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What Is the Purpose of Baptism for Christians?

What Is the Purpose of Baptism for Christians?

Why do people get baptized? There is an old joke that is popular with pastors and preachers. A new pastor was having lunch with several colleagues when he began lamenting about a group of bats that had taken residence in the church’s bell tower. “I don’t know what to do,” he said, “nothing seems to get rid of them.” Another pastor indicated he had the same problem in her church. Finally, a wise and seasoned pastor offered the solution; “Just baptize them,” he suggested, “then you will never see them again!”

The joke plays off a reality of which we are all too aware; baptism does not always hold the significance that it should. Those who work in the church see many individuals and families come for baptism only to disappear afterward.  Some may see baptism as a rite of passage to complete – the ticking of a religious box; Others may view baptism as an easy way to satisfy the religious leanings of grandma and grandpa. For whatever reason, baptism does not always point to the presence of a vibrant and active faith.

This reality is held in stark contrast to the way that baptism is presented in the New Testament. Scripturally, baptism is an important indicator of a person’s (or family’s) faith in the crucified and risen Lord, and a sign of one’s membership in “The Way.”  Far from being simply an external action done to satisfy dogmatic religious requirements, the very essence of Christian life, and faith, began with one’s baptism.

Why Do People Get Baptized: Baptism Is an Immersion into New Life

When thinking about baptism, the first association many have is with the figure of John the Baptist. Each of the gospels records how John stood at the Jordon, baptizing people in an act of repentance. John called people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah, expressed through the rite of outward washing. This was a departure from the ceremonial washing practiced by faithful Jews of the day. Faithful Jews would often immerse themselves (Greek: baptizo) in public pools prior to going into the temple. Such an immersion, sometimes done under the watchful eye of the Levitical priest, was an act of religious cleansing and would be repeated each time one desired entrance into the temple courts.

The immersion offered by John, however, was different than the above cleansing, both in frequency and in meaning. John baptized people as a singular action representing a turning away from sin and waywardness. One was immersed in the river Jordon as a sign of their turning toward the dawning messianic age. Standing on the banks of the Jordon, John heralded the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. So popular was his baptism that “all of Judea went out to the Jordon to be baptized by John” (Mark 1:8).

Importantly, John’s baptism is not the same baptism that Christians undergo. Through Christ’s resurrection and ascension, baptism takes on a different understanding. For Christians, baptism is neither ritual purification nor a preparatory rite. Rather, baptism is an immersion in the new life offered by Jesus. For example, following his Pentecost sermon, about 3000 people were baptized (Acts 2:41). Baptism becomes the appropriate response to the hearing (and accepting) of the gospel. Throughout the book of Acts, the apostles make frequent appeals for people to “Repent and be baptized.” Repentance simply means to turn, to change one’s direction. Thus, the call to baptism is essentially the call to turn one’s life toward Jesus and be immersed in his Spirit. For those rising from the baptismal waters, baptism entailed living a new life.

Importantly, this new way of life is not simply a new way of thinking about life. Christ effects change. A person is fundamentally transformed in the waters of baptism. The outward and visible sign (water) testifies to an inward transformation (new life). The Apostle Paul put it this way, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). Baptism is a joining to Christ’s death and a sharing in his resurrection. This means that from the moment of baptism, one begins to live the very eternal life promised in Christ Jesus.

Baptism Is about Immersion in a New Community

How do we understand this new life? This was the question that faced the early Christians, and equally, it faces us today. Too often is baptism understood individualistically. Whether the baptism is for an adult or an infant, it is assumed that it is a rite for the individual alone. Sure, family and friends may watch with enthusiasm and rejoicing, but in no way are they involved in the baptism itself. The baptism is a blessed occurrence between the individual and his/her Lord.

There is truth to this. We cannot deny that it is an individual person who is baptized. But is this all that goes on? Viewing baptism as pertaining to an individual alone means we will fail to see how baptism sparks an entrance into a new community. Baptism is not simply a rite of individual religiosity. Rather, baptism speaks to an activity of the entire community of faith, of which the individual has now become a member. In baptism, one becomes a member of a baptized people.

We see this communal reality in the way that Scripture describes baptism. Baptism frequently involves the community of faith. To be baptized is to become immersed within a new life that can only be fully experienced in a new community. The Apostle Paul provides a great example of this. Following his Damascus road conversion, Paul is immediately baptized (Acts 9:18) and began to spend time with the disciples of Damascus (9:20). In fact, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes spending three years with the Christian community (Galatians 1:18). Clearly, Paul’s baptism immersed him in the wider community of Christ’s followers.

Perhaps the only time baptism is seen to occur in an individual context is with the Ethiopian eunuch of Acts 8. Here, Luke records that Philip preaches the gospel to this traveling Ethiopian, who in turn, responds with “Look, here is water, what is stopping me from being baptized!” (8:36). Philip agrees and baptizes the eunuch. The Ethiopian, presumably, continues on his way with no more mention being made of him in the Scriptures. Christian history, however, holds that the Ethiopian went back to his home country and began the Christian community there. Even here, new life leads to a new community. Baptism makes no theological or ecclesiological sense if one does not wish to be an active part of the Christian body. To live the Christian life is to live amid the Christian community.

Why Do People Get Baptized?

So important is baptism to the Christian life that Jesus makes the call to baptize a fundamental part of Christian discipleship (Matthew 28:20). This is something that the disciples took to heart. Not only did they begin a ministry of baptism while Jesus was with them (John 4:2) but they were diligent in calling people to the waters of baptism after his resurrection. This is because the very image of baptism was an image of the new creation. Being plunged into, and rising out of, the baptismal waters, signified one’s death to sin, and one’s participation in the resurrected life of Jesus. Baptism, therefore, was held up as the appropriate way to respond to the gospel.

Christians are baptized as a sign of their acceptance of Christ’s salvation. For example, upon hearing Peter articulate the reality of Christ’s resurrection and Lordship, people are encouraged to be baptized in the near-by pool as a sign of their turning to the resurrected Lord (Acts 2:38). Scripturally, it was simply understood that responding to the good news of Christ would involve one’s immersion in baptismal waters.

Yet, more than a mere proclamation of one’s faith, the call to baptism is also a call to receive the Holy Spirit. Peter calls the people to “repent and be baptized,” but then continues “and you will receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). The Scriptures continually pair the experience of water-baptism with the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. Importantly, this does not occur in the same way each time.  For Cornelius, and the community of gentile Christians, the bestowal of the Holy Spirit occurred prior to their baptism (Act 10), whereas with the disciples at Ephesus, the bestowal of the Spirit occurred afterward (Acts 19:1-6). In fact, so strong is the connection between baptism and the bestowal of the Spirit, that Paul has no hesitation in inquiring “did you receive the Holy Spirit when you were baptized?” The connection between one’s participation in baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit is clear.

One can only wonder what it would be like if churches began emphasizing this reality in their baptismal services today.

Living the Baptized Life

Baptism is not an end; it is a beginning. One is baptized into a new life, as a sign of one’s new creation by the Spirit of Jesus, embodied within the context of a new community. In this way, despite what one believes about who is to be baptized (i.e., infants or adults only) baptism must be connected to how one lives. Thus, it is an action that none should lightly undertake. The question of “what does it mean to be baptized?” therefore, should more appropriately be rendered “What does it mean to live the baptized life?”

In Acts 2:42 we get a picture of what this life is to look like. The 3000 people, baptized that first Pentecost morning, became a community of the baptized. Luke records that this community “devoted to themselves to the Apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). These four disciplines mark the baptized community. If it is true that baptism pertains to the entire community of faith, then all must sit with the question: “Will you devote yourself to the apostles' teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers?” Without an affirmative response to Christ’s Lordship, and a willingness to join the community in faithful living, any articulation of baptismal theology lacks the fundamental character as revealed in Scripture.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/Alexmumu

SWN authorThe Reverend Dr. Kyle Norman is the Rector of St. Paul’s Cathedral, located in Kamloops BC, Canada.  He holds a doctorate in Spiritual formation and is a sought-after writer, speaker, and retreat leader. His writing can be found at Christianity.com, crosswalk.comibelieve.com, Renovare Canada, and many others.  He also maintains his own blog revkylenorman.ca.  He has 20 years of pastoral experience, and his ministry focuses on helping people overcome times of spiritual discouragement.