Proclaiming God’s Purposes in Baptism

September 28, 2003 | Brian Bill

The story is told of a pastor who had just starting serving a new congregation.  For eight Sundays in a row he preached on the importance of baptism.  Finally, that next day, the chairman of the Elders approached him and said, “Preacher, we get the point about baptism.  We think you need to choose another theme to preach on.”  The pastor thanked the Elder and said, “I didn’t know everyone felt that way.  Why don’t you just pick out a Bible text and I’ll preach on that.”  The Elder randomly opened his Bible, closed his eyes and put his finger in the middle of the page, saying, “OK, pastor.  Here’s your text.  Matthew 3:10: ‘The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down…’”  

The next Sunday, the pastor got up in the pulpit, read the assigned verse, and then said, “Amen.  This is wonderful.  The ax is at the root of the trees.  Why would anyone do that?  It’s obvious, isn’t it?  It was so they could cut down the tree, which would make the creek back up, so the water would be deep enough to have a baptism!”

Don’t worry.  I don’t have a preoccupation with baptism.  In fact, this sermon will be the first full message I’ve ever preached on this topic.  I say that as more of a confession because baptism is a vital command that should be obeyed by every vibrant Christian.  I suspect that one of the reasons I’ve not tackled this beforehand is because it’s a subject that makes many people uncomfortable.  Of all the issues that divide Christians, none is more hotly debated than baptism.  For centuries, godly men and women have come down on different sides of this question.  Entire denominations have sprung up as a result of disagreements over the mode, meaning, and purpose of baptism.  I came across a book title recently that sums up what is far too often the case: “Baptism: The Water That Divides.”

The widespread response to such controversy and confusion has been predictable: many believers refuse to enter the discussion.  They agree to disagree and therefore never take a definite stand.  That is a legitimate position but it is not an answer to the question.  Clearly, the Bible does speak about baptism and those of us who believe the Bible must search the Scriptures until we find satisfactory answers.  There is no virtue in ambiguity when the Bible speaks with clarity.

One of the best ways to study a biblical theme is by simply doing a Scriptural survey.  While my preaching preference is to study a book of the Bible verse-by-verse, or to focus on one primary passage, there is great merit in putting together the various verses that have to do with a topic and then drawing some conclusions from them.  If you have your Bibles with you, we’re going to “let our fingers do the walking” this morning.

Baptism in the Gospels

Let’s begin by looking at Mark 1:4: “And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  Ceremonial purification and washing with water was common among the Jews.  Drop down to verses 7-8: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  We see here that John the Baptist was calling people to repentance from the way they had been living.  God used John to prepare the people for the coming of Jesus, who would baptize believers with the Holy Spirit when they put their faith and trust in Him for salvation. 

In Mark 1:9, we discover that baptism is important because Jesus Himself was baptized: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”  The Unger’s Bible Dictionary points out that the Levitical law required all priests to be consecrated when they were around 30 years of age (Numbers 4:3) through a twofold process of washing and then anointing (Exodus 29:4-7).  When Jesus was “washed,” or baptized in the Jordan, the heavens were opened and He was anointed with the Holy Spirit.  We see this in Mark 1:10: “As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” 

One commentator suggests that Jesus walked about 60 miles just so John could baptize Him in the Jordan River.  We also learn that the disciples were baptized and in John 4:2, they in turn baptized others.

Turn now to Matthew 28:19-20 where we see that baptism is to be a distinctive mark of discipleship: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Simply put, we believe in baptism, and we practice it, because Christ commanded it.  

Matthew records these words as the final explicit instructions of Jesus before He ascended to heaven.  This passage is called the Great Commission because it is the foundation for our evangelism and missionary outreach.  If going is a part of the Great Commission and if making disciples is a part of the Great Commission and if teaching is a part of the Great Commission, then so is baptizing.

Notice the logical progression.  We go and spread the gospel.  In our witnessing we will make disciples.  We are to baptize those disciples and then teach them to obey the words of Jesus.  Baptism is part and parcel of Jesus’ command to the church.  It is fundamental to our mission in the world.  Friends, baptism is a clear command of Jesus Christ.  We obey him when we baptize and we disobey him when we don’t.  Now, let’s see how this command to be baptized is fleshed out in the Book of Acts.  There are 10 accounts of active obedience to this ordinance in Acts alone.

Baptism in the Book of Acts

Acts 2:38, 41: “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ’…those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

Acts 8:12-13: “But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.  Simon himself believed and was baptized…”

Acts 8:36-38: “As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water.  Why shouldn’t I be baptized?’   And he gave orders to stop the chariot.  Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.” 

Acts 9:18: “Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again.  He got up and was baptized.”

Acts 10:47-48: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?  They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.   So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Acts 16:14-15: Referring to the conversion of Lydia, we read, “…The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message.  When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home…”

Acts 16:31-33: “They replied, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved-you and your household.’  Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house.  At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized.”

Acts18:8: “Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.” 

Acts 19:4-5: “Paul said, ‘John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.’  On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus.”

Acts 22:16:“And now what are you waiting for?  Get up, be baptized…” 

Baptism in Romans

One overriding truth as it relates to these verses is that baptism always takes place after belief.  And, if the meaning of baptism could be boiled down to one word, that word would be identification.  Baptism speaks primarily of a personal, public identification with Jesus Christ.  In Romans 6:3-4, the Apostle Paul put it this way: “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death?  We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Notice the strength of the expressions: “baptized into Christ” and “baptized into his death” and “buried with him in baptism.”  While it’s true that the primary reference here is to Spirit baptism that takes place at conversion, water baptism is at least in the background of the passage.  

Baptism then, means at least 3 things:

  • It’s a turning from the old life of sin to a new life in Jesus Christ.
  • It’s a time of public identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
  • It’s a total commitment to join the ranks of those who believe in Christ.
in your baptism you are preaching a sermon without using any words at all

When you are baptized, you are in fact visually preaching the gospel.  As you stand in the water waiting to be baptized, you symbolize Jesus dying on the cross.  As you are lowered into the water, you’re providing a visual demonstration that Jesus was buried in the tomb.  As you shoot out of the water, you’re picturing Jesus rising from the dead.  And since you personally are being baptized, you are also saying, “I died with Jesus Christ, I was buried with Him and now I am raised with Christ to brand-new life, and it’s my intent to live my life under His leadership and for His glory from this point on.”  In short, in your baptism you are preaching a sermon without using any words at all.  

How important is your baptism?  It is your personal identification with the greatest act of human history–the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Baptism doesn’t save you as Ephesians 2:8-9 makes very clear: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith-and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-not by works, so that no one can boast.”  Your guilt before God is removed the moment you trust in Christ.  But baptism is your personal testimony to, and the inward assurance of, your passage from the old life to the new life.  In essence, believer’s baptism is a funeral.  It’s an act of faith in which we testify, both to God and to the watching world, that the person we used to be is dead and buried, and that we’ve been raised to new life as 2 Corinthians 5:17 states: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”

Last week we learned that whether we are religious, rejected, or regular, we need to put our faith in Jesus to be saved.  By the way, about 10 people indicated that they prayed to receive Christ at the conclusion of these services!  We are saved by faith when we believe in our heart.  We see this in Romans 10:10: “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified…”  The second half of this verse takes it a step further: “…and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.”  It must go from our heart to our mouth.  Baptism helps move our faith from the private to the public.  When we take the plunge, faith goes from the heart, to the mouth, and then to the body.  When we go under the water, we are stating publicly in a very visible way that our desire is to be completely committed, totally devoted, and undeniably identified with Christ.

Two illustrations will help us understand the concept of identification.  The first is the Pledge of Allegiance.  When a person pledges allegiance to the flag, he or she is openly identifying with the United States of America.  Likewise, when a person is baptized, he or she is pledging allegiance to Jesus Christ by openly identifying with Him.

The second illustration is the wedding ring.  When a man (or woman) gets married, he (or she) almost always begins to wear a wedding ring or a wedding band.  The wedding ring does not make someone married because some people choose to not wear a ring and yet they are still legally and truly married.  But the wedding ring is more than a piece of ornamental jewelry.  It represents the solemn commitment of a man and a woman to become husband and wife.  It is a public testimony to that commitment.  A wedding ring identifies a wife with her husband and a husband with his wife.  It is a public symbol of a private commitment.  Likewise, when a person is baptized, he or she is publicly identifying with Jesus Christ.  It is an outward symbol of an inward commitment.

Having said that, baptism is much more than just a symbol.  Piper reminds us that there are two ways of symbolizing something.  If we write the word “love” on a blackboard for a group of 2nd graders and tell them that this word represents an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person, that’s one kind of symbolism.  But when I took Beth out on a pier on a starry night in Wisconsin almost 20 years ago, and nervously stuttered and sputtered as I asked her to marry me, giving her a diamond ring as a sign of my love, that was something much different than simply writing out the letters L-O-V-E.  When I gave her the ring, I was expressing my love through a symbolic action.  In a similar way, baptism is a sweet symbol of our faith.  It’s an expression of love and a commitment to live under the Lord’s leadership for the rest of our life.

Mode of Baptism

Throughout Christian history three primary modes of baptism have been followed:  sprinkling, pouring and immersion.  The Greek work translated “baptize” is the verb baptizo.  According to contemporary lexicons, the primary meaning is “to dip, plunge, or immerse.”  The secondary meaning is to “bring under the influence.”   Interestingly, while there were Greek words for sprinkling or pouring that were available to the authors of Scripture, they consistently chose the word baptizo, or immersion, to describe the mode of baptism.

A brief survey of the how of baptism in the New Testament reveals the following interesting facts:

  • Baptism requires water.  John the Baptist said, “I will baptize you with water…” (Matthew 3:11).
  • Baptism requires plenty of water.  After the Ethiopian ruler came to faith in Christ, he stopped his chariot, and said, “Look, here is water.  Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8:36).
  • Baptism requires going down into the water.  After the chariot stopped, the Bible says that Philip and the man “went down into the water and Philip baptized him” (Acts 8:38).
  • Baptism requires coming up out of the water.  This man went down into the water, and then came back up out of the water (Acts 8:39).  Jesus did the same when He was baptized (Matthew 3:16).

Clearly, immersion is in view here.  In addition, the figures of speech used by the Apostle Paul are consistent with immersion.  Baptism is called a “burial” in Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12.  Baptism is “into his death” and involves being “raised to walk in newness of life.” It is difficult to see how sprinkling or pouring could convey these meanings.

Finally, the testimony of church history is that immersion was indeed the mode of baptism practiced in the early church.  So, what does all this mean?  So far as we know, in the New Testament, water baptism was always by immersion.  That does not mean that to use some other mode is necessarily sinful or wrong.  After all, baptism outwardly declares your inward commitment to Jesus Christ.  The public declaration holds true no matter what mode is used.  The important thing is that believers follow the Lord’s command to be baptized.  Having said that, I believe that immersion most closely follows the biblical pattern of baptism.

Questions About Infant Baptism

Of all the questions related to baptism, there’s one that raises a lot of confusion.  Here it is: What About Infant Baptism?   If it’s OK for babies to be baptized, then our entire understanding of baptism will reflect that fact.  The same is true if only believers are to be baptized.  There really is no middle ground between these positions.  Let me make two points.

First, faith is always the prerequisite for baptism.  Note again, the order of the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go…make disciples…baptize them.”  It doesn’t say, “Go…baptize…make disciples.”  In the Bible, belief always precedes baptism.  In fact, baptism has no meaning without faith in Christ because it’s the personal belief of the one being baptized that gives baptism it’s meaning.  Without the ingredient of faith, baptism becomes just another church ritual.  Someone put it this way: “Unless you have already come to faith in Jesus, being baptized does no more than get you wet.”

Second, there are no cases of infant baptism in the New Testament.  That comes as a surprise to many people, but it is absolutely true.  In one of the finest evangelical systematic theology books ever written, Millard Erickson writes: “The only people whom the New Testament specifically identifies by name as having been baptized were adults at the time of their baptism.”  I would add that there is not a single case of baby baptism recorded anywhere in the Bible.

Let me briefly address three arguments that are made in favor of infant baptism.

1. It is sometimes suggested that when Christ blessed the little children and said, “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 19:14), He by inference sanctioned the principles upon which infant baptism rests.

Answer: When Christ blessed the little children, he invited them to come to Him, not to a baptismal service.  There is no doubt that Jesus welcomes children.  In fact, He honors and loves children much more than we do, but there is a big difference between blessing and baptizing. 

2. Some people believe that there must have been infants in the several cases of household baptisms in the book of Acts.

Answer:  In the case of Lydia (Acts 16:13-15), we don’t know if she was even married.  In the case of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31-34), the text goes to great length to stress that all heard the word (16:32), all were baptized (16:33), and all believed in God (16:34)–factors which would seem to expressly rule out infants.

3. Others believe that infant baptism in the New Testament takes the place of circumcision in the Old Testament.

Answer:  The Bible nowhere suggests that baptism replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant.  More importantly, the Lord’s Supper, not baptism, is expressly stated to be the sign of the New Covenant Christ made with His own blood in Luke 22:20.  The most tragic fact about infant baptism is that it leads many people to think they are Christians when in reality they are not.  That is, multitudes go through life supposing that a few drops of water sprinkled on their forehead when they were a baby suffices to establish their relationship with God.  Sadly, some reject a personal relationship with Jesus Christ because they think their infant baptism paved the way to heaven.  

I can relate to this.  I can remember a Christian guy asking me if I was saved when I was in high school.  I told him very bluntly: “Of course I am.”  He said, “How do you know?”  To which I replied, “Because I was baptized as a baby.”  I used to think that this was all it took.  I had been led astray, just like millions of other people who have false assurance of their salvation just because they were dabbed with some water when they were a week old.  

In a Christianity Today article, Timothy George disputes the idea that baptism provides salvation: “In medieval theology, infants who died without benefit of baptism were consigned to limbo—a sort of air-conditioned compartment of hell in which there was little suffering but from which there was no escape.  But the idea that all who die without baptism are eternally lost is just as false as its converse: the teaching that baptism automatically conveys eternal life.” 

The most important issue is your relationship to Jesus Christ, not whether or not you were baptized as a baby.  While some churches teach baptismal regeneration, whereby God imparts saving grace, other churches who baptize babies do not intend to mislead people into believing in their baptism instead of trusting in Jesus Christ.  Their motives in practicing baby baptism may be to offer Christian parents a chance to dedicate their children to God and to impress upon those parents the importance of raising their children in the Christian faith.  If that’s the case, those motives are noble.  

However, the fact remains that the practice of infant baptism has actually led many people away from personal, life-changing faith in Jesus Christ.  We believe those same good goals can be achieved through a public act of child dedication, thus avoiding the spiritual confusion that often accompanies infant baptism.  

Answers to Other Questions About Baptism 

I want to briefly address several other questions related to baptism.

1. How important is baptism? 

If you are not yet a believer, don’t get hung up on baptism.  Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ first, and then be baptized.  Also, don’t leave here and try to convince everyone you talk to that your understanding of baptism is the most biblical.  If you’re already a believer, don’t argue with someone else about baptism.  Instead, do whatever you can to help them become a Christian.  Paul had this focus in 1 Corinthians 1:17: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…”

2. When should baptism be performed?

As soon as possible after conversion.  In fact, in the book of Acts, it often happened immediately after someone got saved.  Baptism was one of the first things a new believer took care of.  There’s no reason to put it off.  If you haven’t been baptized, then you need to do it, and the sooner the better.  Remember, baptism is not a mark of spiritual maturity, but rather a statement of personal identification with Jesus Christ.  You don’t have to wait until your spiritual life is where you want it to be.  It’s an obedience issue, not a maturity issue.  Some of you may be wondering if it’s too late to be baptized.  Maybe you’ve been putting it off because it’s too scary to even think about.  Maybe you haven’t been convinced.  

3. If I was baptized as an infant do I need to be baptized again as a believer?

Yes. Remember the biblical order: salvation first, baptism second.  Baptism is an active part of discipleship and a response of obedience to what God has said.  The problem with infant baptism is that it reverses the natural order by putting baptism first, then (years later) belief in Jesus Christ.  For that reason, many people who were baptized as infants later decide to be baptized again as believers.  Since baptism is a public statement of your own personal faith in Jesus Christ, then it’s important to make your statement as a believer.  Actually, you’re not really being baptized again because, in my view, when you were sprinkled as a baby it wasn’t biblical baptism.  When you follow the Lord as a believer into the waters of baptism, it will be your first baptism.

4. How old should children be before they are baptized?

They should be old enough to make an intelligent profession of faith in Christ.  Children raised in a Christian home will come to such a profession much earlier than other children.  Some young children will truly understand the gospel and the meaning of baptism; others will need to wait a few years.  In any case, Christian parents, in consultation with an Elder or a pastor, should be the ones making the final decision.  As a general guideline, some children are ready to be baptized when they are 7 or 8 years old.

5. How can I prepare my children for baptism?

There are several key things you can do that will make a difference with your children.  

  • Take time to explain the gospel to them.  
  • Pray with them about their relationship to Jesus Christ.  
  • Do not pressure them into making a decision, but help them to definitely trust Christ when they are ready. 
  • Take them with you to observe a baptism service.  
  • The week they are to be baptized, conduct a quiz at the dinner table covering the who, what, when, where, why, and how of baptism.  
  • Invite your child’s friends and relatives to be present for the baptism service.  
  • Make it a festive celebration and an occasion to remember for years to come.  That’s why we now have a reception after the service.

6. What actually happens at a baptismal service?

The service is usually informal but includes these elements:  The one doing the baptism and the person to be baptized stand in the water facing the congregation.  The person to be baptized is asked to affirm his or her faith in Jesus Christ and desire to be baptized.  He or she may give a testimony to the congregation if appropriate (I strongly recommend this).  Then the baptismal formula is recited and the candidate is immersed.  The actual act of baptism (including the questions) may take only a few minutes.  

7.  Should I invite my friends and family to my baptism?

Absolutely.  Nothing could be more appropriate.  Remember, baptism is a public sign of what has happened on the inside.  It is also a visual re-enactment of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.  Your baptism is your opportunity to preach a sermon without saying a single word.  So, yes, by all means invite everyone you know to attend your baptism.  Make it a festive, joyous occasion and pray that God will use your witness to influence your friends for Christ.

When the early Christians declared their faith in baptism, they would shout out, “Jesus is Lord!”  Baptism has always been a signal of submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.  William Barker tells of a machinist at Ford Motor Company in Detroit many years ago who became a Christian and was baptized.  Shortly after he got saved, the Holy Spirit convicted him of his need to make restitution for some parts and tools he had stolen from the company before he had become a Christian.  The next morning he brought everything back to his employer, explaining how he had just been baptized and wanted to make things right.  His boss was dumbfounded so he sent a cable to Mr. Ford, who was out of the country, asking him how he should handle the situation.  Mr. Ford sent an immediate reply: “Dam up the Detroit River, and baptize the entire city!”

Are you serious about following Christ?  Then demonstrate your discipleship and get ready to take the plunge!

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?