Baptism is the foundational ritual of Christianity and a beautiful and tangible picture of the gospel. The New Testament Gospels begin with the ministry of John the Baptist and his promise of one coming whose baptism would be greater (Mark 1:4–8). They end with Jesus’s Great Commission to his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19, emphasis added). The ministry of the apostles and early church assume the ongoing and foundational importance of baptism (Acts 2:38, 41; 10:47-48; Rom. 6:3-4; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27).
But what is baptism? What does it mean for the Christian life? And how should it be practiced?
The Meaning of Baptism
In the Old Testament, water was an important biblical symbol of both creation and judgment. Consider these examples:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2, emphasis added). From these waters, God began to bring forth and create everything.
During the time of Noah, when the world had turned away from God, God brought a flood on the earth—the undoing of creation with the waters of judgment. Yet, God saved one family through these waters and brought them out on the other side to a new creation.
At the Exodus, God saved his people from Egypt through the crossing of the waters of the Red Sea, even as he brought those same waters crashing down in judgment on the armies of Pharaoh. Yet God’s people were brought through to the other side as the redeemed people of God.
Forty years later, God made the next generation of his people pass through the waters of the Jordan River to the Promised Land as his reconsecrated people.
God later included the images of deliverance through water in the rituals and symbols of the tabernacle and Temple and priesthood.
So, when John the Baptist came, many years later, baptizing in the Jordan River for repentance and forgiveness, the people understood what he was doing. He was calling them to be remade and re-birthed as God’s people. It wasn’t enough that they were circumcised children of Abraham. They needed to go through the waters again—to be cleansed, to repent, to leave the past behind, and to come out as the new people of God. And when John said, “He who is coming after me is mightier than I… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit,” he was saying that Christ would bring, not just the rituals, but the reality of these things. Jesus’s own death and resurrection became the ultimate fulfillment of both judgment and new creation. After Jesus, the ritual of Christian baptism became a symbol of participation and union in his death and resurrection, going under the waters of judgment and coming out as a new creation (Rom. 6:3-4).
With this background, the use and meaning of baptism in the New Testament becomes clear. Baptism is:
- A symbol for the beginning of the Christian life (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 2:37-42, 8:12; 9:18, etc).
- A symbol that someone has become a new creation, that they’ve been born again, that God has saved them from their sins and that God is changing their life (John 3:3-8; 2 Cor. 5:14-17; Rom. 6:1-4).
- A symbol of repentance, cleansing, and faith (Matt. 3:1-17; Acts 2:38, 11:16-18, 22:16; Gal. 3:26-27).
- A symbol corresponding to the inward presence of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life (Acts 10:44-48, 11:16-18; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27 and 4:6; Eph. 4:4-5).
- A symbol of union with Christ in his death and resurrection (Rom. 6:1-4; Col. 2:11-15).
Baptism is not magic. It’s not a ritual work that makes someone a Christian. Baptism is a symbol and picture of the work of salvation that God has done in a believer’s life through faith in Christ. When someone is baptized, they are publicly declaring themselves and being recognized as a forgiven follower of Jesus Christ, washed from their sins and walking in newness of life.
That’s what baptism means. But baptism does do something also. Baptism is an encouragement and means of grace to believers. When a person is baptized, it’s a sign, not just to others, but to the recipient that God loves them, is pleased with them, and promises to be with them. Like when Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven said, “This is my Beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” when someone is baptized in Jesus’s name, they know that they have been adopted in Christ, are part of God’s family, and God promises to be with them. They can say, “I am his, and he is mine, forever and forever” (See Eph. 1:13-14).
The Practice of Baptism
The practice of baptism involves three main questions: Who should be baptized? How should baptism happen? And who does the baptizing?
The Subjects of Baptism
It should be clear from the New Testament meaning of baptism that it requires and assumes repentance and faith. In fact, in every instance where baptism is described, faith precedes baptism (Acts 2:38; 8:12; 8:36-38; 10:44-47; 18:8).
In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul addresses an ongoing controversy in the early church over the practice of circumcision. Some Jewish Christians thought that gentile converts needed to be circumcised. But Paul’s answer is that they are sons of God through faith. He says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Later, he directly connects baptism as a sign of faith. He says, “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27) A few verses later, he says, “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6). Baptism was a sign of the spiritual reality of adoption and sonship, affirming a definitive identity and relationship to Christ. The language of baptism as “putting on Christ” (Gal. 3:27; literally, “clothing yourselves”) is very suggestive. In some early church practices, Christians would enter the baptismal font, and after exiting, they would be re-clothed (possibly even in white linen, as a sign of cleanliness and righteousness in Christ). Putting off the old garments, going under the re-creating waters of baptism, and putting on a new identity in Christ was a conceptual part of the baptismal rite itself. It was the visual picture of “learning Christ” (see Eph. 4:20-24).
Clearly then, baptism is meant for believers as a visual picture of the spiritual reality of their faith and union with Christ.
The Mode of Baptism
While some Christians have practiced baptism by pouring or by sprinkling, a straightforward reading of the text of the New Testament makes clear that immersion was the mode used in the first century (Matt. 3:6; Mark 1:10; Acts 8:36-39; John 3:23). Immersion best pictures the wholistic, Christ-centered meaning of baptism as symbolizing union in his death, burial, and resurrection. Therefore, immersion should be the preferred and normal method for baptism. However, the mode of baptism is arguably less important than its meaning and its subjects. Certain individual circumstances and settings may make immersion inadvisable or impossible.
The Church’s Oversight of Baptism
Finally, it should be clear that baptism is a sacrament of the church. Protestant churches have always believed in two main sacraments. Baptism is the sacramental sign for entrance into the Christian life and identification as a Christian. The Lord’s Supper is the sacramental sign for continuing in the Christian life and Christian community. Properly and biblically, it’s the local church that oversees these sacraments, examining candidates for baptism and welcoming them into the body life of the church, discipling and guarding them in their communion with Christ and with the church.
In most churches, this will mean that candidates for baptism will need to undergo an interview with the elders of the church for their testimony of faith and understanding of the gospel. Their desire for baptism and profession will then need to be shared with the rest of the church for their prayers and support. Finally, as part of the gathered worship of God’s people, they will be baptized by a pastor of the church and welcomed as a member of the congregation.
When Should You Be Baptized?
A Christian is someone who repents of trusting themselves and believes the gospel—the good news about Jesus. A Christian believes that God is a holy God who deserves our worship. A Christian knows that he has sinned by ignoring God, worshiping other things, living selfishly to please himself instead of seeking to please God and obey his commands. Because we have sinned against an infinitely holy and just God, we deserve his wrath and punishment. But the good news is that God sent his only Son to live the perfect life that we failed to live, and to take the punishment and die in our place on the cross, and then be raised back to life, defeating death and becoming the author of new life. Through believing in Jesus, a Christian receives forgiveness of sins, and learns to walk in a new life pleasing to God.
Becoming a Christian sometimes feels like two things happening at the same time. On one hand, it feels like something you choose—choosing to repent of sin and trust in Jesus, to pray to God to save you. On the other hand, it feels like something happening to you—something you’re not doing at all, but somebody else is doing to you
. . . like being born again by the Holy Spirit! Christians find that they have feelings they didn’t have before. They have a desire to pray that they didn’t have before. They have a desire to read God’s Word. The Bible makes sense like never before and seems powerful in new ways. A Christian enjoys being with God’s people, singing and worshiping with God’s people. Most important of all, a Christian loves Jesus, wants to know him better, wants to follow him closely, and wants to be more like him.
Of course, Christians can still struggle with sin. Christians can have bad days. Christians can even sometimes have doubts and can wonder whether they’re real Christians. But that just drives real Christians back to Jesus, to hoping in him and not in themselves.
At the end of the day, being a Christian is not about how you feel, not about something you can do, and not even about how hard you believe. It’s not how you feel that saves you, not how hard you believe that saves you. It’s Jesus who saves you. It’s knowing that your only hope is in Jesus and clinging to that.
If these things have become true in your life, then Jesus wants you to be baptized! You’re ready to let everyone know that you’ve repented of your sins, that you believe in Jesus, and that you want to walk with him all your days. Your baptism will be a beautiful encouragement to your soul, to the church, and will be celebrated in the heavens by the angels and God himself (Luke 15:1-10).