Exploring Christian Symbols
The Lord Jesus gave us the instruction to baptize. In the epistles we find the meaning of baptism, and we go to the Gospels and Acts to see how to do it. Let’s look at two statements from the epistles that contribute to the meaning of baptism. In Romans we read: “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized 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” (Rom. 6:3-4 NIV). And in Colossians we read that we have “been buried with Him in baptism and raised with Him through … faith in the power of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Col. 2:12).
When a new believer is baptized, he declares essentially three things: that his sins have been forgiven; that he has died to his old life (being identified with Christ in death); and that he now lives a new life (having been identified with Christ in resurrection life).
Diverse Views On Baptism: Through the years, Christians have developed different traditions in connection with the symbol of baptism. Different interpretations lead to different practices. Some understand baptism as necessary to wash away the “original sin” or as necessary for salvation of the soul. Baptism then becomes an urgent necessity. In contrast, a congregation not far from where I live uses Hebrews 6:1-3 to lay aside the baptism symbol completely. Other Christians view baptism as the New Testament equivalent to circumcision in the Old Testament. This understanding leads to the practice of “infant baptism,” where all babies are baptized to identify them with “the people of God.” Others, observing God’s inclination to bless households, believe in “household baptism.” If the head of the household has become a Christian, he is encouraged to baptize all the family members under his authority, irrespective of age. They understand that this baptism introduces the whole family into the “kingdom of heaven” or into Christianity as a world religion (also called “the large house” or “nominal Christianity”). Their prayer is that some day their small children will also become genuine Christians. For many centuries, much has been written supporting these differing views.
Baptism And Forgiveness: One clear and fundamental truth of Scripture is that only the blood of Jesus Christ can wash away our sins (Eph. 1:7). Jesus would not have died if forgiveness could be attained some other way. Jesus commissioned Paul to preach the gospel “so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (Acts 26:18). The Lord does not mention baptism as a condition for forgiveness.
Sometimes baptism is associated with forgiveness. In Acts 2:38 Peter urged the Jews who had crucified Christ to “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” It is possible for repentance and baptism to occur at the same time. Comparing this verse with others, it becomes clear that baptism is not the agent of forgiveness. The same apostle made this clear when a few days later he declared, “Repent then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out” (Acts 3:19). Here he refers to forgiveness without any reference to baptism. When Peter shared the gospel with Cornelius, he ended by saying, “All the prophets testify about Him (Jesus) that everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins through His name.” After seeing some evidence of new birth, Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” (Acts 10:43-48). Once they had received forgiveness, the symbol of baptism followed.
The symbol of baptism is designed for all believers everywhere. Have you been forgiven? Have you given your life to Jesus? Have you been baptized? If not, what are you waiting for? The Lord Jesus expects every true Christian to be baptized (Mt. 28:19-20).
Baptism And Nominal Christianity: Baptism has been used by some as a tool to expand nominal (in name only) Christianity. When Latin America was being explored and conquered, many Indians were forced into baptism and were considered added to the Christian Church. I suggest that God has never been interested in nominal Christianity. Jesus never showed any interest in collecting outward followers. It is, therefore, very unlikely that Jesus would provide a symbol to expand the group of outward followers. His Holy Spirit works in the soul to motivate genuine conversion. The prime object of Christ in this current age is to build His Church. There is no need to become first a nominal Christian and then a genuine one. Nominal Christianity is our human distortion of real Christianity. It exists, but not by divine design. Christian baptism is a symbol given to the Church, not to expand nominal Christianity but to publicly identify genuine Christians with Jesus Christ. It is possible that sometimes, by deceit or mistake, non-Christians may be baptized. Some would then consider these added to nominal Christianity. But this is not the purpose of baptism.
Baptism And Blessing: Some encourage parents to baptize their babies so that these may be in a position to benefit from a special blessing from the Lord. But again, this is not the purpose of baptism. The fact that children receive the godly influence of at least one Christian parent insures that they are in a place of blessing. The special attention to the children and the unbelieving partner is not conditioned with baptism (1 Cor. 7:12-14). In fact, all people benefit and are blessed by God when there are real Christians in their family, school, work or community.
What kind of Christianity are you living? Are those around you being blessed because you are a Christian?
Most Christians agree that the symbol of baptism should not be dismissed. The expression “believed and were baptized,” which appears a number of times (Acts 8:12-13; 18:8), suggests that baptism should naturally follow belief. This is why many use the term “believer’s baptism.” Because of this close connection between believing and being baptized, Christian baptism may be considered an initiation symbol for new believers.
The Mode Of Baptism: The Greek word baptizo, from which we get the terms “baptism” and “to baptize,” has a number of meanings. The most common are: to dip into, to immerse, to be overwhelmed with or to be fully identified with. This strongly suggests that when a person is baptized, he or she should be immersed completely. When Jesus was in Bethany, a woman brought some very expensive perfume and “poured the perfume on his head” (Mk. 14:3). The word baptizo is not used here. In fact, the New Testament has five different Greek words for “pour” and two different Greek words for “sprinkle.” None of these are used in connection with Christian baptism. The act of going in and out of water is evident in Acts 8:38-39: “Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water…” As a teaching tool, it is useful to notice that the physical act of going into the water and coming out again, aptly fits the death, burial and new life it represents.
Baptism And Jesus: What words should be pronounced when a person is baptized? Jesus instructed His followers to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19-20). In Acts we find examples where people were baptized “in the name of Jesus.” Rather than being another baptismal formula, we could understand this as a practical way to distinguish the baptism carried out in obedience to the instructions of Jesus from other types of baptism.
Some Christians, to reconcile the instructions of Jesus in the Gospels with the examples in Acts, say “In the name of Jesus, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This could also be considered a good solution. But if we follow the Lord’s instructions in Matthew 28 and simply use His words, surely we can’t go wrong!
Who Should Take The Initiative? When Philip finished explaining the gospel, the eunuch asked “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8:36). In this case, we see the new convert taking the initiative.
If you are now a Christian and are not baptized, ask yourself, “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” Don’t be passive. Take the initiative.
In Jesus’ instructions, we are told 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” (Mt. 28:19). Here we note that the evangelist should also take the initiative. Don’t be satisfied with a conversion. It is also our responsibility to encourage baptism and continued growth!
By Philip Nunn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org