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What Does the Bible Teach about Baptism?

Updated: Jun 11

Salvation is through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone. So, why baptism? What is it about? Do Christians need to be baptized, and do they really need to join the church?


Baptism is a foundational step in a Christian’s life, so it’s essential to have a biblical understanding of its nature. First, let’s look at the question, what is baptism?



Baptism: The Sign of Salvation


Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality. A sign is not the thing itself. Signs point to something. If you were driving down the road and saw a sign that said, “Destination. Two Miles ahead,” you wouldn’t stop at the sign. You would keep driving for two miles until you reached your destination.


Baptism is an outward sign. It points to something beyond itself. It points to a spiritual reality within the recipient of baptism in three ways.


One. Baptism is an outward sign of our spiritual union with Christ.


The Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit comes to live inside you when you are saved. Because the Spirit of God lives within you, your spirit is united with His. You become one with Jesus Christ in your spirit.


“He has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature.” – 2 Peter 1:4

Christians partake in the divine nature by being spiritually unified with Christ.

But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” – 1 Corinthians 6:17

Spiritual union occurs at the moment of salvation. The moment God regenerates a heart, the Spirit of God lives within that heart. Baptism follows regeneration. It is the next step. Once a person believes and is saved, they get baptized, and their baptism is an outward sign of the inward spiritual union they already have with Christ.


This raises the question. How does baptism function as a sign of spiritual union with Christ?


Two. Baptism is a picture of death and resurrection.


When a Christian comes to the waters of baptism, they are coming to the waters of death. Water in the Bible is often depicted as a grave, a place of death and judgment. The world was flooded with water, but Noah was saved in an ark. Jesus cast a legion of demons into a herd of pigs, and they promptly ran off the edge of a cliff into the abyss—the Sea of Galilee. Water is a symbol of the grave.


When a person is lowered into the water, they are lowered into death. When they are raised from the water, they are raised to new life. This rich imagery is a sign that points to a greater reality—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


At the moment of salvation, a person is united to Christ in his death and resurrection. Jesus died physically and rose physically. The Christian has died spiritually to their old self, and they are raised spiritually to a new life.


Thus, baptism functions as a sign of one’s union with Christ because it is a picture of one’s death and resurrection with him. Paul said this:


“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” – Galatians 2:20

He also said,


“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” – Romans 6:3-4

Three. Baptism is a public declaration of faith.


Imagine two opposing kingdoms on two opposing hills with a river running between them. On one side of the river is the kingdom of darkness, and on the other is the kingdom of God. Before you become a Christian, you are in the kingdom of darkness. When God saves you, you leave the kingdom of darkness, cross the river, and enter the kingdom of God. The river is baptism.


Spiritually, the unbaptized Christian has left the kingdom of darkness and entered the kingdom of God already, but the act of baptism makes the reality public.


Some, however, have conflated baptism with salvation. Some say the act of baptism is the moment of salvation. This belief does not stand up to biblical scrutiny.


First, not everyone who is in heaven has been baptized. Thus, baptism is not a pre-requisite for salvation. The thief who died on the cross next to Jesus was not baptized, yet he was in paradise with Jesus on that very day (Luke 23:43). Making baptism a requirement for salvation turns baptism into a work similar to requiring circumcision. The early church dealt with Judaizers who went around telling Christians that they could only consider themselves true Christians if they were circumcised. Paul condemned this teaching, and he would condemn the teaching that baptism is required for salvation (Galatians 1:6-9).


A Christian, however, should still be baptized, but why? Two reasons. First to obey the command of Jesus to be baptized (Matthew 28:19). Second, to make their faith public. In countries where persecution is more common, Christians are often not persecuted until they get baptized. Nik Ripken says this:


“Within Islamic settings, Muslims equate baptism with salvation. Seekers from Islam investigating a relationship with Jesus Christ can explain away many of their activities.


If they’re discovered reading the Bible, they can claim they are studying it in order to debate Christians more intelligently. If they’re seen sneaking into a church building, they can excuse such behavior in the same way. If seen talking to a pastor or some Western Christian, seekers can suggest that they were simply observed witnessing, lifting up the attributes of Islam.


But they can’t explain away baptism — there is no acceptable excuse.


Muslims believe that at baptism, a person no longer belongs to Islam but to Christianity. They have left one community and joined another. The local community says that when converts are baptized, they have left Muhammad and joined with Jesus. At baptism, persecution soars because identification with Jesus is real, irrevocable, and forever.


Baptism is the point of no return.”[1]


Baptism is a public declaration that one has left the kingdom of darkness and entered into the kingdom of God.


To summarize the nature of baptism, then, we can say that it is, one, an outward sign of an inward reality. Two, a picture of our death and resurrection with Christ, and three, a public declaration of our faith. But there are still a few questions to be answered about baptism, such as who should receive baptism?


Baptism Should Be Administered to Believers


The question of who should receive baptism has been debated through the centuries. Some denominations believe infants should be baptized. Others believe that only those who profess their own faith should be baptized. What does the Bible say? A closer look at the nature of the Old and New Covenant will help us answer this question.


The sign of the Old Covenant was circumcision. Every Jewish-born male was to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. This was a physical sign that one belonged to the people of God.


Once Jesus came, he ratified a new covenant, and he changed the sign to baptism.

No longer are we required to be circumcised. We are now required to be baptized, but who should be baptized? Believers.


In the old covenant, the people of God were a specific nation of people. A person joined Israel simply by being born into it. Outsiders were able to join, but they had to be circumcised as well. Not so with the New Covenant. In the New Covenant, one must not simply be born, but rather one must be born again.


The New Covenant is a Covenant Based on Faith, Not Nationality


In the old covenant, one had to be born. In the new covenant, one must be born again. This is why Christians should not baptize their children. The New Covenant was not made for a specific people group. It was made for every tribe, tongue, and nation. Birth, therefore, can no longer be the requirement for entrance. Faith is. Jesus opened the door of salvation to all nations, and the only way through is by faith in Jesus Christ.



“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.” – Hebrews 8:10-12



In the new covenant, people will not need to teach those in it to know the Lord. Only those who know the Lord will be in it because only those who have faith are a part of the new covenant. The Apostles show this to be true by their practice of baptizing new believers into the church.


“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” – Acts 2:41

If you look closely at this verse, it states that those who received the word were baptized. No one else was baptized. The litmus test to see if someone was a candidate for baptism was whether they had faith or not. The entire book of Acts attests to this practice (Acts 8:12; 10:1-2, 43-48; 11:15-17; 18:8).


Now, one final question about baptism is in order. Do I need to join the church? Yes.


Baptism Is the Initiatory Rite of Passage into Church Membership


From the beginning, baptism has been the initiatory rite of passage into church membership. It would have been unheard of in the early church to meet a baptized believer who wasn’t a member of a local church. It will be helpful to look again at the results of Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost.


“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” – Acts 2:41

The second half of the verse says that those who were baptized were added—added to what? Added to the church. The passage continues to describe what the early church did, and it says they had “favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). This passage displays a beautiful picture of the first church, but it does more than that. It shows that they were a separate group, a group apart from all the people, and the sign of membership in this group was a saving faith followed by baptism.


The church has been a part of God’s plan from the beginning. Jesus founded the church. He said to Peter, “On this rock, I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). He also gave instructions for church discipline with the assumption that there would be those who are members and those who are not (Matthew 18:15-20). Therefore, church and church membership were a part of God’s plan from the beginning.


Conclusion


We have seen that baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality. It's a picture of dying and rising with Christ spiritually. It's a public declaration of faith. It's for believers, and it's the rite of passage into the local church. Baptism is a foundational step in the life of a believer. It's important to understand it, and it's important to practice it according to God’s Word.



[1] Photo by Tim Mossholder from Pexels [2] https://www.patheos.com/blogs/geneveith/2019/04/baptism-as-the-point-of-no-return/

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