegiance, in baptism—a sign of the kingdom of Christ.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:27)
Union with Christ
United by faith to Christ, the believer’s only hope is in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as he was dead but is now alive, we were spiritually dead but are now alive in him. Likewise, just as he was literally and bodily raised from the dead, we too shall be literally and bodily raised at the final resurrection when Christ returns. Thus, our baptism is declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ from beginning to end. Once united by faith to Christ, nothing can ever separate us from him, for all eternity!
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. (Romans 6:3-4)
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:11-15)
Baptism as a Testimony of Faith in the Triune God
We are baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). Thus, in baptism we are declaring our faith in the sovereign grace of God the Father, the all-sufficient atoning work of God the Son, and the indwelling and sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit.
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
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. (Acts 2:38)
III. Understanding Baptism Practically: Why We Do What We Do
Because Christ is King…
A refusal to trust Christ and obey his command constitutes a rejection of his authority. The sign of baptism does not save but it does signify salvation according to the command of Christ. Thus, a rejection of the sign of baptism is seen biblically as a rejection of what it signifies. Just as a refusal to make an oath of allegiance to governing authorities is taken as a refusal to submit to the authority of that government. Taking an oath does not constitute allegiance because someone could always take an oath deceitfully, but a refusal to take the oath constitutes a refusal to pledge allegiance.
Because the Gospel is True…
Baptism has a vital role in our church community because it calls us back to the centrality of the gospel. Baptism displays the triumphant march of the gospel around the globe among people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. As a sign of the kingdom of Christ baptism is a congregational act of spiritual war.
Because Christ Died for His Church…
The person being baptized is not simply giving an individual testimony; he is adding his testimony to the gospel witness of the congregation. The pastor performs the act of baptism on behalf of the congregation, and the assembled church members, rather than being incidental spectators, are celebratory participants in the gospel drama.
Baptism instructs us in the primacy of the gospel for the rest of our lives. It is a part of the disciple-making process, which has a formative role in our continuing sanctification in the body of Christ. The apostles kept referring back to baptism as they interacted with churches because they knew that baptism clarifies who we are in Christ.
When a church faithfully baptizes, the act is a direct expression of the lordship of Jesus Christ. Baptism is the proclamation of Christ to the congregation that every member of the church deserves death and hell, but “in him,” they are forgiven and resurrected as new creations.
Because Baptism is Gloriously Unsophisticated…
Baptism is gloriously unsophisticated. It is awkward, messy, and humbling to get into a body of water before a crowd of people and talk about drowning, death, judgment, crucifixion, and resurrection. Of course, the same is true of the ordinance of communion. Talk of eating the flesh of Christ and drinking his blood has always been considered odd and unsophisticated, but the lack of sophistication in the ordinances is not a case against their primacy. Instead, it is a case in favor of them. Paul’s opponents in the church at Corinth wanted to be known as wise and sophisticated, but Paul and his followers were content to preach “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 1:23) and be known as “fools for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor 4:10).
Baptism calls us away from our pride and back to the bare gospel as the core reality of who we are under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
- Christ preaches the gospel to his church and to the world.
- The baptized believer gives himself or herself to the Lord.
- The baptized believer humbly obeys the command of Christ and follows his example as a disciple.
- The baptized believer publicly and openly identifies with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection in his church
- The baptized believer confesses Jesus’ name among men and declares the wisdom of God to the principalities and powers.
- The baptized believer declares that he or she is dead to the world and alive in Christ.
- The baptized believer adds his or her voice to the gospel witness of the church.
- The church preserves its witness by visibly practicing regenerate church membership.
- The church engages in spiritual warfare to the glory of Christ.
- The church pictures the gospel reality and necessity of being born again.
- The church proclaims its commitment to the Triune God, the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, the forgiveness of sins, union with Christ, and the reality of the believer’s resurrection in Christ—already but not yet.
- The church proclaims the unstoppable triumph of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.