Christian baptism is a ceremony commanded by Jesus, by which Christians make a public confession that they have repented of their sins and committed themselves in faith to Jesus as their Saviour and Lord (Matt 28:19; Acts 2:38,41; 9:18; 10:47-48; 18:8; Rom 10:9). The Bible speaks of people going into the water to be baptized (Acts 8:38; cf. Matt 3:16), but it gives no detailed description of the act of baptism. The original meaning of ‘baptize’ was ‘dip’ or ‘immerse’, suggesting that believers were immersed in water.

Pre-Christian baptism

Although it had great significance in the birth and growth of the church as recorded in Acts, baptism was practised before this. Jews, it seems, baptized Gentile converts as part of their introduction into the Jewish religion. John the Baptist also practised baptism, demanding it of those who responded to his preaching and repented of their sins (Luke 3:1-8; John 3:22-23; Acts 13:24; 18:25). John pointed out that the baptism he practised, though it may have pictured cleansing, could not in itself bring cleansing or give people the power to live pure lives. His baptism prepared the way for Jesus Christ, who would bring the blessings that John’s baptism symbolized. Those who accepted Jesus as the Saviour-Messiah would enter the kingdom of God and, through Jesus’ gift of the Holy Spirit, receive an inner power to live righteously (Matt 3:11; John 1:26-28,31,33; Acts 1:5; see BAPTISM WITH THE SPIRIT).

The baptism of Jesus

Even Jesus was baptized, though he had no sins to repent of. For this reason, John at first did not want to baptize him, but Jesus insisted. He wanted to show his oneness with the faithful in Israel who, by their baptism, declared themselves on the side of God and his righteousness (Matt 3:13-15). Jesus’ baptism was also his declaration, at the outset of his public ministry, that he knew what his work involved and he intended carrying it out fully. As the Messiah, he was the representative chosen by God for a people needing deliverance, which in this case meant the deliverance of people from the bondage of sin. Jesus’ baptism in water prefigured a far greater ‘baptism’ that was yet to come; for he, as humanity’s perfect representative, would suffer God’s judgment on human sin through his death on the cross (Luke 12:50; Mark 10:38). Having shown his intentions openly, Jesus then received openly the Father’s gift of the Spirit’s unlimited power to enable him to carry out his messianic work (Matt 3:16; John 3:34; Acts 10:37-38). The Father’s expression of full satisfaction with his Son consisted of combined quotations from the Old Testament relating to God’s messiah-king and God’s submissive servant (Matt 3:17; cf. Ps 2:7; Isa 42:1). In both cases the God-appointed tasks could be carried out only in the power of the Spirit (Isa 11:1-2; 42:1-4).

Christian baptism

As Jesus preached the message of the kingdom, those who accepted his message and entered the kingdom showed the genuineness of their faith and repentance by being baptized. The disciples of Jesus, rather than Jesus himself, did the baptizing (John 3:22; 4:1-2). Just before he returned to his heavenly Father, the risen Christ told his disciples to spread the good news of his kingdom worldwide and to baptize those who believed (Matt 28:19). The book of Acts shows how the early Christians carried out his command (Acts 2:38,41; 8:12,35-39; 10:47-48; 16:13-15,31-33; 18:8). Baptism was so readily acknowledged as the natural and immediate consequences of faith that the New Testament links the two inseparably. The object of saving faith is Jesus Christ and what he has done through his death and resurrection. Paul, the great interpreter of Christian belief and practice, saw baptism as more than just a declaration of faith; he saw it as having meaning that is tied up with the unique union that believers have with Jesus Christ (Rom 6:3; Gal 3:27). According to Paul’s teaching, baptism is an expression of union with Christ in dying to sin and being raised with Christ to new life. When Christ died and rose again, believers died and rose again, so to speak. They demonstrate this in their baptism, but they must also make it true in practice. They must live as those who are no longer under sin’s power (Rom 6:1-11; Col 2:12). They are united with Christ in his baptism at Golgotha, as the Israelites were united with Moses in their redemption from Egypt (1 Cor 10:1-2). Baptism is also a witness, or testimony.

It declares that believers are cleansed from sin (Acts 22:16; cf. 1 Peter 3:21), given the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:47; cf. 1 Cor 12:13) and introduced into the body of Christ, the church (Gal 3:26-28; cf. 1 Cor 12:13). Peter, like Paul, interprets Christian baptism in relation to the death and resurrection of Christ. He sees judgment and salvation pictured in baptism, as they were pictured in the flood of Noah’s time. Christ died to bear God’s judgment on sin, but he rose from death to new life. Through him believers are cleansed from sin and made sharers in a new and victorious life (1 Peter 3:20-4:1). The community that believers enter through their conversion is of divine, not human, origin. It is not a club, but the kingdom of God. Believers are therefore baptized not in the name of a human cult-figure, but in the name of God (Matt 28:19; 1 Cor 1:13). The early preachers constantly kept this in mind. Paul, for example, preferred someone else to baptize his converts, to avoid the appearance of building a personal following (1 Cor 1:14-16). Christians are disciples of Jesus Christ, and he alone is their Lord (Acts 2:38; 8:12; 10:48; 19:5; Rom 10:9).

Baptism of infants

The well known practice of baptizing infants, usually by sprinkling, is not specifically taught in the Bible. Nor does the Bible deal specifically with the related subject of the salvation of infants. Although the Bible shows that God has a special concern for children, its teaching about salvation is mainly concerned with those who are old enough to be responsible for their own decisions (Matt 18:1-6; 19:13- 15; see CHILD). Clearly, people are mistaken if they think that any sort of baptism, whether for adults or infants, guarantees personal salvation regardless of what people believe or do as morally responsible beings (Matt 3:7-10). Nevertheless, many Christians, while realizing that infant baptism does not guarantee salvation, see meaning in it, particularly for those in Christian families. They point out that in New Testament times whole households were baptized; though the narratives do not state whether those households included infants (Acts 16:15,33-34; 1 Cor 1:16).

The belief in the value of infant baptism among Christian families is related to the Old Testament idea of God’s covenant with his people. God’s covenant with Abraham, for example, included his household, and the males within that household were circumcised as the formal sign that they were part of that covenant (Gen 17:4,7,10-14; 21:4; see CIRCUMCISION; COVENANT). Believers who practise infant baptism, while seeing it as a parallel to the Old Testament rite of circumcision, realize that, like circumcision, it is no assurance of salvation (Gen 17:23; Rom 2:25-29). Each person is born with a sinful nature and needs to exercise personal faith to be saved (Rom 3:22-23). Even the blessing of being brought up in a Christian family does not remove the need for the individual to repent and accept Christ in order to become a child of God (John 1:12-13; 3:5-6).

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