To understand the meaning of baptism is of vital importance and something which generates much misunderstanding and, sadly, even division amongst the congregation of believers. In fact the work of God in baptism should, conversely, bring about unity. The hope and purpose of this brief study is to shed light on this vital work of God in the believer’s life.
The words ‘baptism’ and ‘baptise’ are translated from the Greek word baptizo, the root being bapto. This word means to immerse or dip. A secondary and common usage of the word is to dye or stain. This meaning came about from dying or staining something by immersion. It is this second meaning which more correctly corresponds to how it is used in the New Testament whereby when someone is baptised with the Holy Spirit, one is brought into subjection to the influence of God through the Holy Spirit. As a material is imbued with the characteristic of the dye (in this case the colour) with baptism the person is imbued with the virtues of the Holy Spirit. It is to be brought under the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. ‘For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ’ – Gal 3:27. Baptism, therefore, brings Christ into us. It clothes us with Christ, as some translations put this verse.
What does baptism bring about?
So we could say that the first purpose or aspect of baptism is to bring us under the continuing influence of the Godhead. It initiates the process of having God ever with us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, 1Cor 12:13 tells us that ‘in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body’, that is, the body of Christ which is the congregation of believers who are made up of all people, whether Jew or Gentile, whether living or passed on (or even yet to be born), who are in Christ. The baptism of the Holy Spirit brings us into the body of Christ (the ‘universal church’) whereby we are sustained and nourished through the continuing work of the Spirit in and through each of us to each other. Through baptism, therefore we are brought into fellowship, not only with Christ Jesus, but also with our brothers and sisters in Him, each of us joining in the fellowship of believers past, present and future.
A third aspect of the baptism is that it brings us into sonship of the Father with Christ, ‘for in Christ Jesus you are all Sons of God’ Gal 3:26b. Since we are clothed with Christ or imbued with His characteristics we receive the characteristic of sonship. As we are joined with Him we become co-heirs of the kingdom of God and through baptism the Spirit of God comes into our hearts, crying Abba! Father! (Rom 8:15, Gal 4:6). This third aspect therefore becomes ‘the guarantee of our inheritance’ (Eph 1:14), since our inheritance is predicated on the fact that we have become God’s children evidenced by the indwelling of His Spirit. So baptism clothes us with Christ, brings us into the fellowship of the body of Christ and brings us into sonship of the Father.
It is vital to note that the Bible never makes a distinction between being born again and being baptised. As we come into true faith we are baptised with the Holy Spirit and He comes to dwell in our hearts. One cannot be saved and not be baptized with the Spirit ‘for in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body…and all were made to drink of the one Spirit’ (1 Cor 12:13). Since we receive sonship through baptism of the Holy Spirit we see that there is no distinction between the process of Spirit baptism and true regenerating belief for ‘to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God’! (John 1:12).
This does not mean that we all have the same subjective experience of the baptism. One may, for example, simply feel an inner overwhelming presence of God, whilst another may manifest an outward expression of the Spirit’s presence (such as speaking in tongues). Visible, outward manifestations or experiences may, of course, come at various times in one’s walk with Christ (as with the various occurrences in Acts), but the objective truth is that as we truly believe and receive God’s salvation we are baptised with the Holy Spirit. Manifestations of the Holy Spirit (such as speaking in tongues, prophesying or a word of knowledge) can occur when first baptised with the Holy Spirit at conversion, or later, for example, during or after the water baptism, or indeed at any other time. It is not only wrong to rely on an manifestation of the Holy Spirit (such as tongues) as evidence of true conversion (and therefore of being baptized with the Holy Spirit) it is unscriptural. Nowhere do the scriptures state that any spiritual manifestation must be evident on conversion. Whilst there are examples of where this did happen there are also examples where no mention at all is made of such and, indeed, the most common response would be joy and praising God (for example the Gentiles preached to by Paul and Barnabas – Acts13:48, the gaoler – Acts 16:34, or the Ethiopian who simply ‘went on his way rejoicing’- Acts 8:39 ). It is also important to note that real evidence of true conversion is the fruit which will become evident in the new believer’s life, rather than any spiritual manifestations. Besides which, spiritual manifestations are all too easily counterfeited.
This brings us finally to the ritual or sacrament of water baptism. Water baptism is a subjective and public experience of what has already happened. It is the outward sign of an inner reality. We can make a distinction of water baptism and Spirit baptism, but the New Testament does not (other than the baptism of repentance performed by John the Baptist). Again there is only ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (Eph4:5). It would seem that to the early church water baptism was not something to be considered but rather that it was a natural outworking of conversion. We see that believers were baptised as soon as practicable after their conversion. There was no course to undertake (no catechumen), no interim waiting period for them to prove their worthiness or some such prerequisite. Once one was born again and baptised with the Holy Spirit one was almost immediately baptised in water as a public, outward expression of what had already transpired inwardly.
Nor are there any grounds for infant baptism. People believed, then were baptised. It is an outward sign of what has already happened inwardly. One may consecrate their babies, or christen them as it were, but once they are old enough to understand they will have to decide for themselves whether to accept Christ as their Saviour or not, and, if they do, being baptised with the Spirit, they then should be baptized with water. The Lord Himself stated that ‘whoever believes and is baptised will be saved’ (Mk 16:16). Note that the verb believe in the Greek (‘pisteusas’ ) here is active whilst the verb baptised (‘baptistheis’ ) is passive. The individual has actively believed the Gospel but then is passive in receiving the baptism of the Holy Spirit. There is no action on the part of person receiving the baptism – unlike water baptism where a person may choose or not to go through the waters – further giving weight to the reality that the active exercise of one’s will to be baptised in water is merely a reflection or outward sign of what has already occurred to that individual passively by the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, we read in Romans 6 that we are baptised into the death of Christ Jesus. Only those who have been born again are baptised because they have already died. They have died with Jesus and are risen from the dead with Him. If one has not personally been redeemed through faith one has neither died nor been born again. How then can we allow someone to receive water baptism that has not died with Him and risen with Him since water baptism is a physical reflection of what has already happened spiritually.
Water baptism not only symbolizes baptism of the Spirit but also that we have died, been buried and resurrected with Christ. Again, it is a symbolic outward, subjective expression of an objective, inward reality. We are co-heirs with Christ for we have experienced, as it were, a co-death, a co-burial and a co-resurrection. This is why most evangelical fellowships opt for full immersion baptism (as was the case in the New Testament), as visually it acts as a representation of what has already happened spiritually. Baptism makes a statement – to God, to the world and to Satan. When you are baptised you are showing to all to whom you belong, how you want to live your life and that you are being obedient to Christ, not being ashamed of the Gospel. You are declaring in action that you belong to Christ and are a co-heir with Him to the kingdom of God and that you are willing to be obedient to Him (Matt 28:19).
Knowing what we know about baptism, therefore, this should propel us to be united with one other in love for we are all ‘members of the one body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel’ (Eph3:6) and we all sure in the baptism of the Holy Spirit. It should spur us on to put to death the sinful nature, continually dying to sin and living in newness of life. It also encourages us to walk in the Spirit and to strive to be filled with the Spirit at all times, neither grieving nor quenching Him (Eph4:30, 1Thes5:19) and to be ever-increasingly transformed into the likeness of Christ Jesus our Lord. Finally, we should encourage all believers to go through the waters of baptism in ‘the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ as our Lord commanded (Matt 28:19).