What is Baptism?

As a brand new church we have the exciting opportunity, this upcoming Sunday, to baptize our first believer with whom the Lord has blessed us. As such, it is important that we have a biblical understanding of what baptism is, who baptism is for, and what baptism, ultimately conveys. Traditionally, at least within protestant denominations, there are two ways in which we see baptism performed and both can trace their practice back to orthodox Christian faith and teachings. Paedobaptism, the baptizing of children, and credobaptism, the baptizing of those professing faith, are both practiced and taught in various circles today. Examples of each would include Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians within the paedobaptist camp and Baptists, Pentecostals, and nondenominational churches within the credobaptist camp. However, it must be noted that each denomination has their own take on how baptism should look, its importance, and its usage which leads to multiple variations and some unbiblical practices and other biblical practices across the board.

As GBC is a baptist church and since this post is not discussing the ins and outs of various baptismal beliefs, we’ll just unpack the historical biblical belief surrounding baptism as it applies to those in our congregation. Again, this is not to say that its the ultimate authority in all things baptism, but that it is how, ultimately, we view baptism. We also can faithfully, humbly, and graciously admit that, so long as their views are biblically sound and biblically rooted, we can have differing opinions with those of another view such as those held by biblically rooted, confessional Presbyterians. In the simplest of definitions, baptism is commanded by Jesus Christ as an outward sign or seal of cleansing signifying the inward cleansing of sins. It is to be an outward sign and seal of the covenant that God has made with his people. Beyond that, there is nothing special about baptism in the sense that baptism does not save you, baptism does not mean you are more or less saved, and baptism does not impart any form of righteousness, perfection, or justification upon you. The believer who dies without being baptized (for example, a deathbed conversion) is just as saved as the believer who has been baptized because both have been redeemed by Christ and are counted as righteous through his justification. Neither one is saved through baptism, but through Christ.

The reason we baptize those of the covenant of grace, which is found throughout scripture in the Old and New Testaments, is because it is commanded of us by Christ. However, we also see baptism in a covenantal sense within the Old Testament as well; baptism is not a “New Testament” idea. This also happens to be why paedobaptists, such as biblical Presbyterians, and credobaptists, such as biblical baptists, can baptize in a different manner but still both be biblical in their covenantal view of Scripture. How can two views that look different both be biblical? The answer is covenantal theology, but that will have to be discussed in much greater depth at some other time. Definitionally, the Covenant of Grace is the idea found in Scripture that God saves sinners by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Throughout the Old Testament we see a series of these covenants play out (such as with Noah and Abram) and then in the New Testament we see it reach its zenith in what is known as the New Covenant. Biblical Presybeterians baptize children because of their belief in the overarching Covenant of Grace; it is a sign and seal of the covenant extended to us by God through Christ. Biblical Baptists baptize confessing believers because of their belief in the overarching Covenant of Grace; it is a sign of the covenant promise between God and his people (those saved) through Christ. The similarities and differences are much more nuanced and intricate, but it is important to understand that it is something that within the bounds of biblical authority can be held with a somewhat open hand.

Within the Old Testament we see there are several instances of baptism. In 2 Kings 5:10-14 we see Naaman being told to go and wash himself seven times in the Jordan so that he might be cleansed. What is interesting about this passage, is we see that the words “wash” and “baptize” are used interchangeably if we perform a word study. What we can also notice is that the very same idea of being cleansed, washed, or baptized is found in Acts 22:16, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” The danger lies in believing that baptism physically washes away ailments or conditions or in thinking that baptism somehow is cleansing or washing away sins. This is why we do not ever see any indication in Scripture of baptisms in the Old or New Testaments conveying any righteousness upon an individual; all that they ever are is a physical outward cleansing conveying a deeper truth. We could also say they are outwardly pointing to the inward act. Man can only ever cleanse with water, but spiritual baptism is only through the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5). As the case is with Naaman, they may be accompanied by a miraculous deed, but that is in a specific instance and is never intended to promote the idea that there are miraculous blessings and properties surrounding the act of baptism. In Exodus 30:18-21 we see priests being commanded to cleanse their hands and feet before entering the tabernacle, and in Leviticus 14 we see individuals being commanded to cleanse their whole bodies. In each of these instances “baptism” with ordinary water is seen as a common element.

Hebrews 9:10 makes it quite plain that throughout the Old Testament we see various forms of baptisms or washings and while it doesn’t specifically spell out every example, it makes it plain that the Jewish audience of Hebrews were very familiar with baptisms. They were also very familiar with what baptisms were, what they were for, and how they were to function. They would have directly applied the idea of such baptisms being purifying and cleansing to what Christ has done for his people. We also see that the idea of baptism among Christ’s followers takes on the added significance of being the outward sign and seal of Christ’s people which, in turn, takes the place of circumcision as the sign and seal of the covenant. Romans 4:11 tells us that Abraham received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness he had by faith. There was nothing special about circumcision in terms of ones righteousness as it was just an outward sign and seal of Abraham’s faith in the promise of God which was counted as righteousness. Circumcision did not “save” Abraham or his descendants, but served as the outward sign and seal of the covenant that God had made. This is why we see that Abraham’s circumcision came after his belief in the promise of God; it was used to signify and to seal the promise or the covenant that God had made with Abraham.

Under the new covenant we see that believers are all under this same overarching Covenant of Grace; this is why salvation is both for the jew and the gentile. Where before, in the Old Testament, the sign of the covenant, circumcision, was only for the people of God (the Israelites descended from Abraham). The sign of the new covenant, baptism, is for all the covenant people of God despite their heritage. This coincides with a biblical understanding of the idea of gentile believers being grafted into the “tree” of Israel as Paul illustrates and explains in Romans 11:11-24. Therefore baptism is to be the outward sign by which all believers, or by which all people of the covenant are to be marked. In Matthew 28:18-20 we see Jesus commanding his followers to baptize as disciples are made and again, in Acts 2:38 we see Peter commanding that the unbelievers repent and be baptized. Not because baptism has anything to do with their salvation, but because Christ commanded a very specific order, the making of disciples and then their outward signification of the covenant in which God promised to save his people though faith through his son.

As Baptists we understand this to mean that we are to baptize believers upon their sincere profession of faith in Jesus Christ. We are baptizing as an outward sign sealing the covenant between God and ourselves as his people. Presbyterians may argue that they baptize children as sign of the covenant that God has made between himself and his people with the children being included as the seed of the parents already a part of the covenant. Regardless of the view, it is important to keep the biblical overview of baptism front and center: it is an outward sign and seal of the inward cleansing of sin and of the covenant between God and his people. The significance of the ordinance of Baptism cannot be overstated. While it is a physical act involving ordinary water, it is pointing to something so much greater. Christ has saved us from our sins, we have been grafted into the covenant, and God is faithful to keep those whom he wills. We should seek to baptize believers joyfully as we seek to honor God, signify our profession of Christ and his work, and look to biblically and faithfully administer the ordinance.

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