Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Ordinance of Baptism (Matthew 28:19-20)

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

By both example and instruction, the Lord Jesus gave the church two ordinances that they are to observe: baptism (Matt. 3:13–17; 28:19) and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19–20). The word baptize (from Gk. baptizō) means “to immerse” or “to dip.” When used literally, the term refers to actions like the dipping of fabric into dye or the immersion of a person in water. But it is also used figuratively in the New Testament to emphasize the close identity and solidarity between two people. For example, in 1 Corinthians 10:2, Paul explains that Old Testament Israel was baptized into Moses. That figurative use of the word underscored the solidarity of the Israelites with their God-ordained spokesman and leader.

In order to symbolize that internal reality of salvation, the New Testament calls believers to be baptized in water as a public testimony to their faith in and solidarity with the Lord Jesus. Water baptism, then, is the outward, postconversion demonstration of an inward reality that has already occurred at conversion. The baptism of John the Baptist symbolized repentance from sin and turning to God (Matt. 3:6; cf. Acts 19:4–5). In Christ, baptism not only signifies a turning away from sin but also serves as a public affirmation of one’s identification and union with him in his death, burial, and resurrection.

Scripture presents baptism as the first step of obedience for believers after they have embraced the Lord Jesus in saving faith. Though it is not the instrumental cause of regeneration, baptism is commanded by Christ himself (Matt. 28:19). Those unwilling to confess their Lord and Savior publicly through baptism are living in disobedience and thus call into question the genuineness of their faith because they are unwilling to obey (cf. Matt. 10:32–33).

The proper mode of baptism is by immersion, as indicated by the Greek word baptizō. Immersion also serves as a symbol of one’s burial and resurrection, signifying the spiritual reality that believers have died to sin and risen with Christ (cf. Rom. 6:4, 10).

As already notes, it is important to note that baptism is not the instrumental cause of salvation, an idea prevalent in Roman Catholicism and certain Protestant sects which sees baptism as the regenerative instrument in salvation. Rather, the instrumental cause of salvation is justification by faith alone. And this is where baptism is best understood as a symbol of the believer’s union with Christ and of Spirit baptism. 

The New Testament teaches that all believers are immersed into Christ Jesus at the moment of conversion (Rom. 6:3; cf. Matt. 3:11). They are baptized by Christ with his Holy Spirit. Through this Spirit baptism (which is entirely God’s work), believers are united with Christ (1 Cor. 6:17; 2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 3:27) and placed into his body, the church (1 Cor. 12:13). It is this spiritual reality that Peter speaks of when he writes, “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 Pet. 3:21). As this verse makes clear, it is not the external action of water that saves (the “removal of dirt from the body”) but the internal reality of “an appeal to God for a good conscience,” which is possible only through faith in the death and “resurrection of Jesus Christ” (cf. Rom. 10:9–10; Heb. 9:14; 10:22).

When the Reformers said that justification is by faith or through faith, they affirmed that the means or the instrument by which we are justified is faith and faith alone. The only instrument that we need, the only tool required to move us from a state of damnation to a state of justification is faith, but faith is not the only thing that we need in order to be justified. We also need Christ in order to be justified. That is, in order to be justified, we need His perfect righteousness and His atonement on the cross. Everything that is required by God to meet His standard of righteousness and justice has been fulfilled objectively in and through the work of Christ. He has done it all.

Though pervasive throughout church history, the practice of infant baptism lacks clear New Testament support, since saving faith precedes baptism and not vice versa. In Scripture, only believers are said to be baptized. The New Testament definition of baptism, in fact, requires that the inner realities of repentance and faith precede the external symbol. In Acts 2:38, only those who believed and repented were called to be baptized. According to Colossians 2:12, those who have been baptized into Christ (a spiritual reality represented by water baptism) have been “raised with him through faith.” First Peter 3:21 explains that baptism symbolizes “an appeal to God for a good conscience.” Yet none of these realities—repentance, faith, or a conscious appeal to God for a good conscience—can be exhibited by an infant. Hence, the practice of infant baptism (or paedobaptism) should be rejected. 

Believer’s baptism (or credobaptism) appears to have been the prevailing practice of the early church until at least the third century, when explicit attestations of paedobaptism appear more frequently in extant Christian literature.

What does baptism signify? What is the mystical union that is signified in baptism? What does it mean to be baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Can baptism be separated from teaching and discipleship? If you are unsure of these things, ask your church leaders to teach a course on the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper.