What's the big deal about baptism?

When people go through membership at Soma, one topic that gets discussed most often is baptism. Most of the questions we receive can be lumped together under two big ones:

  1. What’s the big deal about baptism, if you don’t believe it saves people?
  2. Why do I have to be rebaptized if I was baptized as an infant?

These are important questions to work through. Josh Stahley addressed the first question a few years ago for The Gospel Coalition; we’re reposting a version of his response today. Look for a response to the second question next week!

The big question: Why is baptism such a big deal, if it doesn’t save people?

This is an important question that needs a clear answer. There are two primary errors we can fall into when it comes to our view of baptism. The first is to treat baptism as if the act itself brings salvation (fancy theological term: ex opere operato): as if something in the water or the ritual itself confers regenerating grace to the person baptized.

The second error – which is more common in evangelical circles – is to treat baptism as an optional add-on to the Christian life. This error usually arises from right motives: we want to keep the gospel free from any intrusion of works-righteousness, and baptism might seem like a work.

However, this view misunderstands the biblical connection between baptism and saving faith.

While the Bible never separates baptism from saving faith, it does distinguish baptism from saving faith. This tension we must hold if we are to be faithful to Jesus’ Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

An Unbroken Connection

We see the connection between baptism and saving faith all throughout the New Testament. In the interest of time, we’ll look at just two examples that demonstrate this connection.

First, when we read the book of Acts, we notice that baptism is closely linked to faith and repentance. The apostle Peter's “gospel invitation” on the day of Pentecost was, “Repent and be baptized. . . . So those who received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:38, 41). This pattern recurs time and time again throughout the book of Acts: repentance and faith immediately result in baptism (see also Acts 8:12, 38; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:5). Commenting on Acts 2:37-38, F. F. Bruce notes, “The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New Testament.”

Second, because baptism commonly followed so closely on the heels of repentance and faith, the New Testament simply assumes that all believers have been baptized. For an example, here’s Galatians 3:27 – “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Tom Schreiner points out the remarkable lack of discussion on the topic in the epistles:

It is striking that there is no sustained discussion of baptism in any of the epistles, presumably because the New Testament authors were writing to those who were already believers and to whom the significance of baptism had been explained upon conversion.

This only makes sense if the earliest disciples were obeying Jesus' command to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Mt. 28:19). Baptism simply did follow repentance and faith.

Connected, but not Confused

The flipside of this discussion is that the Bible does distinguish between baptism and saving faith. While the reception of the apostolic word and baptism go together, the text differentiates between them (Acts 2:41). When Cornelius and those in his house believed the gospel, they immediately received the Holy Spirit – which was taken as evidence that they ought to be baptized (Acts 10:44-47).

Throughout his epistles, Paul stresses that it is faith in Christ that saves. Paul doesn't denigrate baptism. Rather, baptism is a sign that points to the power of the gospel. In Romans 6, Paul writes:

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. (vv. 3-4)

Baptism is meant to function as a visible sign, not only to the person being baptized, but to the entire Christian community, that Christ has conquered sin and death, and that we conquer in him.

That's also the point of Peter's reference to baptism in 1 Peter 3:18-22. Peter compares baptism to the flood of Genesis 6, and then says that God has brought us through the waters just as he brought Noah and his family through the waters. The waters Peter refers to here are the waters of judgment. As Christians, we have come through the waters of God's judgment because Jesus first went through the waters of judgment for us (Mk. 10:38). Our baptism points to his baptism on Golgotha. Christian baptism is the New Testament's way of identifying with that judgment and Jesus' victory over it. In baptism, we are reminded of God's pledge to bring us through the waters of judgment and raise us up with Christ.

The saving element is not the waters themselves (the removal of dirt from the body), but an appeal to God for a good conscience (confession, repentance, and faith). So baptism functions as a sign pointing to the work of Christ on our behalf.

Some prefer to call this an ordinance, because it was “ordained” by our Lord. Others prefer to call it a “sacrament,” because baptism is a means of grace by which Christ displays the gospel to us. While neither term comes from the Bible, both concepts are biblical. Baptism is a visible representation of the gospel and its effects in the life of God's people.

In this small space, I can't begin to say everything necessary. For further study, I would recommend checking out Thabiti Anyabwile and Ligon Duncan's booklet on baptism and the Lord's Supper and the sermons on baptism here on The Gospel Coalition site.

Image: "Baptism," by Clementine Hunter. Courtesy of Luxe Beat magazine.