Life is full of paradoxes and one of them is that, often to our trepidation, something which appears at first sight to be simple and straightforward turns out to be complex and problematic. Such is undoubtedly the case of our topic for today’s reflection, i.e. water baptism.
Within mainstream Christianity all churches teach and practice water baptism and, as far as I am able to discover, they all accept the Biblical sequence that water baptism follows after the acceptance of Jesus Christ by the grace of God through faith. (The exception is those that believe in infant baptism but we will come to that.) So why do we have so much controversy and confusion over this simple matter? The answer is because the chronological sequence just mentioned, saved then being baptized, is about all they agree on and everything else is disputed.
Examine if you will some of the many contentious issues surrounding water baptism.
Some believe that water baptism is an essential part of salvation, i.e. it saves you, and others are adamantly opposed to that view.
Some believe that water baptism is effective only by full immersion, whereas others believe in pouring and some believe in sprinkling.
Some believe in paedobaptism (infant baptism) and others do not; believing that water baptism is for believers only (credo baptism).
Some believe that water baptism has to be undertaken quickly after the believer accepts Jesus Christ whereas others believe that the believer must first be taught church rules and rituals and Bible doctrines.
These then are just some of the arguments surrounding water baptism and as we patiently reflect on this topic of water baptism, let us be guided by the Holy Spirit to discern the will of God among the clouds of contentiousness and controversy. The aim of this article is to give an overall appreciation of this important subject noting along the way its myths and reality and not to delve deeply into aspects of baptismal theology.
First let us look at the necessity of water baptism
The question we have to answer here is very simple. Is water baptism really necessary or is this just another ritual of the church from a bygone era? If we can answer this question clearly then we are on our way to understanding water baptism.
Water baptism is necessary because God requires it
A principle rule of understanding doctrine or matters of such substance it is always good to be able to read what Jesus said on the subject. Jesus, when addressing the assembled disciples for the last time as they listened attentively, left them in no doubt that water baptism was a divine requirement. The Bible puts it like this, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” (Mark 16: 15-16) Note the order; believe then baptized.
The apostles followed the teaching of Jesus Christ exactly and performed water baptism accordingly. Peter, when speaking to Cornelius’ household, observed the outpouring of the Holy Ghost on the hearers, left them in no doubt that water baptism was a divine requirement and asked, “Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.” (Acts 10: 47- 48) The proper order is here confirmed; received the Holy Ghost then baptized.
The Apostle Paul affirmed this essential requirement for all believers when he wrote to the Galatians, “For ye are all the children of God by faith in Jesus Christ. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3: 26-27) Water baptism, without any doubt as seen here in these scriptures, is absolutely essential and every believer must make sure that he is baptized in accordance with God’s word.
Water baptism is necessary because of what it signifies
Water baptism is a powerful sacrament which indicates to an unbelieving world and affirms to fellow believers that one is identified with Christ in his death, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:3)
Scriptures also indicate that it signifies identification with Jesus’ burial and resurrection, “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Romans 6:4-5). Every believer wants to be identified with Christ, both in his undeserved death and his glorious resurrection, for it is he that brings relevance to our life and meaning to our ministry.
Water baptism is necessary because of its witness
Water baptism is a public confession of one’s faith and it is telling the world that one is now a Christian as even Paul was commanded to do by Ananias, “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” (Acts 22:16)
The saints at Corinth who were saved but had not heard of the Holy Ghost received both the Holy Ghost and the witness symbolized by baptism, “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19: 5)
Most churches when baptizing believers say words such as “On the confession of your faith and in witness…I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost…” and this is always done in public for its community witness.
Next let us examine the narrowness of water baptism
One should be very careful here in understanding the limits of water baptism; what it can and cannot do. Too many people have an inaccurate appreciation of what baptism does for them and here we are realistic and doctrinal and examine what it cannot do.
Water baptism cannot remove your sins
This question of sin removal is one of the bugbears of the Christian community because some churches are not sound in Bible doctrine. Whatever people may say it is evident that in water baptism someone has to work, physically have to carry out certain operations to baptize you and the removal of sins can never be dependant on man’s work, “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourself: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2: 8-9)
If water baptism could remove your sins it would mean that your pastor or minister or leader could deny you salvation by postponing indefinitely or refusing to baptize you. That would be unthinkable; God putting your salvation in another’s hand. The very thought that some human being can deny you salvation, in spite of your desire to have it, is patently absurd!
If water baptism could remove your sins then people could become saved, not by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, but by pretending to be saved and getting baptized.
The only thing that can remove sin is the blood of Jesus Christ which we appropriate by accepting Jesus Christ by faith, “Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ: Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.” (Romans 3: 24-25)
No one who dies after accepting Jesus Christ but before he is baptized is lost. Never! The thief on the cross crucified with Jesus Christ was graciously saved and not baptized in water but went with Jesus to Paradise.
Water baptism cannot remove temptations
Water baptism is not some super-umbrella under which we shelter, making us impervious to and untouched by the rains of temptations. All Christians will suffer temptations as long as they reside this side of Paradise.
Even Jesus Christ himself, sinless and baptized, went out from his baptism in the River Jordan to be tempted. The Bible records it thus, “And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water…Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil.” (Matthew 3:16, 4:1)
Temptations are normal to all believers, and have nothing to do with their spiritual standing. It is God who empowers them to overcome, “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)
Water baptism cannot make you a child of God
Just as water baptism can neither remove your sins nor can it make you a child of God. Were you to be baptized in water and not have accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior, you would not become a child of God. You become a child of God only when you accept Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit instantaneously baptizes you into God’s family and gives you his witness. The Bible states, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God.” (Romans 8:16)
Alas there are many baptized church members who are not saved! They have never been converted and lack standing with God but were baptized because the pastor wanted to beef up his report or enhance his church membership and the like.
If you happen to be reading this and you are not sure of your salvation, have doubts that you are converted, never confessed your sins and be forgiven then know that you are not too late to make it right with God.
Lastly let us consider the nature of water baptism
Having examined what water baptism cannot do we shall now examine its true significance for, make no mistake, it is mightily important for all believers.
Water baptism is a public acknowledgment
The use of symbols should never be exaggerated in the church because symbolism matters greatly in Christianity; the cross on the church wall; the wearing of white on some occasions; the laying on of hands at ordination; the ritual washing of feet; the right hand of fellowship on becoming a church member; the bread and wine of Holy Communion. These are powerful symbols of the highest order. In like manner water baptism is a symbol, a public acknowledgement that our sins are repugnant and now cleansed by the power of the Almighty God, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1: 9), and henceforth we publicly admit our allegiance to Jesus Christ and the church.
Water baptism is a public declaration
Water baptism is a public declaration that the “old man” is dead, buried and now drowned, giving rise to the “new man” now living by faith in Jesus Christ, “Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all your trespasses.” (Colossians 2: 12-13)
Water baptism is a public commissioning for service
As practiced everywhere in the New Testament, water baptism is the symbol of public commissioning for Christian service. Every believer, when baptized is symbolically joining himself with the ministry of Jesus Christ and partakes in Jesus’ ministry; “…Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” (Revelations 1: 5 – 6)
Even the Apostle Paul after being saved on the Damascus Road had to await this public commissioning (at the hands of Ananias) before he commenced his ministry as recorded in Acts 9:17-20.
By water baptism every believer is commissioned into “the priesthood of believers” as affirmed by Peter, “Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 2: 5)
So here it is then, an appreciation that water baptism is important but let us be careful neither to exaggerate what it can do nor undervalue its enormous contribution to the spiritual life of believers. It is a powerful symbol, a public testimony to an internal spiritual work of grace carried out by the Holy Spirit when we accept Jesus Christ by faith.
But first things first; we need to accept Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and then we can be baptized. Yes the two things go together for the Bible often says “Repent and be baptized…for the remission of sins” but be absolutely clear we need to be saved first and then in obedience to God’s command be baptized in water.
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