A Study By
Gary Ray Branscome
Before ascending unto heaven, Christ commissioned His followers to make disciples “of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (Matthew 28:19).
Although baptism did not originate with that commission, it did establish baptism as an ongoing part of the work of the gospel, while at the same time providing a direct link between Christianity and John the Baptist. As the originator of baptism (and the last of the Jewish prophets) John called the nation of Israel to repentance, while pointing them to Christ as the source of forgiveness (John 1:6-10, Mark 1:4-8, John 1:29-31). Jesus then continued the work that John had begun, and His great commission calls upon all of us to do our part in supporting and carrying out the work of the ministry. [John 3:22 and 4:1-2, Luke 3:3, Mark 1:2-3, Luke 24:47, Mark 16:15-16, Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 26:18.]
On the day of Pentecost Peter carried out Christ’s commission by calling on his listeners to, “Repent and be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Moreover, it should be obvious that to be baptized “in the NAME of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,” is to be baptized believing that there is forgiveness in His NAME. Therefore, you can see how God uses baptism as a way of pointing those who repent to Christ for forgiveness, while assuring those who come that when they came to Christ their sins were washed away (Acts 22:16).
However, even though God uses the ceremony of baptism to give us His promise of forgiveness in Christ, it is only through personal faith in Christ that we receive what is promised (Galatians 3:18&22, 2 Peter 1:4, 2Corinthians 1:20). Those who fail to understand that fact, (calling baptism an “act of obedience”) wind up confusing the law with the gospel (Galatians 3:22, 2Timothy 2:15). Not only is baptism not a work, it is not even something we do. Instead it is something that God, working through His representative, does to us. That is why “self-baptism” is never valid.
Since we outwardly confess our need for forgiveness (and faith that there is forgiveness in Christ) by agreeing to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” If Paul (Saul) had refused to be baptized after his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road, he would have been rejecting God's promise of forgiveness in Christ (Acts 22:16, Mark 16:16). The Jews who heard Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost understood that, for they could clearly see that those who were going forward to be baptized, “In the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,” were accepting Christ as the Messiah. At the same time, they knew that baptism was not a work because the law did not require it.
While it is true that we can accept Christ by faith, prior to baptism, baptism was intended to strengthen our faith by assuring us that when we came to Christ our sins were washed away. In order to better understand the role that God intended for baptism to play, put yourself in the place of someone who has just heard the gospel for the first time. Because he has already been convicted of his sin, and knows that he needs God’s forgiveness, when he is told of Christ’s sacrifice, and the forgiveness that is ours through His death, he eagerly agrees to be baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38). Therefore, even though there are many things that he does not understand, he goes away from baptism assured that when he accepted Christ his sins were washed away (Acts 22:16).
At the same time, because baptism was instituted as a way of pointing people to Christ for forgiveness, those who point people to baptism, leaving them with the impression that the ceremony conveys forgiveness irregardless of whether one has faith in Christ or not, are perverting the gospel. In order to avoid that error, we must always make it clear that Christ is the source of forgiveness, and baptized believers who are troubled by their shortcomings should always be pointed to Christ and His finished work, not baptism.
[NOTE: Those who come to baptism are to come in the “name of Jesus” (because He obtained forgiveness for us) while those who do the baptizing do it in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (because we are forgiven by all three persons of the Trinity) Acts 2:38, Matthew 28:19.]
Since the Bible draws a parallel between baptism and Christ’s burial, it seems fairly clear immersion was the customary mode of baptism during the time of the Apostles (Romans 6:5). At any rate, immersion clearly depicts the fact that we are cleansed of all sin through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Acts 22:16, 1John 1:7). Therefore, while some may build a case for baptism by pouring or sprinkling, and rightly point out that our salvation does not depend on the amount of water that is used, because baptism conveys a promise of God it might be best to apply the water in a way that conveys confidence in that promise, not doubt. The last thing we want is for people to question the validity of God's promise because of the way in which the water was applied.
Since the Bible clearly portrays baptism as a “baptism of repentance,” we should never knowingly baptize someone who is unrepentant. That does not mean that we are to act skeptical of their sincerity. In fact, because we cannot look into the heart, an attitude of skepticism would be sheer arrogance. However, it does mean that before they can be baptized for the remission of sins, they must be sorry for their sins and desire forgiveness, believing God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ. [1Peter 3:21, Acts 8:36-37, 1John 1:7, Acts 2:38 and 22:16.]
In fact, because repentance is incomplete without faith in Christ, it is important that those who come to baptism understand the way of salvation, for “without faith in Christ baptism avails nothing” (Luther, Mark 16:16). However, if by some fluke a person is baptized prior to coming to faith in Christ, they do not need to be rebaptized, for the important thing is repentance and faith not how or when the water was applied (Mark 1:8). Once a person comes to faith in Christ, all of the promises of God are theirs, including the one given to them at baptism, and that is why none of the apostles (or Apollos) were ever rebaptized (2Corinthians 1:20, Mark 16:16).
Because baptism is a washing of repentance, the candidate for baptism has traditionally been asked if he renounces the devil and all of his ways. That question reflects the fact that those who are truly repentant do not want sin in their life, but instead want to be delivered from it. For that reason, the fruits of repentance should be evident in the lives of those who come to faith in Christ. And, the most important of those fruits is a daily willingness to acknowledge one's sin and look to Christ for forgiveness. [Luke 18:9-14, John 1:47, Galatians 5:4, Matthew 3:7-8.]
Since God intended for baptism to play a key role in the work of calling the world to repentance and faith in Christ, it relates to repentance and faith in ways that we often fail to understand. For example, the very act of coming to baptism is a way of calling on God for mercy, while the fact that God has connected it with coming to faith in Christ, makes it an expression of faith. At the same time, because the promise of forgiveness that it conveys is only meant for believers, only those who trust in Christ receive what is promised (Galatians 3:22).