Baptism in the New Testament
In John 3, Jesus speaks to Nicodemus of being born again of water and spirit. What does this mean? In other words, how does one begin this new life in Christ?
In Acts 2:21 Luke records Peter’s first sermon at Pentecost where he says, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Isn’t believing in Jesus all you have to do to be born again, or saying the “sinner’s prayer” as some churches teach? Is baptism necessary? But just a few verses later, Peter explains what calling on Jesus’ name means. Faith means responding in obedience to God’s call to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). We cannot take verse 21 as our only guide on this question and disregard verse 38 and the many other passages which speak of baptism as one’s spiritual initiation into the life of Christ.
Throughout the NT we are taught that faith in Christ includes the act of baptism (the Greek word means immersion in water), not as a work which earns us salvation but as a divinely chosen symbol of our faith, our sharing in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:1-4) as we go down in the water and come up to enter a new life.
This command comes from Jesus himself: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19).
The book of Acts consistently shows that everyone who became a Christian was baptized, without exception (Acts 2:41, 8:12, 36-8, 9:18, 10:48, 16:15, 33, 18:8, 19:5). For instance, in Acts 16 the Philippian jailer asks Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul responds, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” But they go immediately to baptize him and all his household. Simply believing was not the only thing required. Belief in Jesus and baptism in his name go hand in hand in the New Testament.
We receive the Spirit of Christ at our baptism: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). “All of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:27). “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
Why many churches today downplay the practice of baptism as if it were optional is puzzling, since it is clearly taught by Jesus himself and throughout the NT. Some may ask, “Won’t God accept a believer in Jesus who is not baptized?” We must leave that question up to God. But the question for us should be — why would someone who truly wants to please God disregard this simple command clearly taught throughout the New Testament?
In 2 Kings 5 the prophet Elisha told Naaman to dip himself in the Jordan river seven times and he would be healed of leprosy. At first Naaman thought, “What’s the sense in that?” but then he did what God commanded and he was healed. Rather than questioning God, he did what he was told and received the blessing.
We may not understand why God chose this act of baptism to begin our Christian lives, but we should be willing to obey this simple command. God hasn’t required something difficult. We do not need to climb the highest mountain or jump through fire to prove our faith. Baptism is a simple, beautiful act of obedience, uniting us to Christ in faith.
Christians from different traditions may raise the question of infant baptism, a practice not found in the New Testament or early church history until about 200 AD (the date is a bit uncertain). In discussing baptism, I try to follow what we find in scripture. Baptism is a visible sign of a person’s faith in Christ, a choice one makes as someone old enough to understand what that means. The New Testament always shows baptism as a deliberate choice made by the person being baptized, not something done to someone else who doesn’t understand its significance, such as an infant.