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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). Baptism is not a work which earns us salvation but 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 directly from Jesus: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). Furthermore, Jesus himself was baptized by John, not for repentance (since he had no sins) but as an example of faith for us to follow. In his ministry, Jesus had his disciples baptize believers, even more people than John had done (John 4:1-2).

In Luke 12:50, Jesus uses the term baptism figuratively to refer to his coming death: “But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed!” This statement gives the justification for this symbolic rite, as Jesus’ death provides the forgiveness we receive at baptism, when we die to our sinful nature: “How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Romans 6:2-3).

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.

In his first letter, Peter compares baptism to the Old Testament story of Noah and those saved from the flood: “… and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also, not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (3:21). Peter explains that the water itself doesn’t wash away our sins but the inward act of faith in the risen Lord, represented by the outward act of baptism.

Important benefits come from baptism:

  1. In baptism, we are united with Christ in sharing symbolically in his death, and thus sharing in his resurrection: “We were therefore 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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:4-5). Our faith in Christ, as reflected in our baptism, provides the promise of our future resurrection and eternal life with him.
  2. We become children of God at our baptism: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal. 3:26-7). Jesus is God’s unique Son, but we may become sons/children of God by adoption due to our faith in him, demonstrated in baptism. (Note: we know from church history that the early Christians would put on a new white robe after baptism to represent this idea of being “clothed with Christ.”)
  3. 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). “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).
  4. At our baptism, we receive sanctification and justification: “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 6:11). To be sanctified means that God has made us holy, setting us apart from the world and for his special purposes. To be justified means that God declares us as righteous, even though we are not, because we wear the righteousness of Christ through faith. Both these important themes in Paul’s teachings about the Christian life happen at baptism.
  5. In baptism, we are united with others in Christ: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free” (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism unites us not only to Christ but to all those who are in the body of Christ. Paul also mentions this unity in Ephesians 4:4-6: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

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 the Bible, not later church traditions. 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.

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