For 5 years I was the pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. I created this blog with those people in mind. In mid-November 2018 I will become the Senior Pastor of Word of Life Church in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. The focus of this blog will therefore shift, but I pray that people from the blogosphere will continue to find it helpful wherever they might be found.
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Friday, May 11, 2018

Baptism...What is it all about?

Jesus came and said to them, 
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 
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, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  
(Matthew 28:18-20 ESV)

Before he ascended into heaven, Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples of people from all the nations of the world. Known as the Great Commission, his words present a daunting task. Obviously, making disciples of people from all nations would involved incredible cross-cultural and linguistic challenges, but Jesus’s words contained some specific instructions about how these disciples were to be made. 
First, it involves going. They were not to simply remain on top of a mountain (or in a church building) and wait for people from around the world to come and find them. They were to actively find people. To be sure, not everyone was called to cross oceans and learn new languages to make disciples, but everyone was to be involved in going. It may be as simple as going to a neighbor or co-worker and sharing a testimony. This commission from Jesus involves all of us.
Second, it involves teaching. People need to understand what it was Jesus said and how it applies to life. There is content that needs to be mastered and integrated. This is not an instantaneous process, but requires mentoring and commitment.
Finally, and the subject of this post, the command involves baptizing. Why did Jesus command his followers to be baptized? What is it? What is its significance? How important is this?

The Word Baptism
The word  baptism is a Greek term which means “to dip” or “to immerse”. It was used often in ceremonial occasions for a symbolic purification. While the washing of hands was the most common practice for purification, there were certain instances where the washing of the whole body was necessary for ceremonial purity (Lev 16:24; 22:4-6; etc.). One of the steps of conversion to Judaism involved a ceremonial immersion in water. One reason why John the Baptist’s ministry was controversial was that he was baptizing Jewish people (Matthew 3:1-12).
Throughout the Bible, and in the Greek language in general, the term baptism means to immerse in water. There are many churches that today practice the rite of baptism by pouring or sprinkling water on a person. This form of baptism became common centuries after the Bible was written and found its authority in a book called the Didache, which was written in the second century. In that book, the writer deals with the question of how to baptize people. He writes that the person who has been instructed in and accepted the teaching of Jesus should be immersed in living (flowing) water. If living water is not available, then other water should be used (preferably cold!). But there was concern about a situation where it would be impossible to find a large quantity of water for immersion. What should you do then? The Didache instructs that a person in that situation could be baptized by pouring water over the head. 
There are two things to notice about that second century writing. First, the person to be baptized was to be instructed before they were baptized. This implies that baptism was a voluntary act. They made a decision to be baptized. Second, the ordinary means of baptism was immersion, not pouring or sprinkling. Pouring water over the head was an acceptable alternative when in extreme cases. One imagines a situation where a prisoner becomes a believer and has no access to a pool of water for baptism by immersion. 
This is in line with what we read in the New Testament. John the Baptist baptized people in the Jordan River. They confessed their sins and were baptized (Matthew 3:1-12). That Jesus was baptized by immersion in the river is implied by the fact that when he was baptized he “immediately went up from the water” (Matt 3:16). In Acts 8:26-40 Philip baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch and after he was baptized he “came up out of the water.” Time after time we see the pattern of people hearing the gospel, believing, and then being baptized by immersion. This is also probably true in the case of the Philippian jailer’s family. Paul tells him that in order to be saved he needed to believe in the Lord Jesus and adds that the promise was good for his whole family. Luke goes on to tell us that Paul and Silas then explained the gospel to the jailer and to everyone in his house. And the jailer and his family were then baptized. There is no indication in the text that anyone had been baptized that had not personally made a decision to follow Christ. In fact, everyone who had been baptized rejoiced that the jailer had decided to believe in God (Acts 16:25-34).
This is in keeping with the Jewish idea of baptism as a ceremonial cleaning or washing. In the case of someone converting to Judaism, the person is immersed in a ceremonial pool. This symbolizes the putting off or dying to their old way of life. When they come up out of the water, they are considered a new person: a Jew. The Talmud sums it up in two passages: “When he comes up after his immersion, he is deemed an Israelite in all respects” (Yevamot 47b) and “One who has become a proselyte is like a child newly born” (Yevamot 48b).
It is amazing how much of the Jewish symbolism is found in Paul’s writing about baptism in Romans 6. In that chapter, he explains that in baptism we are symbolically buried with Jesus and then raised to life again. The waters of baptism symbolize a death and resurrection, a new birth, and a cleansing from sin. One enters the water having confessed sin and received forgiveness in the name of Jesus. One comes up out of the water with a commitment and resolve to live out the faith one has professed.
It is important to notice that in the book of Acts we see people being baptized fairly quickly after they became followers of Christ. The idea of someone becoming a believer and waiting years before being baptized is foreign to the Bible. While a certain degree of understanding is necessary in order to believe, exhaustive doctrinal or biblical knowledge is not required. Instead, we see that a genuine expression of faith was made prior to baptism.

Is Baptism necessary for salvation? 

Baptism is not required for salvation. We know this because the thief on the cross was not baptized, yet after professing his faith, Jesus told him that they would be together in paradise. In addition, Mark tells us that “Who ever believes and is baptized shall be saved, but he does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). 
Romans 10:9-10 tells us that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Romans 10:9-13 ESV). You will notice that baptism is not mentioned here. However, the profession that Jesus is Lord implies willingness to obey what he commands. And he commanded us to be baptized. Therefore, while not necessary for salvation, baptism is an important initial step of obedience to him. If you know you should be baptised and haven't been, what does that say about your saying that he is your Lord?

What about infant baptism? 

Early in the history of the church, the understanding of baptism slowly shifted. This was due to a number of factors. First, parents naturally had concern about the salvation of their children and asked that their infants be baptized as well. Second, as the influence of the church grew and eventually became the official religion of the Roman Empire, to be Roman was to be Christian. And thus people were baptized soon after they we were born. There was also a gradual change in the teaching about baptism. Baptism became seen as a means of grace where something was imparted by God to the person.
The church began to equate baptism with regeneration. The thought was that one became “born again” by being baptized. Instead of being a symbolic act like we see in Judaism and in the Bible, baptism was considered a vehicle by which God caused a person to be reborn. If a person was baptized then they were thought to be regenerated by God without faith being necessary. Thus, the baptism of infants became commonplace as the church became institutionalized.
While faith itself is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8:10), it is not taught in Scripture that baptism is the means of its impartation. To make it the means of impartation turns salvation into a product to be distributed by the church by means of participation in a rite rather than by faith. Of course, these churches do not express it this way! To be fair, churches that practice infant baptism usually emphasize the importance of the faith of the family and the church in a way that can be helpful in developing a community that nurtures the child in a way that they will one day make a profession of Christ. And these churches customarily also practice something like “Confirmation” whereby a young person, typically in their early teens, receives instruction in the doctrines of the church and then makes a profession of their faith in Christ. Millions of people have gone through this process. 
When these people have made a genuine commitment to Christ and believe that they are saved by grace I have little reason to doubt the veracity of their faith or their relationship with Jesus. I myself was raised in such a church and I understand that a person can have a strong relationship with Christ without having undergone believer baptism. It took me several years of prayerful study to see that I needed to be baptized out of my own conviction. I have a great deal of compassion for those who are in the process of looking at this issue.
One of the things that I have noticed is that often in churches that practice infant baptism the focus becomes the rite of the church as the means of salvation. People will say that they that they are saved because they were baptized. Often this is in full accord with the teaching of the church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Born with a fallen human nature…children also have the need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness…”. Lutherans as well teach that baptism is a means God uses to convert or regenerate an individual, even infants. As the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod puts it, “terms the Bible uses to talk about the beginning of faith include ‘coversion’ and ‘regeneration.’ Although we do not claim to understand fully how this happens, we believe that when an infant is baptized God creates faith in the heart of that infant.” 
Such an understanding of baptism is both unbiblical and potentially devastating. The clear basis of salvation is hearing and believing the gospel. If a person experienced a rite of the church and believes that as a result they are saved, their salvation is not based on faith in Christ, but faith in an ecclesiastical system. Like many of the Jews in the the New Testament that trusted their heritage rather than God, they miss the salvation that is freely available in Christ. If you were raised in a church like this, let me encourage you to examine where your trust for salvation is anchored. I was raised in the Lutheran church, and one of the gifts that both the church and my parents gave me was the importance of the Scriptures. In discussing this issue with both Lutheran pastors and my parents, I was able to affirm them in teaching me to follow the Biblical teaching wherever it led.
As I understood better the biblical teaching of baptism, I realized that my parents did what they thought best to set me on the path to faith in Christ. I honor them for that. At the same time, I realized that I had not been baptized according to biblical pattern. Faith precedes baptism. As a result, I chose to be baptized by immersion. It marked an important step in my journey with Christ. It was an act of obedience to the command to repent and be baptized. 

What now? 

You may be struggling with this issue. If so, let me give you a suggestion. The biggest piece of advice I could make is for you to do your own study of the Bible. There are numerous sites that allow you to search the Scriptures. Don’t start with articles like this one (sorry you read so far!). Instead, do a search of the Bible for the term baptism and carefully study the passages where the term is used (if you do a search on StudyLight, a search for “bapti*” will give you all the passages with those letters regardless of ending). Ask yourself what each passage says about baptism. What is it? What does it do? Who is participating? Let the Bible be your teacher. Don't try to do it in your head, but write down what you are learning. It helps with clarity of thinking.

Once you have a handle on the term in the Bible, then expand your search to articles. Don't start with the articles. Read widely and examine every reference to see if the author is quoting it and interpreting it correctly. Prayerfully ask the Lord to teach you what he wants you to do.

If you have never been baptised and you are a follower of Christ, it will be clear that you need to baptised. Find a Bible-teaching church and ask to be baptised.

If you were baptised as an infant, prayerfully consider whether this is in agreement with what the Bible teaches. If you come to the conclusion that what you experienced as an infant was not according to the biblical pattern, then find a Bible teaching church that will baptize you.

Finally, if you want to talk about it, let me know. I would be happy to talk over the issues with you.

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