EDITOR’S NOTE: J.D. Greear is president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of The Summit Church in Raleigh, N.C.
DURHAM, N.C. (BP) — I am a Baptist pastor. The church I lead may be known for a lot of things (and should be known for a lot of things), but one of the most critical elements of our theology centers on that often controversial word — Baptist. We make a big deal out of baptism.
Making a big deal out of baptism tends to draw some objections. I’ve heard a lot of them, most of which boil down to one basic question: What’s the big deal about baptism, anyway?
Here are four truths that shape the way we view baptism:
1. Baptism publicly declares your repentance.
There are many people in the South who get baptized but never repent. Maybe someone convinced you that you could accept Jesus as Savior without surrendering to Him as Lord — like He was a salad bar, where you can take the parts you want and leave the ones you don’t. But all throughout Scripture, we see that to be baptized is to repent. Baptism symbolizes us walking out of the wilderness of our sin and into the new life of faith and obedience.
If your life did not radically change when you got baptized, then it was not a baptism of repentance. You just got wet in front of a bunch of people.
2. Baptism is by immersion.
There are two reasons why we submerge people.
First, that’s how they did it in the Bible. Take John the Baptist, for instance. He wasn’t standing on the shore of the Jordan River with a cup, sprinkling water on people’s heads; he brought them into the river. He was dunking people.
The Greek word for “baptism” literally meant to plunge, soak or dip. The English translators didn’t know exactly how to translate that word (or perhaps they were afraid to take a stand), so they just transliterated it. The Greek Baptizo simply became “baptize.”
“Baptism” wasn’t actually a religious word at all. Sometimes they used it for people who drowned or ships that went down at sea. We even have a recipe for pickles recorded by a Greek physician named Nicander. He says, literally, “bapto (as in, dip quickly) the cucumber in water, and then baptizo (as in, immerse and let it soak) in vinegar.” And then he said, “Your pickle will be filled with the Spirit and speak in tongues.” (OK, I made that last part up.)
Second, we submerge people because of what it symbolizes. When you bury people, you don’t sprinkle dirt on them. You put them into the ground. In baptism, we are being buried with Jesus “by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
3. Baptism is not a condition of but evidence of salvation.
Many people think that Scripture presents baptism as a necessary condition of salvation. I can disprove that in one story: Jesus told the thief on the cross next to Him, “Today you’ll be with me in glory.” If baptism were necessary, He’d have been like, “Hurry! Somebody get a hose and a bucket!”
Romans 10:9-10 says, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.” Confess and believe. That’s it.
Baptism is like a wedding ring. Wearing a wedding ring does not make you legally married. It demonstrates that you have a covenant with your spouse. I am no more married when I wear my ring than when I don’t. In the same way, baptism demonstrates my conversion; it’s not a pre-condition of that conversion.
This is why, by the way, we only baptize after people become believers. If you get baptized before you are converted (say, as an infant), that is not an evidence of your faith. It’s evidence of your parents’ faith. Baptism is the evidence of repentance.
4. Baptism is incredibly important.
Martin Luther said the devil came to him every night “to dispute with him.” Luther said he learned some things would chase the devil away. One was to say, “Satan, I am baptized. I have left your wilderness. You have no more jurisdiction.”
When people ask me, “What’s the big deal about baptism? It’s just a ritual. It doesn’t change anything,” I point them to Jesus’ baptism.
When Jesus was baptized, He heard the affirmation of God and was filled by the Holy Spirit. No big deal? Seems pretty significant to me. Jesus is about to go into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. This affirmation of the Father will become the core of His resistance against Satan. He can say, “The Father has declared over me his love, and that love is going to give me the strength to withstand Satan.” His body may be in the wilderness, but God is His home.
Your baptism functions like that, too. Your baptism is like a flag you put in the ground that signifies for you and to everyone else that you have left the wilderness of sin where Satan rules and entered the promised land of obedience where God rules. Satan has no more jurisdiction!