What Does Baptism Signify?
A declaration of union with Christ
Baptism is a dramatic way of declaring your solidarity with Jesus! The only prop needed is a large quantity of water – a baptistry will do, although in New Testament times rivers, lakes and ponds were used as they still are in various places around the world. The spectators (in church terms, the congregation) are asked to imagine that this water is a watery grave. So, when you go under water, you will identify yourself with Jesus who died and was buried, as for one split second you will disappear, like Jesus, off the face of the earth.
Then, like Christ, you will symbolically rise from death. In baptism then you will in effect be saying, ‘Yes, Lord, you died for me’, ‘Yes, Lord, you rose for me’.
Paul puts it this way: ‘Don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised 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’ (Rom 6:3,4; also Col 2:12).
An act of revolution
To be united with Christ in baptism is more than a dramatic statement of belief. From Paul’s description of the newly baptised as rising to ‘live a new life’ (Rom 6:4), it is clear that there are ethical implications too. As you go under the water, you will be declaring your resolve to die to your old way of living and, as you rise from the water, you will be declaring your resolve to follow Christ’s pattern of living. Baptism marks the moment of your public surrender to Christ, when you turn from sin and renounce evil, and when you publicly make Jesus Lord of your life and of your lifestyle. The implications for your attitude to work and to money, to sex and to relationships, are enormous. It is no exaggeration to describe baptism as a revolutionary act.
A sign of cleansing
Another consequence of giving yourself to Jesus and committing yourself to him ‘for keeps’ is that you are forgiven. The baptistry does not just symbolise a great watery grave; it is also a ‘bath’, in which you wash away your sin. ‘Get up and be baptised’, said Ananias to Paul, ‘and wash your sins away, calling on his name’ (Acts 22:16). Paul himself later describes baptism as ‘the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit’ (Tit 3:5. Also Eph 5:25,26; Heb 10:22). Of course, it is not the actual water that washes away sins, but rather our faith in Christ expressed in baptism. As Peter put it, it is ‘baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience towards God’ (1 Pet 3:21). Only the ‘blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin’ (1 John 1:7). Baptism is the sign of this inner cleansing.
A sign of the Spirit’s presence
Another thing that happens when you give yourself to Jesus is that God through his Spirit indwells you and so becomes the source of your new life, a life marked by a new power, a new peace and a new joy (Acts 1:8; Rom 14:17). Baptism is the sign of this presence. It is because of this that Paul can speak of baptism as baptism in the Holy Spirit: ‘for we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body’ (1 Cor 12:13).
One area where Baptists differ with each other is whether baptism is more than a mere sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence. Texts like Acts 2:38 and Titus 3:5 suggest that he is indeed active in and through the rite of baptism. Baptism from this perspective is a believer’s personal Pentecost. On the other hand, the story of the Roman soldier Cornelius (Acts 10) is a salutary reminder that God’s Spirit is not bound by any ceremony. Suffice it to say, down through the centuries Baptists have found that God has indeed blessed the act of obedience by a fresh infilling with his Spirit. So as you are being baptised look to God and expect him to bless you anew with his Spirit – you will not be disappointed.
A confession of faith
When Paul wrote to the church at Rome ‘if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord”, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (Rom 10:9), he may well have had the act of baptism in mind. For baptism is the great moment of nailing your colours to the mast and declaring that you belong to Christ and to his people. Don’t be ashamed of making ‘your good confession in the presence of many witnesses’ (1 Tim 6:12). Make sure you invite all your friends, neighbours and relatives. Experience has shown time and again that the very act of baptism forms a tremendous sounding board for the gospel.
A rite of initiation
Baptism is the normal way of entry into the church. Look at 1 Corinthians 12:13 ‘We were all baptised by one Spirit into one body.’ When we are baptised we identify ourselves not only with Jesus who died and rose that we might have life, but also with the people of God. Similar thinking underlies Galatians 3:26,27, where Paul’s mention of faith leads him on to baptism which, in turn, leads him on to speak of the church in which we are ‘all one in Christ Jesus.’ Baptism is God’s way for you to join the church.
This is one reason why in most Baptist churches baptism and church membership are closely linked. Through baptism we become a member of Christ’s church. We give concrete expression to this fact by becoming a member of our local Baptist church. Baptism is not for spiritual gypsies.
*Beasley-Murray P. 1996, ‘Believer’s Baptism’, in Baptist Basics, D. Tidball, and G. Ball (eds). Baptist Foundation of NSW, Glebe, 6-10.
This article was modified from the book Baptist Basics, with permission from The Baptist Foundation of NSW. To request copies of the book write to: Baptist Foundation of NSW, Private Bag 8, Glebe, NSW 2037 or contact the office at Thornleigh Community Baptist Church.