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Why Baptism Really Matters:
What must we do to be saved?
No doubt many people today would say: "Why are you bothering with baptism? It's only a ceremony, isn't it? Having a few drops of holy water sprinkled on the head of an infant by a clergyman in church, or just having a bath? What real difference can it make? You're wasting your time."
The short answer is that the New Testament has a great deal to say about baptism, from the lips of Jesus himself as well as through his apostles. Now the plain fact is that the Bible is all we have. If we want to know who Jesus was, what he taught and what he commanded his followers to do, we must go to the Bible for the answers. To look elsewhere is to rely on the opinions of men, whether of individuals or of bodies of men in Synods or Councils. What the Bible has to say about baptism must be vital for us. If Christ and his chosen apostles have declared certain things about baptism, then we ought to want to know what they are.
The really important question must therefore surely be: What did Jesus command and teach and what did his apostles do as a result?
"Born of Water"
This is confirmed by the very clear command Jesus gave to his disciples as he was about to leave them on his ascent to heaven:
"Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you" (Matthew 28:19- 20).
The task of the apostles after Jesus' ascension was a teaching mission which explicitly included baptism.
What the Apostles Did
Acts 2:36-38. Peter told his audience in Jerusalem that they had crucified
Jesus, the "Lord and Christ". Their consciences were stirred to cry: "What shall we do?"
Peter's answer is explicit:
Acts 2:41. We are told how they responded:
Acts 8:12. Philip preached the gospel in Samaria:
Acts 8:39. Hearing Philip explain the meaning of Jesus' fulfilment of the Scriptures, the
Ethiopian eunuch significantly asked: "What doth hinder me to be baptized? ... and they both went
down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him." Philip must have told
the eunuch of the meaning and necessity of baptism for him to raise the question at all.
Acts 9:18. Saul of Tarsus, struck with blindness when he saw the risen Jesus on his way to
Damascus, received a visit from a faithful disciple, Ananias. When Paul heard Ananias' words,
"immediately there fell from his eyes as it were scales, and he received his sight; and he arose, and
Acts 6:14-15. Lydia, "one that worshipped God", gave heed to Paul's preaching and "was baptized ..."
Acts 6:30-33. The Philippian jailor, having evidently heard something already of Paul's
preaching in the city, cried: "What must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas "spake unto him the word
of the Lord." As a result he "was baptized ..."
Acts 16:14-15. Paul found at Ephesus certain believers who had known only the "baptism of
John (the Baptist)". Paul explained to them:
What an admirable man! A worshipper of God, a man of good works and of prayer -- surely he didn't need anything? The record shows us that he did. The Apostle Peter was commanded to visit him and make known to him "words whereby thou shalt be saved" (11:14). He explained the work of God in Christ: "Whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins" (10:43).
Now Peter had been reluctant to go on this errand, and so had his companions, all Jews, for they had a prejudice against accepting Gentiles into the body of believers. God had already countered this in Peter's case by granting him a vision (vv. 9-16) teaching him that he was not to treat as unclean "what God has cleansed". When Cornelius believed the word preached by Peter, God granted a further sign to convince the Jews: "The Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the word" (v. 44), to the astonishment of the Jews present. It was a special gift for the purpose of convincing the Jews that it was God's will to accept Gentiles into the faith. Peter's reaction is very instructive:
"Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized ... ? And he commanded them to be baptized ..." (vv. 47-48).
Notice the very striking fact that although Cornelius and his household had just received the gift of the Holy Spirit, Peter still "commanded" them to be baptized! Could there be a more impressive proof of the necessity of baptism?
It is therefore clear that baptism is not just a washing of the skin, but a meaningful step in the process of salvation.
How can we be saved?
Furthermore, He has provided a way by which the great obstacle to the "salvation" of men and women, that is their own sins, can be removed for those who will hear and obey His word. He did it by first causing His Son, Jesus, to be born of Mary, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth, by the power of His Holy Spirit. The fact is clearly stated in the Gospel of Luke:
"The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (1:35).
But the real purpose of God's action in causing His Son to be born of a human mother in this way is expressed in the angel's words to Joseph:
"Thou shalt call his name Jesus (or Saviour); for it is he that shall save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).
The Death of Jesus
"He himself suffered, being tempted ... He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin" (2:18; 4:15).
To put it plainly, Jesus experienced all the desires common to human nature. He was under pressure to please himself; to seek his own comfort, the satisfaction of all his own physical needs, the upholding of his own pride, the desire to be rich and powerful. But unlike every other man and woman who has ever lived, he did not succumb to his natural desires. He rejected them and preserved his faithful obedience to God.
Now the significance of this is very great. For the first time in history a human being conquered sin. Sin was defeated in the very territory where it reigns supreme, human nature. What men and women are unable to do for themselves, was achieved by Christ.
Being "without sin", and yet being fully a member of the human race, Jesus could offer himself as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, R.S.V.). In other words he voluntarily gave himself to the death of the cross as a sacrifice for sin. As a representative of humanity he upheld the righteous judgement of God and "condemned sin". What is more he condemned sin in the nature which in every other case has succumbed to sin -- "in the flesh". In this way he made his life "an offering for sin" (Romans 8:3, R.V.). Wonderfully, since Jesus was himself sinless, God could equally righteously raise him again from the dead to a new life of immortality and power.
All the same, how does this help us? We do not live perfect lives and can never expect to, so long as we live with these bodies of sinful flesh.
Then God will "cancel the charges against us", and will receive us into a right relationship with Himself. Only then can He treat us as His "sons and daughters", members of His family, of which the head is Jesus, His only-begotten Son.
"Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out ..." (Acts 3:19).
It is a great pity that the two important terms, "repentance" and "conversion", have been so misused in modern times. True repentance means "to have a change of mind", that is of understanding. When we enquire, "A change of mind about what?", the answer becomes clear from what we have already considered. It is a change of mind about ourselves, an understanding of our failure to live up to the standard God designed for us in Biblical terms, that we are sinners. Then follows the command: "Be converted", a term which basically means "to turn round and go in the opposite direction". This is the practical result of true repentance. It is a realization that we need to redirect our lives, and to live more in harmony with the will of God and the commands of Christ.
But Peter went one stage further in his message to the people of Jerusalem:
"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38).
It becomes clearer why Peter added the command to be baptized when we realize that in the days of Jesus and the apostles baptism was by total immersion in water. What it really means is explained by the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Romans. "Don't you realize", he says,
"that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism into death ..." (6:3-4, R.V.).
Or as he wrote to the Colossians:
"Buried with him in baptism ..." (2:12).
But surely it is only dead people who are buried, not those still alive? Exactly; that is just what Paul goes on to say. He reminds the Colossian believers of their natural condition before they came to obey the gospel:
"You, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh ..." (v. 13).
Buried ... and Raised
"... that like as Christ was raised up from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans 6:4).
Or as he added to the Colossians:
"(Ye were) buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him ..." (2:12).
The parallel is clear. As Jesus rose from the dead to a new kind of life, an immortal nature, so the believer in him rises from the waters of baptism to a new life. The believer has still the same physical nature as before; but his outlook has changed. He recognises that if he lives to satisfy nothing but his own natural desires, he will end in eternal death. He now has a new objective: the will of God and the commands of Christ.
This is what Jesus meant when he said to Nicodemus: "Ye must be born again" (John 3:7). The Apostle Paul tells what this means in practice:
"Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts (or desires) thereof ... Sin shall not have dominion over you" (Romans 6:1 2,14).
In other words, you must not let your natural desires dominate you and so bring you into a kind of slavery. Rather, he says,
"... yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead ..." (v. 13).
So the sincere believer has changed masters, because he has "changed his mind", which is repentance in the Bible sense. He has a new life because he has a new outlook. This is how he is "born again". The apostle presents this as becoming a different person:
"Put away ... your former manner of life, the old man ... and be renewed in the spirit of your mind ... Put on the new man" (Ephesians 4:22-24).
"Jesus died for all, that they which live should ... live unto him who for their sakes died and rose again ... Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature ..." (2 Corinthians 5:15,17, R.V.).
A New Life
This is why there are no examples in the New Testament of infants being baptized; they are all of adults who fully understood what they were doing. In the early Church writings there are no references to infant baptism before about 150 A.D. The account of Justin Martyr (who died in 165 A.D.) clearly applies to adults:
"As many as are persuaded and believe what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray ... for the remission of their sins ... (We) become children of choice and knowledge and obtain in the water the remission of sins ... (The believer) chooses to be born again and has repented of his sins (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. ii, p. 59).
Tertullian (about 200 A.D.) is said to be the first person in history to mention infant baptism. He had the reputation of upholding apostolic traditions. It is significant therefore that he wrote against the growing practice of infant baptism; he was "a zealous opponent" of it, says Neander, the historian (Church History, vol. 1, p. 425).
Infant Baptism Unscriptural
Dr. L. Lange, a leading German theologian, said frankly:
"it must be granted by every unprejudiced reader of Holy Scripture and Christian antiquity that the baptism of new-born children was altogether unknown to primitive Christianity" (History of Protestantism, p. 221).
Dean Stanley, in another article, writes that:
"The practice of immersion, apostolic and primitive as it was ... was peculiarly unsuitable to the taste, the convenience and the feelings of the North and the West ... Not by any decree of Council ... but by the general sentiment of Christian liberty, this great change (to infant sprinkling) was effected ... It is a striking example of the triumph of common sense over the bondage of form and custom" (The Nineteenth Century Review, Oct. 1879).
In other words, the Church has radically changed the original, Scriptural form of baptism sanctioned by the practice of the apostles of Jesus, because it was found inconvenient or unacceptable, or distasteful.
First, there are those who say: "I admit that all this is true, but I don't feel the urge to be baptized." Now this attitude arises principally in those who expect to be able to see religion mainly in emotional terms. If they feel a certain lack of response in themselves, they may conclude that they are not yet fit for baptism.
But this is a mistake. What God desires of us in the first place is that we set our minds to understand His Word, and then to accept the truths He has set out in it, and to decide to try and serve Him. There is an important reason why this is the constant method of the Word of God. The man who understands certain important truths and then sets out to allow them to influence his life, becomes a different person. If he persists in the course, he will become a different character, by the "renewing of the spirit of his mind", as Paul put it. The change will be permanent. God will be able to use the new person in His service, both now and in the age to come.
Then there are some who say, "I agree that all this is true, but I can't live the life", implying "So I don't want to start". Of course -- let us be frank -- this could be just an excuse, a way of evading a clear command. If the person so saying admits the truth of the Scriptural case for baptism, then he is plainly rejecting the will of God.
But it could be that he is conscious of the life of truth and mercy and holiness involved in trying to follow Christ, and feels he would never be able to live up to it. And so he would be condemned. But this is based upon a serious misunderstanding -- the idea that God is expecting us to live perfect lives. God is well aware of the weaknesses of our nature. The psalmist has put it so well in Psalm 103:
"For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him (that is, reverence and worship him) ... Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust" (vv. 11-14).
We are not dealing with a cold Dictator, but with a merciful Father, who does not desire that any should perish, but that all should be saved and come "to the knowledge of the truth" and to "repentance" (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). In short, He is ready to forgive the failings of those who confess them and earnestly desire to serve Him. For their encouragement Jesus is their intercessor at the Father's right hand.
We should believe in the mercy of God and set out to obey His commands. Baptism is the first decisive step.
It is an outstanding prospect. We should not carelessly cast it away.
-- Fred Pearce
Reproduced with the kind permission of The Christadelphian Magazine and Publishing Association Ltd (UK), by whom all rights are reserved.