Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Meaning of Baptism

Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, whom he baptized
   As we have seen, what Peter told the Jerusalem multitudes on the Day of Pentecost was, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38; NKJV). The verse seems to suggest that we receive the remission of sins through baptism, yet as we have seen elsewhere, we are "justified" by faith. What exactly, then, did Peter mean? What does baptism accomplish?

    The first thing that should be noted is that what is in view here is believer's baptism. There is no direct command in the New Testament to baptize infants, and there is no clear example of it either. Rather, the Bible virtually equates baptism with believing: "For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:26,27).
    But if we are "saved by grace through faith" (cf. Eph. 2:8), what is the point of baptism? Why be baptized at all? The apostle Peter explains it this way: " . . . baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (I Pet. 3:21; NASV). We are not saved by the external action of the water on the body working automatically. Rather, it is what happens internally that is important – "the appeal to God for a good conscience."
    In other words, baptism is a public way of expressing our faith in Christ. In baptism we formally declare ourselves to be Christians. And this public declaration of faith is important. Jesus said, "Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My
Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32,33). There can be no such thing as a "closet" or "secret" Christian: either you are a Christian openly, or you are not one at all. Baptism is the primary means of making that public confession of faith.
    What is required is that we make a formal commitment to Christ. We may say that we believe; we may desire to have a relationship with Christ. But this is all hypothetical until we make a formal commitment, and a formal commitment requires a public action of some sort. Baptism fulfills that requirement. It is only then that our salvation is a "done deal." Baptism serves as both a "sign" (a symbolic representation) and a "seal" of our faith, in much the same way that circumcision did for Abraham's faith (cf. Rom 4:11).
    The preferred mode of baptism is immersion. This is partly because that is what the Greek word signifies ("to dip repeatedly"; "to dip under"), and partly because there was a Jewish precedent for it. But more importantly, only immersion brings out the full symbolism of the rite.
    First of all, baptism by immersion symbolizes our union with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. By faith we become one with Christ. He is our head and we are His mystical body, and as such we vicariously participate in His death and resurrection. As we have seen, this is how we receive justification – the forgiveness of our sins. We are reckoned to have died and risen with Christ, and are forgiven accordingly.
    But baptism by immersion also symbolizes what happens to us personally. Part of us, "the old man" as it is called in several passages of Scripture, has died – our past identity, or former way of life. It is symbolically buried in the water. What emerges from the water is essentially a new person, a changed man, different from the old. He no longer thinks or acts the way he did before. Significantly Paul concludes his discussion of baptism in Romans 6 by saying, "Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v. 11).
    Baptism is the public, outward, formal means by which we renounce our past and publicly identify ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ. It signifies that we have entered into salvation – a new status, a new relationship, a new vital principle within, a new sense of direction, a new set of values, and a new lifestyle. It signifies the passage from death unto life.

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