The Mode and Meaning of Baptism in the Christian Faith

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As the risen Lord, Jesus Christ commanded His followers to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19; see also Mark 16:16). The book of Acts gives ample testimony that this is exactly what the disciples did. For example, Acts records the first public sermon of the church on the day of Pentecost. In this sermon, Peter called for a response to his message with the following words: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Throughout the Acts of the Apostles, we see that baptism is regarded as the public act of our repentance and the public transfer of a new believer from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God.

In the New Testament, it is not sufficient to simply pray a sinner’s prayer and be privately justified before God. Christianity, as the redeemed community, is to be a public witness before the world. In short, we are not only saved as individuals, but we are saved into a new community, known as the church of Jesus Christ. Baptism is the public sign of this transfer and should be the normal “first step” expectation of all new believers.

Meaning of Water in the Scriptures

Why are new Christians asked to engage with water in such a public fashion? In the Scriptures, water has four main purposes/meanings, all of which are symbolically represented in Christian baptism. First, water is used around the world for cleansing. When a Christian undergoes baptism, it is an outward sign of the inward spiritual cleansing that has taken place through the gospel. In the Old Testament, priests were required to cleanse themselves with water before entering into the presence of God. (See, for example, Numbers 19:1–8.) In the same way, the waters of baptism symbolize the spiritual cleansing that is necessary to enter into the presence of a holy God.

Second, water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. In John 7, Jesus declared, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified (vv. 38–39 ESV). The association of water and the Spirit is another profound mystery. When Jesus Himself was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him in a special way (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:9–10; Luke 3:21–22; John 1:31–32). So, the waters of baptism symbolize the presence and infilling of the Holy Spirit in the life of the new believer. The apostle Paul teaches that “in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13 ESV).

Third, water is a symbol of birth. At the time of our physical birth, the first sign of new life is the “breaking of water” that accompanies the new birth. We are born “out of water” into the world. In the same way, the presence of water symbolizes that a new, spiritual birth has taken place and we are being brought into the world as a new creation. Jesus told Nicodemus that no one could see the kingdom of God unless he was “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Nicodemus was amazed because he thought that Jesus was saying we must somehow reenter the womb and be born a second time. However, Jesus was using an analogy, comparing our spiritual birth with our first physical birth.

Finally, water is used to symbolize our death to sin and our resurrection to new life. There is no real connection between water and burial, but when we go down into the waters of baptism and then emerge from the water, it is symbolic of our being buried with Christ, and then rising to new life. Paul asks, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3–4 ESV).

Mode and Formula of Baptism

The church has different practices regarding the precise method to be used in baptizing someone and what formula, if any, should be employed. Broadly speaking, there are three modes of baptism that are practiced in the church around the world: sprinkling, pouring (or effusion) over the head, and total immersion in water. All three modes embrace all four of the above meanings of baptism, but some emphasize one more than others. Total immersion is the most widely accepted mode since it so obviously captures the “death and burial” theme noted above. Sprinkling or pouring draws upon the Old Testament practice of sprinkling water and blood on the sacrifices. In the prophecy of Ezekiel, God says, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek.36:25–26 ESV). In the early church sometimes sprinkling was used because of the infirmity of the candidate or, quite practically, because of the scarcity of water in the desert regions. As long as the meaning and symbolism are made clear, the precise mode should not be a point of division in the church, since the New Testament does not clearly specify the mode. Christians should remember that meaning trumps mode. Therefore, we should be gracious with other Christians who were baptized by a different mode than the one we experienced, as long as the public, spiritual transfer has taken place.

When someone is baptized, it is the instruction of Jesus Himself that they be baptized in the name of the triune God (Matt. 28:19). This means that when people are baptized, they should be asked if they have repented of their sins and have trusted Christ for their salvation. Some traditions also ask candidates if they will renounce the devil and all his works. Upon assent, they are baptized “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” When people are baptized “in the name of Jesus” only (as occurs in the book of Acts), it is generally understood that the “name of Jesus” is representative of the triune God, since you are baptized by the redemptive act of God the Father, in the name of and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Who should be baptized?

The more crucial question concerns not the precise mode, but clarity on who is eligible for baptism. Almost every Christian tradition agrees that an unbaptized believer who comes to Jesus Christ should be baptized.

The point of serious disagreement concerns whether an infant is eligible to be baptized before he or she even has an opportunity to personally repent and believe. Those traditions (such as Baptist, Anabaptist, and Pentecostal) that emphasize the importance of personal repentance and conversion prior to baptism insist that it is wrong to baptize an infant. Since infants cannot repent and believe, they are, therefore, not eligible for baptism, according to these Christians. Therefore, the sacrament should be reserved until a person is prepared to confess his or her own sins and confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. This is a solid position, and Christians who come from different traditions (like Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Methodists) should respect and appreciate the biblical and theological reasons given for this position.

However, there are other Christians who insist that the focus on a believer’s baptism tends to obscure the corporate, community nature of baptism. In other words, baptism is more than simply a sign of one’s personal justification before God. Baptism is an act of being brought into the family of God. In this view, children of believing parents are joyfully welcomed into the church family. Baptism signifies their “belonging” to the family of God. In the Old Testament, infants were circumcised as an “outward sign” of their membership in the Jewish covenant. In the same way, baptism is an outward sign of our belonging to the family of God.

Later, when children reach an age of being able to make their own decision for Christ, they are asked to go through a confirmation class, where they publicly declare that they “confirm” their infant baptism. It is, therefore, not correct to say that those who practice infant baptism are not interested in an adult, public profession of Christ. Rather, the baptism is permitted at the earliest age, and then it is later united with a formal confirmation class and public profession of faith. This view has a more covenantal view of baptism. That is, it focuses on the community nature of the people of God, which later is confirmed by an individual, public decision. Jesus was very welcoming of children, and even said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14 ESV). Furthermore, Paul teaches that the children of believing parents are not “unclean,” but they “are holy” (1 Cor. 7:14).

Both traditions should be respected. However, those who baptize infants should make it very clear that the baptism is not finally effectual unless and until the child makes a personal profession of faith. Likewise, those who practice believers’ baptism must remember that God honors and blesses the entire family into which they have entered as a whole.

All joyfully agree that baptism represents our formal, public entry into the Christian faith and into the community of the redeemed. We are not simply baptized by faith; we are baptized into a faith, i.e., into the blessed fellowship of all the redeemed. Whether we are Pentecostals or Baptists Methodists, we should recognize our common inheritance as redeemed sinners who have been brought by the initiative of the triune God into the family of faith.

Did you enjoy this entry? It is part of a book by Timothy Tennent titled, Ten Words, Two Signs, One Prayer: Core Practices of the Christian Faith. In its pages, Tennent casts a vision for a long tradition of Christian discipleship and catechesis focusing on the Ten Commandments, the two sacraments of baptism and Communion, and the Lord’s Prayer. It will helps individuals and groups:

  • Gain a deeper Christian appreciation of God’s Ten Commandments to his people Israel
  • Learn the meaning of the two sacraments—baptism and communion
  • Discover the value of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray (the “Lord’s Prayer”)
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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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