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baptism is more than just getting wet

I was recently asked a question about baptism. Specifically, I was asked what our requirements are for baptism. To answer this we must first explore what baptism even is. We can quickly dismiss the notion that it’s a mere formality. It is often treated as such, especially by those who hold to a credobaptist view, but it can also be true of those who hold to a paedobaptist view. The simple difference between these two views is a credobaptist understands the proper recipients of baptism to be those who profess faith in Christ, whereas a paedobaptist understands that baptism is for those who profess faith in Christ and for their children. In either case, baptism is significantly more than a mere outward act of obedience.

Dr. Michael Svigel is a Patristics scholar at Dallas Seminary. This means his expertise is in the early church’s teaching. In his four-part article “Embracing the Elephant—Toward a Fuller Doctrine and Practice of Water Baptism” (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4), he argues there are six functions that baptism accomplishes:

  1. Baptism as public confession of Trinitarian Faith (Matt. 28:19)
  2. Baptism as personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3–4)
  3. Baptism as repentance from a life of sin (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11)
  4. Baptism as a pledge to live a sanctified life (1 Pet. 3:21)
  5. Baptism as a rite of initiation into the covenant community (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27)
  6. Baptism as a mark of official community forgiveness (Acts 26:18)

Shortly before his ascension the Lord Jesus commissioned his apostles to begin the work of building his church. He would bring about the growth as they would proclaim the gospel all over the world. Their part in Jesus building his church was two-fold: they would baptize new converts and they would teach these believers to obey the Lord Jesus. Here is how Matthew records this commission:

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Matthew 28:18–20 ESV

Since baptism is performed in the singular name of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—it is a public confession of faith in that Triune God. Given that Jesus’ instructions included teaching, there is the assumption that some of the teaching occurs prior to baptism. A person being baptized must know something of baptism. In the earliest church many of the first converts were connected with Jewish synagogues, whether the converts were Jews or Gentiles. Being connected with a synagogue meant they already knew of God as Creator, etc., and would have been familiar with the promised Holy Spirit, as the prophets predicted the sending of the Spirit (see Ezekiel 36:26–27, for example). It would be upon hearing the gospel of Jesus who died and rose again that they would understand God’s Triune nature. Over time, however, as more and more converts came with little or no prior instruction in the Scriptures, it became necessary to spend more time instructing them prior to baptism.

Not only is baptism the public confession of faith in the Triune God, it is that person’s personal association with Christ’s death and resurrection. The apostle Paul explained it this way:

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.

Romans 6:3–4 ESV

When a person is baptized, he or she is connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The believer is united with Christ. This is why Paul could say in Galatians that he was crucified with Christ and the life he possessed was not his life, but the resurrected life of Christ living in him (Galatians 3:20). Through baptism the believer is united with Christ. What a remarkable thing! God is not limited by space or time and when a person is baptized God is able to unite that person with Jesus, across both time and space, in his death and resurrection. The believer is personally associated with him.

Notice these first two functions of baptism are confessional. The person being baptized is publicly confessing these things are true. The next two functions of baptism are practical. Baptism is a public act of repentance from sin. Throughout the book of Acts, baptism follows a call to repentance and faith. On the day of Pentecost when Peter preached the gospel of Jesus, many were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:27) and asked the apostles what they must do in response.

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Acts 2:38 ESV

This practice began with John the Baptist. As people came to him for baptism they were told to “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8). Baptism is a public act of repentance. Peter even declares that baptism saves a person from a life of sin. He writes about the ark that saved Noah and his family as the flood waters destroyed the earth. The ark is what saved Noah through the water. He then writes:

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

1 Peter 3:21–22 ESV

Peter is quick to clarify that it’s not actually the physical “washing” with water, but the appeal to God through the waters of baptism. He then goes on to explain the significance of baptism by calling his readers to a life “no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Peter 4:2). He says further that those who knew them prior to their baptism “are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you” (1 Peter 4:4). Baptism, then, signifies a great shift in the life of the person baptized.

Baptism functions positively, too. It is a public declaration of repentance, but is also a pledge to live a sanctified life. Paul refers to this positive pledge in 1 Corinthians when he tells them they were washed and sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Corinthians 6:11). They were set apart and placed on the path of becoming holy. The washing of baptism indicates the removal of the stain of sin while the sanctification of baptism indicates the life of holiness—cleanness. As Peter says in the above passage, baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience”.

So we’ve seen baptism is confessional and practical. It is also communal. Baptism is the rite of initiation into the new covenant community. Jesus ushered in the new covenant through his death and resurrection and one of the promises of the new covenant is “they shall all know me” (Jeremiah 31:34). Under the old covenant many were included in the covenant simply by being born into it. No one is born into the new covenant; all must be born again into it. There can be no unbelieving member of the new covenant, for every member of it shall know the Lord.

Baptism, then, is the sign of entrance into this believing community. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that in one Spirit we were “all baptized into one body”. Paul’s understanding is that through baptism the new believer was identifying with and participating in the covenant community of God’s people, which is found in local churches. There are no free agents in God’s kingdom. While a person may, for a time, particularly after moving, be unconnected to a specific local church, the ordinary life of faithful obedience to Jesus is seen through commitment to a local church. Baptism must precede membership in the local church for the sixth function of baptism.

Baptism is a mark of official community forgiveness. Jesus says something remarkable in Matthew 16.

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 16:19 ESV

The verb tenses are essential to understand what Jesus is saying. Whatever the church binds on earth will have already been bound in heaven, and whatever the church loosens on earth will have already been loosed in heaven. To say it another way, the church’s actions of binding and loosing on earth is a reflection of reality from God’s perspective. When a church, for example, receives a person as a member of that church, the church is declaring that the person belongs to the Lord—they are a member of the new covenant. The church’s act of receiving that person as a member is after that person being “loosed” in heaven. Similarly, when a church reaches that dreadful point of excommunicating a member, the church is declaring that person has already been bound in heaven. The church’s action is subsequent to what has already taken place in heaven and is the church’s stamp of approval on God’s action. When Jesus commissioned Paul as an apostle, he told Paul he was sending him to the nations for this purpose:

…to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.

Acts 26:18 ESV

This place “among those who are sanctified” in Christ is in community with his people. Jesus is actively building his assembly, his church. Paul’s role was to preach the gospel and see many take their place in Christ’s church, which is manifested in local congregations all over the world. When a church baptizes a new convert the church is declaring the person belongs to Christ and is welcome to the fellowship of that local church. The church is declaring publicly through baptism the person’s sins have been forgiven and they are united in Christ.

So what does all this mean? When New City baptizes a person, that person is confessing faith in the Triune God and is being united with Christ in his death and resurrection. The person is publicly repenting from sin and pledging to live a life of faithfulness to the Lord. The person is being received into the church as a member and the church demonstrates our belief that the person is truly born again and loves the Lord and is therefore counted among his people.

This leads us to two simple principles for baptisms at New City. First, we baptize those who publicly profess faith in Jesus. This necessarily excludes infants. Further, we baptize those who credibly profess faith in Jesus and are making the public commitment to follow him.

Early in New City’s history a woman stopped in before our service began at Palmer Elementary. She asked me to be baptized. We spoke for quite a while about what baptism really means. She wanted to move forward with it. She showed up again the next week and insisted she was ready to turn from her life of sin and to follow Jesus. In other words, she said she was ready with the confessional part of baptism. We had a few baptisms scheduled for Easter Sunday and she said she was ready to make this commitment. She called me that Saturday night, however, to tell me she wasn’t ready. She was not ready to leave her life of sin. She was there the next Sunday morning, but I never saw her again. People need to know what baptism really is, and only upon a credible profession of faith can we as a church make the communal profession of initiating a person into membership and claiming that person as one of us.

The second principle is the person needs to be a part of New City. Also years ago I had a sibling of a person we baptized contact me asking to be baptized. He was not attending New City. He wasn’t attending any church. It was clear that he wanted to be baptized more as a rite of passage, rather like shaving for the first time or graduating from high school. He seemed to think it was merely the right thing to do. To be sure, it is the right thing to do, but only if it is a public repentance from sin and a pledge to live a sanctified life as part of us. Only then could the church truly embrace him as a member.

Because baptism is the first formal step of faith in the life of the new believer, it is also the formal beginning of discipleship. This necessarily requires participation in the life of the church. If a person has no intention of being part of this church, as with this young man, then we cannot, in good conscience, baptize him or her. On what basis—and with what authority—would we be baptizing said person?

If baptism were merely a milestone, we would miss an incredible blessing for both the person baptized and the church. Baptism is the formal beginning of discipleship. It is the public confession that Jesus is Lord. This confession is made by the person and by the whole church. When a church baptizes a new believer, that church is committing itself to his or her growth in Christ, and that person is committing to help the church grow in Christ. Baptism is more than just getting wet. Baptism is an incredible gift given by the Lord Jesus to remind us we are not our own, but we belong—body and soul—to the Lord and to his people.