A book on evangelicalism recounts a recent development in the practice of baptism: “Generally, new converts are baptized in the ocean. Here is what happens. After the words of the baptismal covenant have been exchanged, two deacons hold the person’s hands and feet in a horizontal stretch, swing the convert back and forth, and then throw the convert into a wave ‘in the name of the Father.’ The convert is washed to shore. The deacons quickly pick up the convert and throw him or her again in the name of the Son. The convert is thrown a third time in the name of the Spirit.”
One may wonder whether this avant-garde approach to baptism has any biblical support. In fact, the whole issue of baptism is attended with many questions. “What does baptism mean? What is the proper mode of baptism? Does baptism save? Who should receive baptism?” This article attempts to answer just one of those major—the meaning of baptism
Meaning of Baptism
Baptism is the event in which a believer, in obedience to Christ, publicly and symbolically identifies himself with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, thus committing to walk in newness of life. Christ commanded baptism as part of His great commission (Mt. 28:19; Mk. 16:16), and the book of Acts demonstrates the fulfillment of this command in the public baptism of new believers (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 9:18; 16:33). True believers will want to obey Christ by obeying this important command. Paul teaches that, through baptism, the believer identifies himself with Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3), burial (6:4), and resurrection (6:5; c.f. also taught in Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:12). Thus, it symbolizes the believer’s “new life” (Rom. 6:4) in which he is dead to sin and alive to God (Rom 6:6-11).
Errant View: Baptism is a means of saving grace
Some believe in a doctrine called ‘baptismal regeneration,’ a belief that, through baptism, God actually communicates saving grace to the recipient of baptism. Roman Catholics maintain that the proper administration of the rite accomplishes salvation. Lutherans, in a modified form of baptismal regeneration, regard faith as a necessary for the baptism to effect salvation. It naturally follows that baptismal regenerationists practice infant baptism.
Errant View: Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant
Consistent with their covenant theological framework, most Presbyterians believe that baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant. According to this system, humankind today is under the covenant of grace, or the covenant of redemption. By faith in Christ’s meritorious work on his behalf, a sinner is justified. However, it is not until the convert receives the baptism that he formally enters the covenant—the covenant of grace. God originally established this covenant with Abraham and his descendants (Gen 17:7), but the covenant remains in effect today. In Abraham’s day, the sign and seal of the covenant was circumcision (Gen. 17:10). In the New Testament era, however, circumcision no longer initiates one into the covenant (Acts 15:1-11; Gal. 5:2), and is replaced by baptism. In the words of a covenant theologian, “Baptism in the New Testament, like circumcision in the Old, we have seen to be a sign of the covenant of grace.” Although not explicitly stated, one infers that the meaning and purpose of the two rites is the same, since the spiritual significance of heart-circumcision is consistently taught throughout the New Testament (Rom. 2:28-29; 1 Cor. 7:19; Phil. 3:3; c.f. Jer. 4:4). Thus, baptism is now the sign of entry into this covenant, and is a seal—an indication that God will indeed keep His covenant.
The fallacy of this view is inherent within the theological/hermeneutical system by these theologians derive their interpretations. The New Testament speaks of circumcision as solely a matter of the heart—not necessitating a New Testament parallel. In stressing the spiritual nature of righteousness, Paul writes, “[true] circumcision is that which is of the heart” (Rom. 2:29). Scripture does not teach that another sign is necessary to replace the old.
Conclusion: Baptism is identification with Christ
It becomes apparent that the meaning of baptism is neither regeneration nor a sign and seal of the covenant. The repeated emphasis of the New Testament is that baptism is public identification with Christ, specifically His death, burial, and resurrection (Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:3; Col. 2:12). One can rightly say that baptism is “a token, an outward symbol or indication of the inward change that has been effected in the believer.” As baptism identifies one with Christ, the Head, it also identifies him with the church, His body (Eph 2:15; 1 Cor. 12:12). Baptism, as an act of obedience and identification, allows the recipient full privilege and involvement in the activities of the local church.