Salvation 2.0: Part 6.8: The Impact and Symbolism of Baptism

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I think the original design of baptism is not only God’s design, but the best possible design. God’s wisdom in providing for a confession followed by baptism of a believer is how churches ought to handle conversions.

Words are necessary, but words can be cheap. Asking for an action as evidence of faith helps confirm in the heart of the convert that faith requires certain behaviors. It’s not just words.

And baptism powerfully illustrates what God is doing. It’s a death, burial, and resurrection, and it’s a cleansing from sin. The symbolism is powerful.

To a Jew, the waters of baptism would symbolize the Spirit as well a new crossing of the Red Sea.

(Isa 44:3 ESV) For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.

(1Co 10:1-4a NET) For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, 2and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 and all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink.

It’s a shame that these symbols have been forgotten in our teaching.

And John the Baptist would tell us that baptism symbolizes repentance — forcing an announced decision. After all, John was seeking the repentance of all Israel to restore Israel to right relationship with God under Deu 30. How could all Israel repent if no one would confess his repentance in some very visible way?

(Luk 3:3 NET) 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan River, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Just as an unspoken apology is not good enough, repentance that’s not announced reveals a lack of commitment. God’s forgiveness announced through John required a change of heart that was real enough that the penitent person would let John immerse him.

Moreover, the convert is baptized by a believer, who hears his confession. The baptism therefore symbolizes the believer’s admission into the Kingdom and the congregation.

And the baptism forces a confession: that cleansing is required and that a death is needed. It matters.

But merely getting the form of confession and baptism right is pretty useless unless you also get the heart right. And this is where many confirmation practices and many baptismal practices err. You see, if the goal is to get a child through a ritual so the parents can sleep at night, that’s the wrong goal. Our goal has to be for our children to become disciples of Jesus — not merely students but students who desperately want to be just like Jesus.

The goal isn’t baptism. The goal is discipleship — which will include baptism and a host of other things. But baptism no more makes you a good parent than physical birth makes you a good parent. The real test is what comes later.

But baptism, done right, is a powerful way to be introduced into the Kingdom. It’s an act of submission. Think about it — the convert’s life is literally in the hands of the person doing the immersion! For a moment, buried in the suffocating, cold water, the believer is truly helpless, with no way out except the embrace of the immerser. If ever you have to trust someone with your life, it’s when you’re being baptized!

And in this sense, the immerser symbolizes Jesus. When we go under the water, we submit ourselves into the hands of Christ just as we yield to the hands of the immerser. We decide to rely entirely on the hands and strength of Jesus for breath and life, just as we rely on the hands and strength of the immerser. Baptism is truly an act of faith!

The improperly baptized

Does God save the improperly baptized? Yes — we can rest assured that, despite our poor baptismal teaching and even our denial that the Spirit enters the convert at baptism, God saves our imperfectly baptized converts, just as he saves imperfectly baptized converts in other denominations. That’s what God does. For those with faith, he forgives our sins and overlooks our errors.

(Gen 15:6 ESV) 6 And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

Profile photo of Jay Guin

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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6 Responses to Salvation 2.0: Part 6.8: The Impact and Symbolism of Baptism

  1. Price says:

    “The goal isn’t baptism… the goal is discipleship.”…. Man.. you nailed it… look out for stones to be thrown your way !! But you’re so very right.. There were a lot of circumcised folks sent into Babylonian captivity… Isaiah 1 and Amos 5 speak to the disgust God has for their performance of religious duties (sacrifice, singing, praying, etc.) without really meaning it… I wonder if He is likewise disappointed with the “baptized” who refuse to take their walk seriously… In fact, a question might be… would baptism save the unrepentant ? No, we need people who engage in learning and willing to go through God’s sanctification process… Good post ..

  2. Mark says:

    The goal should also be to teach people what it means to be a Christian, not just on Sunday. It doesn’t matter if you or your kid can rattle off verses for why churches should have a plurality of elders. It is knowing how to Iive when no one is watching.

  3. laymond says:

    “I think the original design of baptism is not only God’s design, but the best possible design. God’s wisdom in providing for a confession followed by baptism of a believer is how churches ought to handle conversions.”

    Jay, I am so glad God has your approval 🙂

  4. laymond says:

    Matthew chapter three .

  5. Chris says:

    Jay, unless I’ve been reading the writings from the early church period wrong, it seems that they understood the significance of water baptism. When did things begin to turn? Or, have I just been reading the “cherry picked” selections of those defending water baptism? Who do you trust among the early writers who defended baptism, and were there people among them who argued the same arguments today (for lack of a better term, I’m going to use the term Baptist position).

    I know the Bible is the final authority, but certainly our understanding of church history helps us understand how we have arrived to current views and interpretation. Thanks!

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Chris,

    In very broad brush, the early church was essentially unanimous on the necessity for baptism until the Protestant Reformation. Zwingli, of Zurich, argued that salvation occurred at the moment of faith, with baptism being obedience to an “ordinance” or law and a sign of salvation having already occurred. His teachings became the position of the Reformed Church, including Calvin’s movement from Geneva. From there, John Knox taught the same thing in Scotland, where he founded the Presbyterian Church.

    Luther disagreed, insisting that baptism is the moment of salvation but nonetheless not a “work,” because it’s a gift to be received, not a work done. See his Larger Catechism.

    The Puritans were English Presbyterians, and they adopted the Zwinglian position. The Baptists come from the Puritans and Presbyterians, but with believer baptism rather than infant baptism. That is, the Baptists were originally Calvinist, and many still are, but most Southern Baptists reject most of Calvinism, other than the Zwinglian view of baptism and Calvin’s view of perseverance of the saints.

    Churches of Christ come from a blend of Presbyterians (Stone and both Campbells) and the Baptists (Raccoon John Smith and countless others), rejecting the Calvinism of early 19th Century Baptist Churches, adopting their believer immersion position but rejecting the Zwinglian understanding. Most of our a cappella arguments are borrowed from 19th Century Puritan literature. It was said that Campbell had converted every Baptist in Kentucky to his Reformation Movement — so although the intellectual leaders had Presbyterian roots, they found former Baptists most easily persuaded to their point of view.

    The Baptists ultimately adopted much of what the Restoration Movement taught when they rejected much of Calvinism in late 19th/early 20th Centuries, making the two denominations very similar.

    One of the big splits in the Churches of Christ from around 1900 was over whether to treat Baptist baptisms as good or to require re-baptism — a major issue as so many Church of Christ members were baptized as Baptists.

    Believer baptism by immersion only goes back to the Anabaptists of the Reformation — who were often killed for their heretical views. The Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed/Calvinists all taught original sin and practiced infant baptism. The Baptists were Puritans who adopted the Anabaptist position on baptism. Alexander Campbell was persuaded by their arguments, and thus the Restoration Movement became Anabaptist/Baptist in its baptismal practices — helping to make it attractive to Baptists who disliked the dour Calvinism of the early 19th Century.

    The Mormons adopted their baptismal practices from Sidney Rigdon, an early Restoration Movement preacher who joined the Mormons.

    Now, the issue for the early church was infant baptism and whether to delay baptism until near the point of death. Some felt there could be no forgiveness after baptism, or only very limited forgiveness, and so they delayed baptism until one was at the point of death. Constantine may have been of this persuasion. But with high infant mortality, the practice of infant baptism developed and eventually was justified by Augustine’s theory of original sin — but the justification came after the practice.

    Original sin and infant baptism led to a “sacramental” view of baptism, that is, making it appear nearly magical for its power to forgive even an unwilling infant. And the early church began to teach a saving “baptism in blood,” because many martyrs died before being baptized — since they delayed baptism until near death and martyrdom sometimes came without warning. And so the early church taught that martyrdom avoided the need for water baptism.

    In fact, the church fairly early adopted the view that baptism was absolutely essential for salvation, except for martyrs — and doesn’t seem to have wrestled that much with the faith/works issue in regard to baptism.

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