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. 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 that we are identified with Jesus Christ—he cast his lot in with humanity. We accept that his death was “for us,” and “for our sins.” We acknowledge that we have sinned, that we have a tendency to sin, that we are sinners in need of a Savior. We acknowledge our need to be cleansed, and that this cleansing comes through the death of Jesus Christ. Baptism is one of the ways in which we confess Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. We are saved by what he did, not by the way we responded. The emphasis in baptism should be on what Jesus did, not on our faith or acceptance. The only reason that we can show our commitment to him is because he is already committed to us.
Raised with Christ
Baptism pictures wonderful 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 a new way of life, with him as Lord leading and guiding us out of sinful ways and into righteous and loving ways. In this way baptism reminds us that faith involves 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. Christ has united himself to us in his resurrection not just for the future, but for life right now. This is part of the symbolism.
Jesus did not invent the ritual of baptism. It developed within Judaism, and was used by John the Baptist as a ritual to show repentance, in which the water symbolized cleansing. Jesus continued this practice, and after his death and resurrection his disciples continued to use it, but with a more profound meaning. Baptism dramatizes the fact that Jesus has given us a new basis for life, and a new basis for our relationship with God.
Paul saw that since we are forgiven or cleansed through the death of Christ, baptism pictures his death and that we (even before we were alive) are participants in his death. Paul was also inspired to add the connection with Jesus’ resurrection. As we rise from the baptismal waters, we picture Christ raising us to a new life — a life in Christ, with him in us.
Peter wrote that baptism saves us “by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). However, baptism itself does not save us. We are saved by God’s grace, through faith in Jesus Christ. Physical water removing physical dirt cannot save us, this verse reminds us. Baptism saves us only in the sense that it is “the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” It is a visible representation of trusting in Christ, trusting that he has cleansed our conscience and forgiven us. We are saved by what he has done, not by what we do.
Into one body
We are baptized not only into Christ Jesus, but we are also baptized 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. There are no secret Christians, people who believe in Christ but no one knows about it. The biblical pattern is to confess Christ before other people, to make a public acknowledgment of Jesus as Lord, to become part of a community of believers.
Baptism is one of the ways in which Christ may be confessed, in which a person’s friends may see that a commitment has been made: Christ’s commitment to us in his death, and our commitment to him as a response. It may be a joyous occasion in which the congregation sings hymns and welcomes the person to the family. Or it may be a smaller ceremony in which an elder (or some other authorized representative of the congregation) welcomes the new believer, rehearses the significance of what is being done, and encourages them in their life in Christ.
Baptism recognizes that a person has already repented of sin, already accepted Christ as Savior, already begun to grow spiritually — is already a Christian. We are simply catching up to what Christ has already done for us. Baptism is usually done soon after a person has come to believe in Christ as Savior, but occasionally it may be done much later.
Teens and children
When a person has come to faith in Christ, he or she may be baptized. This may be when the person is old, or when young. A young person may explain faith differently than an older person does, but young people may have faith nonetheless. Teenagers and younger children may have genuine awareness of sin, genuine trust that Christ has paid for their sins, and genuine acknowledgement that their life is united with Christ, and they may be baptized.
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. There are no guarantees about what humans will do — the guarantee comes in what Christ has already done for us. That is what we can celebrate with certainty.
If the person has faith in Christ, as best as the pastor can determine, then the person may be baptized. It is not our practice, however, to baptize minors without the consent of their parent or legal guardian. If the minor’s parent objects to baptism, then the child who has faith in Jesus is still a Christian, even if waiting until he or she becomes a legal adult to be baptized.
In our denomination, we generally baptize by immersion. That was most likely the practice in first-century Judaism and in the early church. Immersion pictures death and burial better than sprinkling does.
Sprinkling pictures cleansing, and perhaps watering for new growth, but not death. Nevertheless, we might say that the old person died with Christ, whether or not the body was properly buried. The old life is dead, and the new life is here, and that is what is important.
We do not make the method of baptism an issue to divide Christians. The important thing is that we remember that Christ has done the real work of salvation, and we are simply responding to what he has done. We give up on our own self-centered approach to life and begin to live a Christ-centered life.
Salvation does not depend on the exact method of baptism (the Bible doesn’t give us many details on procedure, anyway) nor on the exact words. Salvation depends on Christ, not on the depth of the baptismal water. If a person has faith in Christ, that person is a Christian, no matter what kind of baptism was done. A Christian who was baptized by sprinkling or pouring is still a Christian. If such a person wishes to become a member of our denomination, we do not require a new baptism, unless the person believes it appropriate. 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 re-baptize the person? 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 the old self has died with Christ.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Joseph Tkach in 1999 and updated in 2014. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.
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. If they request it, we may do it, 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. 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. We focus on the larger picture, provided by the apostle Paul: Baptism pictures our old self dying with Christ, our sins being washed away by what he did, and Christ raising us up to new life in him and in his church. Baptism is an expression of faith, 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 portrayed in the actions.