Baptism is a means of grace for the Church. There are varying views within Christianity about the purpose and how it should be done (sprinkle with water, or immersion), as well as what actually happens when one is baptized. Is there any cleansing that takes place spiritually? Is it effectual for saving someone? Do you need to be baptized in order to go to Heaven? With all of this, though, there are several things that come to mind when I consider the subject, especially when talking with or counseling a new believer who is saying they want to be baptized.
What Is The Gospel?
This is probably the most important question to ask someone who wants to be baptized. If they get this wrong, then they’re probably not ready to go under (can you tell where I stand on the sprinkle or dunk debate?). So I’ll simply ask a person, “What is the Gospel?” Then I’m listening for some key things to help me determine genuine faith, or if the person believes that being baptized will save them, or get them closer to God in and of itself.
I’m listening for things like…
“The gospel means that if I live a good life, and try hard enough, then…”
Most likely you see the rub here. It’s paramount that a person understand that the Gospel is a work of God’s sovereign and initiatory grace, and not human effort or a performance before God. When someone believes this, truly, and God has done a saving work on them, that person will not lean on their own works. I’d much rather hear…
“The Gospel is the truth that Jesus…”
Of course there are many things that could follow this statement, but at least I know then that they are not leaning on themselves. Their eyes are not inward, but Godward. They recognize that their salvation is something that Jesus, and Jesus alone could have accomplished FOR them. This is a HUGE deal. But let’s just say that they do misunderstand, or give a “wrong” answer to the question. That doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t in Christ, but it does mean that you, or another mature believer, should teach them what is true, and help guide them to a clearer perspective. The reason this is so important is because baptism is picture of the Gospel in a tangible and visible form. So It’s important to protect and guard with truth. It is those who do not guard this, and willy-nilly go about having people step into the baptism waters, to then end up with a group of professing Christians walking away from Christ, or living in habitual sin, and thinking that the first baptism must not have “work”.
Again, baptism doesn’t “work”! Jesus does!
If a person knows, believes, and is fully convinced that Jesus is the ONLY way to their personal salvation from sin and death, and they can articulate some manner of that truth from the heart, there’s a good chance they’re saved, and should be baptized.
What Has God Done to Change You?
The first, or at least one of the first visible signs of a person’s believing the Gospel is repentance from sin. This is seen all throughout the New Testament.
Mark 1:15 “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 20:21 “Testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Mark 1:4 “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
If these Scriptures are true, and they indeed are, then we have to believe that a person’s profession of public faith is rooted in a real desire to turn from sin and follow Jesus. So I will ask a person wanting to be baptized to be ready to confess such things.
“I was an angry and bitter man, but Jesus has loved me and died for me, and today he’s taught me to love others like he does.”
“My life was enslaved by drugs, but Jesus saved me from my sin, and I no longer need a substance. I have Christ, the all-satisfying God who loves me and died for me!”
But it’s not just the individual sins that a person is repenting from when redeemed by God. It’s the underlying sin of unbelief. The unsaved sinner does not believe that God is the greatest good that we need, and that Jesus alone can bring us to him. All of our rebellion and sinning and wallowing in the mire of specific sins and vices is a result of that greatest sin, the sin of not loving God as God, and ruler of our lives. At the root of a repentant heart is at least a small understanding that a person’s whole life before coming to believe in Christ, whether it was a reasonably good life by human standards, or a wretched life of sin and shame, was a life separation from God, a consequence we deserve. So, the most important change I want to see in a person who desires to be baptized, is not that they don’t want to be “bad” anymore, but that Jesus is now the all-satisfying object of their worship and deepest affections. Everything else that needs to be changed will change in His timing, when Christ is at the center.
Public Proclamation of New Identity
One thing that the Bible is very clear about, and that our culture seems to sadly diminish, is that Christian faith is meant to be public, not secret. A biblical understanding of baptism helps a person to begin their journey with Christ on the right (correct) foot. Case after case in the New Testament narrative we see faith in Christ, then immediate baptism. We even have one occasion recorded in Acts where we see a new believer searching for water along the roadside so that he could be baptized soon after his believing. “Here’s water! What hinders me from being baptized?” That story does not prescribe a method or manner we are to follow today, but it does give us an example of new believers desire to go public with what Jesus has done in his or her heart.
Identity in Christ means that who we are now, is not who we were. What masters us is different. Our family is now different. Our father was Satan, now it’s God. So when Jesus told the disciples to “Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit…” he was talking about new identity. To be a new disciple, in Jesus’ mind, was to be inducted and immersed into the life of the God-head, with God as Father, Jesus as servant and Savior, and Spirit as Comforter and Helper. And because Jesus placed water baptism at the beginning of a Christian’s journey, and that the person who made the new disciple (another believer) has performs the baptism, this is a family affair.
When a person is ready to be baptized, ask them about the Gospel. Make sure they know it’s a work of grace, not human effort. Listen for and watch for fruits of repentance from sin. Encourage hearts that to be buried in the waters of baptism, and to rise up from that “grave”, is a mark of new identity that they now share with the Church, locally and globally, and more importantly, an identity they share with the risen Christ. Baptism is a beautiful means of grace. Let’s take it seriously, and disciple people with wisdom and care.