What Is Baptism?

A friend recently sent me an e-mail asking me about baptism.  He had several excellent questions, and I’d like to use my next few posts sharing my answers.  His first question was “What is baptism?”

sikakanebaptismIt’s never easy to sum up the Bible’s extensive teaching on a subject in a single sentence, but here’s my best shot:  Baptism is the external and physical symbol of an internal and spiritual reality.

To see this, consider the following passages of Scripture:

“And this was his [John’s] message: ‘After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you in water, but he will baptize you in the Holy Spirit’.” Mark 1:7-8

You will notice in this passage that John is saying that baptism is symbolic.  His baptism was external and physical, but Jesus would baptize internally and spiritually.

Now, if baptism is an external and physical symbol, what is the internal and spiritual reality being symbolized?

First, baptism symbolizes that we have been washed clean of our sins.

And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.” Mark 1:4-5

I think the language “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” may be a bit confusing.  My own translation might be something like this: “John came preaching that people should be baptized if they had repented and been forgiven for their sins.” 

I am not alone in this view.  J. B. Phillips translation reads, “For John came and began to baptize men in the desert, proclaiming baptism as the mark of a complete change of heart and of the forgiveness of sins.” The New English Bible reads, “And so it was that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism in token of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins.”  The New Living Translation reads, “This messenger was John the Baptist.  He lived in the wilderness and was preaching that people should be baptized to show that they had turned from their sins and turned to God to be forgiven.”

In other words, baptism does not cause the forgiveness of our sins.  Rather it signifies or symbolizes that we have forsaken our sins and thus received forgiveness.  “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9

Second, baptism symbolizes our identification with Jesus.

“Have you forgotten that when we became Christians and were baptized to become one with Christ Jesus, we died with him? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives.” Rom. 6:3-4 (NLT)

Do you see the argument Paul makes here?  He is saying that when we were baptized, we declared to the entire world that just as Jesus died, we have died to sin, to self, and to the world.  And just as Jesus was raised from that death, so we have been raised to live a new life.  How beautifully baptism pictures our death, burial, and resurrection in Jesus.

Finally, baptism symbolizes that because Jesus has washed away our sins and has become to us our very identities, our conscience before God is clear.

“Baptism is not a removal of dirt from your body; it is an appeal to God from a clean conscience. 1 Peter 3:21(NLT)

If we had to come before God on our own merit, we could never face God with anything more than fear and trembling.  But because we may come to God based on the merit of Jesus and God’s promised forgiveness to all who are identified in Him, we may boldly assert that our sins have been forgiven and that all is well in our relationship with God.  Apart from Jesus, baptism would be presumptuous and arrogant.  In Jesus, baptism is an expression of faith.

gkr1996 posted at 2009-10-27 Category: Theological