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.”

The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ

Galatians 6v18: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen.”

Finally, and briefly, because Paul brings this letter to a fairly swift conclusion in v18: In most of Paul’s letters he makes some final greetings, or passes on greetings from those who are with him, but to the Galatians he keeps it to the point. And in case you still hadn’t quite got the point of this letter, Paul finishes by stating his hope that the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ would be with the Galatians’ spirit. He calls them his brothers, so he’s talking about Christians, and he wants them not just to know about the doctrine of salvation by grace, but he wants that grace to continue to be with their spirit. We’re not just saved by grace initially and then have to get to work. We never get past the point of needing grace. It’s grace all the way. We’re justified by grace, and it’s grace that continues to work on our hearts to sanctify us. Amen.

The Marks of Jesus

Galatians 6v17: “From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.”

If you follow Jesus, who was beaten and crucified, you can expect to get scars yourself. Paul talks about his in 2 Corinthians 11: “imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”

So if you want to avoid suffering, the Judaisers had the right idea: you’ll want to leave the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ behind, because faithfully following Jesus will leave marks on you.

Paul has suffered for the sake of the gospel, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s one of the ways you know you can trust his message, because he’s not just telling people what they want to hear in order to gain popularity, but he keeps preaching faithfully even when it costs him.

Apparently that word translated “marks” is the word used for branding of slaves. Paul bears the marks of Jesus because he is Jesus’ slave, so he’s asking people not to cause him trouble because he’s working for Jesus. If Jesus is your Lord, you won’t want to cause trouble for Jesus’ servants.

Peace and Mercy

Galatians 6v16: “And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.”

Peace and mercy. Peace: freedom from disturbance; tranquility. Mercy: compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone who it is within one’s power to punish or harm. We all want peace, and we all need mercy. We live in a fallen, disturbed world, and we are part of it; we are fallen and disturbed ourselves. And we deserve punishment. Justice always seems like a good idea when other people are at fault, but when we find ourselves in a situation where we realise we’re the ones who justly deserve to be punished, then we plead for mercy.

How can we get peace and mercy?

Paul’s main purpose in this letter has been to oppose those who’ve been teaching the Galatians that they need to obey certain rules to make sure God accepts them. They taught that there were certain deeds you need to perform to be part of the Israel of God. Paul wraps up his argument by saying there is this one rule they need to obey: don’t boast in your circumcision or anything else except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, be crucified to the world with him and start living as a new creation by faith in him.

This is a bit of a strange rule, because the rule is that you must not trust in your obedience.

But the gospel is a rule that we must obey. If we obey this rule – if we completely give up on trying to earn God’s acceptance and rest all our hope on what Jesus has done for us – then God will accept us, and we’ll receive peace and mercy. If we disobey this rule – if we profess faith in Jesus but still try to contribute some of our own efforts towards our justification – then God will reject us.

A New Creation

Galatians 6v15: “For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.”

Paul said something similar in chapter 5v6: “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love”.

When it came up in chapter 5 I noted that it was interesting that Paul said “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything” – he could’ve just said “circumcision doesn’t count for anything” – that would’ve been enough to make the point that we shouldn’t rely on our religious deeds to earn points with God. But he also says uncircumcision doesn’t count. Back then I said he was not only reprimanding those who trusted that God approved of them because of their religious deeds, but he was also encouraging those who knew there was no way that their actions merited God’s approval – he wanted them to understand that, in Christ, their failure to achieve the right level of religious behaviour – their uncircumcision – doesn’t count. What counts is faith working through love, and that is given to them by God as a totally free gift.

This time, he describes what does count in a different way. Previously it was “faith working through love”; in chapter 6 it’s “a new creation”. We’ve just talked about being “crucified to the world” – being dead to the world’s way of earning approval by performing the right actions – because we’ve realised that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything and we’ve been crucified with Christ – that’s the first part: we’re dead to the law – then referring back to chapter 2 again (v19) Paul said he “died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Christianity is not about turning over a new leaf and starting to try and live God’s way – reading our Bibles, praying, going to church – you can do all those things for decades and it won’t earn you God’s approval. What you need is a new creation. You need to die to the law and be given a new life in Christ: a life based on the knowledge that the Son of God loved you and gave himself for you.

Far Be It From Me To Boast

Galatians 6v14: “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

People normally boast about something about themselves or something they’re associated with that they think is impressive. So sticking with the theme that Paul’s talking about (namely, what people in the church might boast about), in his context, there were people boasting about circumcision, and not just their own circumcision, but they wanted to be able to boast about the Galatians being circumcised. Today people might boast about themselves (what books they’ve read, how much time they spend praying each day, how many people they’ve shared the gospel with), or they might boast about the church that they’re proud to be associated with (how big it is, how orthodox it is, or how trendy it is, how many programs they run). Paul doesn’t think any of those things are worth boasting about. “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ is the key moment in the history of the world where the depth of God’s love was displayed so graphically as he was willing to suffer in that way. And we don’t just observe it as spectators from a distance; we experience his love ourselves because his suffering was for us. When we see the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ the way Paul saw it – how glorious God showed himself to be when he made that sacrifice for us sinners – we won’t be boasting in what good Christians we are, or how good our church is. That would be ridiculous. All we will want to boast in is the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul says “by (the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ) the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world”. To understand what he’s getting at here, I think we need to consider the previous verses that we just looked at.

Paul is contrasting himself with the people he was talking about in v12&13 who wanted to avoid persecution for the cross of Christ. They wanted to make a good showing in the flesh to impress people, to earn their approval.

Because the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ was everything to him, the world was dead to him. He doesn’t need anyone else’s approval anymore. This is similar to Philippians 3v7-8: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ”. Since Paul has seen and experienced the glorious love of God in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, anything in the world that might take his attention away from Christ is useless to him. The world is crucified to him. The world can even persecute him for the sake of the cross of Christ if it wants; he’s not bothered. Christ is worth it.

Paul is also contrasting himself, boasting in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the people he was talking about in v12&13 who were boasting in the flesh, in circumcision. So when he says he has been crucified to the world, I think he’s referring back to chapter 2 where he said he’d been “crucified with Christ” (v20), and he “died to the law” (v19). The world boasts in the flesh. Even in the church, people boast in their works, not in circumcision anymore, but hoping they’ve put enough effort into living as a Christian should in order to earn God’s approval. Paul has been crucified to that by the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we’re united to Christ by faith in him, we’re dead to the law, dead to trying to earn God’s approval. God has already declared his approval of us; he’s declared us righteous; he’s justified us. We’re justified not by works of the law, but through faith in Christ.

Those Who Want to Make a Good Showing in the Flesh

Galatians 6v12-13

Those who would force the Galatians to be circumcised had two motivations: to make a good showing in the flesh (they wanted to boast in the Galatians’ flesh), and to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ.

In the UK in 2016, when someone mentions persecution, I think the most prominent people in our context who are so loudly opposed to Christianity and want to stamp it out are probably liberal atheists. So to us, the idea of avoiding persecution by boasting in the fact that we persuaded people to be circumcised sounds bizarre. Liberal atheists aren’t going to stop persecuting us because we boast about persuading people to be circumcised.

In the context of this letter, the people who would’ve been impressed by the Galatians’ circumcision, and who would’ve persecuted people for preaching the cross of Christ, were very devoutly religious, the Judaisers.

We see many people around us living in ways that are clearly contrary to God’s law, and I think I used to assume the reason people rejected Christianity was they don’t like having to obey the rules. And in some cases that might be true. But in this letter Paul warns us to look out for a less blatant way of rejecting Christianity.

The people Paul is warning about have rejected Christianity precisely because they do like having rules to obey, and these people are inside the church! They wanted the Galatian Christians to be circumcised. They wanted the Galatians to perform a work in the flesh that they could boast in. They wanted to be able to tell their Judaising friends how successful they’d been in getting so many of the Galatians up to that standard of holiness.

I think this kind of thing shows up in different ways in churches today. Some people might be proud of the number of people who attend their church services, or the number at the mid-week prayer meeting. For others it might be what people wear to the services (all the men wear ties), or that they sing the right songs, or they use the right Bible translation. Still others might be proud of their church’s evangelistic efforts and outreach programs.

It’s not that it’s wrong to care about those things. The problem arises when the reason we care about them is not really about keeping God’s law, but making a good showing in the flesh. In v13 Paul is talking about people who are circumcised, but do not themselves keep the law. Those people wouldn’t see it like that. They would say the reason for being circumcised was because they wanted to obey to the law. But the root of true obedience to the law is loving God and loving our neighbours (Matt 22:35-40, 1 Cor 13:3). The reason these people in Galatia were doing the outward actions that the ceremonial law required was not rooted in love for God or their neighbour; it was that they wanted to be seen to be obeying the law – they wanted to make a good showing in the flesh.

Do we sometimes “obey” like that? For example, it’s obviously a good thing to share the gospel with unbelievers, and I don’t mean to attack anyone who’s ever said anything like this – I’m sure their intentions are good – but it bothers me a bit when people talk about the unbelieving “contacts” they’ve had conversations with. It makes it sound like the reason for doing evangelism is more about wanting to be seen to obey the great commission and adding to your tally of contacts that you’ve shared the gospel with, rather than actually loving those people and wanting them to know Jesus.

The danger in pointing out our flawed motivations for trying to obey the law is that we might be tempted to give up on it. If we wait until our motives for evangelism (or anything else) are perfectly pure, we’ll never do anything. But I think Paul’s point is that it’s unhelpful to listen to people who would try to challenge us to obey the law in order to make a good showing in the flesh. He says they want to boast in your flesh – they want you to act in a certain way to make them look good – they want to use you to build up their own reputation, to be able to say “look how good my church is; look how much effort they put into this, that and the other, because of my teaching”. This contrasts with Paul’s desire for the Galatians in 4v19: “I am in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you”. Paul is not concerned with how the Galatians behaviour reflects on him; he just wants Christ to be formed in them, and let that inward transformation take care of their behaviour. There’s also a contrast with what Paul boasts in in v14: “far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. These other people in Galatia avoided the cross of Christ because they didn’t want to be persecuted, but Paul would boast in nothing else because the cross of Christ is everything. The cross of Christ is life to us; without it we’d be condemned to eternal just punishment for our sin. To Paul, the persecution he faced for the cross of Christ was worth it to see people come to faith in Christ and to see Christ formed in them.