Volume 34 Number 14

What Does Baptism Mean to You?

By F. LaGard Smith

Do you find it interesting how many different forms of baptism are practiced by believers when there would have been only one way of baptizing in the beginning? Today, some sprinkle, some pour, and others fully immerse. Some baptize infants, some only adults; and some who vehemently oppose infant baptism end up baptizing six-year olds! Nor are we agreed on the purpose of baptism. Some say it’s for the forgiveness of sin, while others insist it’s done to proclaim that you’ve already been saved, maybe weeks or months earlier.

Most interesting of all, many professing the name of Christ have never been baptized. They may have repeated “the sinner’s prayer” or “invited Jesus into their heart,” but never touched a drop of ceremonial water. In that, they’re out of step even with non-Christian religions, for which water has always played a vital role. Merely consider the millions of Hindus ceremonially immersing themselves in the Ganges. Or Muslims washing their hands outside their mosques. Or the ancient Jewish mikvehs (still visible in old Jerusalem) where the pious fully immersed themselves after touching a corpse or some unclean animal, and where Jewish women washed ceremonially after their monthly uncleanness.

The tie between water and spiritual cleansing is no mystery. Knowing little about Christian baptism at the time of his Damascus-road experience, Saul would not have been surprised at being told to “Arise and be baptized and wash away your sin.” He would have been familiar with the immersion of Gentile converts to Judaism. He may even have heard stories of Jesus’ own baptism in the Jordan “to fulfill all righteousness.” John the Baptist famously preached repentance and baptism, which he did at a place in the Jordan where there was “much water” (raising questions about all those paintings where John is merely pouring a little water over Jesus head).

In the account of the early church, there’s water, water everywhere. Belief and baptism were joined like horse and carriage, love and marriage. Indeed, baptism was the believer’s wedding ceremony as the bride of Christ. When the Pentecost crowd came to the numbing realization that they had crucified the Son of God and asked what they should do, Peter told them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sin. That very day, 3000 were immersed in an act symbolizing both the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and their own death to sin and new life in Christ. It was a mature, personally-chosen, watershed moment in one’s life and life-style. Totally immersed, wholly committed. Being buried in water was so normative to the Christian experience that Paul would later call the divided Corinthians to unity, citing their baptism into Christ as the centerpiece of their common faith.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many professing Christians who are “baptized” but unconverted? Could it be that our fuzzy thinking about baptism has allowed too many of us a false start?

End of this issue.