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What Is Baptism? Its Meaning and Importance in Christianity

Updated May 28, 2024
What Is Baptism? Its Meaning and Importance in Christianity

"Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21)

"For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Galatians 3:27)

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When we enter the waters of baptism, we proclaim the gospel message. Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and lives again. By joining in holy baptism, we’re identifying ourselves with Him. Romans 6:4 says we have been buried with Him through baptism into death. We’re now dead to the power of sin. Being raised up out of the water expresses our new life in Christ Jesus and our union with Him.

The Meaning of Baptism

If the meaning of baptism could be summarized in one word, that would be identification. Baptism in Christian faith speaks primarily of personal, public identification with Jesus Christ.

In Romans 6:3-4, the Apostle Paul puts the matter this way:

Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? 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.

Notice the strength of the expressions "baptized into Christ," "baptized into His death," and "buried with Him in baptism." Someone may suggest that the primary reference here is to Spirit baptism. That's true, but at the very least, water baptism is in the background of this passage.

How important is your baptism? It is your personal identification with the greatest act of human history—the death, burial, resurrection, and eternal life of Jesus Christ. Baptism doesn't save you—salvation comes by faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). Your guilt before God is removed the moment you trust in Christ. But baptism is your personal testimony to, and the inward assurance of, your passage from the old life to the new life...

How Baptism Relates to Jesus

1. It means we have turned from the old life of sin to a new life in Jesus Christ.

2. It means we are publicly identifying with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection.

3. It means we are openly joining the ranks of those who believe in Christ.

When you are baptized, you are visually preaching the gospel. As you stand in the water waiting to be baptized, first, you symbolize Jesus dying on the cross. Second, you symbolize Jesus buried in the tomb as you are lowered into the water. As you are raised from the water, you symbolize Jesus rising from the dead.

And since you personally are being baptized, you are also saying, "I died with Jesus Christ, I was buried with Him and now I am raised with Christ to a brand-new life."

In short, in your baptism, you are confessing the faith without using any words at all. And your confession in your baptism will be more effective with your friends than any sermon the pastor preaches on Sunday morning— the effects of baptism will be even more effective because it comes directly from you.

The Greek word translated as “baptize” is the verb baptizo. Most contemporary lexicons say the primary meaning is “to dip, plunge, immerse.” The secondary meaning is to “bring under the influence.” Dr. Merrill Tenney notes that “after making allowances for certain occasional exceptions, such as passages where washing is implied, the etymological meaning indicates that baptism was originally by immersion." (Basic Christian Doctrine, p. 257)

Baptism in the Bible:

Baptism requires water. (Matthew 3:11)

"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Baptism required plenty of water. (John 3:23)

"John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized"

Baptism requires going down into the water. (Acts 8:38-39)

"And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.

And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing."

Baptism requires coming up out of the water. (Matthew 3:16, Acts 8:39)

Furthermore, the figures of speech used by the Apostle Paul accord well with immersion. Baptism is called a “burial” in Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12. Baptism is “into his death” and involves being “raised to walk in newness of life.” It is difficult to see how sprinkling or pouring could convey these meanings.

Finally, the testimony of church history is that immersion was indeed the mode of baptism practiced in the early church.

What is the Purpose of Baptism?

Charles Stanley explains the importance of baptism, quoting the Great Commission saying:

"Our Savior commands us to follow His example in all things, including baptism: Matthew 28:19 says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit." At the beginning of His public ministry, Jesus chose to be baptized. John the Baptist was calling the Jewish people to confess their sins and demonstrate repentance through immersion in the Jordan River. Sinless Jesus joined the crowd at the river and asked John to baptize Him. The Lord chose to affiliate Himself with sinful man. When we follow His example in the baptismal water, we're publicly confessing our faith in the Savior and identifying ourselves with Him.

Baptism represents the forgiveness and remission of sins that believers receive through this covenant of grace with Jesus Christ. It is an outward demonstration of the transformation of new birth in the Lord Jesus. It is an act of obedience to the commands of Christ. It reflects a believer's willingness to follow Christ’s example and teachings, being a servant of God, marking a significant step in Christian life. Historically, the rite of baptism is the Christian initiation into the faith community, signifying a person's entry into the body of Christ.

Key Scriptures about Baptism

And Peter said to them, “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)

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’ (Acts 22:16)

Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:21)

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19)

Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:21-22).

Sacrament of Baptism

Baptism is considered a sacrament because it is a visible sign instituted by Jesus Christ that conveys grace and signifies spiritual rebirth and initiation into the Christian community. As one of the seven sacraments, along with holy communion in the Catholic Church, it holds a foundational role in the spiritual life of believers.

Through baptism, individuals are reborn as children of God and united with Jesus Christ in His death, becoming new creatures through the resurrection of Christ. This sacrament is essential for salvation as it removes both original sin and actual sins, representing the ultimate forgiveness of sins, and it initiates individuals into the Church, marking their official entry into the body of Christ.

Infant Baptism

Infant baptism is a practice in some Christian denominations where infants are baptized to initiate them into the covenant community of the Church. Proponents argue that this practice is rooted in biblical principles and the early Christian tradition. For example, Colossians 2:11-12 draws a parallel between baptism and circumcision, suggesting that just as infants were circumcised to enter the covenant with God in the Old Testament, they can be baptized to enter the new covenant through Christ. Additionally, supporters claim that household baptisms mentioned in the New Testament, such as those of Lydia and the Philippian jailer, likely included children and infants.

Opponents of the baptism of infants argue that baptism should follow an individual's personal confession of faith, which infants are incapable of making. They point out that the New Testament emphasizes repentance and belief before adult baptism, such as in Acts 2:38 where Peter says, "Repent and be baptized." Critics also argue that there is no explicit biblical mandate for baptizing infants and that the practice developed later in church history as a tradition rather than a direct scriptural command.

Bible Dictionary

It is well known that ablution or bathing was common in most ancient nations as a preparation for prayers and sacrifice or as an expiatory of sin. In warm countries, this connection is probably even closer than in colder climates, hence the frequency of ablution in the religious rites throughout the East. Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is the rite or ordinance by which persons are admitted into the Church of Christ. It is the public profession of faith and discipleship. Being a baptized person signifies--

  1. A confession of faith in Christ;
  2. A cleansing or washing of the soul from sin;
  3. A death to sin and a new life in righteousness. The mode and subjects of baptism being much-controverted subjects, each one can best study them in the works devoted to those questions. The command to baptize was co-extensive with the command to preach the gospel. All nations were to be evangelized, and they were to be made disciples of Christ admitted into the fellowship of Christ's religion by baptism. (Matthew 28:19) It appears to have been a kind of transition from the Jewish baptism to the Christian. The distinction between John's baptism and Christian baptism appears in the case of Apollos (Acts 18:26-27) and of the disciples at Ephesus mentioned (Acts 19:1-6). We cannot but draw from this history the inference that in Christian baptism, there was a deeper spiritual significance.

Source: Smith, William, Dr. "Entry for 'Baptism" "Smith's Bible Dictionary." 1901.

How Should Baptism Be Done?

Interview with Mark Dever: Transcript of the video above, edited for readability:

Baptism should normally be done by immersion and the use of water. I think when you look in the New Testament, that seems to be what's going on. When you look at the uses of baptizo, that seems to be how it's used. I do think that Baptists over-argue when we say it can only mean that. I think you have examples in first century literature of it being used to mean other things as well.

But I remember being with a Greek Orthodox abbot one time and a Presbyterian friend, and this Greek Orthodox abbot, head of a monastery, I was trying to explain that I was a Baptist Christian, and that meant we immersed believers. And he was confused why I used the word baptism and immersed. He spoke English a little bit, but he talked to this Greek Orthodox monk from Brooklyn who then explained it to him in more length, who also spoke Greek. And this Greek Orthodox abbot was offended that there were Christians out there who didn't immerse, and yet they called it baptism because he said, "Hey, it's our word. It's a Greek word. We know what it means. It means to immerse." Now, they immerse infants, but they immerse.

The important question for us as Christians is generally, who is baptized, not so much how. I think the thing that protects the shape of the church is that it is believers who are each a member of the church. We are the ones who've been baptized and come to the Lord's table regularly. I think the mode is not essential, though I think it's normal and all I've ever done is immerse and that's all I ever planned to do, I think that's normally what you should do. But I think Baptists do slightly over-argue when they want to say that baptizo can only mean immerse, because actually in the first century, I can show you times when the word was used to mean other things. So I would just say let's immerse believers through the act of baptism, and if you have a special set of circumstances, God will give your church wisdom what to do.

Why Is It Important for Christians to Be Baptized?

In Baptism, Jesus is speaking to the believer, to the assembled congregation, and to the watching world, identifying this person with himself in death, in burial, and in resurrection. And so in Baptism, what you have is a sign of an execution. It's a sign of a drowning. This is the reason why, when Jesus is baptized, John the Baptist can't believe it. Jesus comes to him and says, "I want to be baptized by you," and John says, "No, no, no, I need be baptized by you."

Why is John so alarmed by this? Well, it's because of what he's doing with baptism. He's saying, "You're a bunch of snakes, you need to come under the judgment of God." And in Baptism, what's happening? Well, water is scary. You go under water, you can't breathe. It's a picture of death and of the grave, and always has been, Biblically. The flood, God floods the world, that is a baptism, Peter tells us in 1st Peter, chapter 3. God sends Jonah into the deep, into the water, it is his judgment upon Jonah. God ultimately baptizes the world with fire, and engulfs and immerses the world in fire.

So when Jesus says, "I want to be baptized," John is alarmed by this because this is the sinless son of God. And it makes no more sense than someone saying, "I really would like to be on the federal sex offender registry." You would say, "Why would you want to be on that list? Why would you want to identify yourself with these snakes who are under the judgment of God?" But of course, Jesus is doing exactly that. Not because he has sin, but because he's identifying himself with sinful people.

So, when someone is going down into the waters of baptism, first of all, that person is confessing, "I deserve death. I deserve the judgment of God." Jesus, through his church, is saying to the person, "Yeah, you're right. This is exactly what you deserve, is death and the grave." But the person is also acknowledging, "I am trusting in the power of God to raise me from death, and Jesus is affirming that in the physical act of the person being brought under water, can't breathe, death, and then being ripped out of the water by a power that doesn't belong to him. There's a power that's coming from the outside, bringing that person up.

So, that person now has identified with Jesus in his death, Romans chapter 6, in his burial, in his resurrection, the person also is acknowledging, "I was dead in trespasses and sins under the judgment of God, buried, but I am now raised to newness of life because I'm in Christ." And the person is identified with that final reality of dying and being buried and then having one's name called and being brought up out of the grave. That's a physical, visible sign of that.

And so what happens in baptism is that Jesus is claiming this person as his own through the Christian church, and the church is announcing, "This is the boundary marker, this is one of ours. This is our brother and our sister." Which is why in the New Testament, you don't have any such thing as an unbaptized Christian. Those who believe are baptized, and in the churches, the apostle Paul says that there's one lord, there's one faith, there's one baptism, one God and Father of all.

So baptism is extraordinarily important, this is the initial rite of the Christian's obedience, but it also is a sign that builds up the faith, not only of the person being baptized, but of the rest of the Church community, is they ... They're watching the gospel and they're hearing the gospel sloshing around in the water. Jesus has given that to us because he knows we need to see it, we need to experience it, we need to be reminded of it.

And every time we see baptism, we're reminded we're at war, and we're to take this gospel to the ends of the earth, discipling the nations and baptizing them in the name of the Holy Trinity: the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Excerpt from "Taking the Plunge" from Keep Believing Ministries & Charles Stanley (used by permission).

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