Jesus Christ commanded two practices that should be part of the ongoing life-blood of His church, baptism and the Lord's Supper (or communion). These practices are often called "sacraments" (or ordinances for those who prefer that term). Jesus didn't simply establish these sacraments as mechanical motions to be observed, however. Instead, these sacraments help keep the gospel front-and-center in the life of a church.
In this post, I'll highlight foundational beliefs about Christian baptism. (A number of secondary things will be left unsaid - we'll see what comes up in the comments and leave that for potential future posts!) In an upcoming post I'll talk about the Lord's Supper.
So let's dig in. What things should evangelical Christians "stack hands on" regarding baptism? Here are two biblical and theological affirmations about baptism that should lay the groundwork for any further discussion.
Baptism does not INITIATE, contribute to, or finalize God’s justifying work in the life of a believer.
We must maintain the biblical emphasis that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works. We must not make baptism one of these “works” that somehow, in some way, accomplishes or contributes to our right standing before God.
We see this in God's Word in a number of places. In Ephesians 2:8-9 we're told very clearly that we're saved by grace through faith, and not by works. (Click here to see even more on the context of Ephesians 2 that makes these verses that much more meaningful.)
In Romans 10:9-13 as Paul speaks to how we're saved, he talks about us acknowledging Jesus as Lord and believing in our hearts that He is alive We find the language of faith brought up a few times, and there's no mention of baptism as necessary for this justifying work of God to be accomplished.
And then in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17, Paul is trying to dismantle some of the "celebrity pastor followings" in the first century. To do this, he points to who he did (and did not) baptize in Corinth. And then significantly in verse 17, Paul says "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel..." If baptism is a necessary element of the gospel - whereas if we're not baptized we're not "fully" saved - I have a hard time seeing how Paul could say what he does here. Rather, Paul seems to subordinate baptism to the gospel.
More could be said here, but I hope I've at least created space for you to consider our affirmation that baptism does not initiate, contribute to, or finalize God's justifying work in the life of a believer. So does this affirmation make baptism unimportant? Not at all, which brings me to my second affirmation.
Baptism is important. Like, really important.
Baptism is important because it was part of Jesus' last recorded words in the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 28:19-20). And parting words are often important, meaningful words. Baptism is important because of the priority and emphasis it's given in the book of Acts - we see baptisms practiced all over the place (e.g. Acts 2:38-41; 8:12; 9:18; 10:47; 16:14-15; 18:8; 19:5).
Baptism is important because of the implications that ripple out from the practice of this sacrament. I believe there are vertical, horizontal, and personal implications that should be appreciated.
In all of these ways, then, baptism is both important and meaningful.
In conclusion, then, while we maintain that water baptism does not accomplish or contribute to being justified by God, it is equally important to maintain the rich meaning and value this ordinance carries for both the individual believer and the church of Jesus Christ.
This importance is reinforce in the ways the sacraments keep the gospel front-and-center in the life of a church. Baptism spotlights God’s saving work in the gospel - showing us that God is still drawing people to himself. Christ's death and resurrection saves them from being dead to sin and awakens hearts to the true and everlasting life He offers through His Spirit. This ordinance not only shows us God’s saving work in our midst, but should cause us to recall and re-appreciate God’s saving work in our own lives.
How would you communicate the importance and meaningfulness of baptism to someone if you were asked? What questions about baptism does this post bring up?
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