IS BAPTISM INPORTANT?
By Rev. Gary K. Briden, Sr.,
President
Southern Methodist College, Orangeburg, S.C.
THE ARMINIAN MAGAZINE. Issue 1. Spring 2011. Volume 29.
Date Posted July, 2011

Most if not all Christian groups or churches are going to state that Baptism is important and that all Christians are commanded to be baptized. These groups and churches would believe this regardless of their position on the mode or timing of Baptism. However, there may be disagreement or misunderstanding as to the place of baptism in the plan of salvation. Does it save, is it necessary for salvation, or does it mainly serve as a public testimony of a Christian's faith in Christ? As with all questions of this type, the Bible has the answers.

BAPTISM IS COMMANDED IN SCRIPTURE. The great commission tells us to: "Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you…". Peter in Acts 2:38 says to: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ…". From these two Scriptures alone we understand that God thinks baptism is important and wants all believers to be baptized. On this point most if not all Christians are agreed. However, the question still asked is: Is a person saved before baptism or after? The correct answer to this question can help a person experience assurance of salvation or enter into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ for salvation. The correct answer will help a believer appreciate the proper role of baptism in the life of a Christian.

BAPTISM IS IDENTIFICATION WITH CHRIST. From the very beginning of the New Testament Church the first thing asked of a person after believing upon Christ as Savior was to be identified with Him in baptism. Baptism let those around know that this person belonged to and followed Jesus Christ. Circumcision served the same purpose in the Old Testament except that baptism is open to all believers. Paul makes this comparison in Colossians 2: 10-12 in which he states: "And ye are complete in Him, which is the head of all principality and power: in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein ye are raised with Him through the FAITH of the operation of God, who hath raised Him from the dead." In making this comparison between circumcision and baptism, Paul stresses that it is not the acts of either that saves an individual, but the individual's faith in the operation of God and in the atonement and resurrection of Christ. Just as Paul stresses that the "circumcision made without hands" is important, the baptism of the spirit that Jesus talked about is important and the water is the symbol of it. In other words, it is the baptism without hands that is stressed in this passage. Thus baptism replaces circumcision and is taught as the New Testament identification with Christ on the part of a believer. Like Paul stated concerning circumcision, the act of water baptism does not save but the baptism "made without hands" does.

BAPTISM FOLLOWS SALVATION. Salvation, in both Old and New Testament, is by faith in the promised redemption of God. In the Old Testament, believers are looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, in the New Testament, believers are trusting in the Messiah who has already come. Therefore, because salvation is by faith, the Bible teaches that baptism is to follow conversion to Christ. This truth was made clear by Philip the evangelist in Acts 8:35-38. Philip explained the gospel to the Ethiopian in the chariot. The Ethiopian asked if he could be baptized. Philip's response was that that he could IF he believed with all his heart that Jesus Christ was the Son of God and therefore his Savior and Redeemer. When the Ethiopian responded by saying: "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God", Philip agreed to baptize him.

Paul was baptized after his conversion. In Acts 9: 4 - 6 the Bible states: "And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" And he said: "Who art thou LORD? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks. And he trembling and astonished said, LORD, what would thou havest me to do? And he said arise, and go into the city and it will be told thee what thou must do." The moment Paul recognized Jesus as Lord in his heart he was converted. This recognition was expressed by his mouth as he called Jesus Lord. After Paul believed and was saved and filled with the Holy Spirit, he was baptized. Like the Ethiopian, Paul's baptism followed his conversion and his faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and as the Son of God. Paul certainly knew who Jesus was and what the gospel was as he witnessed and heard the testimony of Stephen and witnessed his stoning and death in Acts 6 and 7. This order is confirmed in Acts 26: 13-23, especially as Paul talks about his conversion to Christ yet mentioned nothing of his water baptism. However, Paul makes it clear that he was saved and converted to Christ and was trusting in Jesus' atonement and believed in His bodily resurrection (Acts 26: 22, 23). The order is the same in Acts 22: 1-16 as Paul gives his testimony of conversion again. Paul cries out in faith to Jesus as Lord in verses 8 and 10 and then comes into contact with Ananias in verse 12. In Acts 22:16, it is not the baptism that is washing away Paul's sins, but his calling on the name of the Lord. This is verified by Acts 9: 5 – 6, 17 - 18 in which Paul's water baptism FOLLOWED his conversion and filling by the Holy Spirit. God's Spirit does not fill what is not cleansed. On the road to Damascus, Jesus had cleansed and saved Paul when he cried out "LORD" in verses 8 and 10 of Acts 22 and verses 5 and 6 of Acts 9.

Cornelius was also baptized AFTER his conversion and filling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10: 44-48 and Acts 11: 15 – 18). Peter makes this order of salvation very clear when he shows that the important transaction between Cornelius and his group was their spiritual baptism and new birth- not their water baptism. In Acts 11, Cornelius's water baptism is not mentioned but their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and their gift of eternal life and God's Spirit is. As in Paul's life, the water Baptism was the testimony of the spiritual change that had taken place in their hearts through Christ. The same is to be true in the life of current believers.

Someone may ask: "what about Acts 2:38 in which it says: ‘Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins…'?" A careful study of the Greek in which the New Testament was written would indicate the word translated "for" carried with it the sense of "on account of' or "because of". In other words, the verse should read: "Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ on account of the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Peter gave almost the same challenge in Acts 3:19 in which he said: "Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out …" Peter had given a clear message concerning the atonement of Christ and was calling his hearers to come to faith in Him for salvation (Acts 3: 12- 21). Water Baptism was not mentioned in his call to conversion here.

BAPTISM OF THE SPIRIT IS THE KEY. According to the four gospels and the book of Acts, Jesus came to bring spiritual baptism and the new birth, not water baptism. Notice what John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:11 in which he says: "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: HE SHALL BAPTISE YOU WITH THE HOLY GHOST AND WITH FIRE". In Mark 1:8 John says: "I indeed baptize you with water: but HE SHALL BAPTISE YOU WITH THE HOLY GHOST". Luke quotes John as saying basically the same thing again when he says "…the same is He which BAPTIZETH WITH THE HOLY GHOST". Jesus said in Acts 1: "For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be BAPTIZED WITH THE HOLY GHOST…". In five books of the New Testament and in prominent places, the Bible emphasizes the baptism of the Holy Spirit with water baptism being secondary to it and a symbol of it. John 3: 3, 5-16 makes it clear that without this spiritual birth by the Holy Spirit, a person cannot enter Heaven and the Kingdom of God.

Water Baptism is the symbol of this spiritual baptism. Romans 6: 1- 10 uses the symbol of immersion for baptism. Paul uses that symbol to show that in spiritual baptism we are indeed crucified with Christ and are to become dead to the power of sin in our lives and live a victorious life in the faith and power of the risen Christ (see also Galatians 2:20). The water baptism by pouring symbolizes the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:16-18). The water baptism of sprinkling symbolizes the sprinkling of the blood of Christ upon God's Holy of Holies when complete atonement was made for sinful man (Hebrews 10: 19- 22). When a person trusts Christ as Savior, the blood of Christ cleanses of sin and allows the believer to: "draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts SPRINKLED from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.". Regardless of the mode of baptism a person believes is scriptural, baptism symbolizes a spiritual action taken in the heart of a person by faith in Christ but is not the cause of that action. The Spirit of God is the cause of that action and of the spiritual new birth of a person. Faith is the ground of our salvation, Baptism is the symbol of it (Galatians 3: 26- 27).

In John 3:3, 5-8, 14-18, Jesus further stresses a spiritual birth and the action of the Holy Spirit in the heart of a person who believes upon Christ. To enter into heaven a person must be born into this world (referred to as being born of water in verse 5 and as being born in the flesh in verse 6) and be born of the Spirit of God (verses 5 and 6). That new birth comes by faith in Jesus Christ (verses 16-18)

It is interesting that Paul is considered one of the great missionaries, church planters, soul winners, and leaders of the New Testament and the church, and yet he stated that: "… Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel:" Paul expresses gratitude that he had not baptized some in Corinth (I Corinthians 1: 13-17). Was Paul saying baptism was not important? Not in the least, but he was stressing that while he let others do the baptizing, he spent his time bringing people to a saving relationship with Jesus Christ so his fellow laborers could baptize them and assimilate them into the churches. Paul recognized that salvation was not in water baptism, but in Christ and in receiving the Holy Spirit at the time of the New Birth.

SALVATION IS BY FAITH IN THE ATONEMENT OF CHRIST. Any unclear or confusing passage of Scripture must always be interpreted in the light of what is clear and what the context of the passage is. For that reason, questions concerning salvation and how it is obtained should always be judged by what is clear. In the case of salvation, faith is the key that unlocks the door. Romans 3:21- 5: 21; 7:24,25; 8:1-17; Galatians 2:15-3:26; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:16-18, Acts 4:12; Acts 16:31 and many, many, other passages teach salvation by faith- faith in the blood sacrifice and atonement of Christ and in his bodily resurrection.

Salvation by faith was also the way of salvation in the Old Testament as well as the New. Consider the faith of Abraham in Genesis 15: 6. Abraham's faith was counted unto him for righteousness because he believed the promises of God. The Scriptures state in this passage: "And he believed in the Lord; and He counted it to him for righteousness." God counted Abraham's FAITH for righteousness. This is reiterated in the New Testament as Paul and James use this passage to teach justification by faith (Romans 4:2, 3; Galatians 3:6, 7; and James 2:17,18,23). James uses it to stress the kind of faith that saves a person- one that produces works and service to Christ. James stresses that our saving faith is seen BY the works that we do (James2:18) such as baptism, being a part of and active in a local church, praying, giving and obeying what we know our Lord has commanded us to do for Him. Our faith causes us to work and allows us to work from a heart of love and devotion to God. The object of that faith is Jesus Christ and His atonement and resurrection and that object sets us free to serve. Jesus releases us from the power of sin as well as cleanses us from the penalty of sin and sin itself (I John 1:7).

Perhaps one of the best examples of salvation by faith is the thief on the cross at Jesus' crucifixion. He called upon Christ and believed upon Christ as Messiah and Savior and was promised forgiveness and salvation that day! Some try to argue that he was an Old Testament believer and not an example of a New Testament convert. Actually, the opposite is true. The thief on the cross is an example of a New Testament believer as he was Jesus' FIRST convert after finishing the atonement on the Cross. Jesus cried out "It is finished" and then commended His Spirit to the Father and died. The atonement was completed before the thief died. The thief was killed after the death of Jesus. Jesus' body was buried in the tomb, but Jesus and the thief were in paradise and in the presence of the Father that day (Luke 23:43) All of this was sealed and proven by the Bodily Resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week. However, the atonement was completed by Jesus' crucifixion.

I Peter 3: 20-22 and Hebrews 11 show us that those who were saved in the Old Testament were saved by faith in the promises of God. Because Noah believed the warning of God and acted on that faith, the water that drowned the others kept the ark afloat and saved Noah and his family.

SALVATION COMES ONLY THOUGH JESUS CHRIST. Consider the following passages: John 14: 6, Acts 4:12, Acts 15: 7- 11, and Titus 2: 13, 14; 3: 4-7. Do you have saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? Have you trusted His atonement on the cross and His blood to cleanse and forgive you? Are you trusting in something else to save? Are you adding anything else to your faith for salvation? God alone saves. He saves through His Son and unlocks that salvation through faith in Him.