From the very beginning of the church’s life, people have marked becoming a Christian by getting baptised. Many readers will be familiar with parents having their babies baptised (or “christened”, as it is often called), as they make promises on their child’s behalf, trusting that in due course they will confirm those promises for themselves (see Can I have my baby christened?). But every year across the world, millions choose to get baptised, as adults, teenagers or older children, once they have made their own personal decision to follow Jesus. This practice of “believers’ baptism”, as it is called, is followed in Pentecostal, Baptist, and many evangelical churches, among others. But why do people do this?
Why do people get baptised?
The first reason for getting baptised is that Jesus commanded it. In fact, it was one of the very last things he told his disciples to do before returning to heaven: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Second, this is exactly what the disciples went on to do. On the Day of Pentecost, when the crowd responded to Peter’s message by asking what they had to do to be saved, he replied, “Repent and be baptised, 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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’” (Acts 2:38-39). And they then went on to immediately baptise them (Acts 2:41).
Note the order of things there: “repent and be baptised.” Repentance—acknowledging your sin and deciding to follow Jesus—had to precede baptism, not the other way round. In fact, every example of baptism in the New Testament shows that baptism came after conversion, not before it, promoters of believers’ baptism point out (e.g. Acts 2:37-39, 41; 8:12, 35-38; 10:44-48; 16:14-15; 16:29-34; 18:8).
Getting baptised can’t make you a Christian; rather, it demonstrates that God has already made you a Christian.
How are people baptised?
The vast majority of churches that baptise only believers do so by immersing them fully in water, though a few do it by pouring water over the head. Why immerse them? Because that’s exactly what the word “baptise” originally meant. It comes from a Greek word (the language in which the New Testament was written) and means to dip or submerge. So in Greek writings, we find people ‘baptising’ a cup into a bowl of water to fill it; ‘baptising’ a piece of cloth into a dye to penetrate its every fibre and change its colour; ‘baptising’ onions to pickle them; they even talked about a ship being baptised when it was sitting on the bottom of the sea, completely waterlogged. The very concept of baptism is therefore to immerse completely. And that’s why the vast majority of believers’ baptism are by complete immersion.
The baptism of believers in the New Testament was an external sign of the internal change that had already taken place within them
What is baptism all about?
The baptism of believers in the New Testament was an external sign of the internal change that had already taken place within them—its dramatic nature both affirming and reinforcing that change.
This external sign expresses a number of things that have now happened internally. The New Testament sums these up as:
- Washing for dirty people
Baptism is a powerful symbol that Jesus has indeed washed us clean, by dying on the cross in our place and paying the price for our sins, so that we can now be brought into God’s holy presence—absolutely clean—and become his friends.
See: Acts 22:16; 1Corinthians 6:-11; Ephesians 5:25-26; Titus 3:3-7; Hebrews 10:19-22; 1 Peter 3:21-22
- Burial for dead people
The Bible describes baptism as a burial—our final break with our old life, and our acknowledgement that we can’t return to it any more. It’s a declaration that I have died to my old life and have started a new life with Jesus. It can’t stop me sinning (because it isn’t ‘magic’); but it is God’s reminder to me that my old life has gone and that I now no longer need to sin because Jesus lives within me by his Spirit.
See: Romans 6:1-14; Colossians 2:9-15
- Oneness for separated people
Before we become Christians, we are cut off from God, excluded from his purposes and promises, without hope for this world or the next. But through faith in Christ’s death on the cross for us, God takes us—separated people—and not only brings us to himself, but actually makes us one with himself (Ephesians 2:11-13). In baptism we are identifying ourselves absolutely and completely with him, and he with us. We are saying, not only that Jesus was crucified, buried and raised for me; but that I believe that I have been crucified, buried and raised with him. His death is my death; his burial is my burial; his resurrection is my resurrection. I have been baptised into him; and because of that I am no longer separated from my heavenly Father.
I have been baptised into him; and because of that I am no longer separated from my heavenly Father.
See: Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:26-28
- Fullness for empty people
In the New Testament baptism in water is very closely linked with baptism in the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t want us to be simply immersed in water (a momentary event); he wants us to be immersed, just as completely, in his Holy Spirit. He wants us not just clean, but full—full of the life of Jesus; full of his love and joy; full of his peace and power; in fact, so full that it is as if streams of living water were flowing from within us continuously (see John 7:37-38).
This is why the coming of the Holy Spirit is normally closely linked to baptism in the New Testament – although not always in the same, neat order!
See: Matthew 3 v16; Acts 2 v38-41; 8:14-17; 10 v44-48; 19 v1-7; Titus 3 v4—6
- Family for isolated people
God’s plan has always been to build a global family for himself. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, that plan for ‘family’ really swung into action as all the obstacles to ‘family’—things like selfishness, self-interest, hatred, divisiveness—were now removed. That means that when we come to Jesus, we discover that we have not just come to him, but to a huge family of others who have also come to him. Baptism was always seen in the New Testament as the doorway in to God’s great big family. This is why baptism, although intensely personal, can never be a private event.
Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.
See: Acts 2:41-42; 1 Corinthians 12:12-13; Ephesians 2:14-18; 4:4-6
So what about you?
Have you made a decision to follow Jesus as your Saviour and Lord? If you haven’t, but are still looking for answers, don’t get baptised yet. Remember, baptism can’t make you a Christian. Rather, it’s what demonstrates and confirms that you have become a Christian. So keep on with your searching until you find Jesus—and then get baptised!
But if you have become a Christian and have not yet been baptised, then the obvious question is: why not? Especially when Jesus commands it so clearly.
Don’t wait until you’re perfect, or you will wait a long time. None of us are ever good enough—that’s the point of baptism. It’s a powerful demonstration of the truth that we cannot do anything to save ourselves; only a brand-new start with Jesus will do.
Don’t be put off by what people will think. Many will respect and admire you for your decision—though some of course will sneer. But why worry? After all, if you can’t get this basic step of obedience to Jesus right, how will you get any future ones right?
Remember, the Apostle Peter said, “Repent and be baptised, 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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”