The Apostle Peter commanded the crowd gathered in Jerusalem: “Repent, and be baptized every one of you ….” But is this command relevant in the 21st century? Just what is baptism, and does God require it for salvation?
The New Testament practice of water baptism seems outdated to many today. There are Christian-professing churches that no longer require baptism, dismissing it as an antiquated ceremony of a primitive church.
Can we prove if water baptism is just an old-fashioned idea of men or a teaching our Savior wants His followers to obey today?
A Required Step for Salvation
The most direct biblical passage concerning water baptism is found in Acts 2:36-41. In his inspired sermon on the day of Pentecost, A.D. 31, Peter convicted his listeners for their part in having put the Messiah to death. Several thousand became filled with guilt and shame on that memorable day almost 2,000 years ago. Their spontaneous response was: “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (verse 37). A very good question.
When a person comes to recognize, as this first-century group did, that he has been in rebellion against the laws and purposes of his Creator, what should he do?
Notice the inspired answer to that question: “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (verse 38; Revised Standard Version).
Real repentance is necessary for salvation. Then the very next step, as stated in Acts 2:38, is baptism.
Water baptism, as we shall learn from this study of the Bible, is a required step in God’s plan of salvation. We will come to understand exactly what God commands concerning water baptism. We will begin by learning the symbolic meaning of baptism.
The Symbolic Meaning of Baptism
Much symbolism surrounds the subject of baptism. We need to understand that symbolism to know why God requires baptism of those who want to become true Christians—Spirit-begotten children of God.
1. Did Jesus Christ condemn sin in the flesh? Romans 8:3-4. How? Hebrews 4:15. Why did He die? 1 Corinthians 15:3. What happened to Him then? Verse 4; Romans 8:11.
Christ “condemned” sin by living sinlessly through the power of the Holy Spirit. Then He died for our sins—His death paid the penalty of sin that we have incurred—and was buried. After three days and three nights He was “quickened” by God’s Spirit—that is, made alive and given spirit life. His resurrection shows He triumphed over sin and death.
2. Is baptism symbolic of one’s death, burial and resurrection from a “grave”? Colossians 2:12-13; Romans 6:3-13.
Just as Christ died for our sins and was buried, our baptism—being plunged into a watery “grave”—is symbolic of the death and burial of our old sinful life. And as Christ was resurrected in newness of life, our coming up out of the waters of baptism is symbolic of our rising up from our “grave” to live a new life free from the guilt of past sins and the death penalty our sins have incurred.
Baptism, as these verses show, pictures the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. It also pictures the death and burial of the sinner and his rising up to begin living a Christian life.
Let’s elaborate a little further to be sure we understand the important symbolism of baptism.
Going down into the water clearly pictures the death of Christ and of our old self. Likewise, being “buried” (immersed) in the water pictures the burial of Christ and of our sinful life. Coming up out of the water pictures Christ’s resurrection and our commitment to walk henceforth “in newness of life”—in obedience to God’s law. After baptism, we reckon ourselves as dead, so far as sin is concerned, but alive to God through His Son Jesus Christ (verse 11).
After baptism and the “laying on of hands,” Christ begins to live within us through the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9-10). God’s Spirit gives us the spiritual strength, as we yield to God, to resist the devil’s sinful influence. And it imparts to us the faith and love of God to obey His spiritual law (Romans 5:5; 13:10).
The Apostle Paul said: “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Water baptism is simply an ordinance of Christ by which we symbolically express our faith in Him as our personal Savior—our belief in His death, burial and resurrection. Baptism is also a symbolic expression of our repentance from sin and desire to totally destroy and “bury” our old sinful life. Baptism clearly shows our realization of our own sins, our vanities, our wretchedness.
It is an outward acknowledgment that our selfish, vain and sinful old self must die so that we might rise to live a new life of spiritual obedience to God’s commandments as made possible through His Holy Spirit.
Baptism shows our total surrender to God. It symbolizes the complete burial of the old sinful self, and our beginning a new life surrendered to the will and authority of God.