What is baptism? Having grown up a Baptist, I have been taught and have held the typical Baptist view that baptism is merely a symbol and an ordinance, administered rightly by immersion and done as an “outward expression of an inward reality.” And in my many years as a Baptist, I have heard countless preachers and seminary professors give a thousand explanations and arguments concerning the mode of the “outward expression” of baptism from Scripture and from Church history, but I have yet to hear one sermon or lecture on the inward reality that the outward expression represents. For this reason, I am convinced that we who call ourselves Baptists have focused so much on the proper mode and administration of baptism that we have lost what baptism truly is. In this way we are much like the Jews of old who properly administered circumcision on the eighth day of a child’s life (even if that eighth day fell on the Sabbath), who yet forgot and neglected the reality that that practice represented, namely the circumcision of the heart by the Spirit of God to love God and to obey his law (cf. Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; Ezek. 44:7; Acts 7:51; Rm. 2:29).
And because of our focus on the physical ordinance of baptism and our neglect of the reality of baptism, we as Baptists are terribly confused by such declarations as that of the apostle Peter, who wrote, “Baptism now saves you” (1Pet. 3:21). For we have so ritualized and despiritualized the practice of baptism that we have become unbiblical in our understanding of it despite our denomination’s title. And instead of doing as we ought and running to the Scriptures to discover what true baptism is, we do as many have done with other doctrines by forming our doctrines and then explaining away passages that do not fit our doctrinal understanding rather than explaining them.
And the reality of baptism is not a trite reality. For if what the apostle Peter says of baptism is true, namely that it saves us, we who claim to have salvation should be eager to understand it. And if we do not understand baptism, we should by way of the apostle’s declaration not be so eager to proclaim that we have understood our salvation. For if salvation comes by baptism, and we declare, as most Baptists do, that no one is saved by baptism, we have much explaining to do.
If then baptism is not merely the immersion of a person under water, what is baptism? To form my answer, I am going to use two sections of Scripture, Romans 6-8:17 and 1 Peter 3:18-22. For while these two passages were penned by two different authors, their testimony to baptism is singular, and it is not, as Peter writes, “The removal of dirt from the body” (1Pet. 3:21).
1. Baptism is Identity in the Death of Christ
The apostle Paul writes concerning baptism, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rm. 6:3,4). What the apostle is speaking of in this passage is not a physical occurrence in the life of the believer, but he is speaking of a spiritual reality of all those who are in Christ. All who are in Christ, irrespective of the depth to which they were plunged or the amount of water that was poured upon their heads, have been baptized into the death of Christ.
This baptism, this identification in the death of Christ, happened so that we who were once slaves of sin would be set free from our slavery to sin, for, “One who has died has been set free from sin” (Rm. 6:7). The apostle Peter calls this what Christ has done, “the preaching to the spirits in prison” (1Pet. 3:19), for apart from Christ all men are prisoners to sin and disobedience (cf. 1Pet. 3:20).
This slavery to sin has come through the Law of God, for men who are slaves to sin are at their core rebellious to God and therefore rebel when they comprehend the law of God. Romans 7 is a full exposition of this reality, and there the apostle writes:
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin seizing an opportunity through the commandment produced in me all kinds of covetousness. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me (Rm. 7:7-11).
And the remedy for this condition brought about through sin’s utilization of the law is not law-keeping in the flesh, as the speaker of Romans 7:14-25 demonstrates the futility of such an attempt, but it is baptism into the death of Christ. For through baptism into the death of Christ we have been set free from our bondage to the law and therefore have been set free to obey God. The apostle puts it this way:
Do you not know, brothers … that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? … You also have died to law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Rm. 7:1, 4-6).
Therefore, our baptism into the death of Christ afforded for us two things, release from the slavery of sin and the ability to bear fruit for God. The apostle calls this ability to bear fruit to God slavery (Gr. doulein) in the new way of the Spirit (Rm. 7:8), and previously slavery to obedience (Rm. 6:16), to righteousness (Rm. 6:18), and to God (Rm. 6:22) leading to sanctification and eternal life (Rm. 6:22,23). It is for this reason that Peter is able to write, “Baptism now saves you” (1Pet. 3:21), for our baptism into the death of Christ sets us free from our bondage to sin and puts us into bondage to God, which is true freedom (cf. Jn. 8:36, where Christ speaks of slavery to sin).
In light of the fleshly inability of the speaker of Romans 7:14-25 to keep the righteous requirement of the law while bound to sin, the apostle writes:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done, what the law weakened by the flesh could not do, by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (Rm. 8:1-4).
The seemingly ironic reality that we who have died to the law and set free from it participate in is that we have not died to the law in order to be rid of it, but we have died to the law so that we would be released from the bondage of sin and, by that release, obtain the ability to keep the law. For apart from baptism into Christ and transfer under the slavery of the Spirit, all men who esteem the law are as the speaker of Romans 7:14-25 is, desirous to do what is right, but unable to do it (cf. Rm. 7:18). But now, we who have been baptized into the death of Christ Jesus have the ability to fulfill the righteous requirement of the law (Rm. 8:4), and now are able, as the apostle Peter writes, “[To] appeal to God for good conscience” (1Pet. 3:21). For we who have been baptized have not been merely made wet, but we have been brought under the very Spirit of God so that we now do the requirement of the law that we desire to do, and we put to death the deeds of the body which we were formerly unable to do (Rm. 8:13).
2. Baptism is Identity in the Resurrection of Christ
Because of our union in the death of Christ, we who have been baptized have the hope that we will have eternal life. The apostle Paul writes, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. … Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Rm. 6:5; 8). This hope that we have in our identity with Christ in his resurrection is not some unfounded doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” but it is based upon our union with Christ in his death and our ability to keep the law and put to death the deeds of the flesh because of that union. For, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rm. 8:8), and, “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live” (Rm. 8:13). And, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Rm. 8:9), and, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God” (Rm. 8:14). Therefore our salvation and hope of resurrection rests in our baptism, for apart from baptism we are fleshly and unable to do the righteousness of the law (cf. Rm. 7:14; 18), for those who are fleshly are hostile to God and do not submit to God’s law because they cannot, and therefore they cannot please God (Rm. 8:7,8).
Final Thoughts: Baptism is Salvation
What is all this to say but that baptism is salvation? For no one is saved apart from baptism, for no one is united with Christ apart from baptism. That which we call baptism, be it by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring, is merely a shadow and a picture of the reality of baptism, and to focus so heavily upon the mode of the shadow and to neglect the reality is a great atrocity. Are some modes of physical baptism a better illustration of the reality of baptism than others? Of course, but at the end of the day, the picture is still a picture. It saddens my heart greatly that those among us who have been baptized into Christ feel as though we must divide over the mode of the picture when we all are partakers in the reality. The picture of baptism will one day pass just as the equivalent picture of circumcision passed, but the reality of baptism will remain forever. Why cannot we who will fellowship for Eternity in the presence of him who baptized us by his Spirit not fellowship now? I hope that by God’s grace we one day will, recognizing that despite our divisions there is yet, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:5,6). Amen.