What is baptism?

Baptism and communion (the Lord’s Supper) are the two ordinances prescribed by our Lord Jesus Christ as visible symbols of invisible grace. They are discernible and tangible representations of both the invisible realities of the gospel and the Spirit’s application of this gospel to our lives.

With both ordinances, believers have an opportunity to “remember” God’s goodness and grace, especially as revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Both baptism and communion picture Christ’s death and resurrection and our participation in His death and resurrection through union to Him in faith. As we enter into the waters or watch another do so, we are reminded that Christ was crucified and raised from the dead and that we too have died to the old self in order to live for Christ.

What a person believes about baptism affects how they will perform the ordinance. Who should be baptized? When should they be baptized? How should they be baptized? All of these questions are answered as we reflect upon what baptism means.

Baptism is a visual and symbolic demonstration of a person’s union with Christ in the likeness of His death and resurrection. It signifies that a person’s former way of life has been put to death and depicts a release from the mastery of sin.

As a symbol, baptism illustrates a number of significant realities:

  • Christ’s death and resurrection
  • The disciple’s union with Christ in His death and resurrection
  • The new life in which a disciple walks
  • Cleansing and washing away of sin
  • Is baptism merely a symbol?

Within the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, the nature of the sacraments was fiercely debated, even between the various Reformers. Without attempting to justify any particular position, it is important to assert that baptism is in some mysterious sense a “means of grace,” in which God sanctifies and encourages His people. That said, it is important to bear in mind a few helpful truths regarding what baptism is not and does not do.

Baptism does not save. Though grace is mysteriously mediated through the ordinance, it is not saving grace but rather sanctifying grace. We are more conformed to the image of Christ as we obey Him in the call to be baptized.

Baptism is not necessary for salvation. Without in any way diminishing the duty and delight of baptism for a believer, we must also warn against thinking which suggests that salvation is dependent upon baptism. The gospel is one of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone.

Why be baptized?

Matt 28:18–20, Acts 2:37–41, 22:16

  • To obey the commands of Christ
  • To demonstrate that a person is a disciple of Christ
  • To follow the example of Christ

Baptism is not merely a responsibility but also a privilege. We have the opportunity to evidence our trust in and love for our King through obedience in this ordinance. If we think of baptism as a mere burden, we have not properly understood the joy of following Christ in the call to be baptized. We should have a similar response as the Ethiopian eunuch who, when he believed the gospel, proclaimed, “What prevents me from being baptized?” It should be our joy, and we should eagerly anticipate our participation in the ordinance.

While there are certain costs associated with baptism, the reward of obedience is always worth it. The desire to be baptized should be motivated by a desire to glorify God in faithful obedience. Any other motivation (to join a particular local church, to please a friend or family member, etc.) should not be the ultimate reason for seeking to be baptized.

Who should be baptized?

Acts 2:41, 8:12, Gal 3:27, Rom 6:3-4

We practice what is called “believer’s” or “confessor’s” baptism, which means we only baptize those who believe and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Reading through Acts, we find baptism explicitly related to repentance, receiving the Word, believing and receiving the Holy Spirit. There is no explicit evidence to suggest that nonbelievers were baptized.

Should a person be re-baptized?

For those who were sprinkled or immersed at an earlier age, it is important to understand that we should only be baptized once. If you trusted in Christ at that time, your baptism is valid and need not, indeed should not, be repeated. If, however, you experienced sprinkling with or immersion in water before being born again and trusting Christ, your experience was not baptism, and thus you need to be baptized. The question is, “Was I truly trusting in Christ when I was baptized?”

There should always be seasons of growth and greater periods of maturity in the life of those who have trusted in the gospel. Believers must not be re-baptized each time they experience greater joy and sanctification. However, if you believe that your original experience was prior to truly trusting in Christ as Lord and Savior, you should pursue obedience in this area by being baptized now.