by Johnathan Arnold
"Have you ever been baptized?" I asked my wife on the way to our honeymoon destination. Like many believers, she had not. Several days later, on a vacant beach, I baptized her in the brisk ocean water after singing "Thank you Lord for saving my soul."
If you approached your pastor and told him that you had never been baptized, what would you expect him or her to say or do? Our theology of baptism has a direct correlation to the way in which it is carried out in the life of the church. Three points are commonly highlighted:
Our Teaching and Its Fruit
The first point of emphasis is that "Baptism doesn't save us. We are saved by the blood of Jesus.”
This is a true and necessary distinction. It is a warning against baptismal regeneration, an error which, although not pervasive among Evangelicals, occasionally raises its head and distorts the gospel of grace by faith apart from every work. (Baptismal regeneration is more popular in Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican traditions. Notably, the Duck Dynasty crew seems to take this view).
However, many new converts — and, unfortunately, hundreds of saints in their thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond — often hear another message: “You don’t have to be baptized to go to heaven; therefore, baptism isn’t very important.” This is due to what our teaching about baptism often excludes.
The conversation about baptism usually proceeds in this manner: "After God has saved us, baptism is one way that we say to the church and everyone else that we are 'going this way.'"
Some say it is like a “vow” or a “public declaration.” This is why we commonly sing “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus” at our baptismal services. Some have taken this a step further and view baptism as a rite of entrance into the Christian community (the New Testament equivalent to circumcision).
Finally, the conversation underscores that “Baptism is an outward sign of an inward work.”
Whatever we actually believe about baptism, the way that we have presented it in our conversations, preaching, and teaching can basically be summed up in these three points. While these emphases may not be wrong, it is hard to ignore that people have responded by dismissing the importance of baptism, viewing it as “optional,” or viewing it as one of many helpful steps towards “getting established.”
Many new converts hear: “You don’t have to be baptized to go to heaven; therefore, baptism isn’t very important.”
Since Christ Himself was baptized, baptism pervades the New Testament (especially the book of Acts), and baptism is included in the Great Commission — God’s most important mission assignment for mankind — then baptism should be more celebrated in the church.
We should never major on the minors, but always remember the minors are still infinitely precious if they come from the hand of God. To think that God has made baptism even sub-central, it must be extremely precious, important, and worthy of attention. The all-important question is, “What is the Biblical understanding of baptism?”
Overemphasis on Public Declaration
When people in our circles hear the word “baptism,” they can practically parrot back the phrase “outward sign of an inward work.” The phrase can be traced to Augustine in the fifth century, who described a sacrament as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace.” The issue is that when people say this — “an outward sign of an inward work” — they usually mean: “Publicly declaring (in a visible way) something that God has done privately in one’s heart (in an invisible way).”
Whatever purpose baptism has, publicly declaring one's faith is not the essential element.
In fact, this is not what the phrase originally meant, nor does baptism require witnesses.
This is not to say that witnesses are not valuable or that having witnesses for one’s baptism is not the norm. Most Biblical examples of baptism do include witnesses. However…
The right way to interpret these examples is not to normalize them but to see that whatever purpose baptism has, publicly declaring one's faith is not the essential element.
Baptism is An Identification With Christ
The first major New Testament emphasis is that baptism is an identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Colossians 2:12 says we are “buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.”
Romans 6:3-5 asks, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection."
A church could be defined as a community of people who make a common identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
Our identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is beautifully illustrated through baptism:
The baptized person then exits the water to live a new life in association with God’s covenant people. In Ephesians 4:4-6, Paul says “There is one body…one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” This is why it is a wonderful thing to be baptized in the presence of a church. In fact, a church could be defined as a community of people who make a common identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
When the Gentiles were saved and received the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 10, Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (v.48) because no one could justly deny them the right to identify with Jesus and, thus, with the broader Christian community.
Baptism is An Expression of Faith
The second major New Testament emphasis is that baptism is an active expression of our inner faith. This is similar to viewing baptism as an “outward sign of an inward work,” but tries to give better expression to the meaning that should be understood and intended by that phrase.
It was completely clear in the minds of the early church that repentance which leads to forgiveness was actively expressed through baptism.
It is notable that John’s baptism was the “baptism of repentance.” For Jews, being baptized was an expression of their decision to break from their self-righteous reliance on Jewish Orthodoxy and family linage — to repent and humble themselves in preparation of the coming Messiah.
Picture a Jew standing by the shore, debating with himself: “I am a descendant of Abraham. I have kept the Torah all of my life. I am more righteous than any of my brothers.” Then he begins to square with his guilt and the reality of the Scriptures. “But I believe that the Messiah is coming and that John’s preaching is true. Realistically, I cannot keep the law perfectly. I, too, have sinned.” Picture that Jew pushing through the crowded bank and wading into the water: “John, will you baptize me?”
When did the repentance happen which prepared him for a position of justification before God? It happened on the bank, when he came to his senses and humbled himself. But the baptism was an active expression of that deep inner faith. This is what baptism should still mean to the Christian.
When Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost, he said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” It was completely clear in the minds of the early church that repentance which leads to forgiveness was actively expressed through baptism. There was no question that the repentance and forgiveness were something that happened before the baptism, but baptism was the natural next step.
Some people’s altar experience serves as an illustration of this. You may have heard it said, “Step out — you will probably be saved before you even make it all the way down the aisle!” The idea is that leaving your seat is a kind of repentance, confession, and belief — it is saying “the preacher is right about what God says and I am wrong, Jesus is Lord, and I want to be saved.” Going to the altar is not a symbol only of repentance, but an active expression of repentance. This is a better way to view baptism than simply as representative.
The Biblical attitude towards baptism is similar to our view of going to the altar. It is an active expression of repentance.
Peter writes in 1 Peter 3:21, “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.” Baptism is more of an appeal to God than it is symbolic in the sense of representing something else. In Colossians 2:12, baptism is a rising with Him through faith. Appealing and rising are active attitudes.
This important emphasis is seen through numerous examples:
What Does This Mean for the Life of the Church?
If baptism is an identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus which gives active expression to our inner faith, every believer should be baptized.
If every believer is to be baptized, baptism should be a common occurrence in the life of the church; therefore, it should be one of many themes in our teaching and not uncommonly associated with repentance in our preaching.
If it is a common occurrence in the life of the church and a common theme in teaching and preaching, baptism will once again become instated as part of New Testament church culture — just like The Lord’s Supper should be a regular part of New Testament church worship.
If baptism is a normal part of our church culture, unbelievers will once again associate baptism with at least one way in which they express their repentance and awakening to Christ’s Lordship.
Baptism is an identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus which gives active expression to our inner faith. May we reclaim a Biblical understanding of this important ordinance!
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