I was talking to a guy the other day who told me a story about his experience of getting baptized. As he sat there smoking his cigarette, he smiled a little and started into the story. He was a teenager in a little church in town, and found himself stepping into a tank of water while a wild-eyed, old and obnoxious pastor was screaming at the congregation about this guy’s sins and his need to be “washed in the blood of the Lamb.” The excited pastor then grabbed this guy’s head and shoved it under the water. He held him under for a few seconds and then whipped him out of the water while people were cheering in the audience and the pastor was jumping up and down and hugging him.
I asked my new friend about the experience. He smiled, breathed out a puff of smoke, and said, “At first I wanted to punch the guy. But mostly, it was just weird, man.”
It was a great conversation because I think many people can relate to this guy’s experience. For many, baptism may have meant something significant to religious people at some point in the past, but in today’s society, at best it often seems like it’s a hopelessly irrelevant tradition that few understand, or at worst, it is a weird polarizing ritual done by religious fanatics.
But I’ve come to believe that if you can put aside the pop-cultural perception of baptism, and instead look at the Gospel first, then you’ll begin to see that baptism isn’t another empty tradition of the church. It can be a beautiful and powerful act that draws people into a deep and life transforming relationship with God Himself.
So how is this possible? I think it starts with really redefining our definition of baptism in light of the Gospel.
1. What is baptism?
It is common for people to think of baptism as a religious ceremony where people of all ages are sprinkled with or dunked under water by some kind of religious official. But it’s important to understand that this ritual, that has been in practice since the first day of the Christian Church’s existence, is born out of some deep symbolism surrounding the historic understanding of “baptism.”
During the days of the Bible, baptism was a concept that most people would have understood outside the context of church or religion. Basically, to “baptize” something meant to get something to be completely identified with something else. The word “baptism” comes from a Greek word that literally means “to dip or immerse” with the goal of changing the very nature and identity of the object. For example, it was common to take a plain white piece of fabric and “baptize” it into purple dye. Having been immersed in the dye, the fabric was no longer white but instead was completely identified with something new – the color purple. No matter what else happened, the fabric would never truly be white again. It had been made new. It had been baptized and was now completely identified with the color purple.
With that in mind, it becomes a little easier to see why Jesus instructed the church to pick up this common understanding of baptism and apply it to their lives. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus says the church is to “make disciples” and then one of ways he describes how we are supposed to do that is by “baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” What Jesus is saying is that a major piece of what it means to be a disciple of His is to be baptized – to completely identify your life with Him.
If we first understand baptism to be a call to completely identify ourselves with Jesus, then the actual ritual of being baptized takes on a whole new meaning.
From the earliest days of the Church’s existence, the act of baptizing people has been a powerful and symbolic visual demonstration of a person’s new identity and union with Christ through the Gospel.
Understanding the Gospel becomes critical to understanding the beauty of baptism. In the Bible, the Gospel shows us we were dead in our sin but made alive through Christ (see Ephesians 2). So in the act of baptism, someone who has trusted in Christ for their salvation is saying they not only believe the Gospel, but they want to publically show people that the Gospel has completely and utterly transformed them.
So we get in the water, and the symbolism of baptism begins. By being lowered into the water, we symbolize that we were dead in and completely identified with sin. The water then becomes a symbol that we are being immersed into the “dye” of the Gospel (in some circles, the water becomes symbolic of Christ’s blood that was shed for us on the cross – thus “washed in the blood”). When we are raised up, we are raised up no longer as someone completely identified with our sin, but someone now completely identified with the Gospel – with Jesus Himself. We are raised into a new life in Christ! The old has gone, and the new has come!
Are you seeing how amazing this symbolic act is? Do you see how with this as the foundation, the ritual of baptism takes on a whole new meaning? This is why people cheer in a church when a baptism is being authentically done. It is a visual and powerful reminder that the God of the Gospel is real, and is moving in our midst!
2. Who should be baptized?
If the Gospel is the foundation of baptism, then it seems logical that the Gospel should also help us answer the question of who should be baptized. In short, the Gospel is the good news that we are accepted and identified with God not through our performance but through Jesus’ performance for us on the cross. But the Gospel goes further. Jesus didn’t go up onto the cross for the religious elite, or for the morally upright, or the socially powerful alone. The Bible is clear what Jesus did on the cross is offered to everyone as a free gift based on sheer grace alone. So there is no distinction between us. The offer of the Gospel is an offer to each of us regardless of our background, morality, race, economic status, or religious upbringing (or lack thereof).
So if the Gospel is a free gift offered to everyone through sheer grace alone, then baptism is for anybody who has put their trust and faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ for their salvation.
3. Why should you be baptized?
Again, the Gospel helps us answer this question. First, while it is true that Jesus commands His disciples to be baptized, the Gospel shows us you shouldn’t get baptized because you feel obligated. If the Gospel is clear that your salvation is secured by Christ’s work on the cross and not through your works, then you don’t need to go through the act of baptism in order to be saved or as a way to somehow secure God’s favor, approval, and love in your life.
Rather, the Gospel shows us you should get baptized because you have a deep desire to show others the glory of God. When we turn and truly see the Gospel, and how the Gospel displays the glory of God and the beauty of what He accomplished for us, then we have a new motivation for baptism. Rather than getting baptized as a means to try to “earn” our salvation or God’s favor, instead we are motivated to get baptized because it is a chance to show our gratitude to God and to symbolically show others how amazing He is.
So you should get baptized because it is a powerful way to glorify God by celebrating His ongoing work of transforming people’s lives through the Gospel.
4. When should you be baptized?
In short, the Gospel shows us our salvation has already been accomplished through Christ. It is a one-time-done-deal. Therefore, since baptism symbolizes the Gospel, you only need to be baptized one time. If you are constantly getting baptized, then you would show people that your salvation hasn’t already been accomplished!
But the other thing we see is that because our salvation has already been accomplished through Christ, then the act of baptism can happen anytime someone puts their faith in Him. In Acts, many people were baptized the very day they heard the message of the Gospel and turned to Jesus. If you’ve trusted in Christ, there’s no reason to wait to be baptized!
At Berean Bible Church, we prefer to do baptism services four times a year. We do this for two major reasons. First, by doing quarterly services, we are able to offer baptism classes prior to the services where people can come and have a safe place to ask questions so that when they get baptized, they feel like they truly understand what they’re doing. This is important in a city like New Orleans where many people have religious experiences with baptism that were empty rituals lacking any Gospel-centered foundation to them.
Second, we believe by doing quarterly services, they take on greater meaning to us. In other words, we can focus directly on baptism and help others understand the depth of baptism more. Again, in a city where many people’s experiences with baptism have simply been an empty routine carried out by the church, we believe it’s critical that we specifically teach on baptism through a Gospel-centered lens.
So in the end, baptism is a beautiful symbol of the Gospel and therefore something that we believe is a critical aspect of our life and mission as a church. If you are interested in getting baptized at Berean Bible Church, or have any questions, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We also periodically offer baptism classes that you are welcome to attend and ask questions. At the time of this writing, our next Baptism class will be Sunday, July 27 at 12:30. We’d love for you to join us!
Bill Magsig is the husband of Mindy, the dad of Luke and Levi, and has been the Lead Pastor of Berean Bible Church since October of 2013.