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What does baptism mean and when is it appropriate?

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What does baptism mean? What is the purpose of baptism? And, when is it appropriate?

Foremost, understand that baptism (water baptism) does not save a person. For a person is saved solely by grace through faith in Christ Jesus and His finished work. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). A person is gifted eternal life in Christ at the very instant that person repents and accepts Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.

Baptism, rather, is an act of obedience in following Christ, that displays a new believer’s testimony to the internal change that the Lord has made in their life. As such, it must follow one’s profession of faith in Jesus’ Lordship in their life.

(If you question whether baptism is an actual part of salvation, see this link:) Is baptism necessary for salvation?

The English word baptize comes from the Greek word baptizo. Literal translations of baptizo can be to “immerse,” “submerge,” “plunge,” or “dip.” Baptizo can also be translated “to bring under the influence.”

The Bible speaks both about being baptized in water and of spiritual baptism. Spiritual baptism, or being baptized into Christ, essentially means a person is in Christ, covered in His rightousness. This is not our doing, but Christ’s! At the very moment of salvation, the Holy Spirt comes to indwell the believer, sealing him eternally secure in Christ. 

In this study, we’ll focus primarily on water baptism and its meaning. Properly, water baptism is the act of a new believer being briefly dipped (by a fellow follower of Christ) into water and then coming back out of the water. This symbolizes the new creation they have been made through Christ. It is testament of that individual’s decision to give their life to Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. As such, it is to follow a personal profession of faith in Jesus, receiving Him as Savior and submitting to Him as Lord.

(A biblical understanding of baptism makes it clear why the “baptism,” or “christening,” of infants is unfitting.)

There are some who practice the dousing, or “sprinkling,” of water onto the head of a new believer as a standard method for baptizing. While I believe in specific cases this is an acceptable practice when, or if, a person isn’t able to be dipped into water, I frown on dousing water onto a person as the foremost used method for baptism.

Why? One, the pouring of water onto a person’s head isn’t the biblical example of how early-church believers were baptized. (They were immersed in water.) Further, I believe it is a huge disservice to sprinkle water as baptism because it diminishes the meaning and beauty of what baptism symbolizes. If possible, I urge new believers to be submersed into water. If it isn’t possible, I believe it’s suitable to have another brother in Christ lightly pour water over a new believer’s head.

What is the symbolism and significance of baptism?

There are a number of imageries.

Baptism is a picture of our spiritual death, burial, and resurrection in Jesus Christ.

As a new believer is covered over in water, it is a depiction of being without breath (death) and taken underneath the surface (buried). Then, as they are raised out of the water, it is a picture of being raised from death to new life (resurrection). This gives vivid imagery to the spiritual change that has taken place within them through Christ our Savior.

“All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death . . . buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4). Here, Paul is speaking about being baptized into Christ Jesus, which is spiritual baptism. Yet, Paul is purposeful in his words! A follower of Christ is—spiritually speaking—baptized into the death of Christ and is made spiritually alive in Christ. With that, though, we can glean from Paul’s words the imagery meant in water baptism.

“If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Baptism expresses our testimony to the mercy and grace of Christ; and our trust in His salvation.

Salvation is undeserved. Yet, the Lord God is merciful, gracious, and just. And He provided the Way (Jesus) by which a person may be saved.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). No one merits salvation. We merit the opposite—our sin justly deserves death, judgment, and damnation. “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Yet, Christ, in His love, redeemed us and has given us eternal life.

In Christ, there is life beyond the grave. In baptism, being (briefly) covered by water gives a picture of one’s going down into what should be deserved judgment and separation from God—as being covered over by water reflects of God’s judgement when He flooded the earth in the days of Noah. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8 KJV, emphasis added). And, God saved Noah and his family by taking them into the ark!

We are saved only through God’s grace, by the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. Coming out of the baptismal water illuminates God’s grace and redemption.

We have this confidence. Death is not finality for those in Christ. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? (1 Corinthians 15:55, KJV). For, in Christ, “I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day” (2 Timothy 1:12, KJV).

In going down into the water, one is in essence saying, “What a wretched man I am! I deserve death. But God, in His grace, has given me eternal life.”

Baptism is picturesque of how our sins have been washed away by Christ.

There is no water that can wash away sin! Only the blood of Christ “purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Yet, being immersed in water portrays our being totally made clean by the blood of Christ. “Though your sins are like scarlet they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool” (Isaiah 1:18). “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word” (Ephesians 5:26). “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life” (Revelation 22:14).

In Christ, our sins have been washed away . . . and we have cleansed white as snow in the eyes of our Holy God. “You are in Christ Jesus, who . . . is our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

Words spoken in baptism express believers are now (blood-bought) children of God.

In baptism, it is such a joy and honor to have a declaration of our spiritual family heritage pronounced over us. “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is expressed recognition of our spiritual family-line, as we are now adopted as children of God through the blood of Christ. We “belong to Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:6).

All who profess and receive Christ as one’s personal Lord and Savior are made His “blood” lineage, adopted into sonship through the blood of Christ (cf. Romans 8:23). They are truly children of God, “heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).

Christ shed His blood on Calvary so “that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him” (John 3:15). “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:10). “To those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

Apart from the symbolisms, there are other important aspects of baptism:

To be baptized is a personal act of obedience to Jesus’ Lordship.

Baptism is not only an outward testimony of our profession of faith in Christ, it is an act of obedience to His Lordship. Conversely, to dismiss baptism is disobedience.

Followers of Christ are commissioned to “go 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). Because followers of Christ are commissioned to make and baptize disciples, it follows that new believers are to accept baptism is accordance with the Lord’s commission.

Too, we have Christ’s example of himself being baptized in obedience to the heavenly Father. Although Jesus didn’t need to be baptized in repentance of sins, he accepted baptism in obedience. When John the Baptizer tried to deter Him, “Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented” (Matthew 3:15).

One reason that Jesus was baptized was for showing His identification with those He came to save. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who hold the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14). “He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself” (Philippians 2:7-8).

Jesus, who was without sin, accepted baptism to identify with us—and He called it proper and righteous. Shouldn’t we consider it proper and righteous to be baptized showing we identify with Him—our Savior!

Baptism testifies to a personal commitment to begin serving how and where the Lord leads them.

Another example we have from Jesus’ baptism is that it was His first public declaration of His ministry (Luke 3:21-23).

For those who are new in Christ, baptism is intended as a displayed public commitment that they are ready to engage in ministry for Christ—that is following how and where the Lord leads them, serving with whatever spiritual gifts He bestowed on them.

Ministry isn’t a job title or local church position; it’s serving through and for the Lord. As a person comes out of the water in baptism, they are saying they are ready to become a worker heading out into the spiritual fields; tending, sowing, and reaping for harvest.

Followers of Christ are not called to “sit on the sidelines.” We are called to actively serve! As baptism is an image of dying to self and being raised to life in Christ, it expresses we are committed to initiate our ministry in His service.

We have biblical examples of early Christians being baptized and immediately engaging in their Spirit-gifted ministries. Within days after being baptized, Paul “began to preach in the synagogues” (Acts 9:20, emphasis added). Immediately after Lydia was baptized, she opened her home in hospitality to Paul and his companions, allowing them to focus on promoting the gospel message. After the eunuch of the Ethiopian Queen accepted the gospel message and Philip baptized him, the eunuch returned to Ethiopia. What happened when he was back in Ethiopia? We don’t know specifically, yet history records that Ethiopia was transformed into a Christian nation. What an impact that unnamed eunuch must’ve made teaching about Jesus to his countrymen!

“For [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

Baptism announces a new believer’s unity with the Church.

When someone is baptized, it’s a testimony to others that they are now part of the Church family; and it’s the brethren’s affirmed welcoming to the Church body. For “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others” (Romans 12:4). And, “you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household” (Ephesians 2:19).

How many times should a believer baptized? As baptism symbolizes our death, burial, and resurrection in Christ Jesus, and our becoming a new man in Christ; it is only necessary one time.

In Christ, we have eternal life at the very instant we receive Him as Lord and Savior. We have a one-time moment of salvation. Thus, baptism is an action a believer only is called to do one time—provided it is done on the “right side” of one’s salvation.

There are some who were “baptized” (that is being dipped in water) before giving their life to Christ; and others who question whether they had truly submitted to Christ before they were baptized. If someone had been “baptized” before they gave their life to Christ, that “baptism” was nothing more than a self-glorifying presentation, a consolation for guilt, submission to or under another’s pressure, or done in uncertainty. If a person questions whether they were baptized before they were saved, the questioning will invariably become an impediment to their spiritual growth.

So, it someone had been dipped in water before committing their life to Christ, or if they are unsure whether they were saved before they were baptized; it is indeed proper for them to be baptized “again.”

We have the biblical example of twelve disciples of Christ, who formally received “John’s baptism,” receiving baptism again in the name of the Lord Jesus (cf. Acts 19:1-5). Although these twelve were genuinely repentant before God when they received John’s baptism, and they were sincere in the best of their understanding, that baptism was before they understood Jesus is the Messiah. They chose to be baptized again after they accepted Jesus as Lord.

Too, there were about three thousand who received Christ as their Savior on the day of Pentecost and they were baptized (Acts 2:41). Of the three thousand, it is probable many of them had earlier been baptized by John, for John had baptized a multitude of the area’s people (Mark 1:5).    

Finally, as believers are baptized in obedience, it pleases the heavenly Father.

After Jesus was baptized, the heavenly Father spoke, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Lord was pleased in the person of Jesus Christ—that is saying who Jesus is. For Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). Too, the heavenly Father was pleased by what Jesus did. Jesus said, “I always do what pleases him” (John 8:29). Again, “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5: 30).

It pleased the heavenly Father when Jesus submitted in obedience and accepted baptism. It, too, pleases the Father when we accept baptism in obedience to His Son.

Our heavenly Father loves us to uttermost. He cannot love us much deeply than He does. To be clear, nothing we do will diminish or lesser God’s love for us. However, like a child does a parent, we can grieve God by the things we do or neglect to do; or we can please God by things we do in obedience.

It pleases the Father to have His children baptized as an act of praise and testimony to what Christ has done for them.

We are nothing without Christ. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:15). We ought to boast as best we can of our Wonderful, Merciful Savior! Being baptized as a follower of the Lord Jesus is one way of boasting about our gracious Redeemer and glorious Lord!


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For related study, check out these links:
     Why was Jesus baptized?
     Is baptism necessary for salvation?


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