Christian Baptism

CHRISTIAN BAPTISM
By Gene Rogers, Minister

Christian baptism is referred to in New Testament scripture by several terms. In Titus 3:5 it is called a “washing of regeneration”. In Acts 22:16 it is characterized as a washing when Ananias exhorts Paul to “rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” In Ephesians 5:26 Paul spoke of the church as having been cleansed “by the washing of water with the word.” Many take the declaration of Jesus in John 3:5, where He calls for a birth of “water and spirit” to mean Christian baptism when speaking of water.

The word baptism is not an English word at all. It is an anglicized form of the Greek word baptizo. In fact, it is the transliteration of this Greek word.  As you can see, all that has been done to the Greek word has been to add an English ending to it. When the Greek word baptizo is translated into English, it translates “to dip,” “immerse,” “sink,” “overwhelm,” or “plunge.” The word as used in the language of the New Testament refers to the initiatory act entered into by converts wherein they are immersed in water.

Baptizing disciples as an initiatory rite was employed by many others prior to its use by Christ and His disciples. Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist, had baptized those who came to repent of their sins. For many years before that the Jews had baptized gentile proselytes to Judaism. As a matter of fact, baptism as an initiatory rite was used by various religions all over the Mediterranean world for some time, even before the advent of Christianity. It was particularly used by those religions and cults that are referred to as the “mystery religions.” It is easy to see, therefore, that baptism had become a commonly accepted means of expressing a departure from a former way of life and an initiation into one altogether new.

As He had often done, God took a commonplace practice, sanctified it, and gave it a significance that it never had before. He took the commonplace practice of baptism and made of it the means of one declaring his Christian discipleship and entrance into the kingdom of God.

BAPTISM – OF GOD OR OF MAN?

In Matthew 21:25 the chief priests and elders of the people came to Jesus questioning His authority to do some of the things that He had done. They wanted to know by what authority He was doing them.  He told them that He would tell them if they would answer a question for Him. The question was, “The baptism of John, whence was it? From heaven or from man?” It if came from man, then one is certainly left to do with it as he pleases. He can take it or leave it, and if he takes it, he can subscribe to whatever mode he may personally choose. But if it is from God, one must receive it as God gave it and must enter into it as He has prescribed.

We are living in a day when baptism has been relegated to a “take it or leave it,” or “do it however you want to,”  matter of mere human whim. But, if it came from God, we must receive it as He has given it to us or we must discard a good portion of New Testament scripture, which is devoted to directing us in this observance.

Baptism is indeed ordained of God.  It is one of the things commanded by our Lord Jesus in His great commission, when in His final words He said, “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.” Matthew 28:19. Baptism is the one thing alone that is to be done in the name of all three, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

There is no mistaking the place of importance baptism held among the first Christians. The account of the infant church, as recorded in the book of Acts, witnesses to its importance repeatedly. In every clear-cut example of conversion cited in the book of Acts, and there are nine or more of them; baptism is called for in every instance. Whenever you read of one coming to faith in the Lord Jesus, they are almost immediately baptized. (cf. Acts 2:38; 8:36-38; l0:47; 16:14; 15; 16:33).

WHO SHOULD BE BAPTIZED?

In considering Christian baptism, one of the most important questions to be considered is, “Who should be baptized?” This has been a subject of debate for centuries, but it need not have been, for the scriptures are quite clear on the matter.

In the first place, disciples should be baptized. Let us go back again to Jesus’ great commission in Matthew 28:19 where He says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them …”  Do you see what Jesus is saying there? He is saying make disciples and then baptize those disciples. In order to understand who should be baptized, we must ask, “Who is a disciple?” A disciple is a “learner” or “follower”; one who has been taught and has begun to follow the teaching, or teacher, or both. Therefore, one is a candidate for Christian baptism who has first been taught the gospel and has subsequently decided to follow Jesus as the way of life. This would exclude certain groups of being baptized. For one, it would exclude babies, for they cannot be discipled or taught. For another, it would exclude  those who have never heard the gospel, for they too have not been discipled or taught. And, it would exclude those whose mental ability prohibits learning.

In the second place, those who believe should be baptized.  In Mark 16:126 Jesus said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned”.  There have often been those who have wondered why Jesus did not say “But he who does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned”.  The solution to such a quandary is simple.  Jesus is pointing out that baptism is a means of expressing one’s faith and if one is faithless the act is meaningless.  Therefore, if one does not believe,  there is no need to consider being baptized.  He will be condemned on the basis of his unbelief, not his failure to be baptized.  It is as one believes in the Lord Jesus Christ that he proceeds to express that faith in Christian baptism.  This is clearly seen in the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunich in Acts 8 where, after having heard the good news of Jesus, and having come to water, he asked to be baptized.  In verse 37 Phillip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may”.  And he replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God”.  It is obvious that Phillips was not going to baptize the Eunuch until he was sure that he had faith … that he believed.

In the third place, Christian baptism is to be administered to those who believe with all their heart. Look again to the account of the conversion of the Ethiopian. Phillips told him he could be baptized if he believed with all his heart. Baptism is for those who believe with all their heart. That is, one must believe in Jesus and His gospel with the whole of one’s intellect, emotion and will – with his entire being. Paul said in Romans 10:9, 10, “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. For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved.”

There are many people who have, in the name of Christian baptism, been dipped in water without having been taught the gospel and consequently without having come to faith in Jesus Christ.

There are those, who, on occasion, laden with problems, have attended a worship hour hoping to find some solution to those problems. When the invitation to receive Christ was extended at the close of the hour, being unfamiliar with the meaning or purpose of it, they responded thinking that this might be the means of finding a solution to their pressing problem. Before they really understood what was going on, they found themselves mumbling some words about Jesus and being dipped in a pool of water, after which everyone began calling them” brother.” All this can and has happened to many persons without their having either heard the gospel or having come to faith in Jesus Christ.

There are children who have gone to the front of the sanctuary with their parents as their parents went through the formality of transferring their membership from one congregation to another. It was noted that the children were not transferring their membership. They hadn’t become Christians yet. So they were quickly asked to repeat some words, which for all practical purposes, were meaningless to them at the time, and they were dipped in water and declared to be Christians, members of the Church of the Lord Jesus. All this happened to them without their having been discipled and without their having come to personal faith in Jesus Christ. You might say this was an attempt to save them by “piggy-backing” on the back of their parents.

Others have been in attendance at a moving camp vesper or youth rally where many around them were outwardly moved to make a decision for Christ. They didn’t want to remain seated and appear odd so they joined the group. They said some words about Jesus and were hastily dipped in water without having been discipled or having come to personal faith in Jesus.

All of these illustrate what has all too often been done in the name of Christian baptism but which in reality has amounted to nothing more than a mere dipping in water. Christian baptism must be the (1) faith-response of one who has been taught the gospel of Jesus Christ, (2) has come to personal faith in Him, and (3) is committed to following Him in faithful discipleship. Anything less than this is not Christian baptism.

Very often the New Testament epistles call upon believers to look back in remembrance to their baptism.  Baptism must be something one is able to remember. After having entered into it there must be something to recall at a later date. It must be an expression of a faith that grips the heart and moves one to determine to follow Jesus Christ till death.

THE MEANING OF CHRISTIAN BAPTISM

Now that we have given consideration to who should be baptized, let us devote the remainder of this study to the meaning of Christian baptism.

  1. First of all we may learn a great deal about the meaning of Christian baptism by looking to the baptism of Jesus.  His baptism obviously meant at least two things for Him: (1)  It was a point of departure from the past and (2) it was a launching out into the altogether new. Until His baptism, Jesus had lived in a home in Nazareth of Galilee with His mother, three brothers and His sisters.  In all probability, He was the head of the household, being the elder brother. When He came to Jordan to be baptized by John, this became a point of departure from His life in the Nazareth home and launched Him out into an altogether new and different life – the life of an Itinerant preacher. Baptism must have this same meaning in it for everyone who would enter into it.  It must serve as a point of departure from one’s past and entrance into an altogether new and different life. It must mean a break with the past and an entrance into life where all begins to become new.
  • In the second place, baptism is a means of declaring one’s faith in Jesus Christ and His gospel.  There is nothing that God requires of man that more beautifully portrays the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ than the believer’s baptism. It is in baptism that one declares his belief that Jesus died for his sins, entered into death for him, was raised victoriously and triumphantly over death as the first fruits from the dead, and shall in due time, call him to share in that resurrection.
  • In the third place, Christian baptism is the means of bringing us into union with Christ and His body the church. In Romans 6:5 we are told that it is by means of baptism that “we have been united with him in a resurrection like his.” In Galatians 3:27 we are told that it is by baptism that we “put on Christ”, when Paul says, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And as we are brought into union with Christ the Head we are also brought into union with His body the church. In I Corinthians 12:13 we read, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body”.
  • Baptism symbolizes a sealing of a contract. In I peter 3:21 we read, “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 clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The word “appeal” in this passage could well be translated “pledge.” It is the Greek word eperotema or the Latin word stipulatio. It is a technical business and legal word. In every business contract drawn up during New Testament times there was a definite question and answer which made the contract legal and binding. The individual was asked, “Do you accept the terms of this contract and bind yourself to observe them?” And if the individual did, this answer before witnesses was “yes.” Without such a question and an ensuing answer, no contract was binding. Baptism becomes the culmination point in the development of our faith where we are faced with God’s question, “Do you receive my Son as your Lord and Savior, and do you accept the conditions of my service with all its privileges and responsibilities and with all of its promises and demands?” And as we accept God’s terms, we declare our “yes” in Christian baptism whereupon God is bound to fulfill His side of the covenant as we declare intention of fulfilling ours.
  • Baptism is a starting point from where we begin to build our Christian life and to which we look back for a frame of reference for the duration of that life. We human beings are earth bound enough to need a starting point, a place to begin. In all the important adventures of life there is the need of a starting point. For example, in marriage there needs to be a starting point from where married life starts. Be it very elaborate or ever so simple, there is a need for this. And from this point, two people proceed to build their wedded life together.

We need just such a starting point in our Christian life. And thank God He has made provision for us to have it in one of the most beautiful and meaningful experiences that one could hope for – Christian Baptism.