I’d like to finish this series on baptism by making some observations that I think are worth considering:
- Water baptism is God’s normal means by which faith in Christ should be expressed by a new believer. It is properly understood as the normal completing event in coming to Christ. Thus, water baptism, not praying the “sinner’s prayer” nor raising a hand in an evangelistic meeting, should properly be emphasized as the way in which one comes to Christ according to God’s will.
- Water baptism is a normative component in one’s “salvation story”. Acts 2.38 lists several concepts that are all tied together in an individual’s salvation story: repentance, baptism, forgiveness, gift of the Holy Spirit. Where one has been experienced, necessarily and logically, the rest should accompany it. In Acts 2.38, the reception of the Spirit is an experience subsequent to baptism; in Acts 10.47 (the Cornelius account), the reception of the Spirit precedes water baptism. There is no mechanistic order in the salvation experience. What is common to both texts is the occurrence of the reception of the Spirit and water baptism.
- Water baptism is ideally viewed as the venue for the conveyance of saving grace from God. Although there are clear exceptions (e.g. the repentant thief, transitional accounts in the book of Acts), the testimony of the New Testament is that of water baptism as a central vehicle for the impartation of grace (“baptism saves you”, 1 Peter 3:21). The outward act of being plunged in water and the inner experience of regeneration and Spirit reception are intentionally fused together, uniting the physical experience with the spiritual. What follows are key verses which show images of baptism, washing, and water. The purpose of these texts is to show how baptism is viewed as a normative part of the salvation story. Some of the texts’ references to baptism may be disputed; however, the interplay and repetition of terms like “saved”, “water”, “born of water”, “cleansing”, “washing of water”, “washed with pure water”, “regeneration”, “renewing” speak to me of baptism, especially when one observes the prominence of baptism in the early church.
- Mark 16.16: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that disbelieveth shall be condemned.
- John 3.5: Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except one be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God!
- Eph. 5:25-26: Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself up for it; that he might sanctify it, having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word.
- Heb. 10:22: let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water,
- Titus 3:5: not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit,
- A key reason for the connection of water baptism with spiritual realities such as regeneration, renewal, etc. is to give assurance to the believer. By faith, being “born of water” in baptism gives assurance of the greater renewal and birth through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When one cries out to God for a clear conscience in faith and is plunged in the waters of baptism, one experiences a metaphorical death. However, when one is raised up from the water, God gives us assurance that new resurrection life is really ours. Paul affirms this in Romans 6: Rom. 6:4-5 We were buried therefore with him through baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection. I think baptism’s function in giving the believer assurance is more biblically grounded than its function as a public testimony. There appear to be only two people required to participate in a baptism – the baptizer and the baptized (consider Paul’s baptism). An audience beyond one is not necessary.
Summary: If you have read this carefully, some of you may think -with a certain amount of discomfort – that I am treading perilously close to viewing baptism as a meritorious work to earn salvation. And I’ll tell you the main reason for your discomfort: you’re struggling with the sacramental nature of baptism. By sacramental, I mean what Augustine meant: Sacraments are “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” John Calvin also wrote of sacraments: sacraments are “visible words” that help strengthen faith and nurture discipleship. Those who define baptism in its totality as a symbolic act are weakening the biblical imagery. At the same time, those who view baptism as a “mechanical” requirement for salvation are making at least two errors: (1) they are making the living God subject to a mathematical “salvation” formula; (2) they are also vacating faith from its unique and singular role in salvation. Above all, baptism is not simply a rite to be performed, but is a gift of grace afforded by God to the believer. Let’s take advantage of his gift in the life of the church.