"He who believes and is baptized will be saved" (Mark 16:16).
Genuine repentance leads us to unconditionally surrender our will to God. Once we come to that point, Peter says the next step is to "be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38, NIV).
Water baptism is one of Christianity's most ancient practices. Far from being useless and archaic, it holds deep symbolic meaning.
Since the days of the apostles, the laying on of hands after baptism has signified the actual moment of the receiving of the Holy Spirit and the setting apart of a convert as a child of God.
To understand the significance of baptism, let's first consider its historical background. The Holman Bible Dictionary explains:
"At some point close to the time of Jesus, Judaism began a heavy emphasis on ritual washings to cleanse from impurity. This goes back to priestly baths prior to offering sacrifices (Leviticus 16:4, Leviticus 16:24). Probably shortly prior to the time of Jesus or contemporary with Him, Jews began baptizing gentile converts, though circumcision still remained the primary entrance rite into Judaism" (1991, "Baptism").
Because of this precedent, no one considered it strange for Jesus or the apostles to emphasize the need for baptism. But, in addition to the symbolism of cleansing from impurities, did baptism have greater significance for Christ and the apostles?
Only a beginning
Baptism is a reminder of several deep spiritual truths. It represents death, burial and resurrection—both of Jesus and ourselves. Baptism shows that we accept the shed blood of Christ for our sins and pictures the death of our former life in the baptismal grave.
As Jesus was resurrected a spirit being, our coming out of the grave—rising out of the baptismal water—symbolizes our new Spirit-led life. Our understanding of the true meaning of repentance and conversion lifts baptism to much more than just a symbol; it becomes a profound, life-changing event.
Baptism is not the conclusion of the conversion process. It marks a beginning for us. In Romans 6 Paul refers to baptism as a summons to "walk in newness of life." In Romans 6:11 he states that, rather than facing death, we become "alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Baptism is an outward sign of an inward change of heart and mind. Paul uses this powerful picture of a new life committed to obedience and faith in Christ and the Father in Colossians 3:9-10: "Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator" (NIV).
Hebrews 9:14 tells us that Jesus' sacrifice, which we formally accept at baptism, "cleanse[s] your conscience from dead works to serve the living God." This means that, through repentance and baptism, we receive forgiveness and no longer should feel condemned for our past sins.
How great is God's forgiveness? David tells us, "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is [God's] mercy toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:11-12).
Through Isaiah God tells us, "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be [white] as wool" (Isaiah 1:18). Through Christ's sacrifice, the waters of baptism symbolize the washing away of the sin in our lives (Acts 22:16) so we may go forward with a clear conscience.
Why we need Christ's sacrifice
The Scriptures tell us that "the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). That gift of life is made available to us through Christ's sacrifice. "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).
The prophet Isaiah wrote of the future sacrificial death of the Messiah: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering . . . he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him.”
Our sins have separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2). But through Christ's death God opens the door so we can be reconciled to Him.
As Paul explains: "Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that is God's proof of his love towards us. And so, since we have now been justified by Christ's sacrificial death, we shall all the more certainly be saved through him from final retribution. For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, now that we have been reconciled, shall we be saved by his life!" (Romans 5:8-10, Revised English Bible).
"For in [Christ] God in all his fullness chose to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things to himself, making peace through the shedding of his blood on the cross—all things, whether on earth or in heaven. Formerly you yourselves were alienated from God, his enemies in heart and mind, as your evil deeds showed. But now by Christ's death in his body of flesh and blood God has reconciled you to himself, so that he may bring you into his own presence, holy and without blame or blemish" (Colossians 1:19-22, REB).
Hundreds of years before Jesus' birth, the Scriptures explained that He would be killed as a sacrifice for our sins. Describing the future sacrificial death of the Messiah, Isaiah wrote: "He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
"Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:3-6, NIV).
Paul explains the connection between Christ's death and our baptism: "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" (Romans 6:3-4, NIV).
He continues: "For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin" (Romans 6:6, NIV).
Bought with a price
Until our baptism the Bible describes us as enslaved to our selfish human nature. But, once we are baptized and our sins are forgiven, God regards us as servants of righteousness. We are redeemed—bought back—from a life of slavery to sin to become servants of God and of true righteousness (Romans 6:16-19).
What happens at baptism is a literal transfer of ownership. Our lives now belong to God. From this time forward we make a commitment to tell God, as Jesus did, "Not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42).
Paul explains that this transfer of ownership came at a price: "You were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God's" (1 Corinthians 6:20).
Peter specifies the price: "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:18-19, NIV).
Jesus commanded baptism
Jesus regarded the ceremony of baptism to be so important that He commissioned His Church to go all over the world baptizing disciples who believe the gospel message. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations," He said, "baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Peter emphasized the need for baptism, after repentance, so we can then receive God's gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).
Baptism represents a serious, life-altering commitment. It is only for those mature enough to understand the importance of their decision.
Except on rare occasions for some in their later teenage years, children are simply not able to properly comprehend and make such a serious and lifelong commitment. In every specific example of baptism mentioned in the Bible, we see that those being baptized were old enough and mature enough to understand repentance, baptism and the gravity of their decision (see "We Must Count the Cost"). Nowhere can we find a single example of an infant or child being baptized.
Water baptism symbolically cleanses us from our past sins (Acts 22:16). But Jesus Christ does not leave us alone to face the future. He offers us the precious gift of the Holy Spirit to empower us for a life of overcoming and serving in obedience and faith.
How God imparts His Spirit
When we repent—with faith in God and in Christ's sacrifice in payment for our sins—and are baptized, we receive two gifts. One is forgiveness of our sins. All our mistakes of the past are blotted out. We are completely forgiven. Second, we receive the promised gift of God's Spirit.
This comes through the ceremony, following baptism, of the laying on of hands by one or more of God's faithful elders for the purpose of representing God in the giving of His Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-17).
The laying on of hands is described in the Scriptures as part of the foundation of a believer's beliefs and actions (Hebrews 6:1-2). This ceremony, like baptism, represents an important step in the conversion process. Why? Because most examples in the New Testament show that it is through the laying on of hands of Christ's ministry that God imparts His Spirit to new converts.
Like baptism, the practice of laying on of hands has its historical roots in the Old Testament. In ancient times this practice, often accompanied by anointing with oil, was used to set men apart to serve God in the offices of king or priest. It was also sometimes invoked in setting apart sacrifices or other things for holy use. Similarly, laying on of hands after baptism signifies that the newly baptized person has now been set apart for God and His purposes.
Since the days of the apostles, the laying on of hands after baptism has signified the actual moment of the receiving of the Holy Spirit and the setting apart of a convert as a child of God. It is only through the gift of God's Spirit that we can develop godly faith and obedience. The practice of laying on of hands for the receiving of God's Spirit is mentioned in Acts 8:17; Acts 19:6 and 2 Timothy 1:6.
When we receive God's Spirit we begin a new life of spiritual growth, of replacing our selfish human nature with God's divine nature. Baptism points to our being set apart as children of God. The result is spiritual guidance and direction through God's Spirit dwelling in us, leading us to the Kingdom of God.
Do you believe God is leading you to a fuller understanding of Him and His Word? If the answer is yes, then you should seriously consider acting on the steps God is telling you to take.
One should be baptized by a true minister of Jesus Christ, one who fears God and obeys His laws. Paul wrote: "How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent?" (Romans 10:14-15).
Today the United Church of God has ministers in most parts of the world who are trained to counsel with and baptize those who turn to God in true repentance. If you perceive that God is calling you and you would like to counsel with one of God's ministers, then please contact us we will put you in touch with our ministerial representative nearest you.
After baptism, God begins to transform our lives through the power of His Spirit. Let's now examine the role God's Spirit plays in a Christian's life after baptism.