Taking The Plunge
April 5, 1990
Of all the issues that divide Christians, none is more hotly debated than the issue of 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.
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 say something 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.
The purpose of this study, then, is to survey the New Testament references to baptism with the purpose of making them clearly understandable to everyone.
I. Why Baptize?
To this question only one answer need be given: We baptize because Christ commanded it. Consider these words of Jesus:
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. (Matthew 28:19-20)
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 missionary outreach. But 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.
Put simply—baptism is a clear command of Jesus Christ. We obey him when we baptize and we disobey him when we don’t.
II. What Does Baptism Mean?
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 puts the matter this way:
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.” Someone may suggest that the primary reference here is to Spirit baptism. That’s true, but at the very least, water baptism is in the background of this passage.
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—salvation comes by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). 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.
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 is openly identifying with the United States of America. It is more than just a ritual. It means a promise of loyalty to the nation—”I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands.” Likewise, when a person is baptized, he is pledging allegiance to Jesus Christ—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 you married. Indeed, some people choose not to wear a wedding 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 is publicly identifying with Jesus Christ. It is an outward symbol of an inward commitment.
What, then, does baptism mean?
1. It means we have turned from the old life of sin to a new life in Jesus Christ.
2. It means we are publicly identifying with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.
3. It means we are openly joining the ranks of those who believe in Christ.
When you are baptized, you are in fact visually preaching the gospel. As you stand in the water waiting to be baptized, A, you symbolize Jesus dying on the cross. As you are lowered into the water, B, you symbolize Jesus buried in the tomb. As you are raised from the water, C, you symbolize 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.”
In short, in your baptism you are preaching a sermon without using any words at all. And your sermon in your baptism will be more effective with your friends than any sermon the pastor preaches on Sunday morning—more effective because it comes directly from you.
III. What Mode Of Baptism Should We Practice?
Throughout Christian history three primary modes of baptism have been practiced: Sprinkling, pouring and immersion. Some churches insist only on immersion while other permit all three modes.
The Greek word translated “baptize” is the verb baptizo. According to most contemporary lexicons, the primary meaning is “to dip, plunge, immerse.” The secondary meaning is to “bring under the influence.” Dr. Merrill Tenney notes that “after making allowances for certain occasional exceptions, such as passages where washing is implied, the etymological meaning indicates that baptism was originally by immersion. (Basic Christian Doctrine, p. 257)
A brief survey of baptism in the New Testament reveals the following interesting facts:
Baptism requires water. (Matthew 3:11)
Baptism required plenty of water. (John 3:30)
Baptism requires going down into the water. (Acts 8:30)
Baptism requires coming up out of the water. (Matthew 3:16, Acts 8:39)
Furthermore, the figures of speech used by the Apostle Paul accord well 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.
Baptism would normally be immersion either in the river or in the bathhouse of a large house. The person was normally immersed three times, in response to three questions about belief in the three persons of the Trinity. (Eerdmans Handbook to the History of Christianity, p. 10)
Probably our earliest references to baptism outside the New Testament are to be found in the Didache. Here the mode is clearly a tri-immersion in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. (New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, p. 100)
It is also worthy of note that the Greek language has verbs that explicitly means “sprinkle” or “pour” but these verbs are never used with reference to baptism.
What is the meaning of all this information concerning the mode of baptism? So far as we know, in the New Testament, water baptism was always by immersion. The Greek word itself indicates that and so does the history of the church.
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. That public declaration holds true no matter what mode is used. The important thing is that you be personally committed to Jesus Christ.
Having said that, we affirm that immersion most closely follows the biblical pattern of baptism. After all, to baptize really means “to immerse.” Total immersion in water symbolizes your complete identification with Jesus Christ. Therefore, immersion is the mode of baptism practiced at Calvary Memorial Church.
IV. What About Infant Baptism?
Of all the questions discussed in this paper, this one is the most important. If infants are 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.
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.” Acts 2:38 says, “Repent and let each one of you be baptized.” Acts 2:41 says, “And as many as gladly received the word were baptized.”
Acts 8:12 is particularly clear on this point:
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.”
Belief clearly preceded baptism. In fact, in this case baptism would have no meaning without prior belief. It is the personal belief of the one being baptized that gives baptism its meaning. Without the personal belief baptism becomes just another church ritual.
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 all the New Testament, there is not a single case of infant baptism. There are no examples of anyone at any time baptizing an infant under any circumstances.
Three arguments are often urged 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 font.
2. It is suggested that there must have been infants in the several cases of household baptism in the book of Acts. Answer: In the case of Lydia (Acts 16) we do not know that she was even married. In the case of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:31-34), the text seems to go 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. It is suggested that infant baptism in the New Testament takes the place of circumcision in the Old Testament. Answer: But the Bible nowhere suggests that baptism replaced circumcision as the sign of the covenant. In fact, Colossians 2:10-12 seems to indicate the opposite. More importantly, the Lord’s Supper is expressly stated to be the sign of the New Covenant Christ made with his own blood. (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 only a few days old suffices to establish their relationship with God. And some reject a personal relationship with Jesus Christ because they think their infant baptism paved the way to heaven.
The Most Important Issue
As we have said all along, the most important issue is your relationship to Jesus Christ—not your infant baptism. I think most people who practice infant baptism would agree with that. They do not intend to mislead people into trusting in infant baptism instead of trusting in Jesus Christ. Their motives in practicing infant baptism are 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. Those motives are noble and good and right. However, the fact remains that the practice of infant baptism has actually led many people away from personal, life-changing faith in Jesus Christ. At Calvary Memorial Church, we believe those same noble goals can be achieved through a public act of child dedication—thus avoiding the spiritual confusion that often accompanies infant baptism.
V. Brief Answers To Other Questions About Baptism
1. 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 as young as 4 or 5 years old. Some young children will truly understand the gospel and the meaning of baptism; others will need to wait a few years. In any case, the parents should be the ones making the final decision.
2. When should baptism be performed? As soon as possible after conversion. Remember, baptism is not a mark of spiritual maturity, but rather a statement of personal identification with Jesus Christ.
3. Should adults who were baptized as infants also be baptized as believers? Adults do need to be baptized as believers. It is an active part of discipleship and a question of our 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. Whereas in the New Testament the order is belief in Jesus Christ, then baptism. For that reason, many people who were baptized as infants later decide to be baptized again as believers. It is a public statement of their own personal faith in Jesus Christ.
4. What do we do for our own infants? Several times a year Calvary Memorial Church offers a meaningful time of child dedication. It takes place during a regular worship service and places the emphasis on the parents and their responsibility to raise their children for the Lord.
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. l. Take time to explain the gospel to them. 2. Pray with them about their relationship to Jesus Christ. 3. Do not pressure your children into making a decision, but help them to definitely trust Christ when they are ready. 4. Take them with you to observe a baptism. 5. Ask the pastor to explain to your children what baptism is all about. 6. The week they are to be baptized, conduct a quiz at the dinner table covering the who, what , when, where and why and how of baptism. 7. Invite the child’s friends and relatives to be present for the baptism service. 8. Make it a festive celebration and an occasion to remember for years to come.
6. What actually happens at a baptismal service? The service is usually informal but includes these elements: The service begins with a brief prayer, the singing of an appropriate hymn and a word of explanation about baptism. Then the pastor and the person to be baptized stand in the water facing the congregation. The person to be baptized is asked to affirm his faith in Jesus Christ and his desire to be baptized. He may give his testimony to the congregation if we wishes. Then the baptismal formula is recited and the candidate is immersed. The actual act of baptism (including the questions) may take only a few seconds. After all the candidates have been baptized, we sing another hymn, have a prayer of thanksgiving and the service is dismissed.
7. Should I invite my friends and family to my baptism? Absolutely. Nothing could be more appropriate. Remember, baptism is a public testimony to your faith in Christ. 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.