Why do we baptize? First, Jesus was baptized and we want to be like Jesus. In addition, Jesus commands his followers to baptize, and we want to obey Jesus. But what is the meaning of baptism?
After his resurrection, Jesus instructed his followers to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He commanded not merely any type of baptism, but a certain kind of baptism, a baptism that recognizes the Bible’s revelation of God as three in one. In other words, Christian baptism.
Baptism in the New Testament starts with John the Baptist. John’s listeners were familiar with the Old Testament laws about using water in certain rituals for spiritual cleansing, but John’s baptism went further.
John’s was a baptism of repentance. He called on people to turn away from disobedience against God. He baptized those who responded by immersing them in the Jordan River, signifying a comprehensive spiritual cleansing, a radical life change.
John insisted that his baptism was merely preparation for a greater baptism, one which would come through a greater messenger. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John said, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
When Jesus appeared, John recognized him as the one sent by God, the one John was preparing the people to receive. Like John, Jesus also preached repentance, calling on people to turn away from a lifestyle of disobeying God.
But Jesus went beyond John. Jesus provided forgiveness for disobedience by sacrificing himself on the cross as a sin offering. And Jesus was resurrected and ascended to heaven, sending God’s Holy Spirit to empower his followers with a new life that is pleasing to God and fruitful for his kingdom.
John’s words were fulfilled in the Early Church. Baptism in Jesus’ name is a sign of receiving God’s Holy Spirit, the invisible, personal, powerful presence of God. God’s Spirit is a fire that purifies the life of the believer, a lifelong process of being changed into the image of Christ.
The symbolic meaning of Christian baptism is elegantly and powerfully communicated in Romans 6: Believers are buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. This demonstrates that Christian baptism is by immersion. It is a picture of death and resurrection, the old life of sin is buried and dead, the believer is raised to walk in a new life.
Finally, John, Jesus, and the Early Church all baptized only those who responded by faith to their message. Baptism is for believers. Baptizing those whom we hope will believe in the future creates a group mixed with believers and unbelievers. The Church consists of believers.
So Christian baptism is a symbolic act done by immersion to everyone who has exercised saving faith in God’s Son Jesus, which begins with repentance. It is a public act affirming that the person is a new creation, forgiven and reconciled to God the Father, sealed and empowered by the indwelling presence of God’s Holy Spirit.
“Baptist” is a name that was given generations ago to those who dared to practice Christian baptism even though it was out of step with the institutional churches of the day. Baptists have endured and thrived because our faith and practice is built firmly on the immovable rock of God’s eternal truth.
May the fire of God’s Holy Spirit purify us for God’s service and God’s glory,