Christian Basics

Baptism: A sign of repentance

[dandelion] Introduction

The gospel concerns the coming Kingdom of God. When we tell people about God's Kingdom, we conclude by inviting them to become members. Membership in the Kingdom of God requires the response of repentance and faith. The act of repentance, or turning toward Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, is often expressed outwardly in water Baptism. So, baptism is an outward expression of repentance, symbolizing the washing away of our sins.

New Testament Baptism

John the Baptist was the great prophet who, in the first century, prepared the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus. He said that God was about to do a new and wonderful thing through his Messiah (the chosen one, i.e., Jesus). Up until that moment, all people were caught up in their own selfishness, unable to know God, but now it was going to be possible to both know God and serve him through his Son, (i.e., enter the Kingdom of God).

To any person who wanted to know God and was willing to turn toward Jesus (repent), John offered, on God's behalf, the forgiveness of all their sins, i.e., the removal of the barrier between mankind and God. To drive home their act of turning to God, John "dunked" the person in the river Jordan (baptized them). A good bath in the local river was a great symbol of what was happening. The person's sins were washed away, and they rose from the water a new person. It was an event they would never forget.

The disciples of Jesus continued the practice of baptism, although Jesus himself did not baptize anyone. After Jesus' death, the practice of water baptism continued along the same lines. Peter said to a crowd who had responded to his preaching, "Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins", Acts 2:38. If a person turns to God through Jesus Christ they will be forgiven everything they have ever done wrong. From then on they will be his friend forever.

Is baptism just for adults? A child who is seven days old can't repent, yet it does seem that infants were baptized with their parents during the New Testament period. The reason for this is that in the past God has always worked with families. If one member is blessed, all are blessed. Thus if the father believes, then the children are "blessed" by their father's faith. For this reason the children of a Christian home were baptized in infancy, since they could already be "children of God", or may be some day, cf. Ac.16:31-34, 1Cor.7:12-14. We will meet many people with Christian parents who have always believed in Jesus, but at the same time others will tell us that at a certain point of time they became a Christian. Picking the right moment to baptize is no easy matter.

The origin of water baptism

In the first century the Jews practiced proselyte baptism. When a person wanted to become a Jew they were baptized in water, either by sprinkling or dipping. If the person was the head of a home, then the whole family was baptized, although any further children born into the home were not baptized; they were automatically regarded as members of the Jewish community. We also know that the Essenes, a Jewish communal group living around the Dead Sea, practiced water baptism. They did it by full immersion, and even did it to Jews who wanted to become full members of their community.

The meaning of Christian baptism

There is little difference between Christian baptism and the baptism of John the Baptist; both are a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Act.2:37-38. In simple terms, baptism is a sign of repentance and the washing of forgiveness.

Yet, there is one particular implication which specifically applies to Christian baptism. It is the coming of the Holy Spirit. Repentance and belief moves a person into the Kingdom of God, and thus into the presence of God. The New Testament speaks of this as the coming, or "baptism" of the Holy Spirit - a washing with the Spirit, a being filled with the Spirit, Act.2:38. So, it is most likely that water baptism also symbolizes the coming (washing) of the Holy Spirit.


There are three extra implications of water baptism which are often spoken of in Christian circles. Although there is much truth in these points, there is little Biblical support for their link with water baptism.

i] A death to sin. For a Christian, forgiveness entails their sinful nature being nailed to the cross of Christ. Jesus' death and burial is, for the believer, the death of sin and the burial of their sinfulness. Their old life dies with Christ on the cross and is buried with him. That doesn't mean we are now sinless, but it does mean we are that way in God's sight, and eternally so. As far as heaven is concerned, we even now stand before the throne of God, perfected in his sight, Rom.6:1-4, cf. Col.2:11-12. Yet, the "burial" or baptism that Paul is speaking of in these passages is most likely not a baptism in water but rather a baptism in suffering - i.e., he is speaking of our identification with Christ in his suffering on the cross

ii] Entry into the church. Water baptism is often spoken of as a symbol of entry into the church. Many see it as a public confession of Christ and thus a means of becoming a member of "the body of Christ" - they see it as a way of joining in fellowship with other believers. There is little biblical support for this view, but it can be a practical way of expressing church membership. The Bible tends to portray water baptism as something between us and God.

iii] A sign of the new covenant. In the Old Testament, God's covenant (agreement) with the people of Israel was sealed in circumcision. Often believers see baptism as the seal or sign of God's promise of a new and unbreakable covenant based on Jesus' death for us. Again there is little biblical support for this point of view. The problem stems from a failure to understand the meaning of "baptism" in Colossians 2:9-12. In this context it means "immersed" into (identified with) Christ's death. Circumcision for a believer is a spiritual thing of the heart, Rom.2:28-29.

The meaning of the word "baptism"

In the New Testament the word "baptism" is used in four ways. All have the idea of "immerse". The word was commonly used in the cloth-dying industry where it gained its meaning to "dip" in water.

i] Immerse in water - the sign of repentance.

ii] Immerse in the Spirit. This "baptism" in the Spirit has two meanings. a) In Luke/Acts it refers to the empowering of the Spirit for service, as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel. b) In the Epistles it tends to refer to regeneration, i.e., the coming of the Spirit upon a person who is spiritually dead, making them alive at the moment of their belief in Jesus Christ, Rom.8:9-11, Gal.4:6, Tit.3:5-7.

iii] Immerse in suffering. For Jesus his passion was a baptism of fire, Matt.3:12

iv] Immerse in teaching. To immerse in the "Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" is to saturate a person with a knowledge of the Trinitarian God, Matt.28:19.

Family and Believers' water baptism

Those who hold to believers' baptism say that only a believer can be properly baptized, i.e., a person who has reached adulthood and has given their life to Jesus. Those who hold to family baptism say that God works in families such that the children of a Christian home are "blessed". These children are therefore baptized as an act of faith in anticipation (hope) of their personal acceptance of Jesus.

Churches such as the Baptist Church and the Church of Christ only perform adult baptisms. Infant baptism is performed in churches such as Roman Catholic, Anglican (Episcopalian), Methodist (Uniting), Presbyterian.... Christians today do not allow this issue to divide us since it has nothing to do with a person's standing in the sight of God. Entry into the Kingdom of Heaven has nothing to do with the method of water baptism a person may have undergone.

Summary notes

1. Water baptism is a sign or symbol of repentance and its consequence (forgiveness of sins).

2. The water itself does not save.

3. A person can be a Christian without water baptism.

4. It is a sign to the person being baptized.

5. Christians are divided on when we should be baptized and how. This is because the Bible is not clear on the subject.


A minister friend of mine in the Congregational church, on one hand practices family baptism, i.e., the baptism of infants from a Christian or nominal Christian home, and also believer's baptism. If anyone gave their life to Jesus while he is witnessing or preaching, he marches them down to the local beach and gives them a good dunking "in the name of Jesus". So, there's lots of different ways Christians practice water baptism. The important thing to remember is that the "rite" itself is a sign or symbol of:

repentance (i.e., the turning away from self to Jesus) and;

its consequence (i.e., forgiveness - the washing away of sin and rising up out of the water as a new person in Jesus).


Imagine you were an Anglican minister with non-church families coming to you for baptism. How do you think you would handle this situation in a way that would honor Christ?



Christian Basics


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