Have you ever given any serious thought to the place and value of baptism in God’s plan? The last thing I want to do is elevate it above what the Bible teaches nor do I want to fail to give it the place in God’s plan that the Bible does.
I want to caution you that this discussion is somewhat lengthy but if you will read and study it to the end it could open your eyes to something you have never considered before. I also caution you to challenge your conventional thinking on the subject of baptism and be willing to listen to what the Bible says instead of what some person or “preacher” might have told you.
I don’t know if you keep up with contemporary Christian writers and teachers but one of the best of our current day is a guy named Francis Chan. He pastors a church in California. I don’t even know what the denomination is. I heard him say at a conference earlier this year that if he was stranded on a desert island and the only thing he had was his Bible, and he read it constantly, when he got off the island and someone asked him what they needed to do to be saved, instead of saying “Lets pray this prayer and God will save you.” he would have to say, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
Francis Chan’s statement comes from Acts 2:38 and I am right there with him and here are the reasons why I am. Acts 2:38 is a clear response to what the people needed to do to be saved, or deal with their sin record with God. First, they were told to repent. Repent literally means, in its original meaning, “to turn around.” In our self-centered life we are walking away from God and when we repent we decide to turn around and walk toward the Lord and His will for our life. It basically comes down to a couple things, a change of attitude and a change of actions. I acknowledge that I have sinned and accept the responsibilities for my actions and decide to stop doing it, to walk away from it. Acts 17:30 informs us of the urgency, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” Dealing with our sin before God requires a redirection of our life.
The second thing that is mentioned in Acts 2:38 is “and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” “And” is a coordinate conjunction connection two things of equal value. Repentance and baptism seem to be expected as equally important. Even more noteworthy, I believe, is the reason for baptism, “for the forgiveness of your sins.” This is quite different than the reason many churches baptize today, even those who practice immersion. Most churches simply baptize as an “outward expression of an inward faith.” But from the very first day of the church it was far more than just that.
Reading these words that connect baptism with the forgiveness of sin makes us ask, “How can our sins be forgiven in baptism? I thought the blood of Christ cleanses us from all our sins? And that is absolutely true. But, when is the blood of Christ applied to our sins and they are forgiven? Some would say, at the point of believing in and accepting Jesus as our Savior. But does it not indicate from the very first day of the church that it seems to be at the response of baptism that our sins are forgiven. Does that not lead us to believe that it is at that point that the blood is applied and our sins are forgiven?
This is the same instruction Saul, who later became Paul, was given after his life changing encounter with Jesus on his way to Damascus. He was told to go into Damascus and there he would be instructed as to what he needed to do. He went to Damascus and there met a man named Ananias who gave him his first instruction, Acts 22:16 “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” Again, baptism is linked with the forgiveness of sins.
From the beginning of the church, over two thousand years ago, it was declared that baptism is for the forgiveness of our sins and as such, seems to be the point at which the blood of Christ is applied to our sins.
The other promise in Acts 2:38, in addition to the forgiveness of sins, that comes at our response of baptism, is the gift of the Holy Spirit, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the personal presence of God in the life of every Christ Follower, convicting, guiding and direction into all righteousness. It is impossible to live the life God calls us to on our own. It demands the active working of the Holy Spirit in our moment by moment existence. It is the identifying mark of an authentic Christ follower, Romans 8:9 “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”
Again the question comes, how and when does a person actually receive the indwelling presence of God in our life? I know there are numerous beliefs on this point as well, but according to the way it was in the beginning of the church, the Holy Spirit comes also at baptism. It is when we deal with the ugliness and vileness of sin and it is covered with the blood of Christ, that the presence of God can come to take up residence in our life.
I have not heard Francis Chan’s explanation for the statement I referred to at the beginning, but I wonder if he made the statement, because after just reading just his Bible, he’s finally getting what the Bible is really saying about Baptism.
Some have argued that the things I have just mentioned were true, but they were only true for those who were gathered there in that time and place, at the beginning of the church. However the declaration of the very next verse is, Acts 2:39 “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.” It is true of any who are called by the Gospel of Christ in any generation and time.
The importance, meaning and purpose of baptism is no doubt the reason that 3000 responded to the message and were baptized the same day. It is no doubt also the reason every conversion account in the book of Acts is accompanied by baptism.
All of this leads me to ask, if baptism brings the promise of forgiveness and the indwelling Holy Spirit, what are we without it?
Stay with me now, I’m not finished yet. This may have eternal consequences for you so don’t stop until you have read it all.
I am quite aware that all of this leads people to believe that I am advocating salvation by works. Let me say, unequivocally, I do not believe in salvation by works in any form. Ephesians 3:8,9 makes it clear that it is an undeserved gift. Nothing we can do will earn it.
Then what is baptism? The same thing as confession and repentance. Confession of our need for and faith in Christ requires us to do and say something. It is definitely an action but it is not a work we do to merit salvation.
Likewise repentance, when it is real, results in an entire direction change in life. Repentance requires immense action. But it is not a work that one does to deserve forgiveness.
Also baptism requires an action that one takes, event though it is more what is done to a person than what a person does. Then what is baptism? I think Paul makes it so clear in Galatians 3. The entire chapter is a discussion of salvation by faith. Then he comes down to the end of the chapter and sums it all up with Gal 3:26-27 “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Which makes me ask, why in the world is Paul mentioning baptism at the conclusion of a lengthy discussion on justification by faith? Because baptism, (like confession and repentance), is not a work one does to deserve salvation but a response of faith.
The verse also seems to say that baptism is the way we get into Christ and through which we put off the old life and put on the new. That same picture is presented by Paul in Romans 6 where he likens the burial of baptism to the death burial and resurrection of Christ. It is in baptism that we bury the old life and resurrect to a new life just like Jesus.
For so long I hated what Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:21-22 “This water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also — not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” I just couldn’t believe he would say baptism saves a person. Baptism by itself has no saving value at all. I heard that the Catholic Church used to highly abuse this verse by going into third world countries and baptizing thousands every day to “save” them. That is such an abuse of the text.
Then it occurred to me what he is saying, as I examined all the other verses and examples of baptism. Baptism is the completion of our new covenant with Christ. It is the sealing of the covenant. Without it the covenant is incomplete. In that respect it is the culmination of our salvation experience and the beginning of our growing adventure with God, known as discipleship. It alone has no saving value. Without it salvation is not complete. It completes the salvation decision.
Having said all of this I assure you that I am not a fanatics that try to find a place to baptize a person the moment that person indicated a desire to accept Christ, even though that might not be a bad idea. Salvation is a process and everyone is at a different point in the process. However plans do need to be made to complete the process as soon as possible.
And I do not advocate the use of the scare tactics that if a person should die between their decision to accept Christ and baptism that they are forever lost. They are in God’s care and He is a gracious God. I wonder what would have happened to Paul’s soul if he had fallen victim to thieves and lost his life before getting to Ananias. I think God would have understood.
So, where are you in your relationship with God, your thinking about baptism and your own response to Christ and baptism? I would love to hear from you or even begin some dialogue on the subject, that is, if you are an honest seeker and not a religious arguer.