“… We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins…” (Nicene Creed)
When the NT writers speak of baptism, they were thinking of something very different from the usual modern concept. All the baptisms recorded in the New Testament are baptisms of converts, and took place at the time of conversion (Acts 8:35,36) – even if this was in the middle of the night! (Acts 16:32,33) And this would have been the experience of the vast majority (if not all) of the Christians to whom the New Testament letters were written. But as time went by, the link between baptism and conversion became dislocated. Christians today are usually baptised either a long time before their conversion (as babies) or some time after (to give them time to ‘prove’ their commitment).
It is striking that the apostle Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:14-39) ended not with an ‘altar call’ but with a call to baptism: “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (verse 38). In the first century, being baptised wasn’t a perfunctory sprinkling in a quiet building, under the approving eyes of all your friends and relations. It meant going down to the local pond or river (cold, dirty water) and getting yourself thoroughly soaked – in the face of jeering and scorn (and maybe the first-century equivalent of a few rotten tomatoes). In other words, baptism was a serious commitment, and not undertaken lightly. It was not optional, but part and parcel of the decision to trust in Jesus and to follow Him, come what may.
So when we read the apostles’ teaching on the meaning of baptism, we have to read it in the New Testament context – and perhaps consider that it may not all be directly transferable to baptism as it is often practised today.
What does baptism actually do?
At the time when John the Baptist began to preach, the Jews were already practising baptism – but only for Gentile proselytes! John had to convince them that they were equally ‘unclean’ in God’s sight, and needed to submit to baptism themselves. It was a public acknowledgement that physical circumcision was not enough: they had to turn from their sinful ways and commit themselves to a life of obedience. This is why his baptism was called “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) Being washed with water symbolised cleansing from sin.
John’s baptism was not quite the same as Christian baptism (Acts 19:3-5), because Christian baptism is closely linked with God’s gift of the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:16; John 3:5; Acts 2:38). Nevertheless, there is a continuity between them. Jesus’ first disciples had been followers of John the Baptist, and would have been baptised by him (John 1:35-40); they continued to baptise those who wanted to commit themselves to following Jesus (John 4:1,2); and after His resurrection Jesus commanded them to continue the practice (Matthew 28:19).
The power of baptism does not lie in the water (which is ordinary H2O, like the water of the River Jordan), but in the words spoken by Christ’s authority: “I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) With these words, and with the application of water, the baptismal candidate is admitted to the visible community of God’s people, the Church. Baptism doesn’t ‘make’ us Christians (the Holy Spirit does that – I Corinthians 12:13) – but all Christians declare their faith by being baptised in water. “It is not baptism that justifies or benefits anyone, but it is faith in the word of promise, to which baptism is added. This faith justifies, and fulfils that which baptism signifies.” (Luther: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church) The inward is balanced by the outward, the spiritual reality by the physical sign. “Very truly I tell you, no-one can enter the Kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:5)