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“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt.28:19,20). It is clear what Jesus planned. When the preaching of the Gospel caused people to be born again, one of the first things they had to do was to get baptised in water and then continue to obey everything Jesus had taught. That was how they would become ‘disciples’ of Jesus, or those who chose to learn from Jesus as their Master.
Baptism in water was one of the two outward acts Jesus wanted His people to take part in, the other being the ‘breaking of bread’ (which some call the Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper). Both have no value in the physical acts themselves. Their value is in what they signify. We shall look at the meaning and significance of water baptism first.
The word ‘baptism’ itself is a transliteration of the Greek word baptisma used in the New Testament that literally means “immersion, submersion or making fully wet” (Strong’s Greek Dictionary). What it means for a person to be baptised in water is explained by Paul in Romans 6:3-10. This is a depiction of how we identify ourselves with Jesus as He died on the cross, was buried and rose up from the grave. When Jesus died on the cross, our old man was crucified with Him (v.6), and when Jesus was buried, our old man was buried with Him (v.4). When Christ rose again from the dead, it signifies that we too have entered into the power of His risen life that we can now enjoy (vv.8,9). The simple act of being ‘buried’ in the water and then coming out from it signifies the burial of our old life and the receiving of the new life in Christ.
The first fact we must address is that this can be meaningfully gone through only by someone for whom these spiritual events are true. In other words, when someone goes through baptism he is proclaiming figuratively that his old life is over and buried, and that he has received a new life from Christ. It is only one who has been born again and who has come into the new life with Christ who can enact that experience through the act of baptism. We should not reverse this and make it as if someone who gets baptised gets born again. Baptism is not a means to regenerate an unbeliever into becoming a believer, but a testimony demonstrating what God has done through grace in his life.
It becomes obvious now that the practice of ‘baptising’ babies is not correct since they have not yet come into the experience of salvation and they have no understanding or choice in what they are being made to go through. And by making them go through this ritual they cannot receive salvation either. People who go through the meaningless ritual of baptising babies know that there is something wrong there, and so it is that they have added another ritual called confirmation to compensate for the lack! But two wrongs do not make a right.
It is also obvious that it is not a question of baptising only adults in contrast to baptising babies. It is not that any adult can be baptised, even if they express a wish. The question is if the person who wants to be baptised has had the experience of salvation and hence is in a position to signify his testimony meaningfully through this act.
Some people claim that baptism is a mere ritual and that since salvation is by grace through faith and not through anything that we do, it is really not to be made into a point of issue. However, we must not forget that Jesus Himself thought it necessary to go through water baptism even though John the baptiser tried to dissuade Him. Jesus said that it was necessary to fulfil all righteousness (Matt.3:15). If He thought it was important enough to go through, as an example to those who were to follow Him, even though He Himself did not have an old life to be buried, we should make no excuse for ourselves.
Some quote Mark 16:16 to teach that there is no salvation without baptism. In order to answer this, let us look at other related parts of the Bible.
In Ephesians 2:8,9 where Paul explains the way of salvation, there is no mention of baptism as a necessity for salvation. That salvation is through faith is the teaching of the Bible as a whole. When the Philippian jailor asked Paul what he needed to do in order to be saved, Paul’s answer was again clear that it was through faith (Acts 16:30,31). After the jailor and his family listened to the message of the Gospel and believed, then they were baptised (vv.32,33). When Cornelius and others who heard the Gospel in his house believed, God sent them the Holy Spirit. They were baptised afterwards, not as a requisite for salvation (19:44-48). When the thief on the cross repented of his sins and believed in Jesus, Jesus declared that it was enough for him to be taken to heaven (Lk.23:40-43). Obviously baptism was not necessary for him. Abraham was justified through faith, without any additional qualification necessary, as is clear from the discussion about whether circumcision was also necessary (Rom.4:3,19,11).
All these examples illustrate the point that salvation is through faith alone. Why does Mark 16:16 then say, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”? This verse alone cannot be taken to contradict all the other examples we have seen. Therefore it must be understood to mean something different. One clue comes from the remaining part of the verse that says, “but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” If the verse was saying that baptism was necessary to be saved, this part should have said, “but whoever does not believe and get baptised will be condemned.” But no, it does not say that.
Can we conclude that baptism is something a believer has to obey Jesus in, but not a requisite to obtain salvation? When Mark said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” he may have been just referring to the normal sequence in the process of salvation – one believes (and gets saved) and then one gets baptised.
It is a fact that there have been many believers who have come to a very close relationship with God even though they have never been baptised in water or they have only been taken by their parents through the ritual of infant baptism. It confirms the point that baptism is not a requisite for salvation. But the fact remains that these people have not obeyed Jesus on this one point. Just imagine how much more godly they could have become if they had chosen to obey in this matter too! Sometimes people withdraw from the choice to get baptised after they become believers because it is costly, as they may have to go against tradition and the opinion of many people. But just think of how much God will value such a sacrificial obedience!
Some people have a doubt whether they need to get baptised again if they did not know the meaning of baptism when they got baptised and now they have come to know its significance. What understanding did the 3000 have who came to believe the Gospel on the Day of Pentecost and were baptised immediately afterwards? It is not the understanding of the theology of baptism that is necessary for baptism, but a genuine experience of having been saved through faith in Jesus and the desire to obey Him.
Another question some people have is whether someone who got baptised as a ritual before he had the experience of salvation, whether it was as a baby or as an adult, should get baptised ‘again’. Once we understand that baptism in water is a depiction of what God has done in salvation in one’s life, with the putting away of the old life and the putting on of the new, we can see that it would be a meaningless ritual for someone who has not been saved. When such a person actually comes to experience true salvation, that is the time to obey Jesus in baptism. Since that is the real baptism, it cannot be considered as a second baptism!
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