Doctrine of Baptism
Dr. Varughese Philip
Water baptism is one of the rites commanded by Christ and incorporated into the faith community, the church. It has been a controversial issue in the history of the church. Jesus’ command in the Gospels, the Apostles’ practice in the book of Acts, and its theological significance in Epistles laid the foundation for the doctrine of Water baptism.
I. Meaning of Baptism
1. Identity with the Cross
Water baptism is a public declaration of identifying with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our risen Lord commanded baptism before His ascension (Mt.28:18-20). Apostles baptized the believers ‘into the name’ of Jesus, which stresses the association into the account of Jesus (Acts 8:16). Paul gives the theological significance; the spiritual identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:6). Further, it illustrates the meaning of water baptism as a public declaration of identifying with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This identification is distinct from John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance (Mt.3:11). Jesus identified with the sins of Israel through baptism of repentance (Mt.3:13-16).
2. Intimacy with Christ
Water baptism is a commitment for an intimate relationship with Christ - taking the risk to become close to someone and allowing that someone to step inside your personal boundaries. Jesus commanded to baptize ‘into the name’ of Trinitarian God (Mt.28:19). It shows a commitment to follow and keep intimacy with the Trinity. Likewise, the apostles believed that water baptism brings a person under Christ’s lordship and power (Acts 22:16). Peter’s invitation to take baptism ‘into the account’ of Christ indicates the ownership and authority of Christ in life (Acts 2:38). Water baptism is a pledge (1Pet. 3:21), a commitment to Christ to keep the promises, remain faithful and permit Christ to cleanse the conscience by the power of resurrection.
3. Initiation into the Church
Water baptism initiates the believer into the Church, the body of Christ. Baptism of repentance was asked of Israel and in order to fulfil all the Laws, Jesus initiated into the community of Israel through baptism (Mt. 3:15). Apostles baptized the believers and initiated into the community of faith (Acts 2:41, 47). The believers were immediately involved with the total life of the faith community. Saucy observes that water baptism is more than obedience to the command; it is the act of becoming a disciple. Water baptism opens the fellowship with believers (Acts 2:41). It exhibits the social aspect of Christian faith and a witness to the non-Christian community. Initiation into the church is for maturity. The biblical words agape, philia and koinonia call for a greater depth of maturity in a relationship. Christian self- actualization moves towards perfection after Christ (Phil. 3:10-14).Care of soul within the Christian community begins with baptism.
II. Mode of Baptism
The mode of water baptism was immersion, practiced by John the Baptist, disciples along with Jesus and the early church. The Greek word ‘baptizo’ consists of the process of dipping into/under, immersion or submersion. It was used of John’s baptism (Mt. 2:11) and Church’s baptism (Mt. 28:18-19). It was used in ancient non- Christian literature to mean plunge, sink into, overwhelm or drench. The word gives the picture of a ship totally submerged. Disciples along with Jesus followed the same mode of baptism as followed by John the Baptist (Jn 3:22-23). Paul gave the meaning of immersion as burial and the burial of the dead body indicates full immersion (Rom.6:4). When John the Baptist was baptizing at Aenon, there was plenty of water (Jn 3:23), when Jesus was baptized, He ‘came up out of water’ (Mk 1:10) and when Philip was baptizing both ‘went down’ and ‘came up’ out of water (Acts 8:38-39). Proselyte to Judaism was self-immersion and immersion was the mode practiced by the early church. The Greek language has words for ‘sprinkle’ and ‘pour’ and that are not used for baptism. Jesus says the Bible is the inspired, infallible, authoritative Word (Mt. 5:18) and it is those who believe in the infallibility of traditions that practice other modes of baptism.
The mode of water baptism conveys the idea of submission to the New Covenant. Jesus submitted to the calling and Father declared Him to be the beloved Son, which is the official acceptance of the mission of Jesus. (Mt. 3:17). The early church believers submitted to the calling (Acts 2: 41). Paul affirmed that going down into the water pictures death to sin and rising out of water pictures new life in Christ (Rom. 6:1-5). It is not a substitute for circumcision. The New Covenant blessings are on the basis of submission to the circumcision of the heart (Rom. 2:29).
The mode of water baptism symbolizes the freedom from judgment. Baptism of Jesus pictures judgment on the cross. The title ‘my beloved’ (Mt. 3:17) designates the priest who suffers for the nations (Isa. 42:1f). Water baptism symbolizes judgment that Jesus took upon the cross. Peter acknowledged water as the symbol of judgment (1Pet. 3:20).The water of flood brought judgement of a world that was corrupt and full of violence (Gen.6:5, 11). It is not the water that cleanses or saves, but coming through the water represents the resurrection of Jesus showing God’s acceptance. According to Horton, the mode should never become more important than the spiritual identification with Christ. Paul indicates that passing through water (baptism) symbolizes deliverance from the devil and the world. Israel passed through Red Sea refers to great deliverance from the bondage of Egypt (1Cor. 10:2).The mode of baptism has a strong emphasis on dedication to the newness of life and separation to God and to His worship and service. It is a positive change of personality, life style and separation for moral and righteous living (Col.3:1).
III.Management of Baptism
Administration of water baptism is for those who are capable of making a rational voluntary choice. Faith is the prerequisite for baptism (Mk 16: 15-16). Jesus commanded His disciples to make disciples and then baptize them (Mt. 28:19). Faith is an active commitment to obedience and reason operates on the basis of faith. Peter baptized those who put their faith in Christ and repented (Acts 2:38). Early church emphasised the need of faith for baptism and Ethiopian (Acts 8:38), Paul (Acts 9: 18), Caesarean Gentiles (Acts 10:48), Lydia (Acts 16:14-15), Philippian Jailor (Acts 16: 32-33) and Cryspus (Acts18:8) believed prior to baptism. Paul emphasised the need of personal faith and public confession for salvation (Rom. 10:9-10). Faith was the norm for all household baptisms (Acts 16:31, Acts 18:8, Acts 10:27, Acts 16:14-15). Water baptism is the first and immediate evidence of faith and symbolises the beginning of new life.
Water baptism is for those who have personal repentance, decision to turn to God,and a commitment to Christ. The Greek word for repentance, ‘metanoia’ means change of mind. Baptism of repentance was asked of Israel and Jesus took baptism to fulfil the law. Jesus began His ministry with a call to repentance of the individual (Mt. 4:17). Peter asked the hearers of the Gospel to repent (Acts 2:38). Repentance in the New Testament is a turning from sin to God by the exercise of faith (1Jn 1:9). It emphasises the need of a personal repentance. Baptism is the outward sign of repentance and a testimony to the world. A person can repent and change his/her life and take baptism without trusting in Christ. Likewise, taking baptism without repentance in order to become a member of a faith community or to come under any leadership is unbiblical.
Water baptism is for responsible believers. Jesus commanded to baptise ‘in the name of Trinitarian God (Mt. 28:19). Peter gave baptism ‘in the name of Jesus’ (Acts 2:38, 8:16).In the name literally means ‘into the name,’ a phrase that was commonly used in those days to mean “into the worship and service.” There is a responsibility for the one baptised to associate with worship in Truth and Spirit (Jn 4:24). The believers devoted themselves to the teachings of Apostles, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42). It is important for involvement with the full life of the community. Moreover, water baptism in the name of Christ (Acts 2:38) is ‘up on the name of Jesus Christ,’ which is their way of saying, ‘upon the authority’. However, Holy Spirit empowers to succeed in the ministry.
Motive of Baptism
Motive of water baptism is to obey the commandment of Jesus Christ. Baptism has its origin in the commandment of Jesus Christ (Mt. 28:19). The term ‘ordinance’ derives from the Latin word ‘ordo’ which means order, suggesting that it is instituted by the command or order of Christ. Apostles and the early church preached and practiced water baptism. According to F. F. Bruce, there was no un-baptized member in the early church. Paul gave the theological significance of water baptism (Rom. 6:1-5), practiced it, and propagated it (1Cor. 1:14-17). Further, John the Baptist’s baptism was the purpose of God in his generation and Pharisees and the experts in the law rejected it (Lk. 7:30), thinking that it is for the people from other religions and not for them. Jesus condemned them and stated that wise people would accept it without any excuse (Lk. 7:35). Jesus Himself obeyed the commandment given for His generation and set an example to follow (Lk.3:21). Obedience to the commandment of Baptism is to fulfil the righteousness of God (Mt. 3:15). Furthermore, administration of water baptism is by the order/command of Jesus Christ, no magical power was attached to it and applicable to all generations.
Motive of water baptism is for good conscience. Conscience refers to a set of personality processes involved in evaluating oneself by one’s accepted ideals or standards.” Apostle Peter explains the sotereological significance of water baptism and says that it is the pledge of a good conscience toward God (1Pet. 3:21). Jesus is able to save and cleanse from all sins and to free the conscience as a result of resurrection. Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to three functions of conscience: discerning between right and wrong, predisposing to moral action and bringing remorse when breaking the law. A good conscience is one that is free from guilt, because of a life lived according to God’s standard. Obedience to water baptism increases the trust and enhances the assurance as a result of identifying with resurrection (1Pet. 1:3). It produces a constructive sorrow and develops moral personality. Non-submission to water baptism affects the conscience, produces the consequences of guilt conscience and lack of assurance about salvation.
Motive of water baptism is to express the conformity to the saving work of Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus conformed to the baptism of repentance to officially accept the task for which He has come. Paul’s baptism associates with the washing or cleansing from the defilement for acceptance (Acts 22:16). It leads to conversion, which refers to religious experiences that alter the attitudes and actions. Outer conversion is by identifying with a given faith and inner conversion is by inner cleansing of soul (Heb. 10:22). Similarly, water baptism associates with the confession, ‘Jesus as Lord’ (Acts 22.16, Rom 10: 9). The English word ‘creed’ is derived from the Latin word credo, which means ‘I believe’, which is the authoritative statement of the articles of Christian faith. Confession of faith, conversion, and conformity to creeds shape the personality of Christians in this world.
IV. Mystery of Baptism
1. Union with Christ
Mystery of water baptism is that it unites a person with the righteousness, sonship, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul affirms that all who baptized into Christ were clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27-29). Clothed with Christ reflects the ‘stripping off’ and ‘putting on’ of clothes at baptism. Exercise of faith brings this vital union and produces righteousness of life. Likewise, Christ is the Son of God and clothed with Christ means covered with His Sonship, which is a mystery. There is a correlation between water baptism and resurrection (Col. 2:12). Exegetical study affirms that circumcision of the heart takes place in baptism and baptismal union with Christ predicates union with Christ in resurrection (Rom. 6:1-5).
2. Unity of the Body of Christ
Water baptism unites the believer with the body of Christ. Those who took baptism on the day of Pentecost were added to the church, the Body of Christ (Acts 2:41). The union of the redeemed man with God in Christ is a mystery (Eph. 5:32). The convert is initiated into the body of Christ through water baptism. Holy Spirit baptizes into the body of Christ (1Cor. 12:13). According to Ervin, ‘the baptism here is water baptism, for the conversion-initiation’. ‘In Christ’ means one with all who are united to Him (Gal. 3:26-28). It is the inward reality of participation in His Body and initiatory rite to the visible body. Horton says, the term ‘ sacrament’ was applied to the oath of allegiance taken by new recruits into the Roman Army. Later Christians adopted this term and began associating it with their vows of obedience and consecration unto the Lord. The unity is not based on mutual relationship within the group, but in their vital relationship to the Head of the Body.
3. Usefulness in Mission
Water baptism enables the believer to receive the gifts of the Spirit, victory over the hidden forces, and freedom from the clutches of sinful nature and a commission to engage in ministry. The result of Jesus’ baptism was an anointing and title (Mt. 3:17). Baptism of Jesus was a door to the ministry on earth (Lk.4:18). Baptism is commission to engage in that ministry (Mt. 28:18-20). Peter says, the believers receive the gift of the Spirit after water baptism (Acts 2:38), which is a mystery. Being baptized in the Holy Spirit does not make exemption from the call to water baptism (Acts 10:47). According to Paul, baptism helps to enter into a new realm and a renewed life (Rom. 6:4). It shows that the believer gets freedom from the clutches of the sinful nature with the ability to say no to it. Among the ancient Greeks, the mysteries were religious rites and ceremonies practiced by sacred societies into which anyone who desired might be received. Apostles had this in mind and they were the possessors of the mystery.
In a nutshell, water baptism is the rite given by Jesus Christ to the church to express the faith. It is the outward expression of inward faith. There are various reasons to affirm that water baptism is indispensable to believers.
First, meaning of baptism is to identify with the cross, intimacy with Christ and initiation into the Church.
Second, mode of baptism is immersion symbolizing the immersion of the old nature. Any mode apart from immersion is a deviation from the examples set by Jesus, apostles and the early church.
Third, water baptism is for those who have the right reasoning (faith), genuine repentance and maturity to take responsibility. It is important to discern the personal trust in Christ before administering baptism. Self- immersion or to be baptised by someone who has no calling is unbiblical.
Fourth, the motive of water baptism is obeying commandment to fulfil the righteousness of God, for clear conscience and to conform to the saving work by confession and conversion.
Fifth, water baptism gives a mystical union with Christ, unity with the body of Christ and usefulness in mission.