Water Baptism - A Biblical Explanation

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Baptism was instituted by God. It is not a human invention. It was not begun by the church and it is not in our hands to shape. 

Why be baptized? God has commanded all who believe in Christ without exception to be baptized in water but only AFTER they believe. ( Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 2:37-41 )

Christ's blood saves. The cross saves. Jesus saves -- but not the water. It is a serious mistake to believe or indicate that water baptism is necessary for salvation. Rather we are baptized because we already are saved – not in order to be saved. Baptism then serves as an outward “symbol” that signifies and points to something already having been experienced.

Here are some wrong reasons to be baptized:

  • To be baptized for family reasons -- because parents or a spouse want you to be baptized. It is wonderful that parents love and care for their children and want them to embrace the gospel. It is typically the case that especially young children will want to please parents and so they are geared to “read” a sense of approval for baptism. But this motivation is not sufficient. It is reserved for those who profess their own personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
  • The same might be said for those who are motivated to be baptized mainly for peer-group reasons. When some of a number of a group of friends are baptized, even if there is no verbal pressure to follow this lead, it may be that others will be moved to be baptized as well. But this is not a sufficient reason to do so. Again, it is reserved for those who profess their own personal repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
  • To be baptized in order to join a church is a faulty reason as well. This is no “initiation rite” to joining and belonging to a particular congregation, denomination or institution. If Jesus Christ has saved you, you now belong to Him. That is the entire reason for baptism. Your loyalty and faith is demonstrated thereby.
  • To be baptized in order to “get right with God”, to make up for your sins and sinful life up to this point, to “pay back God”, or to try and secure heaven by doing something spiritual and good . . . all of these reasons are actually very wrong. No one should ever be baptized with these motivating factors. Baptism should mean that you have not only surrendered to the Lordship of Christ and repented of your wrongs, it also affirms that you are looking to Jesus and His achievements to save you. You are showing that you have revoked trust in yourself and any self-achieved goodness. You are admitting that you cannot “make-up” for anything. Only the righteousness of Christ can merit God’s favor in your life. He gives this as a gracious free gift to those He saves. In the same vein, only the death of Christ can satisfy for your demerit. We deserved judgment but Christ stepped into the way and took God’s disfavor, holy anger and eternal judgment upon Himself and in our place at the cross. Baptism proclaims that we are recipients of this Good News concerning the saving grace of God!

In contrast to all wrong reasons, to be baptized for the right reasons is a special blessing. God will be pleased. We can rejoice in our conscience that we have indeed obeyed the Lord. But it is also important to realize that all our commitments to God in Christ will be tested throughout life.

Baptism is one of only two major authorized symbolic actions in the New Covenant. The other is the Lord’s Supper. Why are there so few? Especially in contrast with Old Testament where so much is symbolic! Certainly one of the contrasts revolves around what those former symbols signified. Nearly all of them pointed directly to the coming of Jesus Christ and for what He would accomplish. Consider the sacrifices, the shedding of the blood of lambs, the feasts, the priesthood and the tabernacle and its rituals (and later the temple). Even Old Testament narrative events like the exodus from Egypt foreshadow aspects of Christ’s life and ministry.

In essence, all this and more was given by God to those in ancient Israel so they could recognize the coming Messiah. This would be akin to being given an assignment to pick up someone at the airport – someone you do not know. Yet you must pick him out of the crowd. So you are given a good quality picture of that passenger. You are assigned the task of going to the airport and start looking! Or it could be compared to being a ten-year-old girl who one day started to receive a photo of your husband-to-be. Every once in a while another new photo would show up as an attachment in your email. The written explanation would always state: “Look at these photos carefully. Treasure them in your heart. For when He comes you will be able to recognize Him!” What happened? Israel balked at all of this extraordinary favor. They became blinded by their own preferences. Why? Because they did not really love God. So they also did not value the One He would send.

What did happen when Jesus came? Scripture describes:  

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. ( John 1:9-14 )

Baptism in the New Testament is representative and symbolic. It represents the cleansing that Christ brings -- cleansing not just from our sins but also from our sinful nature as well. Up to that point, baptism had been for non-Jews who wanted to join Israel. They were considered unclean and thus must be cleansed by baptism. In contrast, Jews were considered ok by birth. John the Baptist was controversial because he preached that everyone needed cleansing -- Jews as well. Everyone was called out to make these humbling admissions: “I am dirty. I am unworthy. I am sinful. I need cleansing.” To be baptized in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are making THAT admission.

Why was Jesus baptized then? He was sinless! He submitted to this humbling practice in order to start identifying with us and our overwhelming need. He was starting to take on our obligations to God in order to fulfill them. Jesus took on our very nature to save us. Sin had to be paid for in same nature in which it was committed. Those righteous requirements concerning character must also be fulfilled by someone with true (yet in Christ’s case sinless) human nature. Again, Jesus took on our nature. He saves us by becoming our substitute. He takes our place so that God can deal with Him directly and then deal with us through Him. Jesus is the Mediator.

Baptism also represents Christ’s whole saving act. This is a bit more complex than the aspect of our cleansing.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. ( Romans 6:3-13 )

Water baptism then is somewhat of a little drama presentation! What actually happened when Jesus saved us is reenacted for us, for the church and for the world to “see”. What Christ did in the invisible realm is displayed for us in visible realm. Note how the action of baptism conveys these incredible spiritual realities. We are crucified with Christ – i.e., standing in the water. We died with Christ and are buried with Him – i.e., we are laid down into the water as if we expire and are buried. We are made alive with Jesus and raised with Him into newness of life – i.e., we are lifted back up out of the water. Baptism doesn’t picture all. For we also know that we ascend with Christ to heaven and are seated with Him in heavenly places. Wherever Christ is for the rest of eternity – we are there as well.

It is important to note that baptism is more than a symbol. God commands us to be baptized! To obey this divine injunction is no mere symbol. In baptism what are we saying? “My life has come under His Lordship and rule. My life is not my own but His. I’m pledging my whole heart         to Him! Jesus Christ and His word must now govern the entirety of my life in whatever I do and in whatever I believe, nothing excepted.”

Baptism is also a means of professing Jesus before all ( Matthew 10:32-33 ).  We are here pledging absolute loyalty to the Lord Jesus. His promise, directives and enabling now inform every other area of life. It has all come under His authority. We may very well return to the same daily life and even to the mundane, but in baptism we acknowledge that we are returning as a changed person. Everything we do is now done for a different reason. God is that new reference point. There are not just different actions but different motivations as well.