Today we have a basic but really important question we have yet to address on the podcast. It comes from a listener named Matthew. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast. I am a relatively new believer who was saved through a very faithful Bible preaching ministry on my college campus. I have since graduated and am now looking for a home church to become a member. In every case I have been asked if I have been baptized. I have not. I need to. And I plan to. But I was wondering if you could explain to a newer believer like me, why do I need to be baptized? What does it mean? And why is this an essential step for me to take?”
Thank you, Matthew. I love the question. It’s an honor to try to answer. Let me start by just reading a definition of what baptism is from our church affirmation of faith. And then I’ll try to unpack it and explain it.
We believe that baptism is an ordinance [I’ll come back to that word ordinance] by which those who have repented and come to faith express their union with Christ in his death and resurrection, by being immersed in water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. It is a sign of belonging to the new people of God, the true Israel, and an emblem of burial and cleansing, signifying death to the old life of unbelief, and purification from the pollution of sin.
Now that’s a long definition, sorry. But it’ll make more sense if we just take it one piece at a time.
1. Baptism is an ordinance of the Lord.
First, we believe that baptism is an ordinance of the Lord. What we mean when we say that it’s an ordinance is that the Lord Jesus commanded it; he ordained it. The word ordinance comes from “he ordained it.” He planned it. He said we should do it in a way that gives it an ongoing practice in the church.
“In baptism, we dramatically portray what happened spiritually when we received Christ.”
And the part of the Bible where it says that is Matthew 28:19–20. “Go therefore and make disciples,” Jesus said, “of all nations, baptizing them.” Jesus told us to do this until he comes back. He keeps going and says, “. . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. . . . And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So, as long as this age exists before Jesus comes back again, we are to be making disciples for him by teaching what he’s taught us, and baptizing them in the process.
2. Baptism expresses union with Christ.
Second, baptism, we believe, expresses union with Christ in his death and resurrection. And the clearest teaching on this is found in Romans 6:3–4, where it says this: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” So, you hear the idea of unity there. “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.”
Now, in the wider context of Romans and the rest of the New Testament, I think it would be a mistake to say that water baptism, the actual going into water, is the means of our being united to Christ. I think that would be a mistake to say that. In Romans, it’s faith in Jesus — faith, the Holy Spirit-given ability to love and trust and treasure Christ. It’s faith that is the means by which we are united to Christ and justified by him. But we show this faith, we signify this faith, we symbolize it, with an act of baptism. Faith unites us to Christ; baptism portrays the union with Christ.
An analogy would be saying something like this: When you’re standing before the pastor getting married and you say, “With this ring, I thee wed,” what do you mean when you say that? When we say that, we don’t mean that the ring, putting on the ring, creates the marriage, makes us married. No, no, no. It shows the covenant; it symbolizes the covenant. But the covenant, the actual marriage moment and event and union, was the covenant vows that we made to each other in marriage. That would be a comparison of the vows being faith in Christ, and the putting on the ring being baptism.
When we trust in Christ, his death counts as our death; his resurrection counts as our resurrection. And then in baptism, we dramatically portray what happened spiritually when we received Christ. Our old self of unbelief and rebellion and idolatry died. And our new identity, a person of faith and submission and treasuring Christ, came into being — all of that through faith. And that’s what we confess, and that’s what we symbolize when we go down into the water, as though we were being buried with Christ, and then come up out.
3. Baptism is by immersion.
Which is the third point — namely, I’m a Baptist. If you ask another kind of Christian, like a Presbyterian or some others, they wouldn’t say this necessarily. I believe that we should immerse people in water. Baptism is an immersion, as opposed to sprinkling water on the head. Romans 6 is my reason for that, and there are others. It describes the portrayal of death and burial and resurrection through going down into water as into a grave, and then coming back up out. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
But it’s not only the imagery that points to immersion; so does the word itself. The word baptize in Greek, baptize, means “dip” or “immerse.” It means that; it doesn’t mean “sprinkle.” And most scholars agree that this is the way the early church did practice baptism, and sprinkling came in later — maybe because it was hard to find enough water or gather it in a place for it.
“In the mind of the apostles, to be united to Christ by faith through baptism was to be united to the body of Christ.”
And there are other pointers to the fact that immersion was the way they did it. For example, in Acts 8:38, when the Ethiopian eunuch became a Christian while he was traveling back and talking with Philip, it says, “They both went down into the water.” The eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36). And it didn’t say Philip went down and got a jug of water and poured it on his head. It says, “They both went down into the water.” The same thing happens in John 3:23, where baptism is happening “at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there.” So, all of that to say, the third point is this: baptism is an immersion in water.
4. Baptism is in the name of the triune God.
Fourth, baptism means doing this immersing in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Matthew 28:19: “Go . . . make disciples . . . baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This means that not just any immersing is baptism — like, diving into a swimming pool is not baptism. There is a holy appeal to God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit to be present in this act, and make the portrayal true and real in what it says about the work of redemption.
There’s no salvation without the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, one God in three persons. When we call upon their name — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — we’re depending upon them, all of them. And we’re honoring them. And we’re saying that this act of baptism is by them and for them.
5. Baptism demonstrates faith.
Fifth, baptism is an expression of faith, and therefore only for believers, which is why we don’t baptize infants, who are not able to believe. And let me just give you one verse for why you should seriously consider the fact that it’s only for believers, and that it is an expression of faith. When I was in Germany, studying with nothing but Lutherans — in all my classes I was the only Baptist — at the University of Munich, we went away on a retreat and talked about baptism, and they all turned to me and said, “So, why don’t you baptize babies?”
And I took them to Colossians 2:12. And I’ll tell you what they said, but here’s the verse: “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith . . .” Did you get that now? Burial and resurrection in baptism, the symbol of baptism there, the symbol of burial and resurrection in baptism, is “through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” And the professor, who was also a Lutheran, said, “Well, I think you’re right in the way you interpret that verse. But the verse isn’t addressing the issue of families; it’s addressing the issue of evangelism.”
I appreciated that concession. But my point was this: I think there is a principle being mentioned here that covers all the cases. That’s what baptism is. It is a demonstration of the burial and resurrection with Jesus, which happened through faith. And so, we should only do it to those who can believe.
United to Christ’s Body
So, baptism is very important. It was uncompromisingly commanded and ordained by the Lord Jesus until he comes. It was universally practiced and administered by Christians in the early church, and has been all through the centuries. Paul took it for granted; there are no unbaptized Christians in the New Testament. And it was uniquely connected to conversion as an unrepeatable expression of saving faith. We’re only justified once; we only die and are united to Christ once and permanently.
And one last comment: it was closely connected to being a member of a local church. In the mind of the apostles, to be united to Christ by faith through baptism was to be united to the body of Christ. And local churches are the manifestations of the universal body of Christ. To be a Christian, therefore, is to belong to a local church. It’s right and fitting that you belong to a church.
Baptism wasn’t a fun climax to beach evangelism with everybody going their separate ways with no reference to the church. Baptism was a sacred expression of faith, a faith that unites you to Christ and his people — a particular people, in a particular church, where you could be nurtured and held accountable as the New Testament teaches.