What does the Bible teach about baptism?

Writer: 
Erkki Koskenniemi
Translator: 
Emilia Mansikka

In this presentation I will approach the question of baptism and aim to provide a concise summary of what the Bible teaches about the matter. The purpose of this is a discussion with those who reject baptism as means of grace i.e. that sins are forgiven in baptism. My point of view follows the traditional Lutheran understanding.

In essence, this presentation is a conversation piece. The purpose is that the reader pauses at the last paragraph and ponders upon which of the theses he/she possibly denies. Afterwards, pondering can focus on these points.

Aiming at a summary, I must accept an unfortunate amount of superficiality. Among others, examples from the Old Testament, the baptism of John and many important cases of baptism for example in Acts are excluded. However, these texts are further discussed in LEAF’s Finnish website, Acts.

1. Man’s depravity is complete

The question of baptism cannot be understood without setting it in the right frame: Its basis is on the whole mankind’s complete separation from God. The first chapter of Romans tells the simple and sad basic points: The mankind should have known God and served Him, because of “the general revelation”, but the mankind did not do this, but turned its back on God and began to serve idols. Due to this, God turned his back on the mankind and abandoned it to sin. That is why the world is how it is; a hopeless place of sin and darkness. No one here in their own “flesh” (i.e. as their fallen self) is searching for God, and, additionally, God has hidden himself from man and does not allow anyone to find Him. God is a hidden God. Even man’s own religiousness does not bring him any closer to God, but rather takes him further away.

Thus, the basis is man’s complete separation from God. The core message of the Bible is that the loving God has turned to the fallen and doomed world and prepared redemption for us in Christ. He prepared the way for Christ by choosing Abraham and creating His people through him and announcing His will to Moses and the prophets. This is how the way was open for the Son of God to enter the world. That is when light shone in darkness and God approached man. It is all about one great act of God’s love. It was prepared in the Old Testament, fulfilled on Golgotha and in the resurrection, and the Apostles and their followers, the whole church of Christ, was made to echo it. To us, the graceful action of God comes in the apostolic word and in the holy sacraments of baptism and the Holy Communion.

Thus, after the fall every man is born as a sinner in this world (Psalm 51:7), lives his life apart from God and ends up in eternal destruction. The thought of, for example, that all the children make it to Heaven even without Christ is a product of human sense and is not based on the Bible. The only salvation is in that God has approach the fallen world in Christ and fulfilled his work of redemption. Only as a disciple of Jesus you are saved – and you become His disciple in baptism (Matthew 28:18-20).

2. What is baptism?

The Bible portrays baptism in various ways.

a. Burial and resurrection – Romans 6

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?
By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.
Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
(Romans 6:1-8, ESV)

Throughout the first chapters of Romans, Paul emphasizes the unconditional grace for the sake of Christ. Afterwards, he considers the possible counterargument: Is a Christian thus allowed to sin as much as he likes. The answer is surprising: No, because he has been baptized!

What follows is a great presentation about how baptism means two things.
First, it is God’s gift, which creates the connection to Christ’s death and resurrection and to God’s glory.
Second, it is an obligation due to which a Christian who has been baptized as belonging to God must also live as a child of God.

Baptism means that our old self is buried to the death of Christ and from the grave of baptism rises a new being which is attached to the resurrection of Christ; a new person God has created in us. This obligates the baptized Christian to lifelong sanctification; to daily undress the old self and get dressed in the new one. This is something Paul emphasizes throughout the rest of the chapter which is definitely worth reading.

This is based on the schema/model which Paul strongly teaches also elsewhere: There is an “old self” and a “new self” . The “old self” is a man on his own, without the grace of Christ. (Romans 6). “New self” stands for the Christian’s new position as a Christian, redeemed by God. Christian life is about constantly making decisions about this formula, undressing the old self and getting dressed in the new one (See Ephesians 4:22-24, Colossians 3:9-10)

b. New birth (John 3:5 and Titus 3:4-6)

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?”
Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?”
Jesus answered him, “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?
No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
(John 3:1-18, ESV)

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
(Titus 3:3-7, ESV)

The third chapter of John contains basically the same matter as the nucleus of the first six chapters of Romans. The story of Nicodemus must be considered as a whole. Nicodemus, a noble and a righteous man, comes to the Lord and is searching for the way to God. Jesus tells him that he has to be born again.

It is the same thought as in Romans 1: Man’s own religiousness is not enough to create new life. What is born from the flesh is flesh, and cannot turn into spirit. God’s action is needed. John summarizes this in so called "gospel in miniature". This is how God creates new life in the midst of death. One needs to be born again “of water and the Spirit”.

The word “born again ” appears only a few times in the New Testament. Some denominations teach that this is primarily an experience, perhaps one related to conversion. When the word is linked to a broader context and related to the word pair life and death, the amount of the passages dramatically increases. However, it is about the same great saving action of God, which is also discussed in Romans: He brings life in the midst of death and light to darkness.

Here, God’s action is one great entity. Many things are parts of this action, i.e. of bringing life in the midst of death, such as the death and resurrection of Christ on Golgotha, the calling action of the Holy Spirit, the blessing of Church with the gifts of God’s grace – and the holy baptism. Both of the mentioned passages connect baptism with the gift of new life, i.e. to be born again.

c. Becoming a member of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
(1 Corinthians 12:12-13, ESV)

In Corinth, there lived a congregation very troubled and dear to Paul. Its problems were, on one hand, great spirituality and, on the other, life in “flesh” related to it. Especially when it came to gifts of God’s grace, people unnecessarily looked down or up to each other. In chapter 12, Paul goes through the issue with them very patiently, even insisting.

The basis of a person belonging to Christ is not on the glorious spiritual gift he or she has received, nor anything else that is in him or her. It is what the Holy Spirit has baptized into members of Christ’s body that belongs to Christ (12:12-13). After this, the Holy Spirit gives each member its own place and task. They mark for difference but not inequality. They mean –as has beautifully been said – that baptism is like pastor ordination since afterwards every Christian has his or her own mission in the world. But belonging to Christ is not based on various gifts or missions, but on the God’s act of grace, which is received in baptism.

d. Dressing in Christ (Galatians 3:26-29)

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.
(Galatians 3:26-29, ESV)

The main problem concerning the letter to Galatians was the relationship between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians. Paul had taught that pagans could become children of God only by trusting Christ. However, now there were teachers coming to Galatia, who thought Gentile Christians were not truly Christians until they started to follow the Law of Moses and were circumcised.

In the third chapter of Galatians Paul says that God has given His blessing to Abraham and his seed – to one single person. How can we become part of this blessing? This is what Paul answers: That “seed”, the one single person, is Christ. When we are baptized in His unity, dressed in Christ and united into one being with all Christians and, before all, Christ – we become His body. At this point, it does not matter who was born a Jew and who was born a Greek, since God’s action donates us grace and baptism delivers it to us personally.

e. Baptism is a covenant of good conscience (1 Peter 3:20-22)

Because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but vas an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
(1 Peter 3:20-22, ESV)

Peter compares baptism to the ark and the flood. Baptism is like a ship which floats the Christian whenever a wrecking flood is approaching. The point is not that a man promises to give up his filthy life – even though that is also important according to Romans 6 – but that God has made a “covenant of good conscience”. The Greek word eperotema literally means a question, or here a contract in which the weaker party complies when asked. “Thus, the contract or the covenant of good conscience primarily means that God offers man forgiveness and good conscience, which man gratefully accepts.” (J. Thurén)

3. Baptism saves and doesn’t save

A central but often forgotten passage is 1. Corinthians 10:1-11, where Paul compares people of the new covenant to the wandering of people of the old covenant from Egypt to the Promised Land. Even then, everyone was “baptized into Moses in the sea”, but did not make it to the Promised Land because they fell into disbelief.

Did God save these people from Egypt and from the Pharaoh’s army? Yes, He did, because He set them on the journey towards the Promised Land.
Did they make it? No, because they fell into disbelief.

The same applies to baptism: Everyone who has been baptized has received a true and definite act of salvation from God, to which we can safely lean on. However, we are not there yet, and the way to Heaven is long and dangerous.

Here in the Western Europe, we can see many people who have been baptized but are not on their way to Heaven, but rather to condemnation. It is a huge mission for us to throw ourselves into! Here, I see that God has given me a great calling to keep working on our own, largely secular and troubled church.

4. Break Points

Based on what I’ve said before, I will present a few arguments which discussants may want to take a stance on. If these issues are agreed on, other problems will be solved. But if these issues cause disagreement, it will most likely recur as the discussion goes on. That is why it is good to immerse ourselves in the following theses:

a. Every person, including children, on his own is completely under sin and is saved only by the action of God.

b. God has set baptism as a way to salvation and that is why it is necessary to salvation, also for children. However, God is not bound so that He could not save someone who is not baptized – God is free.

c. Baptism is a gift of God for us, in which He truly and surely gives us what we need in order to get to Heaven. The main question in baptism is: Is Christ present or not, and are we forgiven for our sins or not. If not, baptism is of no use. If yes, this act of God is all we need.

d. In addition to being a gift, baptism is also an obligation. In baptism we have been oriented toward Heaven, but we are not there yet. Many of those who have been baptized get lost on the way as they deny the Lord. But we have the permission to walk toward Heaven with God’s people and be part of God’s people already here and once in Heaven.