The Meaning of Baptism

Why does initiation into the Christian church involve baptism? What’s going on in Christian baptism that’s different than simply taking a bath? I’ve long been aware that it signifies having our sin washed away, and dying and rising to new life, but before preparing this study I had begun to be a little concerned that perhaps I had just taken people’s word for it that that’s what baptism signifies, and I felt that my understanding was a bit vague, so I wanted to establish for myself what the Bible actually says about what baptism means…

We’re going to look at a few different passages. The first passage I want to look at is Romans 5v12 – 6v14.

Transferred from Adam to Christ

At the start of chapter 6, Paul anticipates an objection to, or misapplication of, his teaching in chapter 5 that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more”. Paul’s opponents objected that people might take this teaching as an invitation to continue in sin so that grace may abound.

In answering this objection – in his argument against continuing in sin – Paul refers to baptism.

Paul assumes that the people he’s addressing have already been baptised into Christ (v3: “all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus”). That’s one aspect of the significance of baptism: we’re baptised into Christ. It signifies our union with him. The fact that we have been baptised is a sign to us that we are in Christ.

Paul has just explained in chapter 5 that sin came into the world through one man (Adam), and death through sin, but then the grace of God and the free gift of righteousness came into the world through another man (Jesus).

We’re all born into Adam, but then as Christians we are baptised into Christ.

There are these two big camps. Every person in the world belongs to one of these camps. Either you’re in Camp Adam – the camp of sin and death, or you’re in Camp Jesus – the camp of grace and righteousness.

So when Paul talks about us being baptised into Christ Jesus in chapter 6, from the context of what he’s just been talking about in chapter 5, we can see that baptism signifies our transfer from Camp Adam to Camp Jesus. That’s one aspect of the meaning of baptism: we’ve been transferred from Adam to Christ.

Dead to Sin

Then Paul says that being baptised into Christ Jesus means being baptised into his death.

I tend to think of Jesus’ death as being about taking the punishment we deserve for our sins, and of course that is vitally important, but Paul’s point here about our baptism into Christ’s death is not actually about our sin being punished. In v6 he says our old self was crucified with Jesus in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. Our baptism into Christ Jesus is a sign that we are no longer enslaved to sin. We’re dead to sin.

That’s another aspect of the meaning of baptism: it signifies our having died to sin, and therefore, Paul argues, no, it doesn’t make sense to respond to the gospel of grace by continuing in sin so that grace may abound.

I suppose my understanding of baptism was previously limited to it being a symbol of justification, and it certainly does signify justification, but its significance doesn’t end there. Paul teaches that our union with Christ through baptism is significant in our sanctification; having been baptised, it doesn’t make sense to go on sinning. Because we’ve been baptised into the death of Jesus, sin will no longer have dominion over us. And it’s not just negative (we’re dead to sin): Paul connects our baptism into Christ Jesus with being united with him in both his death and resurrection. Not only are we united to Christ in death and therefore dead to the power of sin, but just as he was raised from the dead, we too are now free to walk in newness of life.


Brought Safely Through Judgement

Next I would like us to look at 1 Peter 3v13 – 4v6.

Peter says baptism corresponds to the eight persons being brought safely through water in Noah’s ark, and he says it saves you.

Let’s remind ourselves about the ark by turning to Genesis 6v11-17.

I don’t really remember what I was thinking when I was baptised, but I’m pretty sure I wasn’t thinking about how God used water to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life under heaven.

The world was corrupt, and God poured out his judgement on it. He punished man’s sin by flooding the world with water, but a few people made it through alive.

The eight persons in the ark survived God’s judgement being poured out. Peter says baptism corresponds to that. Our baptism signifies that we’ve come through our own flood. God has poured out his judgement on our sin, but we’ve come through unharmed because Jesus is our ark. Jesus took the wrath that we deserved for our sin on himself so that we would not be destroyed.

That’s another aspect of the meaning of baptism: it signifies how Christ brings us safely through God’s judgement.

An Appeal to God for a Good Conscience

Now when Peter says baptism saves you, of course he doesn’t mean that the mere ritual of being baptised is what saves anyone. Nor does it mean that it’s impossible to be saved without baptism (the thief on the cross in Luke 23 didn’t have a chance to get baptised, but Jesus said he would be with him in paradise). But it does mean that what baptism signifies saves us. In particular, Peter says our baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and that is how we’re saved.

V18 tells us that Jesus’ goal was to bring us to God, but we can only come to God if we are pure as he is pure. Chapter 4v5 tells us God is going to judge the living and the dead. This passage comes in the context of Peter encouraging believers to persevere in doing good even though they’re surrounded by people doing evil and even persecuting them for doing good. Peter reminds them that God punished people for their evil in Noah’s time when he flooded the world, and the people in their own day who were persecuting them and trying to persuade them to join them in their evil ways would also have to face God’s judgement. God will punish evil, and if we want to escape his wrath, we will need to be declared innocent; we will need a good conscience.

Baptism is an appeal to God for a good conscience. It’s possible to appeal to God for a good conscience without baptism, but God has designed this physical sign for us. He wants us to associate this tangible experience of baptism with making an appeal to him for a good conscience.

We are saved by appealing to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the same way that the eight persons were saved from God’s judgement by getting into the ark, putting their trust in the ark to save them from the water, we are saved by appealing to God on the basis of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I thought it was interesting that it’s not through the death of Jesus, but the resurrection. He died to pay the price that needed to be paid for our sins, and the resurrection proved that the cheque cleared! That’s how we can be sure that our appeal will be successful: the ark didn’t sink – the eight were brought safely through the water – and Jesus didn’t sink either – God’s judgement was poured out on him, but he wasn’t destroyed. He was raised from the dead and now he’s seated at the right hand of God in heaven, so if we rely on him, we can be sure we’ll be safe.

All In One Spirit

The last passage I want to look at is 1 Corinthians 12v1-31.

Here Paul teaches that baptism points to our unity with other believers. We were all baptised into one body.

He says in v12 that in the same way our bodies are made up of a number of different parts, Christ’s body is made up of a number of different parts, and in v27 you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

We’re probably familiar with this illustration that Paul uses to teach that God has deliberately made Christians a diverse bunch of people with a variety of gifts, and we’re supposed to work together. No one is supposed to think they’re more important than other Christians because they have a more presentable gift, and no one is supposed to think the body could do without them because their gift is less presentable.

Apparently this was an issue that needed to be addressed in the church in Corinth. The way Paul repeatedly refers to the one Spirit who gives all Christians their different gifts seems to suggest that perhaps they thought there were a number of different spirits, perhaps of different ranks, each distributing different types of gifts of different value. Paul corrects this in chapter 12:

v4 – “there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit”

v8-11 – “utterance of wisdom, utterance of knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, working of miracles, prophecy, ability to distinguish between spirits, tongues, interpretation of tongues… all these are empowered by one and the same Spirit.”

v13 – “in one Spirit we were all baptised… and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”

All the different gifts that Christians have come from the one Spirit, and it’s the one Spirit in which we were baptised.

So this is a different kind of point about the meaning of baptism than what we saw in Romans and Peter. In Romans 6 we saw that baptism is a sign of unity with Christ in his death and burial and resurrection, and in 1 Peter 3 we saw that baptism corresponds to the way Noah was brought safely through the water of God’s judgement in the ark. In 1 Corinthians 12 it’s not that baptism signifies something about what’s happened to us as Christians, but it’s the fact that all Christians have been baptised in the same Spirit. As I look around at Christians who are different from me, the fact that we were all baptised in one Spirit reminds me that you’ve all been transferred from Adam to Christ the same as I have, you’ve been brought safely through God’s judgement the same as I have. And on that basis Paul teaches that we should value the variety of gifts that have been given to Christians. As we have all been baptised into Christ, we should care for one another and use our gifts, not to flaunt our spirituality, but to build one another up: v24-26: “God has so composed the body… that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together.”


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