Water baptism is an ordinance or sacrament instituted by our Lord Jesus Christ, to be practiced until the end of the age, which signifies a believer’s union with Christ in his life, death, burial, and resurrection, and one’s membership in the church, God’s new covenant people.
This article will discuss the importance of water baptism as an ordinance or sacrament of the church. After discussing different views of baptism within historical theology, it will turn to what the New Testament says is the meaning and significance of baptism. The article will conclude on a couple of reflections of where evangelicals agree and disagree on the meaning of baptism.
Christian Baptism is one of the two ordinances or sacraments which our Lord Jesus Christ, the head of the church, has instituted for the church’s life and health, until the end of the age. As such, water baptism is to be practiced today in obedience to his command (Matt. 28:18-20).
In Scripture, the purpose of baptism is at least twofold: a sign of initiation and entrance into the church, which should precede one’s participation in the Lord’s Supper, and a declaration of faith and surrender to Christ’s lordship. The New Testament does not know of a Christian who is also not baptized. Evidence for this is found in the book of Acts. From Pentecost on, everyone who believed the gospel was baptized, thus publicly testifying of their faith in Christ (Acts 2:41; 8:12-13, 36-39; 9:17-18; 10:47-48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:5). The church fails in her calling when she does not make disciples, by baptizing them and instructing them in the truth of the gospel.
But a legitimate question arises: What exactly is baptism? Anyone familiar with historical theology knows that disagreements over the meaning of baptism, its proper subjects, and its mode have a long history. Given these debates, we must not relegate baptism to a secondary issue. Baptism is commanded by our Lord and is a visible proclamation of the gospel. Also, underneath baptismal debates are crucial biblical-theological issues. Baptismal polemics reflect entire theological systems. They function as test cases for how one puts together the Bible, especially how one understands the nature of salvation and the relationships between the biblical covenants. Before we describe the basic meaning of water baptism, let’s first describe a spectrum of views regarding it, with some views being more consistent with the gospel than others.
Views of Water Baptism
First, there is the sacramental view of baptism reflected by Roman Catholicism. This view argues that the act of baptism regenerates the person being baptized from spiritual death to life (infants and adults), even apart from faith in Christ (ex opere operato, “by the work performed”), and it’s necessary for our salvation. The act of baptism removes the person’s original sin, makes them spiritually alive by the infusion of grace that begins the transforming process of making a person righteous. In this view, Christ has given authority to the church and her officers to effect saving grace in people through the administration of the sacraments, beginning in baptism and culminating in extreme unction.
A weaker sacramental view is taught by Lutheranism. Similar to Roman Catholicism, Lutherans argue that baptism regenerates a person, yet they insist that faith is necessary for God to justify the person who is baptized. Lutherans do not speak of an infused grace in the act of baptism; rather, by Word and sacrament God creates faith in the individual and makes them a living member of Christ’s church. For Lutherans, the subjects of baptism fall into two groups: believers who have come to faith in Christ, and infants, in whom God mysteriously creates an unconscious faith which they later confirm as they reach an age of maturity. Yet, in both cases, faith is present in the regenerative act of baptism and our justification before God.
Second, there is the covenantal view of baptism reflected by Reformed, covenant theology. This view denies that baptism is regenerative and that it’s effective in an ex opere operato way. Instead, baptism, which, under the new covenant replaces circumcision as a covenant sign, is similar to circumcision in what both signify. Both signify God’s “sign and seal” of his covenant promises that those who believe the gospel will be justified. Baptism objectively brings a person (infants and adults) into the visible church, at least, in the case of infants, in the sense that they are “in” the covenant, but not necessarily “of” it. Baptism does not effect a saving union in itself. It’s only by God’s grace, the Spirit making us alive and granting us faith and repentance, that we experience true salvation—the reality to which baptism points. That is why, parallel to the Old Testament, even if infants are baptized under the new covenant and considered covenant members, they are only truly the elect (and part of the invisible church) if they exercise saving faith in Christ.
Third, there is the view of believers’ baptism as reflected in Baptist and the believers’ church tradition. In agreement with the covenant view, this view denies that baptism is regenerative and necessary for salvation. Yet, unlike the covenant view, baptism is only to be applied to believers. Baptism is not merely a sign and seal of God’s promises that anticipates one’s faith in Christ. Instead, baptism is an outward sign of an inward spiritual reality that the believer has already experienced by faith in Christ. Baptism, in contrast to circumcision, does not point forward to the need for a circumcision of the heart. Rather, baptism is a new covenant sign that communicates the grace of God to those who have been regenerated and thus have faith in Christ. Baptism is a public testimony that one has entered into faith union with Christ, and it marks and defines those who believe in Christ. That is why baptism is only to be applied to those who confess Jesus as Lord, who have experienced his power, who are, by faith and spiritual rebirth, Abraham’s true spiritual seed. Baptism is a new covenant rite for the new covenant people of God.
Meaning and Significance of Water Baptism
Much could be written regarding the meaning and significance of baptism. Moreover, it’s at this point that major differences surface between baptismal views. However, let’s think through what baptism is by unpacking four truths, which must be affirmed to be true to the New Testament teaching.
First, baptism is one of the primary means God has given the church to declare publicly our faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. Is this not part of what is going on at Pentecost in Peter’s exhortation to the people who cry from their hearts, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)? Peter has just demonstrated that the coming of the Spirit in power is evidence that redemption has been accomplished; that Jesus is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36); and that the promised new age from the Old Testament has now finally arrived (Joel 2:28-32; Ezek. 36:25-27; Jer. 31:31-34). What response is necessary from the people? It is repentance and baptism, administered in the name of Jesus, signifying a person’s submission to Christ as Lord (Acts 2:38). This truth is important, especially today when altar calls, confirmation, public rallies, and so on, have taken the place of baptism in our public confession of Christ. Baptism beautifully and powerfully pictures our submission to Christ and the truth of the gospel, which no subsequent church rite can replace.
Second, central to the meaning of Christian baptism, in contrast to Jewish proselyte baptism or John’s baptism, is that it signifies a believer’s union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-7; Col. 2:11-12) and all the benefits that are entailed by that union. For this reason, in the New Testament baptism is regarded as an outward sign that signifies an inward reality, namely that a believer has entered into the realities of the new covenant that Jesus inaugurated and sealed with his own blood on the cross. As such, when received in faith, baptism signifies Spirit-wrought regeneration (Titus 3:5), inward cleansing, renewal, and forgiveness of sins (Acts 22:16; 1Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:25-27), and the abiding presence of the Spirit as God’s seal testifying and guaranteeing that the believer will permanently be kept secure in Christ (1Cor. 12:13; Eph. 1:13-14). In fact, so close is the association between baptism and new covenant blessings in Christ, many have argued that in the New Testament, baptism functions by metonymy for the entire conversion experience.
For example, in Galatians 3:26-27, Paul can say: “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.” The language of “putting on” Christ refers to our union with him. But note how Paul can ascribe union with Christ both to faith (v. 26) and to baptism (v. 27). He does so, not by affirming an ex opere operato view of baptism, since Paul is referring to people who have repented of their sins and believed in Christ. It’s only the truly converted who have put on Christ. But, by metonymy, baptism can stand for conversion, and thus an outward sign that signifies this fact.
We find something similar in Romans 6:1-4. Paul sees water baptism as uniting the believer to Christ in his redemptive acts—his life, death, burial, and resurrection. No doubt, in this text, Paul is not primarily giving a theological explanation of the nature of baptism. Instead, Paul is concerned to rebut the charge that the believer should “remain in sin” to highlight grace. He uses the language of “realm transfer” to show how inconceivable this suggestion is. Christians, Paul insists, have “died to sin” (v. 2b) and thus are no longer “in Adam” but are “in Christ.” Yet, Paul can say that this realm transfer occurred in our baptism (v. 3), by which we were united to Christ. Again, Paul is not affirming that the act of baptism unites us to Christ apart from faith. Rather, as in Galatians 3:26-27, baptism is shorthand for our entire conversion experience. By itself, baptism does not effect regeneration, nor is it even necessary for salvation. In the New Testament baptism always assumes faith for its validity, and true saving faith leads to being baptized although faith and baptism do not enjoy the same logical status of necessity (cf. Eph. 4:5; 1Pet. 3:21).
Third, water baptism signifies a believer’s entrance into the church. In Galatians 3:27-28, for example, Paul can immediately move from “putting on” Christ in baptism to how we are one in Christ’ body. Or in Ephesians 4:22-25, Paul can use the baptismal imagery of “putting on” and “putting off” to speak of the kind of behavior we should have as individuals and as “members of one body” (v. 25), certainly a reference to the church. Baptism, then, is the defining mark of belonging, as well as a demarcation from the world (cf. Acts 2:40-41). Thus, in baptism, not only does Christ appropriate to himself the one who is baptized in his name and incorporate him into his body, but the person who is baptized also openly identifies with the Lord and his people.
Fourth, water baptism is a promise and glorious anticipation of the fact that all things will be consummated by Christ. Although there are a number of questions surrounding John’s baptism, one thing is clear: John’s baptism was an eschatological ceremony, anticipating the coming of the Messiah, the kingdom of God, and the entire new covenant era. Christian baptism is also eschatological, but, in contrast to John’s baptism, what John anticipated and pointed to, has now come in Christ. Christian baptism, then, signifies that the believer has entered into the dawning of the new creation and the new covenant due to our union in Christ. This is why Paul can say: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come” (2Cor. 5:17). As such, water baptism looks backwards and forwards: backwards to the inauguration of the new age in Christ’s first coming, and forward to the consummation at his return. By baptism, we participate in these realities. In truth, baptism is our entry into the eschatological order of the new creation that we now experience due to our covenantal union with Christ and being sealed with the Spirit for the day of redemption (Eph. 4:30).
Agreement and Disagreement on Baptism
Certainly more could be said regarding the meaning and significance of baptism, but these four truths highlight much of the New Testament ’s teaching regarding it. Evangelicals across a wide spectrum of denominational affiliation should agree on these basic points. For example, we ought to agree that every Christian should be baptized in obedience to God; that baptism is the sign of the gospel realities of union with Christ and all the benefits of new covenant; that baptism is tied to our incorporation into the church; and that the act of baptism, against the ex opere operato view of Roman Catholicism, does not regenerate. Instead, baptism is effective only by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone.
However, a point of division still remains, especially between the covenantal and believer’s baptism view. Since baptism is not effective apart from faith, why should we baptize infants? Obviously, the divide over this issue is vast and a resolution of it is probably not forthcoming soon, and the reason why is important. Ultimately, the dispute is not over a few texts, but entire biblical-theological arguments, especially one’s view of the relationship between the covenants.
Those who advocate infant (paedo)baptism admit that although there is no explicit command in the New Testament to baptize infants, the practice is still warranted. Why? For the following reason: (1) There is an essential continuity of “the covenant of grace” from Abraham to Christ. (2) Since infants were included in the old covenant by circumcision as an outward sign of entrance into the covenant community, and baptism has replaced circumcision in the new covenant, then believing parents are required to administer baptism to their children. (3) In the old covenant, circumcision did not entail that the child was one of the elect; they still needed to exercise faith to know their election. So in the new covenant, baptism does not guarantee that children are the elect, but it’s still required to administer the covenant sign to them prior to faith. (4) Support for the practice of baptizing infants is found in the household baptisms in the New Testament.
On the other side, those who affirm a believers’ baptism argue the following: (1) Baptism is only effectual by faith in Christ, hence the New Testament pattern of the proclamation of the gospel, conversion, and then baptism of believers. (2) No doubt there is continuity between the old and new covenants due to the one plan of God, but there is also a lot of discontinuity as well. For example, under the old covenant, there is necessarily a distinction between the locus of the covenant community and the locus of the elect, with circumcision being the sign of the former. Yet, under the new covenant this distinction has been removed. By definition, those who are in the new covenant are those who have had God’s law written on their hearts, been born of the Spirit and forgiven of their sins (Jer. 31:31-34), and as such, the church, as God’s new covenant people is a regenerate community. This truth suggests that baptism, as the sign of the new covenant, is only to be applied to those who are in the new covenant, i.e., believers. (3) Circumcision, under the Abrahamic and old covenants do not signify the same realities as baptism does under the new covenant. (4) The examples of household baptisms are arguments from silence and they fail to see the covenantal distinctions between the old and the new. In fact, when we look at the examples closely, we see that in a number of them there are indications of saving faith on the part of all those baptized.
So where does this leave us? It leaves us with honest discussion about the differences among us but also emphasizing what unites us in the gospel. No doubt, infant and believers’ views of baptism are not simultaneously right, and given the importance of baptism the establishment of local churches and denominations that teach one of the views to the exclusion of the other is necessary, given our commitment to biblical authority. Yet, we must also never lose sight of what unites us. We have to find ways of showing our unity in Christ while not downplaying our differences. In fact, we must find unity in that to which baptism points, namely the glory of Christ and the truth of the gospel of God’s sovereign grace. Despite ongoing differences, more than anything else, this is what must captivate our thinking, our lives, and our churches.
- G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962.
- Donald Bridge and David Phypers, The Water That Divides. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1977.
- J. V. Fesko, Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).
- John D. Meade, “Circumcision of Flesh to Circumcision of Heart: The Typology of the Sign of the Abrahamic Covenant,” in Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, ed. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 127-58.
- Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: B&H, 2006).
- Gregg Strawbridge, ed., The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2003).
- Stephen J. Wellum, Interview on Baptism and the Covenants.
- Wright, David F., ed. Baptism: Three Views (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009).
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