Baptism Basics: The Meaning


Baptism, specifically “believers’ baptism,” is a hotly debated topic among believers across the professing Christian world. A short defence on baptism by immersion was given last month, with an examination of important NT examples. Following NT times, believers down through history faced persecution, even to the point of death, because they took the step of obedience of going into the waters of baptism. Since Satanic persecution intensified for the churches following biblically-based baptism, there must be a great significance to this practice commanded by our Lord before His ascension. This article seeks to solidify our understanding of the doctrinal significance of baptizing believers.

Evidence of Discipleship (Mat 28:19-20; Mar 16:15-16)

Matthew’s Gospel, written to a Jewish audience, closes with a commission for evangelical expansion into the world. The Lord told the apostles, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mar 16:15)[1] and, “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Mat 28:19 RV). As Gentile individuals came to Christ, two actions would mark apostolic activity. First, the apostles would be baptizing them into “the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” (v19). Baptism associates the believer with the Triune God, who is the one true God. Second, the Lord says, “… teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (v20). The expectation from the Lord is that baptism is the gateway to obedience of “all things whatsoever I have commanded you” for the new believer. If one will not submit to the first command, namely baptism, then one will struggle to conform to any of God’s molding in one’s life. The expectation and evidence of someone’s following Christ includes baptism, even as Mark 16:16 tells us that salvation is always expected to be followed with baptism.

Evidence of Dominion (Gal 3:27; Eph 4:5)

Peter communicated to Cornelius and his household the first command from God to every new believer in Acts 10:48 when “he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.” In their case, there was miraculous evidence of salvation for the sake of Jewish witnesses, which was followed by being baptized in obedience to the Lord. In Acts 8:16 and 19:5, the slight nuance indicates that believers were baptized in (the Greek word carrying the meaning “into” rather than “in”) the name of the Lord Jesus. Samaritans and former disciples of John the Baptist owned Jesus as their Lord in their baptism.

This is what Paul has in mind in Ephesians 4:5 when he refers to baptism. In verses 4-6, Paul refers to each Person of the Trinity and our united association with them. When referencing the Lord, he speaks of faith and baptism. The object of faith in our dispensation is Jesus Christ as Lord. Then upon faith, we are baptized to profess that we have put on Christ (Gal 3:22-25). Baptism is a declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and the Person in whom one believes.

Evidence of Death, Burial and Resurrection (Rom 6:3-5; Col 2:12)

Every newly saved individual discovers that “Christ died for me.” The truth that every newly saved individual must learn is that “I have died with Christ.” Romans 6 takes up the truth that every believer has died to sin. Sin, our former slave owner, is no longer master because we have died with Christ.

Baptism is a picture of this truth that happened at salvation. When going into baptism’s waters, one is immersed, thereby becoming submerged before emerging. Regarding immersion, Paul says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom 6:3 ESV). Our association with Christ in immersion pictures our link with Him in death. Regarding our submersion, Paul says, “Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death” (v4a). We display that we were buried with Christ, being under the water. Regarding our emergence from the water, Paul says, “As Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (v4b). At salvation, we were given new life, and so in baptism, coming out of the water symbolizes rising to walk in newness of life. Verse 5 follows, explaining that it is only logical that “if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection.” The future tense (“we shall be also”) doesn’t indicate the future from the time of writing, but that resurrection follows death. Paul says if we have died and are buried with Christ, a Christ-like life will follow.

Colossians 2:12 similarly teaches that baptism symbolizes our burial and resurrection with Christ, using the context of the truth that “ye are complete in Him” (v10a). Verse 11 of the same chapter shows the link between circumcision and conversion. Salvation, not baptism, is the NT equivalent to circumcision. Note that circumcised Jews were baptized, a woman like Lydia who could never be circumcised was baptized, and Timothy, who would have been baptized, was later circumcised. Circumcision has not transitioned into baptism, nor has it replaced it. Yet following salvation, corresponding to the circumcision made without hands, a believer’s baptism pictures the believer’s link with Christ. Therefore, a new life is publicly confessed by a believer’s baptism.

Evidence of Deluge (1Pe 3:21)

Peter makes a brief but important comment about the ongoing effects of baptism in his first epistle to believing Jewish nationals dispersed in Gentile territory. When he writes about doing good even if it means suffering, he draws the reader’s attention back to the waters of the flood and the deliverance thereof. Peter then signals that the deluge corresponds to a way baptism presently saves. How does it save? It is not from the penalty of sins, for already “Christ also hath once suffered for sins” (v18). Instead, it is an ongoing appeal to live in good conscience before God. W.E. Vine wrote, “Thus the believer is thereby saved, not from the doom of his sins, but from an evil conscience through having by thought, word or deed contravened the meaning of the ordinance.”[2] How can we carry this out? As the seven souls with Noah passed through the immersing waters of the flood, we have passed from an old defiling world into a new world of blessing, to live in the power of a resurrected Christ, as pictured in baptism.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[2] W. E. Vine, The Collected Writings of W. E. Vine, Vol 5, Baptism, (Glasgow: Gospel Tract Publications, 1986), 95.