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.