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What Does Baptism Mean? And Other Questions

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Why are Christians always dunking people in water? And why is this such a big deal? This adapted post will be the first of a short series that examines some of the basic questions about this important part of a Christian’s faith. These posts are particularly recommended for anyone considering being baptized this Easter.

By virtue of reminding us of our connection to Jesus and his people, baptism and Communion are supposed to be incredibly meaningful. In Christianity, baptism and Communion have been sacred rituals practiced for thousands of years in every culture by people who, by faith, trust in Jesus alone for salvation.

What does baptism mean?

We believe the Bible presents baptism as an outward witness of an inward faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.

Christian baptism is an act of obedience to the command of Jesus, declaring the believers faith in and identification with their crucified, buried, and risen Savior. It is a visible declaration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The believer being baptized is immersed beneath the waters in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which expresses the believers’ death to sin and the burial of their old life, and then brought out of the water, which expresses the believers’ resurrection to a new kingdom life in Christ Jesus. Furthermore, baptism identifies a Christian with Jesus, the universal church, and the local church.

Jesus commanded that all Christians be baptized. The apostles commanded that all Christians be baptized, which explains why the book of Acts and records of the early church show that baptism was practiced consistently.

We understand baptism to be the sign and seal of membership in the covenant community. Baptism is for all persons as they join the community of the church.

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Who should be baptized?

The consistent witness of the New Testament is that someone first believes in Jesus and then is baptized. This is called believers’ baptism. Never do we witness the reverse order where someone, such as an infant, is baptized and then later believes in Jesus.

We see six lines of support for this position in the New Testament.

  1. In the precursor to Christian baptism, John the Baptizer required that people repent of sin before being baptized. (Matt. 3:2; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3)

  2. Every baptism in the New Testament is preceded by repentance of sin and faith in Jesus. (Acts 2:38–41; 8:12; 9:18–19; 10:44–48; 16:14–15, 29–36; 18:8; 19:1–7; 22:16)

  3. Baptism is reserved solely for those people who have put on Christ. (Gal. 3:27)

  4. Baptism shows personal identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This can only happen when someone has trusted in Christ for salvation. (Rom. 6:1–10; Col. 2:12)

  5. The Bible does record occurrences where entire households were baptized. (Acts 10:33, 44–48; 11:14; 16:15; 1 Cor. 1:16) In these cases, the Bible also records that each member of these households believed in Jesus and was saved. (John 4:53; Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 16:15)

  6. Both Jesus and his apostles gave the command for disciples to be baptized as an expression of that discipleship. (Matt. 28:19, Acts 2:38)

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Do you have to be baptized to be saved?

Salvation is solely a gift given to people whose faith rests in the grace of God to forgive their sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus. For example, when the Philippian jailer asked what was required of him to be saved, Paul did not mention baptism but simply said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Likewise, the thief who died on the cross next to Jesus was promised by our Lord that “today you will be with me in Paradise,” though he had not been baptized. Someone can be unbaptized and yet be a Christian who is destined for heaven.

Nonetheless, even though one can be a Christian without being baptized, a Christian should be baptized. If nothing else, Jesus commanded baptism to show in outward sign the inward covenant relationship we have with him. Similarily, married people are married regardless of whether they wear their wedding ring, which is the outward symbol of their inward covenant relationship. But I, for one, am glad that my wife wears her wedding ring.

Baptism is the biblical way in which we show that by the power of the Spirit, we died to our old way of life through the death of Jesus, and live a new life through the resurrection of Jesus, cleansed from our sin in the same way that water cleanses us from filth. Therefore, being baptized does not make someone a Christian. Not being baptized does not cause someone to stop being a Christian, but a Christian should be baptized.

This post is excerpted from pp 112–119 of Vintage Church, by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, copyright © 2008. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois 60187, www.crossway.org.

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