The Significance and Meaning of Baptism

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. (Romans 6:3-5, ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV.)

Baptism is one of two sacraments, the other being the Lord’s Supper, ordained by Jesus. A couple days ago my family and I began reading about it in our after-breakfast Bible reading, our reading Chapter 49, “Baptism,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994). In this and my next post I’ll share some of what we read, occasionally referring to other systematic theology books that I consulted in preparing for our family reading.

The importance that Jesus gave to baptism is indicated by his being baptized by John the Baptist before beginning his ministry and his commissioning the eleven to baptize converts before returning to Heaven:
– Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
– And 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)

Almost all Christian churches practice baptism. However although there is agreement that it is connected with the beginning of the Christian life and of one’s initiation into the church, there is also much disagreement about it. Three questions about which there is disagreement are: what does it mean? who should be baptized? and how should it be done? I’ll consider the first one in this post and the other two in my next post.

Before considering what baptism means, I’ll share from Millard J. Erickson’s exposition on the four basic views of baptism held by different groups in his Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, third edition, 2013, pages 1017-24). I also found helpful in understanding those views the chapter on baptism in Gregg R. Allison’s Historical Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2011, pages 611-34). My consideration of what baptism means draws from Erickson’s exposition on the meaning of baptism (Erickson, pages 1025-28) as well as from Grudem (pages 968-69, on the symbolism of baptism, and 973-75, in responding to the Roman Catholic teaching that baptism is essential for salvation).

Views of Baptism

1. Baptism is a means of saving grace, resulting in the remission of sins. This view is held by Roman Catholics and Lutherans, the difference being that Roman Catholics hold that baptism saves by itself and Lutherans hold that faith is a prerequisite. A key passage is Romans 6:1-11, from which I quoted at the beginning of this post. The subjects of baptism are both believing adults and, to remove the taint of original sin, infants.

2. Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant that God made with Abraham. This view is held by Reformed and Presbyterian churches. An important passage is Colossians 2:11-12, which affirms the replacing of circumcision by baptism. As in #1 the subjects of baptism are believing adults and their children.

3. Baptism is a token of salvation, an outward symbol of the inward change that takes place in the believer on placing his or her faith in Jesus Christ. This view is held by Baptists and other groups, including the denomination to which the church which I attend belongs (the Pentecostal Assemblies of Newfoundland and Labrador). They prefer describing baptism (and the Lord’s Supper) as an ordinance rather than as a sacrament. An important passage is Matthew 28:18-20 (quoted above), in which Jesus ordained the act of baptism. The subjects of baptism are believers, those who have met the conditions for salvation–repentance and faith.

4. Baptism is the point at which God gives salvation. This view is held by Christian Churches and Churches in Christ. An important passage is Galatians 3:26-27, which connects both baptism and being sons of God with union with Christ and thus with each other. I don’t understand this view.

What Baptism Means

Some passages seem to support the view that baptism is a means of salvation:
– “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16; however the second part of the verse doesn’t refer to baptism).
– “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5; however the context indicates that “born of water” is synonymous with “born of the Spirit”).
– “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16; however Ananias gives Saul two distinct commands, to be baptized and to have his sins washed away).
– “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5; however “washing of regeneration,” like “born of water” in John 3:5, could refer to a spiritual washing rather than to literal washing).
– “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 Peter 3:21; Grudem explains how this passage could be paraphrased, “Baptism now saves you–not the outward physical ceremony of baptism but the inward spiritual reality which baptism represents,” page 974).
However, as indicated by my comments on the passages, I understand them to show that baptism symbolizes our being cleansed from sin rather than to assert that baptism cleanses us from sin.

Romans 6:3-4, quoted at the beginning of this post, indicates that baptism also symbolizes the believer’s union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. Another passage showing this symbolism is Colossians 2:12, “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”

Grudem concludes his consideration of the meaning of baptism thus: “The amazing truths of passing through the waters of judgment safely, of dying and rising with Christ, and of having our sins washed away, are truths of momentous and eternal proportion and ought to be an occasion for giving great glory and praise to God. If churches would teach these truths more clearly, baptisms would be the occasion of much more blessing in the church” (page 969). Amen!

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