The Meaning of Baptism

Christian baptism remains divisive.  In the past year alone, I’ve had more discussions about baptism than any other subject put together.

While I understand that a discussion about baptism is multifaceted, I simply want to limit this post to a few reflections on the meaning of baptism as I understand it.

1.  Entrance into Christ.  In its summary of baptism, the Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of “ingratifing into Christ.”  By using this agricultural metaphor, the Confession is describing what it means to belong to Christ and therefore be a Christian and a member of the covenant community of Christ–the church.

2.  Entrance into Christ’s Community.  “For we were baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body” (1 Cor. 12:13).  In Acts 2, we read, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (v. 41 ESV). Following the falling of the Spirit on the Gentiles in Acts 10, Peter asks, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (v. 47 ESV).  Clearly for Peter baptizing these new converts in water was not only evidence of what the Spirit had done inwardly, but it was to be an outward witness that these Gentiles now belong to the new Christ community called the church.

3. Death, Burial, and Resurrection.  In Romans 6:1-10 we have a vivid illustration of what our baptism means: “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” (v. 5).  But already we read in verse 4, “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.”  We find similar language in Colossians 2:11-12.  What we have here is an identification with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection.  What a picture!

4.  Washing.  In Mark 7:4 we read, “And when they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.”  “Wash” is the Greek verb baptizo, from which we get “baptize” and its cognate “baptism.”  Baptism is already associated with ceremonial washing (Heb. 6:2; 9:10).  This is also its significance in Acts 22:16.  We may also compare Ephesian 5:26 and Hebrews 10:22.

5. An Appeal.  In a context that deals with suffering and the subsequent victory of believers, Peter first points to Christ own suffering and victory (1 Peter 3:18-19), and then Noah and his family.  While the disobedient perished in the flood, Noah and his family “were brought safely through water” (v. 20).  “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you.”  In the Greek, the text begins with “which,” referring to the water.  Baptism, which is an “antitype” (Greek antitupos), is a fitting sacrament of that union with Christ through faith, which brought about our salvation.  Our old self perished in the waters of baptism, but we were raised our new self, cleared of all sin charges.  Hence, baptism serves as “an appeal to God for a good conscience.”

The risen and triumphant Christ commanded baptism (Matt. 28:19).  Baptism should not be trivialized.  Our churches need to correct their faulty theology of baptism. We cannot read Paul without encountering baptism.  It meant something to the early church.  Therefore it should mean something to us.

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3 Responses to The Meaning of Baptism

  1. Lon says:

    As a believer-baptist worshipping within a paedo-baptist tradition, I wonder if you think there is room for openness on this? Must this issue divide, as some must?

    • TC says:

      Lon, I know a John Bunyan allowed paedobaptists into his local church. John Piper held a similar view while pastor at Bethlehem Baptist, but not allowing paedobaptists to be elders and so on. It’s a tricky business. Something I’m still processing. But to each his own conviction on the matter. I remain a credobaptist.

      I hold to regenerate church membership.

  2. Pingback: Why Only Baptized Christians Should Take Communion | New Leaven

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