The Covenant of Baptism
Dr. Valson Abraham
What is the meaning and purpose of baptism? Does baptism guarantee our salvation? Is this why Jesus commanded His disciples to make disciples and baptize them?
Praise God for His wondrous grace by which He provides everything we need for our salvation. Salvation comes to us by grace through faith alone which is His gift (Romans 4, Ephesians 2).
In spite of these specific declarations of God’s salvation through grace alone, numerous people, both Catholic and Protestant, still believe that we need baptism for salvation. They insist on this though nowhere in Scripture do we find Jesus, Paul or anyone else making such a specific declaration that baptism guarantees our salvation.
If baptism is absolutely essential for salvation, why didn’t Jesus and Paul say it outright, leaving no guesswork or need for debate about something so fundamental? Since they don’t, that should settle the matter.
Think of those saved in the Bible who did not receive baptism-the paralytic man in Matthew 9, the penitent woman in Luke 7, the publican in Luke 18 and the thief on the cross in Luke 23. Nowhere does the Bible mention anything about infant baptism. Biblically recorded baptism takes place only among people who first choose faith for themselves, and always by immersion.
If baptism does not bring us salvation, why, then, does Jesus place such heavy importance upon baptism in His Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20)?
To follow Christ means to change our identity. Baptism publicly declares our identity with God’s people and what God did for us through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Baptism declares before the world we have died to our old life, and we are raised to new life in Christ. We are united with Him.
When Jesus first saves us, He saves us in spirit and soul. But we also consist of a body, and our bodies must work in harmony with our spirits and souls. A visible sign, an action of our bodies, confirms outwardly what we have already done inwardly.
Baptism depicts or pictures the saving work of Jesus Christ. In Romans 6:4 - 7 Paul says that baptism is the picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our death, burial and resurrection with Him. That is the reason we say Biblical baptism is by immersion. The method of baptism is important because if you change the mode or method, you destroy the picture.
This is important, but there is an even more important reason I believe Jesus Christ places such a heavy importance upon baptism, and we may find that in an analogy of baptism with the wedding ceremony. This is a valid analogy, for we find references in the New Testament books of 1 & 2 Corinthians, Ephesians and Revelation to the people of God, His Church, as the Bride of Christ. In the Old Testament, we find anticipations of this especially in Ezekiel 16. How does this analogy of the wedding ceremony work with relationship to baptism?
No outward symbol of a wedding ceremony in itself will bring a man into relationship with a woman. Neither does immersing someone in water bring a person into relationship with Jesus Christ.
But certain symbols such as a wedding ring in particular cultures does signify that a dramatic change has taken place in that relationship. A covenant has been made and vows taken between two people that mean new commitments and responsibilities to one another, to future generations. It is a covenant that, if taken seriously by both husband and wife, will bring profound changes into both their lives for the rest of their lives together. Never again will they be the same people they were before.
Husbands and wives in successful marriages agree that the marriage covenant is the beginning of a learning process that never ends, both challenging and rewarding at the same time. The wedding vows have the potential of ushering in the most profound of human relationships that is possible on this earth, even up to a foretaste of heaven.
I believe that when Jesus commanded baptism He intended it also to become a deeper covenant with God just as the marriage covenant begins a deeper commitment between a single man and a single woman. He intended those who obey Him in baptism to begin a more profound process of relationship with God and identification with Christ in actions that will forever change their lives in profound ways. They will also bless countless others and bring great glory to God.
Most of the time, we don’t think like this. Even among Christians who do not believe in salvation baptism, we tend to think of baptism as a kind of “rite of passage.” We think of it as a spiritual symbol, which is true, but too often, we limit what that symbol means. The very fact that Jesus Christ Himself makes baptism part of the Great Commission should tell us that He intended baptism to play a more profound role than we often give it.
What does the covenant of baptism mean in practice? Consider what Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:1-2: “Walk in love just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma.”
Taking a baptismal covenant seriously means that we will begin to change the way we treat others, especially members of our family—our spouses and children, and how children treat their parents and siblings. It will begin to change the way we think and act toward others at work and school.
Here is just a partial list of other profound ways a baptismal covenant with God will change our lives if we are truly serious about our part as members of the Bride of Christ:
• We will commit ourselves to renew our minds.
• We will commit ourselves to live in unity with one another.
• We will commit ourselves to live in humility and gentleness,
• We will put our spiritual gifts to work in equipping others.
• We will commit ourselves to speak the truth in love.
• We will put on the new self in the likeness of God.
• We will commit ourselves to trust the Holy Spirit in all things to help us.
• We will commit ourselves to become imitators of God in all things.
These are just the beginning of what it means to identify with Christ in baptism. Just as the marriage covenant begins a process of learning that lasts for a lifetime, so also is the covenant of baptism.
Baptism should signify a dramatic change in one’s relationship with Christ and with others. A baptismal covenant, if it really means something, means we are no longer content with passive church attendance and putting money in the offering plate (though these things are important).
With Christ’s finished work as our life foundation, we publicly declare our readiness to become His ambassadors in the world, to become His salt and light, to bring His grace to a graceless humanity.
We declare our readiness to take an active concern for those things that move the heart of God. Just as the wedding vows mean new commitments between man and woman, so baptism should become our beginning of new commitments to God to glorify Him and advance His kingdom
One of those things that moves the heart of God is fulfillment of the Great Commission that will lead to fulfillment of His kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. As true children of God who seek His will, we will take outward actions to fulfill the Great Commission through our prayers, gifts and time.
* * * * * * *
Father God, I thank you for saving me by grace through faith alone. By your grace, I am buried with Jesus Christ and raised in Him to new life. Help me to walk in a covenant of love with you, and to love my neighbor as myself. Help me to love those things you love and hate those things you hate that I may glorify you and advance your kingdom. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.