In our last post, we addressed the importance, ability, and necessity of coming to convictions about baptism and the Lord’s Supper that are most faithful to the inerrant witness of God’s Word. In this post, we want to take an initial dip (pun intended) into the ordinance of baptism. What is it? The clearest understanding of baptism on the pages of holy Scripture can be brought together in four main themes, two of which we will address in this post, and two more in a future post. Let’s dive in!
Baptism is Two-Part Act: The Church and the Individual
Baptism is a church’s act of affirming the credibility of an individual’s profession of faith in Jesus (Acts 2:38, 41). In that, we also note that baptism is an individual’s act of going public about what Jesus has done in their heart and life (same texts in Acts, but also is clear or able to be inferred from more than a few others). In other words, there is a joyfully obedient will on the part of both the one baptizing (a representative of the whole church) and the baptizee (the one being baptized) that the baptizee, as best as the church can discern, been united by faith to Jesus in His death and resurrection. Simply put, that they are a believer. A church baptizes, and a Christian gets baptized.
Baptism is Outwardly Depicting a New Inner Reality
The person is “going on record” that they’re in Jesus. And it’s the church’s joy and duty of affirming and outwardly depicting that new inner reality by baptism (clearest in a text like Romans 6:1-4). To be clear, the church isn’t creating that reality. The Word and the Gospel of God by the Spirit of God is doing that (Rom 10:17, 2 Cor 4:4-6, Eph 1:3-14, 1 Thes 1:4, etc)! More specifically, baptism isn’t creating that but, again, it is outwardly depicting it. By obedience to Jesus’ command in the Great Commission that we baptize rebels turned disciples, the church is affirming and outwardly depicting that new inner reality for the individual, which God thought to be advantageous for their souls!
The very picture of baptism is meant to signify, again, not that a person might hopefully, eventually be united to Jesus, but that they have already, by their own grace-enabled consent, been united to Jesus (again, see especially Rom 6:1-4, noting the words ‘all,’ denoting universal practice, ‘into,’ denoting personal union with Christ, ‘Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death, etc?’).
In other words, Paul understands baptism to have been performed, without exception, on only those who have actually been united to Christ and are then beneficiaries of His death and resurrection. Note the further clarification of the past tenses in Romans 6:5 to show that this union has already occurred. Again, Acts 2:38 and 41 also reveal this to be the case (along with other supporting texts).
Along the same lines, we should also notice that everywhere in the New Testament where baptism occurs, there’s lots of water (see John 3:23). And there’s lots of water because, it seems, the best way to depict what’s happened to a person in the new birth was to immerse them in water. Indeed, the Greek word for baptism, baptizo, means ‘to immerse!’ And the picture only adds to the Greek!
Going under the water, one holds their breath, signifying union with Christ in His death for them. Then, coming up out of the water, one immediately takes a breath, signifying union with Christ in His resurrection for them. This is the normative mode of baptism in the Bible. Of course, there are some cases that might make this impossible – for instance, a deathbed conversion. Think the thief on the cross!
But back to the more immediate point. The normative mode of baptism in the New Testament (immersion) reinforces the only proper subjects of baptism (Christians) by outwardly depicting the inner reality of the baptized (new birth): that they have actually (not potentially) been united by faith to Jesus, as well as to Jesus’ visible people (manifest in a local church). This is called believer’s baptism. It’s the baptism most clearly in view on the pages of Scripture.