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What Is Baptism?
Sacraments, Lesson 1
What do you think of when you hear the word “baptism”? Do you remember your own baptism? Or the baptism of a friend or loved one? Do you think of infants or adults, or any age in between? Do you think of sprinkling or dunking?
I usually think of my baptism, with Pastor Elton Berg baptizing me in the James River. I was in early high school, and the bottom of the river was muddy. It was somewhat terrifying, because I was shy and I had to stand up in front of the whole church and give my testimony. But it was also fulfilling, knowing that I had taken that public step to show that I was dedicating my life to Christ.
Churches over the years have split around the issue of baptism. Some churches sprinkle infants as a sign that the infant is now in Christ’s kingdom. Other churches practice a believer’s baptism, generally for older children and adults, that requires full immersion in the water. Different denominations have different practices, and they often disagree with the practices of others.
This study is not going to debate the merits of different styles of baptism. If the church can’t agree on a method of baptism over 2,000 years, I’m not going to be the one to settle the debate. My goal for this study is to look at what the Bible has to say about baptism and how baptism was practiced during the time of Jesus and the apostles. Hopefully, that will lead you to a conclusion about how you should practice baptism today.
Full disclosure: I have grown up in a church that follows the practice of believer’s baptism, with baptism taking place after a person has declared their faith in Jesus and their intention to follow him the rest of their life. Based on what I read in Scripture, I believe a believer’s baptism is the correct practice of baptism. I also lean toward a preference of full immersion due to the symbolism, which we’ll get into in Lesson 4.
Definition of Baptism
For those of you who aren’t familiar with baptism, baptism is a practice in which a person is “cleansed” with water through immersion, sprinkling, or pouring. For a comparison of how different denominations practice baptism, see this chart or this article.
In this lesson, we’ll look at some of the key truths about baptism, and then we’ll explore the history and significance more closely in later lessons.
Baptism is a Response to Faith in Jesus Christ
The practice of baptism appears to have started with John the Baptist, which we will discuss in Lesson 3. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.
However, once the ministry of Jesus started, baptism was primarily seen in response to belief in the gospel message. For those who were baptized during the time of Jesus’s life, it was a testament that they believed Jesus was the promised Messiah. For those who were baptized after his resurrection, it was a testament that they believed Jesus was the Son of God, that he died for our sins as the perfect sacrifice, and that he rose again in full power to reign in glory.
Here are a handful of baptism stories in Acts. Click on the blue Scripture passage to read the full story.
Acts 2:38-41: 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Acts 8:12-13: 12 But when they believed Philip as he proclaimed the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Simon himself believed and was baptized. And he followed Philip everywhere, astonished by the great signs and miracles he saw.
Acts 16:29-33: 29 The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. 30 He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. 33 At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized.
Acts 18:8: 8 Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.
In these stories, it’s clear that belief in Jesus is the primary motivation for baptism. People hear the good news of Jesus proclaimed, and they respond in belief and baptism.
Two Types of Baptism: Water and Holy Spirit
When we think of baptism, we typically think of baptism by water. However, there’s also another type of baptism: baptism of the Holy Spirit. We’ll discuss each of these in more detail in Lessons 4 and 5. We see evidence of these two types of baptism in Matthew 3:
Matthew 3:6: Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him [John the Baptist] in the Jordan River.
Matthew 3:11: “I [John the Baptist] baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
Matthew 3:16: As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
Sometimes, baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Spirit come within the same event. However, baptism by water and baptism by the Holy Spirit often happen at two different times.
There is Only One Baptism
Scripture makes a point that there is only one God. Similarly, there is only one baptism.
Ephesians 4:4-6: 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
This might seem complicated since I just said there were two types of baptism: water and Holy Spirit. But just as the one and only God is divided into three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—so too baptism has two parts. These two parts work together as one to remind Christians of their commitment to follow Christ and give them the power to follow through on that commitment.
The Call to Baptize Others
Just before Jesus left the earth after his resurrection, he gave his disciples a command:
Matthew 28:18-20: 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
We call this the Great Commission, and it tells us three very important things about baptism:
Baptism is for disciples of Christ. First you must believe and become a follower of Christ. Then the next step is baptism to declare your faith to the world.
When people are baptized, they should be baptized into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Part of following God is understanding the three persons of the Trinity and the role that each one plays. We understand that God is over everything, that Jesus paid the price for our sins, and that the Holy Spirit gives us the power to follow God in everything. Without belief in all three parts, and without all three parts working in our lives, our faith would be incomplete.
As Christians, we are called to baptize those who have decided to follow Christ. Baptism is something that we hand down from one generation of Christians to the next. Those who are followers of Christ baptize those who are new believers, thus continuing this important tradition of declaring our faith publicly.
Now it’s time to ask yourself: Do you believe in Jesus? Have you declared your intention to follow him for the rest of your life? Have you followed up on that commitment with baptism? If so, we celebrate with you! If not, what’s holding you back? There’s no better time to take that next step than now.
If you have any questions about baptism, please let me know in the comments, or send me an email at email@example.com.