My father and I had an incredible relationship. We enjoyed mutual activities, had similar interests, and could talk for hours on end. Leading up to his death in the spring of 2015, our conversations were still enjoyable, but became significantly more serious. Not that we didn’t have serious talks before, but now we were having them regularly.
You see, my father had stage four cancer. He knew he only had a brief period of time left with his family, and he wanted that time to be used to communicate what he felt was most important.
Jesus did the same thing in Matthew 28. It’s here where we see Jesus giving his disciples the command to go and make disciples, and to then baptize those disciples in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“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.”
— Matthew 28:19
As we approach baptism, it’s important to point out that this is an “in-house” debate, or an “open-handed” issue. Christians who disagree on this issue can still rightly be called “Christian." Whereas if someone began to deny a “close-handed” issue such as the Trinity, or that Christ is the only means of salvation, then that would be a theological dealbreaker. That individual could no longer accurately claim to be Christian because they have denied one of the defining beliefs of Christianity. This is not the case with baptism.
As Timothy Keller so aptly puts it, "God has given us unity around the doctrines he has in his wisdom chosen to make crystal clear— the deity of Christ, his Triune nature, the need for grace for forgiveness, the inerrancy of Scripture, and so on. We should not give up that unity because we can’t agree on issues such as baptism, church government, speaking in tongues, and so on."
So as we discuss this topic, I would like to recognize that there are faithful brothers and sisters who have views that differ from ours. Our differences on baptism may mean that we worship at different churches (Baptist rather than Lutheran, Presbyterian rather than Nazarene, etc.), but it does not render us of a different faith (Protestant Christianity). With that being said, we believe it is still a worthwhile pursuit to understand the importance and meaning of baptism.
Who should be baptized?
In short, based off of Jesus’ words in Matthew 28:18, disciples of Jesus should be baptized. It’s a command of Jesus to be obeyed by all followers of Jesus. Upon hearing the gospel preached to them by Peter in Acts 2, the crowd asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), and Peter responded by saying, “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).
So what is the biblical pattern? When we look at baptisms in the Bible, we see consistent characteristics among those who are being baptized. Upon hearing the gospel:
They repented of sin.
They embraced Jesus to be who he said he was (Son of God, Messiah, Savior, God, etc.).
They trusted Jesus’ death and resurrection alone to be sufficient in satisfying God’s wrath against their sin.
With those consistencies, we can begin to develop an understanding of who would be a candidate for baptism today. Based on the characteristics above, candidates for baptism are those who:
Confess their sin and continue in active repentance of it.
Embrace Jesus to be who the Bible says he is (Son of God, Messiah, Savior, God, etc.).
Trust that Jesus’ death and resurrection alone are sufficient in satisfying God’s wrath against their sin.
With this framework established, one will notice that age is not a requirement for being a disciple. However, one will also notice that the above characteristics are likely not ones that an infant or a newborn will exhibit.
Therefore, I would arrive at the following understanding based off of the biblical example: Baptism is an ordinance reserved for individuals who have already professed faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and are actively submitting themselves to him.
Does baptism save?
At the time of conversion, the believer is baptized with the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13; Rom. 8:9; Eph. 1:13-14). Therefore, as an ordinance, baptism with water is a symbol of what has already taken place. It might help to draw a parallel between Spirit baptism and water baptism. Each having four distinct characteristics:
Water baptism would look like the following:
Baptized: New believer
Baptizer: Pastor or spiritual leader
Purpose: Declaration of faith, and public symbol of identifying with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
With Spirit baptism* as such:
Baptized: New believer
Element: Holy Spirit
Purpose: Incorporates new believer into the Church/body of Christ.
So does water baptism save? No. It is an outward expression of the new inward reality in the life of the Christian. What is that reality? That the new believer—through repentance and faith—has been baptized by the Spirit at the moment of their conversion. Faith alone saves. Baptism is a public act of obedience to symbolize the saving faith that the believer now clings to.
Does method matter?
Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is mentioned as the firstfruits of what is to come for the people of God (1 Cor. 15:20). Unless Jesus returns beforehand, God’s people will die, be buried, and then be resurrected to eternal life (1 Cor. 15:23). So what does that have to do with baptism?
When baptism is mentioned in the New Testament the Greek word used is baptizo, which means “to dip” or “to immerse.” At Jesus’ own baptism he entered the water, was immersed, and then “came up out of the water” (Mk. 1:10). Immersion is the biblical norm when it comes to baptism. But why?
As we said earlier, baptism is a symbol of what has already taken place inside of the believer. But it goes deeper than that. Baptism is also an illustration.
Baptism tells the story of the gospel. Keeping in mind Christ’s death and burial, the Christian associates himself with that death by allowing himself to be buried/immersed under the water (Col. 2:12). Just as Jesus arose from the grave, so also the Christian rises from the water, symbolizing the new life they have in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17). And where the individual was previously stained by sin, the water (which has completely washed over them) symbolizes the blood of Jesus that has washed away all of their sins, purifying them before God (Isaiah 1:18).
As a disclaimer, there are certainly circumstances where an individual may be providentially hindered from being baptized via immersion. In those cases we must extend grace rather than legalism.
I was baptized as a baby. Should I get baptized again?
Many who read this may have been baptized as an infant. If you find yourself in that category and are wondering how to be faithful in this area, we would recommend the following.
First, you should thank your parents for caring about your spiritual wellbeing. Yes, we have laid out a case against infant baptism (also known as "paedobaptism"). However, it's important to recognize the heart motives behind your family's decision to have you baptized. No doubt it was because they love and care about you. Praise God for that.
With that being said, was it a genuine baptism? We believe Scripture would say no. Why? Because none of the earlier mentioned criteria were present on your behalf.
If you have not been baptized since your conversion to Christianity, we would encourage you to obey God's command regarding this ordinance (Mt. 28:19; Acts 2:38). One way to do this would be simply contacting your pastor about your next steps. Baptism is not a matter of necessity, but it is a matter of obedience.
The Lord has given his people the act of baptism as an outward symbol of what has already taken place within them. It's a reminder to both the individual and to those watching of the goodness of God in saving his people. It declares that the individual being baptized is publicly associating themselves with Christ. They are announcing that they have been united with Jesus in his death, his burial, and his resurrection.
Jesus' final words to his disciples were important. He used those words to exhort them to make more disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). It is an ordinance reserved only for those who have embraced the gospel as true. It serves as a visual reminder of the gospel for all participating. And it is an act of obedience for all who have committed themselves to following Jesus.
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.
We praise God for this beautiful picture.
*See Greg Allison, The Baker Compact Dictionary of Theological Terms, "Baptism with/in/by the Holy Spirit"