Just How Important Is Baptism Anyway?

In the post, “Raised with Christ,” I considered Romans 6:3-11 and Colossians 2:12-13. The apostle Paul describes baptism, which in the New Testament is immersion in water of a person when he or she comes to faith in Jesus Christ. Paul describes baptism as the experience of being united with Christ in his death and his resurrection. As the repentant believer is buried in that water, by the grace of God through faith in Christ he or she dies with Christ to sin and is forgiven through the blood of Christ. By the grace of God through faith in Christ the repentant believer trusts in God’s power with which he raised Christ from the dead. In that trust, by the power of God the repentant believer is raised up from that watery grave. By his grace and power God raises him or her with Christ to new life, a resurrection like that of Christ to walking, living, in newness of life. Through faith in God’s grace and power in Jesus Christ, in baptism the repentant believer is saved from the death of sin and raised to new life in Christ through the resurrection of Jesus.

“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. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3-11).

“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. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses” (Colossians 2:12-13).

The post which followed the above was “The Response of the Heart to the Message of Christ.” I presented in this post my belief that Scripture presents faith, confession, repentance, and baptism, not as individual steps, not as a check list, not separated from each other. Rather faith, confession, repentance, and baptism are joined, united as an inclusive whole. Faith, confession, repentance, and baptism, flowing together, each rising out of faith, are the experience of conversion, the experience of new birth, of new creation, of dying and rising with Christ through God’s grace, power, and love.

Faith, confession, repentance, and baptism, are the response of the heart to the message of Christ. Here is the decision of the heart, the choice of Christ over self, sin, and all the false gods of the world. Here is the surrender of the heart, mind, soul, and life to Jesus Christ. Here is the commitment of life–body, heart, and mind–to Christ. This is what I believe; I trust and pray from a correct understanding of the message of the New Testament.

Just how important is baptism anyway? My study of Scripture continues to lead me to the conclusion that baptism is essential to salvation. Baptism, yes, immersion in water, immersion, not of infants, but of believers. Baptism, again, not separate from faith, confession, repentance, but as part of the whole, of the response to the gospel of Christ. I believe this, not because I was raised in the churches of Christ and this is all I ever heard. I wasn’t and I didn’t. Part of my story is my own christening (infant baptism) and confirmation. As I searched for an understanding of salvation during my late teen years, I came to understand, to believe, this is what Scripture taught concerning becoming a Christian. My conviction has only grown over the years. My understanding, I trust and pray, has deepened.1

In the New Testament I find associated with baptism that which is also associated with faith, confession, and repentance. Associated with baptism are the following: being united with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6; Colossians 2:12), being forgiven of sins and washing away of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16), putting on Christ, being clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:26-27), receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39), and receiving salvation through faith in Christ and through the resurrection of Christ (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21).

The various Christian traditions are not united on the meaning, significance, or form of baptism which raises questions about just how important baptism is since people of faith do not agree. At this point I share with you statements from writers not affiliated with churches of Christ. These three writers’ understanding of the meaning and practice of the apostles and early church, of what the New Testament teaches are significant. I believe they affirm what I understand, even though the traditions of which they are a part do not necessarily agree.

N. T. Wright, bishop in the Church of England, a popular writer today, has stated strongly his belief that we must be seeking to understand and be true to the New Testament, to Scripture. I appreciate this about him, even though it doesn’t mean I will always agree with his understanding of the text. We are both on a continuing journey of seeing to understand God’s Word. Of baptism I share two quotes from Wright.

“Thus the event of baptism–the action,, the water, the going down and the coming up again, the new clothes–is not just a signpost to the reality of the new birth, the membership (as all birth gives membership) in the new family. It really is the gateway to that membership.”2

“The important thing, then, is that in the simple but powerful action of plunging someone into the water in the name of the triune God, there is a real dying to the old creation and a real rising into the new.”3

Frederick Dale Bruner is a Presbyterian minister, missionary, and professor. He wrote: “Baptism, according to the New Testament, is the place where God…physically-individually, spiritually-really gives and applies what the spoken Word has creatively promised, the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy  Spirit (to speak with Luke), washing, justification, sanctification (to speak with Paul), new birth, regeneration, renewal (to speak with John and the Epistle to Titus).”4

Recognized New Testament scholar, senior professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Robert H. Stein wrote an article in 1998 on “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament.” The following quotes are from this article.

Stein’s thesis for the article is this: “In the New Testament, conversion involves five integrally related components or aspects, all of which took place at the same time, usually on the same day. These five components are repentance, faith, and confession by the individual, regeneration, or the giving of the Holy Spirit by God, and baptism by representatives of the Christian community.”5

He comments on Galatians 3:26-27. The text reads, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Stein writes, “The possibility that one could have faith but not be baptized was not even perceived as an option by Paul. In this passage Paul neither exalts faith at the expense of baptism nor baptism at the expense of faith. They are integrally related, and each assumes the other.”6

“A person could not be converted to Christianity in the New Testament apart from baptism….No one came to the conversion experience with questions as to whether baptism was necessary for becoming a Christian because the apostolic preaching stated that they must be baptized. Thus the rejection of baptism was a rejection of the divine program for conversion! To reject baptism was to reject the gospel message preached by Peter, Paul, and the other apostles who spoke of the need of baptism….For the New Testament church the statement ‘Unless you are baptized, you cannot be saved’ was simply another way of saying, ‘Unless you believe, you cannot be saved.’”7

“The apostles did not present ‘various views’ on baptism, nor had their converts been raised in Christian traditions that had different views on this subject. To refuse baptism in the first century was to refuse consciously and willingly what God said should and needed to be done. Such rebellion was damnable.”8

The following texts illustrate Stein’s observations. “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). “And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family” (Acts 16:33). “And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36, 38). Then there is the well known commission to the apostles by Jesus. “And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. God 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).

In this post I wanted to reaffirm what I hope you understood me to be saying in the previous two posts summarized above. Baptism is not simply a religious act or tradition to join the church. Scripture does not present baptism as an option. Baptism is not an act of obedience to give testimony to the conversion experience, to salvation, that occurred weeks, months, or years earlier, apart from baptism. Faith, confession, repentance, and baptism are, in the New Testament, the conversion experience, the response of the heart to the message of Christ.

In baptism, not by itself but with faith, confession, and repentance, the New Testament teaches the repentant believer is united with Christ in his death and resurrection (Romans 6; Colossians 2:12), is forgiven of his or her sins and has his or her sins washed away (Acts 2:38; 22:16), puts on Christ, is clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:26-27), receives the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38-39), receives salvation through faith in Christ and through the resurrection of Christ (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21). This is  the gift of God’s grace, the working of His power and of His love.

The conversion experience, as taught in the New Testament, as understood by the apostles and the early Christians, did not occur by faith, confession, and repentance, without baptism. The conversion experience did not occur in baptism without faith, confession, and repentance. Faith, confession, repentance, and baptism are joined together as a whole. Together they are the response of the heart and are the conversion experience.

Not long after my own baptism forty-four years ago, two questions arose in my heart. What about people of faith in Christ who are unimmersed? What about those people who were my teachers and examples who laid the foundation of faith within my heart? What about people of faith who have been immersed in other Christian traditions? In contrast to the first century of Christianity, as Stein puts it, “Decisions concerning baptism today are often made not on the basis of obedience or disobedience but on the basis of misinformation or confusion.”9 These questions I will address in the next post.

For now, the point I am making is what I understand Scripture to teach. I do not want to put more importance on baptism than given it by the New Testament. I also do not want to place less importance on baptism than given it by the New Testament. Scripture, I firmly believe, presents baptism as the definitive moment when by faith, confession, and repentance, a believer leaves the world and is born into the kingdom of God, committing his life to Christ as Lord.10

_______________

1For more on my personal story of conversion see the post from May 16, 2010, “Part One–Response to ‘Trading the New Law for the Gospel.’”

2N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper One, 2008), 272.

3Ibid.

4Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1970), 263.

5Robert H. Stein. “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament” (The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Vol. 2, No. 1, Spring 1998), 6.

6Ibid., 7.

7Ibid., 15.

8Ibid.

9Ibid.

10Jim McGuiggan. A Baptism Worth Talking About (Nashville: 21st Century Christian, 2010), 27.

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