At Oldham Bethel Church, we had the privilege of baptising and bringing into membership one of our Iranian brothers. There are several things going on when we baptise someone so I thought I would share exactly what we were doing.
What baptism doesn’t do
Baptism doesn’t save us: The Bible is very clear on this point: ‘by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Eph 2:8f). Baptism does not impart spiritual life, it does not make one a Christian, it does not mediate grace and it does not make one righteous. Our brother was a Christian before he got into the water and he remained one when he came up out of it.
When Jesus was on the cross, there was a thief crucified next to him. This thief repented and trusted in Jesus whilst on the cross. Jesus said to him, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. He had no time to get baptised and no opportunity to do any good works and yet Jesus assured him of his place in Heaven. Whilst this may tell us many things, it makes clear our salvation does not depend on baptism.
What baptism does
Publicly identifies us with Christ: When we put our faith in Jesus, we immediately join the universal, invisible church. We come to belong to the church as God sees it. Of course, this happens privately within our own hearts; nobody else can see our heart or our faith. When we get baptised, we are publicly proclaiming what has already happened privately in our hearts. It is an outward sign to the world that we now belong to Jesus Christ.
Publicly joins us to God’s people: Following on the preaching of the gospel in Acts, we read in 2:41, ‘those who received his word were baptised, and there were added that day about three thousands souls’. There are a couple of things worth noting about this verse.
First, the order is important. People responded to the word; that is they became Christians. Upon becoming Christians, they were baptised. Their baptism joined them to the local, visible church – the church as we see it – because we are told they were ‘added to their number’. This tells us (a) there was a count being kept and (b) it was baptism that added new people to this number. This list of people was the local, visible expression of the church. We know this because the verses immediately following tell us what they then began to do, ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers’ (2:42).
Second, in 1 Cor 12 Paul says, ‘in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body’. We know this body cannot be the invisible, universal church because we already belong to that when we put our faith in Jesus Christ. The body Paul is talking about is the local, visible church. In the particular context, he is specifically referring to the local church in Corinth into which all the members would have been baptised.
Our faith in Christ Jesus marks our entry into the universal, invisible church and our water baptism marks our entry into the local, visible church. That is why yesterday we welcomed our brother into full membership of the church at the point he was baptised.
What does baptism symbolise?
Union with Christ: When we believe by faith we are united to Jesus. Baptism is an outward picture of what has taken place spiritually. Going under the water speaks to our dying with him and our coming up pictures our rising to new life in him.
Washing from sin: The picture of washing is really quite obvious. The water symbolises the washing away of sin in Jesus Christ.
Baptism in the Spirit: When we become Christians, Jesus baptises us with the Holy Spirit and he comes to dwell within us. Water baptism is an outward picture of what the Holy Spirit has already done. It is a picture that the Holy Spirit has come to dwell live within us and has baptised us spiritually.
Joining the church: When Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus Road, he asked ‘why are you persecuting me?’ Jesus Christ and his people are so connected that to harm one is to harm the other. This means if we are united to Christ, we are also joined to his people. By faith, we are united to Jesus and join the invisible church. Baptism is the outward sign that we have been united to Jesus and the visible sign that we have joined his church. It is our doorway to membership because we cannot have Christ without his people.
If we want to identify with Jesus without identifying with his people, we are seeking to put asunder what God has joined together. Christ and his people are one. If we want to be baptised as a sign of faith in Christ without joining the church, we are distorting the picture of Christ married to the church. We are saying Jesus has multiple, individual brides rather than being married to the one church. Not only that, we are saying we’re happy to be married to Christ, we just don’t want to live with him.