doubt many people today would say: "Why are you bothering with
baptism? It's only a ceremony, isn't it? Having a few drops of
holy water sprinkled on the head of an infant by a clergyman in
church, or just having a bath? What real difference can it make?
You're wasting your time."
The short answer is that the New
Testament has a great deal to say about baptism, from the lips of
Jesus himself as well as through his apostles. Now the plain fact
is that the Bible is all we have. If we want to know who Jesus
was, what he taught and what he commanded his followers to do, we
must go to the Bible for the answers. To look elsewhere is to rely
on the opinions of men, whether of individuals or of bodies of men
in Synods or Councils. What the Bible has to say about baptism
must be vital for us. If Christ and his chosen apostles have
declared certain things about baptism, then we ought to want to
know what they are.
The really important question must
therefore surely be: What did Jesus command and teach and what did
his apostles do as a result?
To Nicodemus, the Jewish leader who came to him by night, Jesus
said: "Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of
God". When Nicodemus took these words literally, Jesus further
explained: "Except a man be born of water and of the
Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:3,5). But
why should he say, "Except a man be born of water ... " unless it
was a clear reference to baptism? John the Baptist had been
actively preaching repentance and baptizing many in the River
Jordan. Jesus himself had been baptized by John saying, "Let it be
so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfil all righteousness"
(Matthew 3:15, R.S.V.). There can then be no doubt that when Jesus
said, "Except a man be born of water ...", he was saying
that to enter the Kingdom of God, a man or woman must be baptized.
This is confirmed by the very clear
command Jesus gave to his disciples as he was about to leave them
on his ascent to heaven:
"Go ye therefore, and
make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the
name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit:
teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded
you" (Matthew 28:19- 20).
The task of the apostles after
Jesus' ascension was a teaching mission which explicitly included
But how did the apostles interpret these instructions in practice?
Here the detailed account of their activities in the Acts of the
Apostles is of great value. We follow them briefly:
2:36-38. Peter told his audience in
Jerusalem that they had crucified Jesus, the "Lord and Christ".
Their consciences were stirred to cry: "What shall we do?"
Peter's answer is explicit:
"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of
Jesus Christ for the remission of sins."
We are told how they responded:
"Then they that gladly received his word were baptized ..."
Philip preached the gospel in Samaria:
"When they believed Philip preaching good tidings concerning the
kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were
baptized, both men and women."
Hearing Philip explain the meaning of Jesus' fulfilment of the
Scriptures, the Ethiopian eunuch significantly asked: "What doth
hinder me to be baptized? ... and they both went down into the
water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him."
Philip must have told the eunuch of the meaning and necessity of
baptism for him to raise the question at all.
Saul of Tarsus, struck with blindness when he saw the risen Jesus
on his way to Damascus, received a visit from a faithful disciple,
Ananias. When Paul heard Ananias' words, "immediately there fell
from his eyes as it were scales, and he received his sight; and he
arose, and was baptized".
Lydia, "one that worshipped God", gave heed to Paul's preaching
and "was baptized ..."
The Philippian jailor, having evidently heard something already of
Paul's preaching in the city, cried: "What must I do to be saved?"
Paul and Silas "spake unto him the word of the Lord." As a result
he "was baptized ..."
Paul found at Ephesus certain believers who had known only the
"baptism of John (the Baptist)". Paul explained to them:
"John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto
the people, that they should believe on him which should come
after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they
were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus."
The case of Cornelius (Acts 10) has been deliberately kept till
last in this list because it has some remarkable features, of
great interest to us in modern times. He was a Roman soldier who
had come to know and worship the God of Israel. He was "a devout
man, and one that feared God with all his house, which gave much
alms to the people, and prayed to God always" (v. 2).
What an admirable man! A worshipper
of God, a man of good works and of prayer -- surely he didn't need
anything? The record shows us that he did. The Apostle Peter was
commanded to visit him and make known to him "words whereby
thou shalt be saved" (11:14). He explained the work of God in
Christ: "Whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of
Now Peter had been reluctant to go
on this errand, and so had his companions, all Jews, for they had
a prejudice against accepting Gentiles into the body of believers.
God had already countered this in Peter's case by granting him a
vision (vv. 9-16) teaching him that he was not to treat as unclean
"what God has cleansed". When Cornelius believed the word preached
by Peter, God granted a further sign to convince the Jews: "The
Holy Spirit fell on all them which heard the word" (v. 44), to the
astonishment of the Jews present. It was a special gift for the
purpose of convincing the Jews that it was God's will to accept
Gentiles into the faith. Peter's reaction is very instructive:
"Can any man forbid
the water, that these should not be baptized ... ? And he
commanded them to be baptized ..." (vv. 47-48).
Notice the very striking fact that
although Cornelius and his household had just received the gift of
the Holy Spirit, Peter still "commanded" them to be baptized!
Could there be a more impressive proof of the necessity of
It is therefore clear that baptism
is not just a washing of the skin, but a meaningful step in the
process of salvation.
How can we
On the face of it the problem seems impossible to solve. Clearly
the great obstacle is the consistent failure of men and women to
live the kind of life God had intended for them. The Bible calls
this failure "sin". It is a term we must not avoid just because it
is unpopular and we don't like it. God uses the term Himself when
commenting on human failures. In the Old Testament His prophets
use it about the transgressions of Israel. In the New Testament
Jesus uses it and so do his apostles. The fact of human sin
appears so clearly in the message God has left us, that we cannot
just brush it off and claim that it does not matter. There is no
doubt that God treats it very seriously indeed.
Furthermore, He has provided a way
by which the great obstacle to the "salvation" of men and women,
that is their own sins, can be removed for those who will hear and
obey His word. He did it by first causing His Son, Jesus, to be
born of Mary, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth, by the power of
His Holy Spirit. The fact is clearly stated in the Gospel of Luke:
"The Holy Spirit
shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall
overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be
born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (1:35).
But the real purpose of God's
action in causing His Son to be born of a human mother in this way
is expressed in the angel's words to Joseph:
"Thou shalt call his
name Jesus (or Saviour); for it is he that shall save
his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).
How could this be a means of "saving from sin"? The wonderful
answer to this vital question lies in the life and character of
Jesus and finally in his death on the cross. For consider his
life. It is clear from the New Testament records that Jesus'
nature was exactly like ours. Inevitably he had the same nature as
his mother, human flesh. The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that
he was, like us, "flesh and blood" (2:14). But that means he must
have shared our experience in all its aspects. This is just what
the Letter to the Hebrews goes on to say:
"He himself suffered,
being tempted ... He was in all points tempted like as we
are, yet without sin" (2:18; 4:15).
To put it plainly, Jesus
experienced all the desires common to human nature. He was under
pressure to please himself; to seek his own comfort, the
satisfaction of all his own physical needs, the upholding of his
own pride, the desire to be rich and powerful. But unlike every
other man and woman who has ever lived, he did not succumb to his
natural desires. He rejected them and preserved his faithful
obedience to God.
Now the significance of this is
very great. For the first time in history a human being conquered
sin. Sin was defeated in the very territory where it reigns
supreme, human nature. What men and women are unable to do for
themselves, was achieved by Christ.
Being "without sin", and yet being
fully a member of the human race, Jesus could offer himself as
"the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29,
R.S.V.). In other words he voluntarily gave himself to the death
of the cross as a sacrifice for sin. As a representative of
humanity he upheld the righteous judgement of God and "condemned
sin". What is more he condemned sin in the nature which in every
other case has succumbed to sin -- "in the flesh". In this way he
made his life "an offering for sin" (Romans 8:3, R.V.).
Wonderfully, since Jesus was himself sinless, God could equally
righteously raise him again from the dead to a new life of
immortality and power.
All the same, how does this help
us? We do not live perfect lives and can never expect to, so long
as we live with these bodies of sinful flesh.
The answer does not lie in some miraculous act. God will not
automatically "change us", just because we say we believe in His
Son. Nor is it because in some mystical way He will regard us as
sinless for the sake of His Son's self-sacrifice. It lies in His
mercy and grace in forgiving sins, on certain conditions.
The prime condition is that men and women who come to Him through
Jesus must recognise the truth about themselves, and also see in
the death of Jesus on the cross the vital atonement for sin. Then
they must resolve to live their lives not according to the demands
of their own nature for self-satisfaction, but according to the
spirit of Jesus in "grace and truth".
Then God will "cancel the charges
against us", and will receive us into a right relationship with
Himself. Only then can He treat us as His "sons and daughters",
members of His family, of which the head is Jesus, His
We are now better able to understand two Bible terms, both found
in an appeal of the Apostle Peter to the people in Jerusalem
shortly after Jesus' ascension to heaven:
"Repent ye therefore,
and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out ..." (Acts
It is a great pity that the two
important terms, "repentance" and "conversion", have been so
misused in modern times. True repentance means "to have a change
of mind", that is of understanding. When we enquire, "A
change of mind about what?", the answer becomes clear from what we
have already considered. It is a change of mind about
ourselves, an understanding of our failure to live up to the
standard God designed for us in Biblical terms, that we are
sinners. Then follows the command: "Be converted", a term which
basically means "to turn round and go in the opposite direction".
This is the practical result of true repentance. It is a
realization that we need to redirect our lives, and to live more
in harmony with the will of God and the commands of Christ.
But Peter went one stage further in
his message to the people of Jerusalem:
"Repent, and be
baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the
remission of sins" (Acts 2:38).
It becomes clearer why Peter added
the command to be baptized when we realize that in the days of
Jesus and the apostles baptism was by total immersion in water.
What it really means is explained by the Apostle Paul in his
Letter to the Romans. "Don't you realize", he says,
"that all we who were
baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We
were buried therefore with him through baptism into death
..." (6:3-4, R.V.).
Or as he wrote to the Colossians:
with him in baptism ..." (2:12).
But surely it is only dead people
who are buried, not those still alive? Exactly; that is just what
Paul goes on to say. He reminds the Colossian believers of their
natural condition before they came to obey the gospel:
"You, being dead
in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh ..." (v.
His meaning is clear. They had been as good as dead in the sight
of God, because the natural desires of their flesh had been
uncontrolled. They had "no hope" and no prospect but death. They
needed to acknowledge this truth about themselves, and to go down
into the waters of baptism as to their own death, recognising that
the judgement of God upon sin is just. Then of course they could
rise again from those waters with a new purpose in life.
"... that like as
Christ was raised up from the dead through the glory of the
Father, so we also should walk in newness of life" (Romans
Or as he added to the Colossians:
"(Ye were) buried
with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him
The parallel is clear. As Jesus
rose from the dead to a new kind of life, an immortal nature, so
the believer in him rises from the waters of baptism to a new
life. The believer has still the same physical nature as before;
but his outlook has changed. He recognises that if he lives
to satisfy nothing but his own natural desires, he will end in
eternal death. He now has a new objective: the will of God and the
commands of Christ.
This is what Jesus meant when he
said to Nicodemus: "Ye must be born again" (John 3:7). The Apostle
Paul tells what this means in practice:
"Let not sin
therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the
lusts (or desires) thereof ... Sin shall not have dominion over
you" (Romans 6:1 2,14).
In other words, you must not let
your natural desires dominate you and so bring you into a kind of
slavery. Rather, he says,
"... yield yourselves
unto God, as those that are alive from the dead ..." (v. 13).
So the sincere believer has changed
masters, because he has "changed his mind", which is repentance in
the Bible sense. He has a new life because he has a new outlook.
This is how he is "born again". The apostle presents this as
becoming a different person:
"Put away ... your
former manner of life, the old man ... and be renewed in
the spirit of your mind ... Put on the new man" (Ephesians
"Jesus died for all, that they
which live should ... live unto him who for their sakes died and
rose again ... Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new
creature ..." (2 Corinthians 5:15,17, R.V.).
A New Life
So baptism, as it is presented in the Bible, is a most significant
event. In this way the believer recognises that he needs saving
from death, and at the same time signifies his desire to live in
the spirit of Christ. He embarks upon a new course of life, in
faith that God will receive him as one of His children. All this
is something that an infant of a few days cannot possibly do. The
child is quite incapable of understanding and responding. Nor can
anyone else "stand in" for him as a sort of sponsor. In the
Scriptures no substitutes are acceptable. We have to "work out our
own salvation" (Philippians 2:12) -- no one else can do it for us.
This is why there are no examples
in the New Testament of infants being baptized; they are all of
adults who fully understood what they were doing. In the early
Church writings there are no references to infant baptism before
about 1 50 A.D. The account of Justin Martyr (who died in 1 65
A.D.) clearly applies to adults:
"As many as are persuaded and
believe what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to
live accordingly, are instructed to pray ... for the remission of
their sins ... (We) become children of choice and
knowledge and obtain in the water the remission of sins
... (The believer) chooses to be born again and has repented of
his sins (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, vol. ii, p. 59).
Tertullian (about 200 A.D.) is said
to be the first person in history to mention infant baptism. He
had the reputation of upholding apostolic traditions. It is
significant therefore that he wrote against the growing
practice of infant baptism; he was "a zealous opponent" of it,
says Neander, the historian (Church History, vol. 1, p.
All through the centuries since those days, and especially since
the renewed interest in the teaching of the Bible at the
Reformation in the 16th Century, the practice of infant baptism
has been a matter of dispute. The Roman Catholic Church has
justified the practice because it was the tradition of the Church
- - an unreliable basis; others on the ground that the child is by
this sacrament saved from condemnation and "regenerated by the
Holy Spirit" -- "sacramental regeneration" as it is called. This
teaching cannot be justified from the Scriptures and is a clear
case of "salvation by ceremony" -- just what Biblical baptism is
Dr. L. Lange, a leading German
theologian, said frankly:
"it must be granted by every
unprejudiced reader of Holy Scripture and Christian antiquity that
the baptism of new-born children was altogether unknown to
primitive Christianity" (History of Protestantism, p. 221).
Dean Stanley, in another article,
"The practice of immersion,
apostolic and primitive as it was ... was peculiarly unsuitable to
the taste, the convenience and the feelings of the North and the
West ... Not by any decree of Council ... but by the general
sentiment of Christian liberty, this great change (to infant
sprinkling) was effected ... It is a striking example of the
triumph of common sense over the bondage of form and custom"
(The Nineteenth Century Review, Oct. 1879).
In other words, the Church has
radically changed the original, Scriptural form of baptism
sanctioned by the practice of the apostles of Jesus, because it
was found inconvenient or unacceptable, or distasteful.
There are at least two fairly common reactions to what we have
said so far, which deserve some consideration.
First, there are those who say: "I
admit that all this is true, but I don't feel the urge to be
baptized." Now this attitude arises principally in those who
expect to be able to see religion mainly in emotional terms. If
they feel a certain lack of response in themselves, they may
conclude that they are not yet fit for baptism.
But this is a mistake. What God
desires of us in the first place is that we set our minds to
understand His Word, and then to accept the truths He has set
out in it, and to decide to try and serve Him. There is an
important reason why this is the constant method of the Word of
God. The man who understands certain important truths and then
sets out to allow them to influence his life, becomes a different
person. If he persists in the course, he will become a different
character, by the "renewing of the spirit of his mind", as
Paul put it. The change will be permanent. God will be able to use
the new person in His service, both now and in the age to come.
But ultimately, if we know God's command is that we should be
baptized, then we should obey it. Otherwise we are rejecting the
Word of God itself. The really deep appreciation of what we have
done will come later, as we experience in our own lives the truth
of God's view of our sins, and are better able to appreciate "the
riches of his grace" (Ephesians 1:7) in His forgiveness of them.
But the first necessary step is to humble ourselves before His
Word and do what it says.
Then there are some who say, "I
agree that all this is true, but I can't live the life", implying
"So I don't want to start". Of course -- let us be frank -- this
could be just an excuse, a way of evading a clear command. If the
person so saying admits the truth of the Scriptural case for
baptism, then he is plainly rejecting the will of God.
But it could be that he is
conscious of the life of truth and mercy and holiness involved in
trying to follow Christ, and feels he would never be able to live
up to it. And so he would be condemned. But this is based upon a
serious misunderstanding -- the idea that God is expecting us to
live perfect lives. God is well aware of the weaknesses of our
nature. The psalmist has put it so well in Psalm 103:
"For as the heaven is
high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear
him (that is, reverence and worship him) ... Like as a father
pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For
he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust" (vv.
We are not dealing with a cold
Dictator, but with a merciful Father, who does not desire that any
should perish, but that all should be saved and come "to the
knowledge of the truth" and to "repentance" (1 Timothy 2:4; 2
Peter 3:9). In short, He is ready to forgive the failings of those
who confess them and earnestly desire to serve Him. For their
encouragement Jesus is their intercessor at the Father's right
We should believe in the mercy of
God and set out to obey His commands. Baptism is the first
Our baptism is the sign that we have understood "the truth", that
revelation of God's will for us. It opens out before us a life
with new prospects: a new way of regarding our own life, a new
path to tread in an uncertain and troubled world; a new sense of
strength to make the important decisions of life; a new sense of
peace with God, who will "reconcile us to himself in Jesus
Christ". For when we believe the gospel, our status is changed. We
are no longer alienated from God by our sins, but become His sons
and daughters, precious in his sight, and heirs of the Kingdom
that Jesus will establish on the earth when he returns.
It is an outstanding prospect. We
should not carelessly cast it away.