How Baptism Pictures the Gospel
Rituals were a prominent part of Old Testament worship—there were annual rituals, monthly rituals and daily rituals. There were rituals for birth and rituals for death, rituals of sacrifice, rituals of cleansing, rituals of ordination. Faith was involved, but rituals were prominent.
The New Testament, in contrast, has two basic rituals: baptism and the Lord’s Supper —and there are no detailed regulations for either observance.
Why these two? In a religion in which faith is primary, why have any rituals at all?
The primary reason, I believe, is that both the Lord’s Supper and baptism picture the gospel of Jesus Christ. They rehearse the fundamental elements of our faith. In anther article, I describe how the Lord's Supper reminds us of the Lord's death, his life now, which we share in, and his promise to return. It is a reminder that our salvation is based on the life and death of Jesus Christ.
From our Statement of Beliefs:
The sacrament of baptism proclaims that we are saved by Christ alone and not through our own repentance and faith. It is a participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in which our old selves have been crucified and renounced in Christ and we have been freed from the shackles of the past and given new being through his resurrection. Baptism proclaims the good news that Christ has made us his own, and that it is only in him that our new life of faith and obedience emerges. Grace Communion International baptizes by immersion.
(Romans 6:3-6; Galatians 3:26; Colossians 2:12; Acts 2:38)
Pictures the gospel
How does baptism picture the central truths of the gospel? The apostle Paul wrote:
Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:3-5)
Paul is saying that baptism pictures our union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection. These are the primary points of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Our salvation depends on his life, death and resurrection. Our forgiveness—being cleansed of sin—depends on him; our Christian life and future depend on him.
Baptism symbolizes the death of the old self—the old person was crucified with Christ—died with Christ—buried with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:8; Galatians 2:20; 6:14; Colossians 2:12, 20). It pictures our identification with Jesus Christ—we cast our lot in with him. We accept that his death was "for us," "for our sins." We acknowledge that we have sinned, that we have a propensity to sin, that we need the cleansing that Christ has provided for us. Baptism is one of the ways in which we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
Raised with Christ
Baptism pictures even better news—we have been raised with Christ to live with him (Ephesians 2:5-6; Colossians 2:12-13; 3:1). In him, we have a new life, and are called to live with him as Lord leading and guiding us out of sinful ways and into righteous and loving ways. In this way baptism symbolizes a change in the way we live, and that we cannot make this change in ourselves—it is done by the power of the risen Christ living in us. We identify with Christ in his resurrection not just for the future, but for life right now. This is part of the symbolism of baptism.
Jesus did not invent the ritual of baptism. It developed within Judaism, and was used by John the Baptist as a ritual of repentance in which the water symbolized cleansing. Jesus continued this practice, and after his death and resurrection his disciples continued to use it. It dramatizes the fact that we have a new basis for life, and a new basis for our relationship with God.
Paul saw further that salvation means more than being saved from the penalty of sin—it means being saved from sin itself. The old and sinful self must die, and this is pictured by baptism. We died with Christ. Paul was also inspired to add the connection with Jesus’ resurrection. As we rise from the baptismal waters, we picture rising to a new life—a life in Christ, with him living in us.
Peter also wrote that baptism saves us "by the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3:21). Baptism itself does not save us. We are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. Water cannot save us. Baptism saves us only in the sense that it is "the pledge of a good conscience toward God" (same verse). It is a visible representation of turning toward God, of relying on Christ for the salvation he has already obtained for us.
Into one body
We are baptized not only into Christ Jesus, but also into his body, the church. "We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body" (1 Corinthians 12:13). That means that people cannot baptize themselves—it should be done within the context of the Christian community. The biblical pattern is to confess Christ before other people, to make a public acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord.
Baptism is one of the ways in which Christ may be confessed, in which others may see that a commitment has been made. It may be a joyous occasion in which the congregation sings hymns and welcomes the person to the family. Or it may be a small ceremony in which an elder (or another authorized representative of the congregation) welcomes the new believer, rehearses the significance of what is being done, and encourages the person in their new life in Christ.
Baptism recognizes that a person has already repented of sin, already accepted God’s gift of salvation in Christ, and already begun to grow spiritually—is in fact already a Christian. Baptism is generally done soon after a person has made a commitment, but occasionally it may be done much later.
Teens and children
After a person has faith in Christ, he or she may be baptized. This may be when the person is old, or when quite young. A young person may explain faith differently than an older person does, but young people may have faith nonetheless.
Will some of them eventually change their minds and fall away? Perhaps, but that happens with adult professions of faith, too. Will some of those childhood conversions turn out to be mistaken? Perhaps, but that happens with adults, too. If the person trusts in Christ for salvation, as best as the pastor can determine, then the person may be baptized. However, we do not baptize minors without the consent of a parent or legal guardian. If the parent objects to the baptism, then the child who has faith in Jesus is no less a Christian for waiting until he or she becomes a legal adult to be baptized.
In our denomination, we usually baptize by immersion. That was the most likely practice in first-century Judaism and in the early church. We believe that immersion pictures death and burial better than sprinkling does. However, we do not make the mode of baptism an issue to divide Christians.
The important thing is that the person forsakes the old life of self-reliance, and has faith in Christ as Lord and Savior. To develop the analogy further, we may say that the old person died with Christ, whether or not the body was properly buried. Cleansing was pictured, even if burial was not. The old life is dead, and the new life is here.
Salvation does not depend on the exact mode of baptism (the Bible doesn’t give us many details on procedure, anyway) nor on the exact words, as if the words had some magical power of their own. Salvation depends on Christ, not on the depth of the water. A believer baptized by sprinkling or pouring is still a Christian. We do not require another baptism, but it may be done if the person desires it. If the fruit of a Christian life has been present for 20 years, for example, there is no need to quibble about the validity of a ceremony of some 20 years ago. Christianity is based on faith, not on performance of a ritual.
Occasionally a person baptized in infancy wishes to become a member of our fellowship. Is it necessary for us to baptize the person? I believe that this must be decided on a case-by-case basis, based on the person’s preference and understanding of baptism. If the person has only recently come to a point of faith and commitment, it may be appropriate to baptize the person. In such cases, baptism would emphasize to the person that a decisive step of faith has been taken.
If the person was baptized as an infant and has been living as an adult Christian for many years, with good fruit, then we do not need to insist on another baptism. Of course, if they request it, then we may do so, but we do not need to quibble about ceremonies of decades ago when Christian fruit is already evident. We can simply praise the grace of God. The person is a Christian whether or not the ritual was done in the "right" way or "right" time.
Sharing the Lord’s Supper
For similar reasons, it is permissible for us to share the Lord’s Supper with people who have not been baptized in the manner we are accustomed to. The criterion is faith. If people have faith in Jesus Christ, they are united to him and have been baptized, one way or another, into his body, and they may share in the bread and wine, even if they do not agree with us on every point of doctrine.
We should not get sidetracked by arguments about detail. We have our beliefs and practices, and we love those who have other beliefs. Let us focus on the larger picture, provided by the apostle Paul: Baptism pictures our old self dying with Christ, our sins being washed away, our new life being lived in Christ and in his church. Baptism is an expression of faith and grace, and a reminder that we are saved by the death and life of Jesus Christ. It is the gospel in miniature drama—the central truths of the faith being reenacted every time another person makes a public commitment to the Christian life.