The online encyclopedia AllExperts gives us an interesting analysis of the current Christian perspective on baptism:
Today, water baptism is most readily identified with Christianity, where it symbolizes the cleansing (remission) of sins, and the union of the believer with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection so that he becomes one of Christ’s faithful. Most Christian groups practice some form of literal water-based baptism and agree that it is important, yet strongly disagree with other groups regarding any or all of several aspects of baptism, such as:
• form of the baptism
• recipients of baptism
• meaning/effects of the act of baptism
However, a few Christian groups assert that water-based baptism has been supplanted by the promised baptism of the Holy Spirit, and water baptism was unnecessarily carried over from the early Jewish Christian practice.
I find this to be a good summary of the present state of Christendom when it comes to our modern approach to the ancient practice of baptism. If nothing else, it helps us to see that there is a need for both personal integrity and shared grace in the way we practice or do not practice baptism.
Regardless of our view, it should be clear that baptism has a rich history and is tied to the truths of our life in Christ.
A PICTURE IS WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
Without question, few books are as committed to using picture and imagery as the Bible. From Jesus’ use of parables to the vast array of metaphor and imagery, the Bible is without question a book of pictures.
For that reason, we often find ourselves not asking, “What does the Bible say?” but “What does the Bible mean by what it says?” For example, the Bible says that we are to practice the Lord’s Table, but the meaning of the bread and cup of that celebration is to proclaim the Lord’s death until He returns (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
Likewise, Jesus used a series of “I am” statements to make word pictures of the various aspects of His coming: a door (picturing the way to the Father), living water (that which satisfies), and the bread of life (that which feeds our deepest needs), to name just a few.
This use of a word picture also applies to our understanding of baptism. We need to understand the words, but we must also see the picture that was being painted by those words.
WHAT BAPTISM MEANS
In the New Testament, Koine Greek (the universal language of the day) was used to communicate the truths of the gospel. It is helpful to notice that baptizo was the word from which we get the term baptize.
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance gives this definition of baptizo:
A rite of immersion in water as commanded by Christ, by which one after confessing his sins and professing his faith in Christ, having been born again by the Holy Spirit unto a new life, identifies publicly with the fellowship of Christ and the church.
Notice that while the defined mode is seen as immersion, the point of the definition is that baptism is clearly a declaration of faith by someone who has already trusted Christ. In the New Testament, this is the critical point in every case. For example:
Those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them (Acts 2:41).
When they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. . . . Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” Then Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him (Acts 8:12,36-38).
Repeatedly, the book of Acts indicates that, above all else, baptism is the public act by which individuals declare their personal confidence in the saving work of Christ. Though the New Testament does not give us clear procedures for baptism, it does give us clear understanding of what the picture of baptism means.
WHAT THE PICTURE OF BAPTISM MEANS
So what is actually being displayed or pictured when a follower of Christ submits to baptism?
Public Declaration Of Faith. I find it interesting that in the early church, lacking the modern conveniences of indoor baptistries, baptisms almost always occurred outside. Today we still speak of baptism as being a public declaration of faith in Christ. In many ways, though, our practice is less public and more of a private declaration given within the family of faith. In either case, however, baptism is a way of proclaiming our personal faith to others.
Admittedly, baptism is not the only way of making a public declaration of faith. Church membership, catechism, confirmation, and a variety of other denominational variations on the theme are used as “virtual equivalents” that can fulfill the need for a public declaration.
What we can all agree on is that Jesus asked us to declare our faith publicly. We see this clearly when He said, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32).
Portrayal Of The Gospel. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul wrote:
I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.
In a sense, when combined with the Lord’s Table, baptism helps to present a rich picture of the message that was delivered to Paul and has been handed down to us. In the elements of the Lord’s Supper we have a visual reminder of how Christ died for our sins. In baptism, especially with immersion, Christ’s burial and resurrection is pictured when new life is declared in the child of God.
A Heart Of Personal Trust. We have already seen that Christ instructed His disciples to baptize those who embrace Him by faith (Mt. 28:19-20). When we submit to baptism as believers, we are following a custom that for 2,000 years has set Christians apart. It’s a simple yet profound act by which we declare to Christ and to the world that we have given ourselves to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.
Identification With Resurrection. In the traditions where immersion is practiced, this is graphically seen. Notice what we find in the apostle Peter’s first New Testament letter:
There is also an antitype which now saves us— baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him (1 Pet. 3:21-22).
In baptism, we identify with and proclaim our confidence in the truth of Christ’s resurrection. It’s a powerful demonstration of what Christ has done for us in conquering death, hell, and the grave for all who come to Him by faith.
A TEST CASE
A friend of mine pastors a church that practices baptism by immersion. Recently, however, friends who attend his church told me of a baptismal service that was, for them, very unusual.
A man had come to Christ and had asked to be baptized. But he had significant health and disability issues. In my own experience, I have seen cases where individuals in wheelchairs were carried— sometimes wheelchair and all—into the baptistry so the new follower of Christ could be baptized. But this pastor wisely asked, “Is that necessary?” He was wondering whether the method was as important as the heart. I think he was wise to remember that the point of baptism is to be a public identific ation with Christ that needs to be practiced with consideration for those who choose to declare their faith in Jesus.
After careful and prayerful consideration, this pastor and his leadership team agreed that the importance of the heart and spirit surpassed the importance of the mode. The result was that a baptism by sprinkling took place in a church that was committed to baptism by immersion.
Some would see this as compromise. I saw it as refreshing. It seems to be a wise and appropriate application of Paul’s ancient words of instruction to the Roman church:
Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom. 14:4-5).
Paul wrote those words in a day when there probably was agreement about the practice of baptism. But some had become involved in divisive debates about whether followers of Christ should participate in the holy days and festivals of ancient Israel.
I have become convinced that this same application of wisdom can also give us counsel in considering our differences in the area of baptism. We have seen that baptism is not an issue that determines eternity. It’s an act of public faith and trust in Christ—an outward symbol of an inner change. We can celebrate that intent if we will “let each be fully convinced in his own mind.”