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The Significance of Baptism

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Archives / 1961 / October

 

 

The Significance of Baptism

A. R. Fraser

History Professor, N.S.W., Australia

 

 

ONE of the fundamental beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, held in common with other conserva­tive Christian faiths, is that of baptism by immersion. We consider baptism to be one of the ordinances of the Chris­tian church and a fitting memorial of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As a ceremonial act, baptism ante­dates the Christian Era. That the Jews were familiar with the procedure involved is clear from the fact that baptism by im­mersion was one of the requirements that proselytes to Judaism were required to ful­fill. Pharisaic opposition to the Johannine baptism was based not on a dispute over the validity of the rite but on the question of his authority to perform it. However, in being baptized by John, our Lord showed by His very observance that He recognized in this rite a heaven-ordained ceremony. Its institution as a Christian ordinance gave to baptism a far greater significance than it had ever possessed be­fore. This article seeks to consider some of the more significant points of which baptism is a fitting symbol.

Baptism Signifies Purification

To the Jew familiar with the Mosaic system the "divers washings" (Heb. 9:10) given in the ordinances had a spiritual sig­nificance. They referred not only to physi­cal cleanliness but also had definite appli­cation to the concept of spiritual purifica­tion. In his prayer of deep confession David implored God, "Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps. 51:7). There was in his mind a desire to be spiritually clean. The ordinance of baptism is a fitting sym­bol of such cleansing and purification from sin. In The Desire of Ages we read, "As a symbol of cleansing from sin, he [John] baptized them in the waters of the Jordan. Thus by a significant object lesson he declared that those who claimed to be the chosen people of God were defiled by sin, and that without purification of heart and life they could have no part in the Messiah's kingdom."—Page 104. The ex­perience of the newly converted Saul of Tarsus reveals that baptism symbolizes the washing away of sins. In Acts 22:16 Paul recalls his experience with Ananias who said, "Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord." The washing away of sins is not accomplished merely by the act of baptism, for this in itself has no virtue. The efficacy of the baptismal act comes when there is in addition a spirit of repentance and belief that "the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). This cleansing, the apostle states two verses later, is the direct product of confession on our part coupled with forgiveness on God's part. It is the function of the cleans­ing power of the gospel—"the power of God unto salvation" (Rom. 1:16)—to re­move unrighteousness from the sinner, and baptism is merely the outward symbol of this inner cleansing.

Baptism Signifies a Change of Ownership

Paul says "so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death" (Rom. 6:3). What the apostle has in mind here is that this experience of be­ing "baptized into Jesus Christ" means be­coming the property of Jesus Christ. Hence­forth all our old allegiances are forgotten, all links with previous ownership are sev­ered, and the newly baptized Christian is "under new management." Baptism there-fore signifies the renunciation of all the links with the old life of sin; "old things are passed away; behold, all things are be­come new" (2 Cor. 5:17), and we are now the property of the Redeemer. The life of the believer is joined in such a close re­lation with Christ that the two become one in the bonds of spiritual unity.

Baptism Signifies a Vital Connection with Christ

An examination of the words used by Christ in the gospel commission as recorded in Matthew 28:19 reveals the words "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." Practically the same ex­pression was employed by Peter in his ser­mon on the Day of Pentecost when he told the people to "repent, and be baptized ev­ery one of you in the name of Jesus Christ"

(Acts 2:38). The newly converted and baptized believer leaves the family of sin and is adopted into the family of God through Jesus Christ, and accordingly re­ceives a new name signifying a real and abiding union with his redeeming Lord. Paul states that those who are baptized in the name of Christ "have put on Christ"

(Gal. 3:27). Here is an indication of that intimate relationship which comes with the adoption of the name Christian. Ellen G. White has well said, "If we are true to our vow, there is opened to us a door of com­munication with heaven—a door that no human hand or satanic agency can close." —The SDA Bible Commentary, Comments, on Rom. 6:3, p. 1075.

Baptism Signifies Faith in Christ

One of the important prerequisites for baptism is an abiding faith in, and a full acceptance of, Jesus Christ as our per­sonal Saviour. Baptism is the outward ex­pression of the believer's faith in the aton­ing death of Christ. Notice that Jesus re­ferred to the necessity of belief preceding baptism when He said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved" (Mark 16:16). Those who accept the gospel will reveal this in two ways: by faith in Jesus and by the rite of baptism. The first is a deep, inward, and personal acceptance of the vicarious atoning sacrifice by Christ for man's salvation. The second is a sign to the world of the inward change such an acceptance brings. John 3:16, Acts 2:38, and Acts 16:30, 31 all show the connection between belief and salvation.

Baptism Signifies Repentance

Peter in his Pentecostal sermon stirred the hearts of his hearers who inquired, "What shall we do?" His reply contained two actions, "Repent, and be baptized." Notice that in the order given here, repent­ance precedes baptism. This was the watch­word of the early gospel preaching, "Re­pent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (Matt. 3:2). After John's ministry Christ preached the same doctrine of re­pentance. Indeed, throughout the early Christian church repentance was central in the preaching of the apostles. Baptism therefore is an outward sign of true re­pentance of sin and the manifestation of the inward desire to be cleansed. Ellen G. White suggests that repentance is an in­dispensable forerunner of baptism. She says: "Conviction takes hold upon the mind and heart. The sinner has a sense of the righteousness of Jehovah, and feels the ter­ror of appearing, in his own guilt and un-cleanness, before the Searcher of hearts. He sees the love of God, the beauty of holiness, the joy of purity; he longs to be cleansed, and to be restored to communion with Heaven."—Steps to Christ, p. 24. David revealed the same thoughts in his prayer, "For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me" (Ps. 51:3). "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (verse 7).

Baptism Signifies Death and Burial

One of the several outstanding features of Christian baptism is the fact that it is a memorial testifying to the atoning death of Christ on Calvary. Paul makes the symbol­ism even clearer in Romans 6:3 when he writes, "Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were bap­tized into his death?" For Paul this was the inner meaning of baptism—first it was a symbol of Christ's death and second it was a fitting symbol of the believer's renuncia­tion of his former life, his death to sin. He reinforces this contention by saying, "Old things are passed away" (2 Cor. 5:17).

Just as Christ was crucified and experi­enced death fully and completely as He lay in the grave, so the rite of baptism sig­nifies the crucifixion of the old life and its complete death. Not only is baptism a death but it is also a burial. Paul says we are "buried with him in baptism" (Col. 2:12). In the physical realm burial follows a man's death; so in the spiritual world the believer is said to go down into the watery grave, there to bury the former life, which has passed away with the acceptance of Christ. The symbolism here is well chosen by the apostle, for in physical death the normal procedure is to be lowered into the grave, face upward, there to be covered completely by earth. In spiritual death, as the figure of baptism represents, the be­liever is lowered into the water face up­ward and is completely immersed.

Baptism Signifies Entrance Into a New Life

Here the symbolism that is linked with the previous point renders the figure com­plete. Not only are we buried with Christ in baptism but "like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4). This new life represents a higher level of human experience in which new values and desires replace the former sinful desires. We become "partak­ers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) be­cause in accepting Christ we have been given "power to become the sons of God" (John 1:12). The animating force behind this new life is revealed by Paul in Galatians 2:20, where he says, "And the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me."

Finally, the newly baptized believer who is "risen with Christ" out of the watery grave will reveal this by his desire to "seek those things which are above," and he will set his "affection on things above, not on things on the earth." There is now a new power at work.

Through the power of Christ men and women have broken the chains of sinful habit. They have renounced selfishness. The profane have become reverent, the drunken sober, the profligate pure. Souls that have borne the likeness of Satan have become transformed into the image of God. This change is in itself the miracle of miracles. A change wrought by the Word, it is one of the deep­est mysteries of the Word. We cannot understand it, we can only believe, as declared by the Scrip­tures, it is "Christ in you, the hope of glory."— The Acts of the Apostles, p. 476.

 

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