Let me first start by saying, this question is a contentious one between Protestants and Catholics. The contention is to whether baptism confers saving grace to its recipient, often an infant, through the means of the church administering the sacrament apart from personal faith in Jesus.
I won’t go there today on this issue. Another question for another day. I hope my answer to this contention will become clear in my answer to the question “What is baptism?”
Between fellow Protestants, however, the question of “what is baptism” is generally (note generally) agreed upon. This agreement is maintained until the discussion is turned to the mode of baptism (how and when ordinance is administered.) Today, debate and even separation, especially for my tradition, occur over this issue.
Before I begin, I would like to share my convictions. My wife and I are Christians, but for the purpose of this article, you may refer to us as Baptists. We hold to credobaptism (or believer’s baptism), not out of family heritage or church tradition. My wife and I were “baptized” as infants (paedobaptism). But we left two separate faith traditions and were truly baptized because of the clear teaching of Scripture, fidelity to the Word of God, and a desire to be obedient to Jesus’ call (Matt 28:19; Acts 2:38). So, for the topic on the mode of baptism, I won’t address this either. Yet another question for another day.
So, what is baptism? Baptism is one of the two rites of the New Testament church. The other is the Lord’s Supper. Protestants recognize only these two rites for reasons of biblical fidelity. Jesus, Himself, ordained these two rites — this is why we call them ordinances — for Christian identification and gospel proclamation. So, what of baptism’s meaning in identification and proclamation?
Baptism is a sign of an individual’s entrance into the new covenant community. Something must be said of this unique community, first though. This community is unlike any community in the world. It is a community defined by an inward identity — that is faith (Jer 31:34/Hebrews 8:11) — and not by any outward identity (ethnic or geographical differences). This community is a people twho have died to their selves and, therefore, their sinful passions (Gal 5:24; 1 Peter 2:24; Rom 6:6). And now in death, they have ceased to live in sin (1 Peter 4:1f; Romans 6:2, 7). But this people, in this death to self, have been made alive through Jesus to righteousness (Gal 2:20ff; Rom 6:11, 13).
This righteousness is not a righteousness of their own, though, but it is a righteousness that is given to them from God by grace through faith in Christ (Phil 3:9ff). So it is, that all those who enter into this community are those of “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). And this faith, though it may slay them in death to self and sin, they will live forever in faith and righteousness (Rom 5:21).
Entrance into this community is free to whoever will come (John 3:16; Gal 3:26). All who will turn from their sins and believe in Jesus for forgiveness and life everlasting will be saved by the grace of God through this faith in Jesus (Eph 2:1-10). Through faith alone you are made right with God.
And in a public profession of this faith, we mark their entrance into this covenant community by an outward sign: baptism. This is the only order the New Testament gives: repentance in faith in Jesus and then the sign of the faith — baptism (Acts 2:38). Furthermore, it is a sign that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:19), and the church administers it for two reasons: 1) to identify believers who have been saved by Christ and united to him in newness life and 2) to celebrate what Jesus has done for us all who have and will believe (i.e. the gospel message). Baptism is a sign of faith, an outward sign of an inner truth; and a celebration of the power of the gospel (Rom 1:16f).
By immersing a believer into the water, we symbolize their death and burial, as Jesus died on the cross and was buried in the tomb of Joseph (Rom 6:3-4a). Then by pulling them up from underneath the water, we symbolize their resurrection from the death to new life, as Jesus was resurrected from the death and lives forever (Romans 6:4b; Col 2:12). Through this act of obedience to the Word of God, we publicly confess our faith in Jesus and proclaim the gospel message. When a new believer is pulled from the water, the church boldly proclaims, “Jesus saves.”
“If we are united with him in a death like this, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). This is Christian identity. This is the hope of the gospel given, not earned, in Jesus. And baptism is the sign of both. There is so much more that could be said on this topic, but it will have to wait for another article.
If you have any questions, please feel free to email me. I would love to hear from you. Until next week, God bless.
(Jeremy Breland is a farmer in Ruffin and a M.Div. student at Southern Seminary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)