The significance of baptism as part of the plan of salvation is often questioned. Is it merely a work (which we are supposed to be free of), a ritual (practiced as an initiation rite), or an act of obedience called for by God?

Baptism is included in the list of elementary or foundational teachings of Christianity found in Hebrews 6:1,2 – so it must be important. But how important is it really? Many ask, ‘Can’t I be saved without it?’ (Amazing how often we ask, ‘How much do I have to do?’ or ‘How little can I do and still be saved?’) Great care must be taken to not add or detract from God’s plan of salvation. His grace is big enough to cover or “excuse” any sin and disobedience if he chooses to. But will He? Especially for those who know better. The real question being, ‘Can we be saved without obedience?’ If he tells us to do something, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you,…”; do we have an option to refuse, possibly jeopardizing our receipt of the Holy Spirit, which is guaranteed after repentance and baptism? (Acts 2:38 See also Acts 19:1-7) Speaking of which, those questioning baptism’s significance have a favorite scripture to cite. Acts 10:44-48 relates Peter’s initial attempt at ministry to Gentiles, during which the Holy Spirit (without the benefit of baptism) was bestowed on Cornelius and his family. (Undoubtedly signaling a new era of grace extended to a new, universal “chosen” people.) However, Peter immediately instructed them to then be baptized in the name of Him whom he had just proclaimed.

The mode of baptism is often debated as well. Christian churches immerse because that’s what the word baptizo means and that’s how baptism was originally practiced. Who is qualified for baptism is another issue. Adults only? Kids ever? Babies never? Why do we restrict anybody at any time? Because baptism involves self-examination and acceptance that can’t be imposed – even with the best of intentions. At its most basic, baptism signifies an intentional washing away or cleansing from sin and a turning to God. Other baptism’s or cleansings were practiced by the Jews, most notably by John the Baptist, but lacked the crucial element of ushering one into the Kingdom of God. (Luke 3:3) Baptism, therefore, should be administered only after an understanding of sin and its consequences has been achieved, leading one to seek God’s grace and mercy through repentance, which in turn will bring about, “…fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3:8) – a new lifestyle. In this and other ways, John’s and Jesus’ ministries were similar (see Matthew 3:2,4:17), except that John’s baptism ritualistically and symbolically dealt with sinfulness, actually heightening people’s awareness of their sin and thus preparing them for Jesus’ ministry of restoration and salvation. (John 4:1)

Is salvation found exclusively in baptism? No, our salvation is found in an association with and allegiance to Jesus Christ. And yet, if he specifically tells us to do something in a particular way – is it safe to change that to accommodate our own understanding or preference? Jesus said, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,…”, signifying a belief that generates obedience. The belief certainly being necessary first, “…(as) whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Mark 16:16 Certainly baptism in and of itself is useless without the belief that induces us to cry out to God for salvation (Romans 10:13), confessing our sin (1 John 1:8-10), with a consequent change in lifestyle (2 Corinthians 9:13) through obedience to God’s word. (Matthew 7:21)

Jesus was righteousness personified. An example to be emulated in all ways to the best of our abilities. (Matthew 7:24; John 13:14; Ephesians 5:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:6,7) He was God’s Son, “…and the exact representation of his being.” Hebrews 1:3 He claimed to be of one mind with the father (John 10:30) as well as being the way to salvation, the truth of salvation and the life of salvation. (John 14:7,8) If we know him, we know God. And yet, what did Jesus do before launching his public ministry? He was baptized. For what? Repentance – forgiveness?

He was, “…tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” Hebrews 4:15 This being in part so that he would be, “…able to help those who are being tempted.” Hebrews 2:18 As the substitutionary means of salvation, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become…”, righteous. 2 Corinthians 5:21 He being guilty by association with us – we becoming guilt-free by association with Him. Then why did he virtually demand that John baptize him? “…to fulfill all righteousness.” Matthew 3:15 To set the perfect example for us to follow. So, if the pattern set by Jesus for righteousness includes baptism, how can we do any less? In fact, Jesus’ last public discourse spoke of the necessity of our continuing his ministry to all nations, baptizing and teaching new converts to obey everything He commands. (Matthew 28:18-20)

Throughout the church’s history, baptism has been seen as an identification with Christ and his death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5), an initiation into the body of believers, a pledge of a new life. “…not the removal of dirt from the body, (a “baptism” of cleansing – a ceremonial washing practiced extensively in Judaism) but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.” 1 Peter 3:18-21In commenting on the strength that comes from a community of believers, Paul emphasized the oneness of those who are united through their faith in the one Lord and Spirit of Christianity and whose hope is grounded in the salvation he supplies – in part through the one baptism we all share. (Ephesians 4:3-6) For when we are “immersed” in Jesus – totally placing ourselves in him and his way, completely identifying with his being and purpose – we become one with him. “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.” Romans 6:3-5

A few historical examples from the New Testament church may help re-enforce this teaching. Check back next week to see how they practiced what they preached.