a man getting baptised in water
Spiritual Growth

Water baptism: Its meaning and purpose

Water baptism is more than a just a religious rite or a symbol. It is more than a sign to the visible and invisible world of your profession of faith in Jesus Christ. It is more than just “the next step”. Baptism has a deep spiritual meaning and God uses it to do a powerful work in our life. Let’s look at the meaning and purpose of baptism.

Baptism is essential for spiritual growth

My own water baptism became a watershed moment in my life. It became so essential for my spiritual growth that I often wonder, “Where would I be now, had I not, despite all my doubts, taken the decision to get baptised?” And for exactly that reason, I always encourage those who love the Lord but are hesitant, to take that step! If you are a baptised follower of Christ, then my prayer is, that you come to a greater understanding of your position in him!

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What are the criteria for water baptism?

Before we explore the significance and meaning of baptism, let’s look at the criteria. Who is baptism for and at when is the right time for baptism? There are two basic criteria that qualify someone for water baptism: Repentance and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

1. Repentance: Turning towards God

On the day of Pentecost the Apostle Peter, sets one of the conditions for baptism:

“Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 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 will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:37-38, ESV)

Repentance means a change of direction. Once, we ran away from God and lived according to our own desires. We pursued the pleasures of the world and lived in sin. Repentance is when we turn towards God and run into his welcoming arms (compare to Luke 15 – the Prodigal Son).

Repentance from sin does not mean that you must live a sinless life before your baptism. I believe, as long as we are on this earth, sin will be an issue we need to guard against. But that is why we have a High Priest, Jesus:

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses. But one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16, ESV)

Christ clothed us in his righteousness, and that is why we can stand before God. Not because we were righteous of ourselves!

To put it briefly: You do not need to be “holy enough” to qualify for water baptism. Truth is: You’ll never be holy enough. It is Christ’s holiness you require, and that is available to you by faith today and tomorrow.

2. Faith in the gospel

In the Great Commission, Jesus states another criterion for baptism:

Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.“ (Mark 16:15-16, ESV)

Believing the Gospel of Jesus Christ must precede water baptism. Even if your faith in Christ’s death and resurrection is tiny as a mustard seed, Christ can work with mustard seed-faith!

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:9, ESV)

So repentance and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ are the two principal conditions for water baptism.

How long must I be a Christian before I can be baptised?

Let’s look at what Jesus calls us to do in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19, ESV)

When we compare this with the story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:36-38), we see that baptism stands at the very beginning of a life following Jesus. Water baptism marks the beginning of your Christian life, not the end of your “probation period” as a Christian. With Christ, there is no probation period. You do not need to be a believer in Jesus Christ for a certain amount of time, before you “qualify” for water baptism.

Water baptism: Its meaning and its power

After clarifying the foundations, let’s look at the deeper meaning of water baptism, its power that I was referring to earlier. Water baptism is more than just a symbol or a religious act. It has a very deep spiritual meaning and powerfully impacts our Christian walk. Meditating on these truths fills my heart with so much gratefulness! And this meaning proves that it is more than just a symbol.

1. Baptism is the death and burial of our old man

In Romans 6, the Apostle Paul says:

“Or 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.” (Romans 6:3-5, NKJV)

We all have heard that when Jesus died on the Cross, he took our place. We personally should have been punished for our sin (see Romans 6:23). But in his love, Jesus took our punishment. Jesus took the place of all humanity, but only to those who believe in him, in his death and resurrection, will benefit from his substitutionary death.

In our baptism, we unite with Christ’s death on the cross. The death that put an end to our sinful past.

It is no coincidence that during baptism, for a split second our entire body is buried beneath the water. This is a powerful image of that truth of our burial with Christ through our baptism!

2. Baptism is the beginning of a new life led by the Spirit

When we are raised out of the water, we are raised with Christ into a new life – with him!

The above quoted verses from Romans 6:4-5 speak of walking “in a newness of life” and of a “resurrection”. Our sinful past has been nailed to the cross and put to death. Now we can life a resurrected life, with the empowerment and under the leading of the Holy Spirit.

“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 6:6-7, NKJV)

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Galatians 3:27, ESV)

I always like to remind myself of the passage in Romans 7:1-6. It illustrates the extent to which the law (and our sinful past) has power over us: as long as we live! We can only ever be free from our past, if we die. And at baptism, we “die” to our past and start a new life under the Lordship of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.” (Romans 7:6)

Baptism in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament, we find another illustration that brings the power of baptism home.

“For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” (1 Corinthians 10:1-2, ESV)

When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, it was no accident, that their path led to a dead-end. As they faced the sea, Pharaoh’s army was approaching from behind, chasing them. There was only one way to escape Pharaoh and the bondage of Egypt: passing through the sea.

God miraculously parted the sea and the Israelites reached the other side. The Egyptian army pursued them, trying to bring the runaway slaves back. But when the water went back into its normal state, it put and end to their pursuit. The sea became the visible barrier between their old life in slavery under Pharaoh’s rule and their new life in freedom – under God’s rule.

Slavery in Egypt is an image of slavery to sin. So as soon as they had passed through the water, their old slave masters – sin – had no more power over them. They were free! (Read more: Leaving Egypt. How Passover speaks about Jesus)

It took the Children of Israel 40 years to put off that old slave mentality. It manifested itself in distrusting God, their unfaithfulness and their longing after the carnal pleasures of Egypt. Likewise, after accepting Christ as well as after our baptism, we don’t change overnight. We too have to put off the old man, day by day, and wean ourselves off the pleasures of the world, by the renewing of our mind (Romans 12:2).

Water baptism is not optional

What we learn from both the Old and the New Testament teaching about baptism, is that it is not optional. It is not a matter of taste or fashion or Church tradition.

Becoming a disciple of Jesus starts with repentance, faith and water baptism. These three are inseparable (the fourth is baptism in the Holy Spirit, but that is for a another post :-))

It also is not an either or matter: either christening or adult baptism. The Bible makes clear that baptism is for men and women who have accepted Jesus as their Saviour. It is for men and women who want to make him Lord over their life.

A baby just can’t do that.

Now after learning about the significance and meaning of water baptism, would you still want to put it off?

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