The Meaning of Baptism (Part 1 of 2)

by Kevin L. Hester

Since at least the seventeenth century, the doctrine of baptism has been hotly contested. Debates have raged over the mode, significance, efficacy, and proper subjects of baptism. Now four centuries later many have grown accustomed to the practice, but have thought little about the theological aspects of baptism. In this article, and a subsequent one, I hope to prompt the reader to reflect on some of these important issues.

We will first examine baptism as it is presented in Scripture. We will begin by looking at what baptism signifies. Second, we will reflect on some of the biblical data regarding the subject of baptism, and respond to some of the most common objections made by proponents of infant baptism.

Baptism Instituted

The ordinance of baptism was instituted by Christ to be performed in His church until His return. The Great Commission found in Matthew 28:18-20 includes, as part of the discipleship process, instructions to baptize believers. Thus, baptism is linked to conversion and discipleship. In baptism we follow the command of our Redeemer and demonstrate the Word in a visible form. What aspects of the Word are demonstrated by the act of baptism?

Cleansing from Sin

The first signification of baptism is cleansing. The Greek word baptizo literally means “to wash or cleanse.” Cleansing is commonly associated with water and therefore explains the element of water in baptism. Baptism is a picture of the regeneration of the new believer.

In Romans 6:6 we read that in baptism we signify putting off the old man and putting on the new man. This pictures the new birth of the believer wrought by the Holy Spirit that is commonly called regeneration. We also find the cleansing motif expressed as an image of forgiveness of sins. In Acts 2:38 and 22:16, baptism, along with faith, is so closely associated with salvation that it is pictured as an aspect of this cleansing from sin. The efficacy of baptism in this process is debated, but it is sufficient here to note the close relationship of the ordinance to the concept of forgiveness.

Union with Christ

Baptism also demonstrates our position in Christ. Not only are we seen as forgiven, and therefore right before God, but we are placed in union with Christ, our Redeemer. Romans 6:3-6 speaks of the fact that as we are baptized into Christ we are so joined to Him that His death is our death and our sin is His sin. In this way, baptism displays the satisfaction view of the atonement as it expresses our union with Christ and all its concomitant blessings.

Our position in reference to other believers is also set forth. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul argues that just as there is one faith, one hope, and one baptism, all believers are united with one another as they are united with Christ. Thus, our unity with other believers in a life of discipleship is also an import of baptism.

A New Life of Discipleship

As the believer moves from spiritual death to spiritual life in regeneration, baptism also visibly proclaims this change. Subsequent to this spiritual change, the act of baptism also serves as a pledge on the part of the believer to live as a disciple of Christ. In baptism, we have the believer’s visible testimony of an inward spiritual change. The believer’s repentance and faith are typically proclaimed in the words of institution commonly used in baptism as the officiant verifies repentance and faith.

In the history of the early church, baptism usually came at the conclusion of an extended period of catechesis. The believer would affirm his or her faith through a baptismal creed and commit himself or herself to a life of obedience to Christ. Baptism was in this respect a covenantal commitment on the part of the believer. This aspect of baptism is seen in Paul’s reflection in Romans 6 where baptism serves as the motive for holy living. Paul argues that the purpose of our baptism was so that we might “walk in newness of life” (v.4). We are called to consider ourselves “dead to sin” (v. 11) because we are now “slaves to righteousness” (vv. 18-19).

Promises of Baptism

Scripture also ties a number of biblical promises to the act of baptism as if our baptism serves as a pledge or guarantee of their receipt. First among these is adoption. Galatians 3:26 promises a place to us as sons and daughters of God in light of our baptism. In verse 29 of the same chapter we see that baptism also speaks of our participation in the Abrahamic covenant. We are seen as heirs according to the promise that was made to him.

Through baptism we also receive the promise of the resurrection of our bodies. Romans 6:5 proclaims that if we are raised with Christ in baptism we will also be raised with His likeness after the image of His resurrection.

Finally, the ordinance of baptism promises us the gift of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist proclaims in Matthew 3:11 that the one who comes after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Peter also speaks of this connection in Acts 2:38 when he promises the Holy Spirit as the attendant circumstance of belief and baptism.


It is for these reasons that the Protestant reformers referred to the ordinances as a “visible word.” As ministers, our baptismal services should reflect Scripture’s truth. We should preach and teach baptism as a reminder of the forgiveness experienced by the believer. The atonement shines forth in the picture of baptism as both a cleansing from sin and a union with Christ.

But baptism speaks to more than the initiation of salvation; it speaks also to its consummation. As we put on Christ in baptism, we commit ourselves to covenant obedience. We testify to our conversion and pledge ourselves to a new life lived under the guidance of the Spirit and the authority of our Lord. The promise of our baptism will be received when this new life is empowered by the Holy Spirit and eschatologically fulfilled in the resurrection on the last day.

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