Baptism Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Baptism

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Christians find their identity in baptism. It marks us as members of the body of Christ and adopted children in God’s family. There are two main theological interpretations of the meaning of baptism among Christians today. One, found mainly among more Evangelical churches, is that baptism is an expression of one’s personal faith in Christ—a declaration of allegiance to him. The other, found mainly among mainline Protestants as well as Orthodox and Roman Catholics, is that baptism is a declaration and promise from God of the baptized person’s inclusion in Christ. Though it is primarily God’s action, it does not, of course, exclude a personal response of love and obedience.

In Scripture

Overview While baptism is primarily a New Testament action, there is a great deal of water symbolism in the Old Testament. From the perspective of the apostle Peter (1 Pet. 3:20-21), Noah’s Ark pointed to baptism. Paul (1 Cor. 10:2) saw Israel's exodus through the Red Sea as a sign of baptism. In the Mosaic Law, various kinds of impurities and uncleanness were removed by ritual washing (Lev. 13-15). Ezekiel uses the symbolism of washing with water as a sign of spiritual renewal (Ezek. 36:25).

Baptism was already practiced by the time of Jesus as an act by which proselytes were inducted into the Jewish faith community. It signified repentance and the washing away of moral impurities.

John the Baptist practiced “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3) at the Jordan. Hundreds, if not thousands, flocked to the wilderness for this physical sign of a new life.

Jesus joined John in the wilderness and was baptized by him, the man who had promised One to come after him who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8). Though John was reluctant, Jesus insisted that it must be done to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt. 3:15). By undergoing this baptism of repentance, Jesus was identifying himself with the sinful humans he came to save.

At Jesus' baptism three remarkable things happened: the heavens opened, the Holy Spirit descended as a dove, and the Father spoke: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:10, 11). These three actions describe the heart of the meaning of baptism: grace from heaven, the gift of the Holy Spirit, and adoption as sons and daughters in Christ.

Jesus' Death Jesus spoke of his death on the cross as “the baptism that I am baptized with,” linking his baptism in the Jordan with the baptism of his death by which he would redeem believers (Mark 10:38-39).

Bookends of Jesus' ministry Baptism served as a kind of bookend to Jesus’ life and ministry. At the end, before he ascended, he commanded the disciples to “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” (Matt. 28:19). His baptism became a Trinitarian baptism because the fullness of the gospel has been made known through his death and resurrection.

Pentecost After his great Pentecost sermon (Acts 2), Peter declared what his audience should do: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Clearly, baptism is the outward sign of the inner reality of faith and new life in Christ.

New Converts Following this, the pattern through Acts and the whole New Testament was for converts to be baptized almost immediately after believing in Christ (Acts 8:36, 10:47, 16:15, 16:33) (see below re: infant baptism).

Unity with Jesus Christ Paul emphasizes that baptism unites us to Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). In this sense, baptism is like a drowning and a resurrection. The old self, dominated by sin, dies in Christ, and the new self, dominated by the Holy Spirit, rises in Christ.

Assurance of salvation Baptism assures us of our inclusion in Christ and of our salvation. Peter says “baptism ... 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; see also Heb. 10:22). Paul also links baptism to Christ’s death with the renunciation of sin. Because we are baptized we are to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

Gift of the Holy Spirit Baptism also signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit, just as the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism by John. Almost every instance of baptism in Acts is linked in some way to the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Points to Ponder

Since baptism is, in most cases, a once-in-a-lifetime event, and since those who were baptized as infants don’t remember their baptism, it is important to regularly preach about the meaning and purpose of baptism as the key to one’s identity and purpose as a Christian.

Dedication/declaration Churches that regard baptism primarily as an act of commitment and dedication on the part of the believer generally allow for more than one baptism, since a person might feel the need to rededicate him or herself to Christ. Churches that regard baptism as primarily a declaration by God of membership in Christ see it as a once-in-a-lifetime event that may be looked back upon and trusted for assurance and recommitment.

The baptism of infants and young children also tends to depend on one’s view of baptism. If baptism is an act of commitment and dedication on the part of the believer, it doesn’t make sense to baptize before one is able to make such a commitment. If it is a declaration and promise by God, it may also include infants even before they come to faith.

Infant Baptism Churches that baptize infants defend the practice on the basis of God’s covenant promises in the Old Testament and on how these promises are interpreted in the New Testament. Peter declares on Pentecost, “Repent and be baptized every one of you ... The promise is for you, for your children and for all who are far away ...” (Acts 2:38-39). Many see this as an indication that these Jewish apostles applied the principle of the covenant of circumcision to the new covenant sealed in baptism, namely, that children were included (Gen. 17:12, Col 2: 11-13). The many “household” baptisms of Acts are also seen as support for infant baptism. The fact that baptism was practiced as early as the second century is also an argument used for infant baptism.

John Calvin “How do you know yourself to be a son of God in fact as well as in name?” Answer: “Because I am baptized in the name of God the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (John Calvin, from his Strasbourg catechism).

Book of Common Prayer “We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water. Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.”

In film There are several very interesting film scenes that present a baptism. In the classic film The Godfather, Michael Corleone’s infant son is baptized while Corleone’s men are killing their rivals in alternate scenes. There is a wonderfully moving baptism scene in Tender Mercies, as well as a comic treatment in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?

T. F. Torrance “Thus whenever the church in obedience to the command of Christ baptizes specific individuals with water in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, it believes that Christ himself is present baptizing with his Spirit, acknowledging and blessing the action of the Church as his own, fulfilling in the baptized what he has already doing for them in the fruit of his finished work.”

Frederick Dale Bruner “When believers are baptized they are given two immense gifts—the blue sky of the Father’s justifying grace above them ... and the nuclea yet gentle power of the Dove Holy Spirit within them—they are, in theological terms, justified and sanctified (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2, 6:11). Great things happen to the baptized, and the greatest is the gift of the Father and of the Holy Spirit through discipleship to the Son.”

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.