Making Sense of Baptism
One reason why some religious people do not feel that baptism in water is a prerequisite for salvation is because “it doesn’t make any sense.” Why would God demand that a sinner be immersed in water in order to receive the abundant amount of heavenly blessings found “in Christ” (cf. Galatians 3:27; Acts 2:38; Acts 8:34-40; 2 Timothy 2:10; Colossians 1:14)? “The necessity of baptism seems so arbitrary,” they say. “The need to confess faith in Jesus as the Son of God makes good sense. It also is logical to repent of one’s sins. But what good is baptism? What meaning does it have? And why should getting wet physically, make one clean spiritually?”
First, regardless of whether God’s instructions seem sensible to us or not, God expects His orders to be obeyed. One of the many lessons that a person learns from studying the Old Testament is that God oftentimes gave commands that seemed somewhat illogical to man. Not long after the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, God commanded Moses to strike a rock in order to receive water (Exodus 17:1-7). Although digging a well would seem to be the more reasonable thing to do, God wanted Moses to strike a rock with his rod before receiving water from the rock. Forty years later, as the Israelites began their conquest of Canaan, Jehovah instructed the Israelites to march around the city of Jericho one time a day for six days, and seven times on the seventh day in order to conquer the city (Joshua 6:1-5). God said of the Israelites: “It shall come to pass,” on the seventh day, “when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, and when you hear the sound of the trumpet, that all the people shall shout with a great shout; then the wall of the city will fall down flat” (6:5). The idea of an army defeating an enemy simply by walking around a city, yelling, and blowing horns, seems irrational. It makes no sense to the average person. Yet, this is what God demanded of His people if they wanted to be victorious. A few hundred years later, Elisha, a prophet from God, instructed a leprous man named Naaman to “wash in the Jordan seven times” in order to be cleansed of his disease (2 Kings 5:10). Considering the waters of the Jordan had no healing power, this command made little sense to Naaman then, and may not be very sensible to some Bible readers today. Why would God want a leper to dip himself in a river? And why seven times? What medicinal power did the river have? Why not simply have the prophet say to Naaman, “Your faith has made you well”?
Today, if a sinner wants to receive “the victory through…Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57), the Scriptures are clear: in addition to confessing faith in Christ and repenting of his sins (John 8:24; Romans 10:9-10; Luke 13:3; Acts 2:38), he must be baptized (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21). For people to reject the command to be immersed in water simply because they feel that baptism and eternal salvation are totally unrelated, is as wrong as it would have been for Moses, the Israelites, and Naaman to reject God’s commands years ago (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9).
The truth of the matter is, however, one’s immersion into water is not the “illogical instruction” some have made it out to be. God’s plan to save man, and the conditions upon which salvation is accepted (including baptism), were in the mind of God “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). God always has known of this plan “which He accomplished in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:11). To speak of baptism as some flippant, fly-by-night ritual insults the eternal plan of God. It is meaningful, first, because God says it is. And second, if one truly takes the time to observe some of the passages that discuss baptism, he will have a better understanding of its significance. God never intended for a person to think that the power to forgive sins is in the water, any more than He expected Naaman to believe the power to cleanse his leprosy was in the Jordan River. In fact, the apostle Peter was very clear about this matter when he wrote that baptism is “not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21).
Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia, saying, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27, emp. added). When this passage is coupled with Romans 6:3ff., one learns that by being baptized into Christ, we are baptized into His death.
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin (Romans 6:3-7).
Rather than asking, “Why baptism?,” perhaps we should ask, “Why not?” What other act would so fitly represent the complete ending of a life of sin? In his comments on Romans 6, R.L. Whiteside observed:
In being buried in baptism there is a likeness of his death; so also there is a likeness of his resurrection in our being raised from baptism to a new life. Hence, in being baptized we are united with him in the likeness of this death and resurrection. We are therefore, partakers with him in death, and also in being raised to a new life. Jesus was buried and arose to a new life; we are buried in baptism and arise to a new life. These verses show the act of baptism, and also its spiritual value (1988, p. 132).
It is in the act of baptism that the cross is actualized for the sinner, and brought to have individual significance (Riley, 2000, p. 72). Every time a person becomes a Christian, a sinner dies (“being buried with him in baptism”—Colossians 2:12), and is raised up a saint “through faith in the working of God, who raised Him [Jesus] from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).
Truly, baptism “makes sense” (perfect sense) when we take the time to focus on the One Who gave both His life for us, and the mode of baptism to begin our new life with Him (Matthew 28:18-20). Similar to how Noah’s new life, in a new world, began after having been transported from a world of sin by water (1 Peter 3:21; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17), the sinner is carried by water into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. This submissive act ushers us out of the world and into a relationship with God.
Riley, Tom (2000), Dying to Live Again (Webb City, MO: Covenant Publishing).
Whiteside, Robertson L. (1988), Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation), reprint.