Is baptism essential to the Christian life? Should people be baptized again if they change churches or denominations? Is it essential to be baptized in a specific way, such as sprinkling, pouring or immersion?
On the first Pentecost after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter exhorted his listeners: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). We are among those who are “far off,” and we can share in the grace of God along with those who heard Peter speak almost 2,000 years ago.
Note how the people responded to Peter’s call after he finished his sermon: About 3,000 accepted Christ that day, and were baptized (Acts 2:41). When people accepted Christ as the Messiah, baptism was the appropriate response. Baptism sends a message to ourselves, to others, and to God. By being baptized, we acknowledge that God is the source of our life and the reason we exist, and that Christ is our Lord and Savior.
Baptism pictures the drama of our “I do” decision for Jesus Christ—but it is possible only because Jesus has already said the “I do” for us. He has already made a commitment to us, and we are now acknowledging it. He has already given his life for us; we are now responding and giving our lives to him. Baptism is a symbolic act that says there is a life-long commitment between Christ and us, and he is our Savior. Baptism implies that we will follow him wherever he may lead us.
People who request baptism are saying they accept Jesus’ offer. He wants to be associated with us, to live with us forever and ever. In baptism, we say that we agree to be associated with Jesus Christ in a personal and intimate way — to belong to Christ, to share in the benefits of his life and death. That’s what it means to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Believers share in the life of Christ. As Christ died, so do the believers. As they share in Jesus’ death, they also have a part in his resurrection and eternal life. In baptism, believers dramatize that we are united with Christ in his death and in his life. The apostle Paul explained this to the Romans:
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 death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:3-4)
Baptism symbolizes our death and resurrection with Christ, that our old self is a thing of the past, and that our real life is in Christ. Going down into the water pictures the death of the self, and rising up out of the water pictures the resurrection of the self to a new life now, and eternal life in the future.
Baptism is not magic. It does not automatically bring the Holy Spirit to us, nor does it cause our spiritual renewal and salvation. Rather, it is done after the Holy Spirit has led us to faith and we have responded. Baptism is a metaphor that symbolizes that on the cross, Christ has crucified our former life and has brought us into a new life in him.
We can see this in some examples in Scripture. First, an example where the Holy Spirit did not come immediately to individuals who had been baptized. We read about this in Acts 8:14-17. Many people in Samaria had believed the gospel and accepted Jesus as Savior. They had also been baptized, but they had not received the Spirit in any noticeable way. In this case, Peter and John had to place their hands on these individuals and pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit.
In the case of the centurion Cornelius and his family and friends, the Holy Spirit came before baptism (Acts 10:44-48). They were baptized after receiving the Spirit, but there was no laying on of hands. These examples teach us that while baptism is an important public statement, it is symbolic. (The repentant “thief on the cross” could not be baptized at all, yet was saved.)
This brings up the matter of the method of baptism. Different churches baptize in different ways. If we understand that baptism is primarily a symbolic public statement of being united with Christ in his death and resurrection, then we can see that the mode is not critical. The fact of our baptism is the meaningful act.
We follow what appears to be the biblical example of baptism by full immersion. Our church also uses the formula of Matthew 28:19, baptizing candidates into the trinitarian fellowship of God. The minister will conclude the baptism prayer with words to the candidate such as the following: “Having repented of your sins, and having accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, I now baptize you — not into any denomination or church — but into the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Individuals can counsel with a pastor if they have any questions about baptism. If you are interested in discussing baptism, or other spiritual matters, you can write to the church office in your country. In the United States, you can contact us at: Grace Communion International, 3120 Whitehall Park Dr., Charlotte, NC28273. Those in the United States can also call our toll-free number for church and minister information: 1-800-423-4444.
Author: Joseph Tkach