To begin our study on the ordinances of the church, I would like to focus your attention on baptism. In the first two lessons we will explore its meaning and its relationship to salvation, then we will consider what the Bible teaches about the Lord’s Supper.
You may have noticed that I referred to baptism as an ordinance—not a sacrament—of the church. I did so for a very definite reason. There are those who, in using the term sacrament to apply to baptism, view it wrongly as a means of imparting some special grace. I realize that there are some who use the word sacrament without any such intended application. However, because of the wrong connotation given the term by others, I prefer to call baptism an ordinance rather than a sacrament.
When the word sacrament was first applied to baptism in the latter part of the second century AD, it was associated with some erroneous ideas that had been drawn into Christendom from the Greek mystery religions. The converts from paganism were accustomed to having cleansing ceremonies for spiritual purification, and they began to think of baptism as a means by which the stain of sin was removed. These former pagans had been involved in practices they had looked on as having special powers, so it was only a small step for them to view the waters of baptism as possessing redemptive value.
Constantine, the Roman emperor who made Christianity the state religion in the fourth century, reportedly postponed his baptism until he was on his deathbed. We presume that he hoped all his sins would be washed away just before he died.
By the 12th century, as many as 30 different rites and ceremonies were being practiced in the church. These were called either “mysteries” or “sacraments.” That number, of course, has been gradually reduced, but the term sacrament has been retained. And for many it still refers to something that provides a special means of grace. These people therefore think of salvation as a combination of faith, good works, and the sacraments. The biblical teaching of salvation by grace through faith alone has been lost to them.
Yes, sacramentalism is still with us today. Because of the misleading connotation attached to the word sacrament, I repeat my conviction that we should be very careful to refer to the ordinances rather than the sacraments of the church. So important is it that we make plain the way of salvation by grace through faith —apart from works or ritual—that even in our terminology we must avoid giving the impression that baptism has any saving power.
I would never baptize anyone who had the idea that doing so would wash away his sin. If I were the pastor of a local church and someone requested to be baptized, I would first ask him if he knew its meaning. I’d make sure he understood that it has no saving power whatever. I would then want to hear from his own lips a clear testimony that he has recognized what the Lord Jesus accomplished for him at Calvary through His sacrifice for sin, and that he has placed his trust in Christ, and in Him alone, for salvation. Being assured of that, and satisfied that he recognized baptism as an ordinance rather than a sacrament of the church (that it has no redemptive value), I would gladly encourage him to be baptized.
In this series of lessons we will discuss only two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, rather than the so-called “seven sacraments of the church.” There are those who insist that baptism, confirmation, penance, the partaking of the bread and the wine, ordination, marriage, and extreme unction are all to be recognized as sacramental. They therefore look on each of these observances as a means by which supernatural grace is received. According to this belief:
• Baptism is thought to wash away the stain of sin.
• Confirmation (which includes laying on of hands, anointing, and prayers) is said to bestow the sevenfold grace of the Holy Spirit on the person who has already been baptized.
• In penance, the forgiveness of postbaptism mortal sins is supposedly obtained by those who are truly sorry for their sin, make confession, and perform the duties imposed on them.
• In ordination, a special grace is said to be given for the work and temptations involved in serving God.
• When the bread and wine are blessed, it is asserted that they actually become the body and blood of Christ, and that the one who partakes of them receives a measure of grace.
• In marriage, the man and woman joined in wedlock are said to receive grace to discharge faithfully the duties of the marital state until death.
• In extreme unction, those who appear to be near death are anointed with oil and prayed over. This is done, supposedly, to impart special grace, enabling the dying soul to confide in the mercy of God and to resist the final attacks and temptations of the devil.
The idea of supernatural bestowment of grace through the ritual is prominent in each of these seven “sacraments.” We don’t see it this way. Rather than recognizing seven sacraments which are claimed to impart some spiritual graces, we observe only two ordinances: baptism and the Lord’s Supper.We see them as symbolizing certain spiritual realities.
Some religious groups recognize a third church ordinance—foot-washing. Following the example of Christ with His disciples, they engage in that practice as an outward expression of humility, and of their willing submission to one another. Although we may not follow that custom, we do respect those born-again believers who do.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the ordinance of water baptism.
Now, I realize that I am discussing a very controversial subject. Differing views about the mode of baptism, its recipients, and its formula are sincerely held and taught by various churches. Some say immersion is the proper way to baptize; others think sprinkling or pouring is acceptable. Some insist that only believers should be baptized, while others affirm that babies should be included. Some ministers say, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus.” Others follow the formula, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Still others combine those phrases into a rather lengthy statement.
You may wonder how we can address all those differing views in only two lessons. Well, it’s impossible. But I am not interested in discussing those details about baptism which do not affect our sense of oneness in Christ. My primary disagreement is with those who make water baptism essential to salvation—who teach that it actually washes away sin or contributes to the new birth. I am further troubled by someone who says, “Unless you are baptized by someone in our group for the remission of sins, you cannot be sure you are going to heaven.” So in this chapter and the next, I’d like to concentrate on the following two questions:
• What is the meaning of baptism?
• Does baptism save?
There should be no doubt about the answers. First let’s address the question:
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF BAPTISM?
The answer is found in Romans 6:1-7. To appreciate what the apostle was saying here, we should keep in mind that in the preceding chapters (Rom. 3–5) Paul convincingly established the truth that salvation is by grace through faith. After indicating the depth of human sinfulness and emphasizing the failure of the law to bring salvation, he made it clear that the only way a holy God declares sinners righteous is through their faith in Christ, the perfect sacrifice for sin (see Rom. 3:19-28). To demonstrate that human works have nothing to do with salvation, Paul pointed out that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised (see 4:1- 12). He said in Romans 5:1:
Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul then drew an analogy between the first Adam, who brought condemnation and death by his one act of disobedience, and Jesus Christ, the last Adam, who provided justification and life for all through His one act of obedience.
In the first five chapters of Romans, the apostle stated clearly that salvation is received by faith and faith alone. Knowing that some people would misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent his teaching, Paul anticipated an objection by saying:
What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? (Rom. 6:1).
In answer to his own question, he went on to say:
Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? (v.2).
When a person receives the Lord Jesus as his Savior, he dies to the domination of sin. Yes, in Christ believers have died to sin, and this is the truth signified in baptism. By going down into the waters of baptism, we who have placed our trust in Christ testify that through our union with Him we have been buried with Him in His death. Having died to sin, we are no longer under its condemnation or bondage. Then, our emergence from the waters of baptism signifies that through our union with the living Lord we have been raised from death with Him.We now have new life—that which gives us spiritual victory. Here is what the apostle himself told us:
Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).
Water baptism speaks of our identification with Christ. By that identification we are delivered from the condemnation and bondage of sin and brought into a life of peace with God and triumph over sin. Baptism, therefore, has served symbolically as an introductory rite from the Day of Pentecost onward. It is the new believer’s first step of obedience. It is his public identification with Christ. The apostle said:
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? (Rom. 6:3).
When Paul made reference to believers being “baptized into Christ Jesus,” he used an expression that’s identical in construction to a statement in 1 Corinthians 10:2, where he said that the Israelites were “baptized into Moses.” The Israelites, having already chosen to follow Moses out of Egypt, were openly identified with him when they passed through the Red Sea. In like manner, we become followers of the Lord Jesus the moment we place our trust in Him. And in our baptism “into Christ Jesus,” we openly identify ourselves with Him as our leader and guide.
In his book Epistle To The Ephesians, F. F. Bruce made this statement in reference to the words in Ephesians 4:5, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism”:
Baptism in water continued to be the outward visible sign by which individuals who believed the gospel . . . were publicly incorporated into this spirit-baptized fellowship—“baptized into Christ” (Gal. 3:27). It must be remembered that in New Testament times repentance and faith, regeneration and conversion, baptism in water, reception of the Holy Spirit, . . . admission to church fellowship . . . were all part of a complex of events which took place within a short time. . . . Logically they were distinguishable, but in practice they were all bound up with the transition from the old life to the new (Revell, 1961, p.70).
Baptism, then, is a testimony of our death to sin, of our severance from its domination, and of our pledge to live a new life through our faith-union with Jesus Christ. During the first century, baptism quickly followed salvation and was closely associated with membership in the local church.
No one should ever make the mistake of depending on baptism as a basis of his hope for heaven. Whether baptized by sprinkling, pouring, immersion, or all three, a person may still be unsaved. The only way you receive the forgiveness of sin and the gift of everlasting life is through a personal acceptance of the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior.