The beginner’s guide to baptism
What is baptism all about? Should I get baptised?
Remembering God’s promises
One of my favourite stories from Acts is in Chapter 8. A Christian called Philip is travelling on a desert road and God leads him to a very powerful Ethiopian traveller who was searching for God. Someone must have given him an Old Testament, because Philip could hear him reading Isaiah out aloud. One thing led to another, and God used Philip to bring him to trust in Jesus.
I think it’s cool that the first thing that the Ethiopian wants to do is be baptised. Conveniently (God’s timing!), they came just at that moment to some water by the road. ‘Look, here is water,’ the Ethiopian said, ‘Why shouldn’t I be baptised here and now?’
I remember in high school going to a friend’s baptism – to me it was a bit of a mysterious religious ceremony. But actually baptism is meant to be an awesomely clear reminder of what God has done for you.
Remembering where you stand
Baptism is simply when you dunk (or sprinkle, if you don’t have a pool handy) someone in water as a signpost or reminder that they have been united with Jesus. It represents a big inward fact using an outward visual aid: that as a Christian, you are in Christ.
‘In Christ’ means more than just that you like Jesus a lot, or are trying your best to follow him – it means that everything which applies to Jesus applies to you. He was killed on the cross – your sin died with him. He rose from the dead – you will too. It's guaranteed, check out Romans 6:4:
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.
Our commitment to God : God’s promise to us
Many people think of baptism as standing up in front of their family and friends and saying ‘I want to follow Jesus’ – and sure, this is totally part of it. Normally baptism happens after you say ‘I’m sorry for my sin’ and ‘thanks Jesus for forgiving me’ (check out Acts 2:38; 8:12-38; 9:18; 22:16).
But in the Bible, the heart of baptism is actually more about what God says to us, rather than what we say to God – it’s more about his promises to us, rather than our commitment to him. God has promised that if you are ‘in Christ’ then you will receive all the promises of the Old Testament, regardless of who you are, what you’ve done, or where you come from: your sins will be forgiven, and you will receive the Holy Spirit!! (Check out Romans 8:1, Ephesians 1:3!!)
Don’t remember getting baptised?
This is why in some churches we baptise children when they’re very young: if they’re beginning life as Christian children, then the promises apply to them even if they’re too young to say ‘Thanks Jesus!’ just yet. The Bible doesn’t tell us when to baptise children born into a Christian home, so it’s okay to do it differently. But the Bible definitely says that babies belong in Jesus’ kingdom (check out Matthew 9:14) – in fact, I’m glad my grandpa baptised me as a baby, because when I see photos of me as a kid, it reminds me that all the promises of God applied to me even when I was a little poo-creation-machine who couldn’t offer anything in return that doesn’t smell (that’s grace!!).
What if you’re not baptised? Are you still a Christian?
I got married a month ago (woo!) and my wife gave me a wedding ring to remind me that we’re married – it represents who we are now, and our promises to each other. I hope this doesn’t happen, but if I lose it in the surf that doesn’t make us divorced (phew!). But likewise, you’ve got to wonder what’s wrong with me if one day I suddenly refuse to wear it without a good reason.
Baptism is a symbol, a bit like a wedding ring, except God’s promises are even more incredible. And, unlike wedding rings, baptism was actually given to us by Jesus (Matt 28:19-20) so it’s not optional. Of course, there’s nothing magical about the water – if you trust in Jesus then you are a Christian already (Rom 10:9). But if you are a Christian, I wonder what is there to stop you being baptised?
Once on a waterskiing camp a guy became a Christian on the last night, and he said pretty much the same thing as the Ethiopian: ‘Why shouldn’t I be baptised here and now?’ We were standing on a jetty – one big push would have baptised him pretty thoroughly! In the end he decided to find a church to support him first, and then get baptised there. But I pray that he will follow through with getting baptised – not to ‘make him a Christian’, but so that if dark times come, when he wonders whether God will really forgive him, or whether he will rise from the dead on the last day, he can remember back to his baptism. I pray that, like the Colossians when they were worried by false teachings (Col 2:12), he can look to his baptism as a visible reminder of God’s great promises to him.