Christian baptism is one of two ordinances that Jesus instituted for the church. Just before His ascension, Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” – Matthew 28:19–20. These instructions specify that the church is responsible to teach Jesus’ Word, make disciples, and baptise those disciples. These things are to be done everywhere (“all nations”) until “the very end of the age.” So, if for no other reason, baptism has importance because Jesus commanded it.
Baptism was practiced before the founding of the Church. The Jews of ancient times would baptise proselytes to signify the converts’ “cleansed” nature. John the Baptist used baptism to prepare the way of the Lord, requiring everyone, not just Gentiles, to be baptised because everyone needs repentance. However, John’s baptism, signifying repentance, is not the same as Christian baptism, as seen in Acts 18:24–26 and 19:1–7. Christian baptism has a deeper significance.
Baptism is to be done in the Name of the Father, Son, and Spirit – this is what makes it “Christian” baptism. It is through this ordinance that a person is admitted into the fellowship of the church. When we are saved, we are “baptised” by the Spirit into the Body of Christ, which is the church. First Corinthians 12:13 says, “We were all baptised by one Spirit so as to form one body – whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” Baptism by water is a “re-enactment” of the baptism by the Spirit.
Christian baptism is the means by which a person makes a public profession of faith and discipleship. In the waters of baptism, a person says, wordlessly, “I confess faith in Christ; Jesus has cleansed my soul from sin, and I now have a new life of sanctification.”
Christian baptism illustrates, in dramatic style, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. At the same time, it also illustrates our death to sin and new life in Christ. As the sinner confesses the Lord Jesus, he dies to sin (Romans 6:11) and is raised to a brand-new life (Colossians 2:12). Being submerged in the water represents death to sin, and emerging from the water represents the cleansed, holy life that follows salvation. Romans 6:4 puts it this way: “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.”
Very simply, baptism is an outward testimony of the inward change in a believer’s life. Christian baptism is an act of obedience to the Lord after salvation; although baptism is closely associated with salvation, it is not a requirement to be saved. The Bible shows in many places that the order of events is
1) A person believes in the Lord Jesus and
A new believer in Jesus Christ should desire to be baptised as soon as possible. In Acts 8 Philip speaks “the good news about Jesus” to the Ethiopian eunuch, and, “as they travelled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptised?’” – 35-36). Right away, they stopped the chariot, and Philip baptised the man.
Baptism illustrates a believer’s identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Everywhere the Gospel is preached and people are drawn to faith in Christ, they are to be baptised.
What is the proper mode of baptism?
The simplest answer to this question is found in the meaning of the word “baptise.” It comes from a Greek word which means “to submerge in water.” Therefore, baptism by sprinkling or by pouring is an oxymoron, something that is self-contradictory. Baptism by sprinkling would mean “submerging someone in water by sprinkling water on them.” Baptism, by its inherent definition, must be an act of immersion in water.
Baptism illustrates a believer’s identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised 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. The action of being immersed in the water pictures dying and being buried with Christ. The action of coming out of the water illustrates Christ’s resurrection. As a result, baptism by immersion is the only method of baptism that illustrates being buried with Christ and being raised with Him. Baptism by sprinkling and/or pouring came into practice as a result of the unbiblical practice of infant baptism.
Baptism by immersion, while it is the most Biblical mode of identifying with Christ, is not a prerequisite for salvation. It is rather an act of obedience, a public proclamation of faith in Christ and identification with Him. Baptism is a picture of us leaving our old life and becoming a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). Baptism by immersion is the only mode that fully illustrates this radical change.
What does the Bible say about infant baptism?
There is much confusion about baptism in the various Christian denominations. However, this is not a result of the Bible presenting a confusing message on baptism. The Bible is abundantly clear of what baptism is, whom it is for, and what it accomplishes. In the Bible, only believers who had placed their faith in Christ were baptised, as a public testimony of their faith and identification with Him (Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3-4). Water baptism by immersion is a step of obedience after faith in Christ. It is a proclamation of faith in Christ, a statement of submission to Him, and an identification with His death, burial, and resurrection.
With this in view, infant baptism is not a Biblical practice. An infant cannot place his or her faith in Christ. An infant cannot make a conscious decision to obey Christ. An infant cannot understand what water baptism symbolises. The Bible does not record any infants being baptised. Infant baptism is the origin of the sprinkling and pouring methods of baptism – as it is unwise and unsafe to immerse an infant under water. Even the method of infant baptism fails to agree with the Bible. How does pouring or sprinkling illustrate the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Many Christians who practice infant baptism do so because they understand infant baptism as the new covenant equivalent of circumcision. In this view, just as circumcision joined a Hebrew to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, so baptism joined a person to the New Covenant of salvation through Jesus Christ. This view is unbiblical. The New Testament nowhere describes baptism as the New Covenant replacement for Old Covenant circumcision. The New Testament nowhere describes baptism as a sign of the New Covenant. It is faith in Jesus Christ that enables a person to enjoy the blessings of the New Covenant (1 Corinthians 11:25; 2 Corinthians 3:6; Hebrews 9:15).
Baptism does not save a person. It does not matter if you were baptised by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling – if you have not first trusted in Christ for salvation, baptism (no matter the method) is meaningless and useless. Water baptism by immersion is a step of obedience to be done after salvation as a public profession of faith in Christ and identification with Him. Infant baptism does not fit the Biblical definition of baptism or the Biblical method of baptism. If Christian parents wish to dedicate their child to Christ, then a baby dedication service is entirely appropriate. However, even if infants are dedicated to the Lord, when they grow up they will still have to make a personal decision to believe in Jesus Christ in order to be saved.
Is christening in the Bible?
Christening is defined as “a Christian sacrament signifying spiritual cleansing and rebirth.” The christening ceremony, usually done to small children and babies, and most common in Catholic and Episcopal churches, is more than simply infant baptism. The christening ceremony includes giving the baby his/her “Christian” name, sprinkling water on the head of the child, and welcoming him/her into the congregation. The ceremony can be private (family/friends only) or public (entire congregation.) Some parents prefer to make the christening a simple naming ceremony without committing the baby, or themselves, to the religion.
The concept of christening (literally “to bring to Christ”) is a religious practice that developed gradually over the first couple hundred years of the Church. Scripture teaches that all men since the time of Adam have a sinful nature, and because of that, individuals began thinking that there needed to be a method for cleansing an infant from his original sin. There is no Biblical prohibition against christening an infant as a simple naming ceremony. If the ceremony involves baptism from sin, however, it is not Biblical. As christening is something that is done to infants, and since infants are not capable of understanding sin or their need to be cleansed from it, christening is not scriptural.
The fact that all are born with a sinful nature in need of a Saviour is found in passages such as Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” and Paul’s teaching in Romans 5:12-21 that all people are in sin through Adam and can be forgiven of sin through faith in the Second Adam, or Jesus Christ.
In contrast, Biblical baptism (the term literally means “to dip or plunge”) is taught in the New Testament to be a step of obedience after a person has come to understand sin and its eternal consequences, his or her need to be saved from sin, and trusted Christ as Saviour. Notably, Jesus gave a command to His disciples in Matthew 28:19-20 about baptism. They were told to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising 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.”
The steps were:
1. Make disciples (this happens when a person trusts Jesus Christ as his Saviour);
2. Baptise them (this is an outward step of obedience following inward faith); and
3. Teach these disciples to follow God’s commands.
The tradition of christening an infant is absent from the Scriptures, although there is no Biblical prohibition against it. At best, this teaching can confuse individuals about what Biblical baptism means, and at worst, it can leave people believing that, if they were christened, they are already right before God, which may lead to their neglecting the recognition of their sin and subsequent need to trust in the finished work of Jesus Christ for salvation from sin.
What is the baptism of/by/with fire?
John the Baptist came preaching repentance and baptising in the wilderness of Judea, and he was sent as a herald to announce the arrival of Jesus, the Son of God (Matthew 3:1-12). He announced, “I indeed baptise you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” – Matthew 3:11.
After Jesus had risen from the dead, He instructed His apostles to “…wait for the Promise of the Father that you have heard from Me; for John truly baptised with water, but you shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” – Acts 1:4-5). This promise was first fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4), and the baptism of the Spirit joins every believer to the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13). But what about the baptism with fire?
Some interpret the baptism of fire as referring to the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was sent from Heaven. “And suddenly there came a sound from Heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them” – Acts 2:2-3. It is important to note that these were tongues as of fire, not literal fire.
Some believe that the baptism with fire refers to the Holy Spirit’s office as the energiser of the believer’s service, and the purifier of evil within, because of the exhortation “Do not quench the Spirit” found in 1 Thessalonians 5:19. The command to the believer is to not put out the Spirit’s fire by suppressing His ministry.
A third and more likely interpretation is that the baptism of fire refers to judgement. In all four Gospel passages mentioned above, Mark and John speak of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but only Matthew and Luke mention the baptism with fire. The immediate context of Matthew and Luke is judgement (Matthew 3:7-12; Luke 3: 7-17). The context of Mark and John is not (Mark 1:1-8; John 1:29-34). We know that the Lord Jesus is coming in flaming fire to judge those who do not know God (2 Thessalonians 1:3-10; John 5:21-23; Revelation 20:11-15), but praise be to God that He will save all that will come and put their trust in Him (John 3:16)!