What is Baptism?

” . . . So what does Alfred want?”

Pyrlig grinned. “He wants me to talk you into becoming a Christian, of course. The king has great faith in my powers of speech.”

“I am a Christian,” I said.

“Are you now?”

“I was baptized, wasn’t I? Twice, as it happens.”

“Twice! Doubly holy, eh? How come you got it twice?”

“Because my name was changed when I was a child and my stepmother thought heaven wouldn’t recognize me under my old name.”

He laughed. “So they washed the devil out of you the first time and slopped him back in the second?”

Bernard Cornwell, The Pale Horseman (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 290.

I love this excerpt from Cornwell’s novel. Not only does it give me a good chuckle every time I read it, but it also reminds me of both my own history with baptism and the church’s historic confusion when it comes to baptism (I’m primarily looking at the Baptists when I write this).

I’ll be the first to admit that the doctrine of baptism is confusing. I don’t claim to have any more clarity on the topic than the historic confusion I referenced above, but I would still like to offer some reflections on the topic regardless. (At some point, when my schedule is more open, I hope to do an in-depth, theological, biblical, historical, practical study on the topic.)

One of my first observations on the topic is related directly to Cornwell’s book. The narrator of this novel (and the entire fantastic series) is Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a pagan from Northumbria who gets “forced” to fight for King Alfred (later known as “Alfred the Great”). Uhtred often comments on the strangeness of the religion–Christianity–taking over his land, comparing it to his people’s native religion that worships Thor, Odin, and Loki–amongst others.

You’ll notice Uhtred’s confusion at the concept of baptism (though this confusion could very well be related to the lousy teaching on the topic he’d received), which highlights the need for all Christians to understand why they believe what they believe. The confusion is made even worse in our day when you’ve got Catholics saying baptism means one thing, Baptists saying that baptism means something else, Lutherans saying something else entirely, and Presbyterians offering a fourth understanding (to completely ignore the multitude of other potential understandings). This leads potential converts to wonder, “Who’s right? Which group should I join?” And if we aren’t careful, we will ultimately push potential converts away, just like Uhtred is pushed away in Cornwell’s novels.

So what does baptism mean?

As a good Baptist, the answer to this question is found in the Bible. As such, what does the Bible teach about baptism?

When it comes to answering this question, the best place to start is 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Ephesians 4:4-6.

There is only One Baptism

“For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free.”

1 Corinthians 12:13

“There is one body and one Spirit —just as you were called to one hope at your calling— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 4:4-6

These two verses make it crystal clear. There is only one baptism. We don’t need multiple baptisms. If you were baptized as a baby, you don’t need to be rebaptized. If you were baptized as a child when you weren’t aware of what you were doing by getting baptized, you don’t need to be rebaptized. And if you were baptized as an adult, and then fell away from the faith for whatever reason, you do not need to get rebaptized when you recommit yourself to the Lord. There is ONE baptism (and if you question the validity of the first two examples there, your acceptance of the third is proof that the first two should also be accepted).

From there, we move into several other biblical truths related to baptism.

Baptism is Into Christ

“and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”

1 Corinthians 10:2

“For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment.”

Galatians 3:27

These verses make it clear that baptism is more than just a symbol. Rather, baptism is being united with Christ in a spiritual sense. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were baptized into Moses, meaning their sins had been forgiven (we’ll come back to this below) at Passover, and they were baptized into Moses at the Red Sea, which further means that from that point onward, Moses was their representative. This is clearly seen in the Exodus narrative, as Moses constantly intercedes with God on behalf of the people of Israel (cf. Exodus 32-34). When it says that we have been baptized into Christ in the New Testament, this means that He is our representative now.

This leads us to another concept.

Baptism Identifies Us With Christ

“Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life.”

Romans 6:3–4

“Having been buried with Him in baptism, you were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses.”

Colossians 2:12–13

These verses make it clear that baptism is more than just a symbol. The grammar here is clear. Baptism into Christ is baptism into His death. If we are “buried with Him in baptism,” then we are identifying with His death on the cross. There is a difference between a spiritual reality and a symbol. Baptism is an actual, literal, spiritual reality. Something changes at the point of baptism. Look closely at the grammar of Colossians 2:12-13.

  1. Buried with Him in baptism
    • Raised with Him
      • through faith
  2. Dead in tresspasses
    • He made you alive
      • forgave us all our tresspasses

These two verses are parallel to each other. Therefore, they should be understood with each other. But the two s are the points I want to key in on for a moment.

In order to be saved, what do we need?
Our sins need to be forgiven in order to be saved.

And how can our sins be forgiven?
By faith in Jesus Christ.

And how do we confess our faith in Jesus Christ?
By being baptized.

In other words, if you doubt that your sins have been forgiven, you should just ask yourself, “Have I been baptized?” We’ll come back to this connection in a moment, but it’s all right here (and you could include Colossians 2:11 as well and argue that circumcision is also parallel, but since we’re not “in Moses” anymore it has now been replaced by baptism).

But what does Romans 6:4 say is the result of our baptism? Paul tells us that it allows us to “walk in a new way of life.” This is a more practical wording of Paul’s earlier words in Galatians 3:27. “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment.” Christians (a synonym for “The baptized ones”) should be displaying Christ to the world.

But there’s more!

Baptism is for the Forgiveness of Sins

“John came baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were flocking to him, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins.”

Mark 1:4–5

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. But John tried to stop Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and yet You come to me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Allow it for now, because this is the way for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him to be baptized.”

Matthew 3:13–15

These verses make it clear that baptism is more than just a symbol. Baptism is for the forgiveness of sins. In fact, the Greek New Testament literally reads, “. . . baptism of repentance into (εἰς) the forgiveness of sins.” According to David L Mathewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig, “Many have avoided ‘purpose’ as a description of the use of εἰς in this verse in order to avoid the implications that forgiveness of sins is conditioned upon baptism. However, it is difficult to avoid purpose (or result) as the meaning of εἰς here” (Intermediate Greek Grammar, 100). In fact, the most basic meaning of the preposition “εἰς” is “direction toward or into” (Intermediate Greek Grammar, 99). So if we don’t want to see forgiveness of sins as the purpose or result of baptism, we have to at least understand baptism as moving toward forgiveness of sins. It’s the most literal way to understand the passage.

But then the argument could arise, “Christian baptism and John’s baptism are two entirely different things.

Are they?

Look at Acts 2:38. Peter uses the same language. “Repent and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And additionally, when we look at Matthew 3:15, Jesus was baptized (not because He needed forgiveness), but to solidify the link between John’s ministry and His own. Jesus connects the baptism of John with the baptism that Peter proclaims–not to mention all subsequent Christians (cf. Matthew 28:19-20).

But now that we’ve made it to Peter, it’s worth pointing out one more verse.

Baptism Saves

“God patiently waited in the days of Noah while an ark was being prepared. In it a few—that is, eight people—were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

1 Peter 3:20-21

I know. It’s a very strong statement. You probably cringe reading it if you come from baptistic circles. But it’s what the Scripture says. And if baptism is for the forgiveness of sins (as was made clear by Colossians 2:12-13, Mark 1:4-5, and Acts 2:38), then it naturally follows that baptism also saves.

Here’s why. The grammar of these verses in 1 Peter insists that the waters of the flood correspond to (find their antitype in) baptism. Whereas the majority of the world died in the water, Noah’s family was saved through the water. But why was Noah’s family saved?

The answer is in Hebrews 11:7. “By faith Noah, after he was warned about what was not yet seen and motivated by godly fear, built an ark to deliver his family. By faith he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” Faith. You can be baptized and have no faith, like many of the Israelites who were baptized in the Red Sea (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1-5; Jude 5). So baptism saves, but only when connected to faith.

And why does baptism save when it is connected to faith?

Baptism saves when connected to faith because of what baptism is. It is the “pledge of a good conscience to God” (1 Peter 3:21), which can only happen because sins have been forgiven (cf. Colossians 2:13-14). And how are sins forgiven? By baptism.

Baptism is a means of grace by which God forgives sins. If you have faith, you can be baptized and your sins will be forgiven. Because God doesn’t change His mind (Numbers 23:19), you need not be rebaptized everytime you sin after your baptism. If you have faith–and if you have been baptized–your sins are forgiven, even if you were baptized as an infant (cf. Psalm 8:2; Matthew 19:13-14; Matthew 18:2-5). “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6), and baptism will not save apart from faith, but who are we to claim that infants can’t have faith in Jesus, even if that faith waxes and wanes over the course of their lives? (Doesn’t our faith do the same, even as adults?) Perhaps faith was the “something good” God found in the son of evil King Jeroboam (cf. 1 Kings 14:1-18, especially verse 13).

When this is the nuts and bolts of Christendom’s understanding of baptism–and when it is what is taught from our pulpits–potential converts will be less confused about which denomination is correct, and we will be one step closer to seeing the unity for which Jesus prayed in John 17:21.

This is believer’s baptism, but it doesn’t put an age on when someone is allowed to first believe.

Be baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of your sins!

In this with you.

Soli Deo Gloria
Sola Fide
Solus Christus
Sola Scriptura

Thanks for reading.

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