What is Baptism?

When I was a child I had the privilege of growing up next to a large lake. An event that took place at the lake nearly every year of my life was a Ukrainian baptism. This event made an indelible impression on me (not just because it got me out of “normal” church), but because it was a time of joyful anticipation. There was singing, piano playing, and large men in white shirts and black pants playing tubas. The entire event culminated with a group of young men and women, dressed in white robes, gathering together at the edge of the lake and one by one walking into the water (sometimes quite cold) and being dunked by two men.

This is my earliest remembrance of baptism and though it did leave an impression on me, I can say with full confidence that I had no idea what was going on. They spoke a different language, and to me getting dunked in cold water was a bad idea no matter what the cause (in my opinion, baptism was kinda weird). Needless to say, my opinions and understanding of baptism have changed over the years, but I think all too often we as young people forget the importance and significance of this biblical command.

From what I’ve observed, baptism is not exactly the go-to topic for most pastors. More or less left in the shadows, it is simply understood that after you accept Christ as your Saviour, you go through instruction class, and then you get baptized. I am not trying to pour water on this approach, but I will argue that we as Christians should have a working understanding of what baptism is all about.

Article 11 of the 1963 Mennonite Confession of Faith is very straightforward. So this article will also be direct and to the point.

“We believe in obeying the instruction of the Lord Jesus to baptize believers with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

This statement is built firmly on Matthew 28:19-20, where Jesus commands his disciples to go into all the world and make disciples. This is the emphasis of the text, but according to Jesus, after going and making disciples, the new converts are then to be baptized and taught to observe all that He commanded. So we observe that baptism is not a matter of increased spirituality; it does not make you more saved or less saved. Rather, it is a matter of obedience. To put it very simply: Jesus commanded and therefore we obey.

Secondly, baptism is exclusive to believers only. As stated in the confession, “In order to qualify for baptism one must repent, turn to Christ in sincere faith, and accept Him as Lord.”

This means that infant baptism is out of the question since it is impossible for a baby to make a confession of faith. Likewise it is out of the question for an unbeliever to be baptized because there is no confession of faith (in case you didn’t notice, faith has a lot to do with baptism). Without faith in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ the doctrine of baptism has no point. Baptism is an expression of our faith in the death of Christ on our behalf and a recognition that through him we are cleansed from sin. So to be baptized without faith would be like attempting to swim without water, or draw without a pencil… it’s pointless.

Thirdly, baptism is a symbol of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, divine cleansing from sin and its guilt, identification with Christ in His death and resurrection, and the commitment to follow Him in a life of faithful discipleship. Romans 6:4 states, “Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.”

Here Paul gives us a clear picture of what baptism is: an outward expression of our new life in Christ. It represents the death of our old selves and the resurrection of our new selves. The old man is dead and buried with Christ and the new man has risen with Christ. We are new creatures, completely cleansed from unrighteousness. Therefore we no longer walk as we once walked. Baptism symbolizes our commitment to walk in the footsteps of Christ and keep his commandments.

Finally (and probably most controversially), the confession states: “Since baptism with the Holy Spirit is a pouring out, we generally practice pouring as our mode of water baptism.” I believe I can safely say this is the traditional Mennonite practice for baptism. The teaching is built on Acts 2:16-21, which speaks of God pouring out his Spirit in the last days.

I think this is a valid view, however, I would strongly caution against a dogmatic view on mode. One could just as easily say that immersion is best because it signifies the complete washing away of our sins. It could also be said that going down into the water signifies our death and our coming out of the water signifies our resurrection and new life.

While I do not in any way want to make it seem as though mode is unimportant, I’m not sure it is worth fighting over. The important thing is that we know and have faith in Christ. Without His work on our behalf baptism is meaningless.

Regardless of mode, the symbol of baptism represents our new life in Christ and our commitment to follow his commandments. Do we as Christians understand and cherish the implications of baptism?

Eddie and Stephanie Eddie Kinsinger and his wife, Stephanie, are currently living in Elnora, Indiana. He runs a small online business and is enrolled in a pastoral apprenticeship program under the direction of Truth and Grace Mennonite Church. He enjoys sugar, with a small drop of coffee as a garnish, and is greatly annoyed when forced to write a bio–in the third person. He enjoys reading and good conversations with friends.

2 thoughts on “What is Baptism?

  1. I would ask, have we before accepting Christ, counted the cost of following Him? Much less before baptism. Do we understand there should be a changed life with action… ” Therefore we no longer walk as we once walked. Baptism symbolizes our commitment to walk in the footsteps of Christ and keep his commandments.” Because if we truly walk in His footsteps and keep His actual commandments our lives should actually be rather different than what I not only see when I look in the mirror but also when I look around at not just professing Christians but within our churches.

    So to your point do we really understand baptism and what it means? Do we even understand what it is to be Christian…

    I’d also add that if we taught and understood clearly what baptism means and what accepting Christ (I prefer following Christ), then we wouldn’t need an instruction class for teenagers who mostly have spent a decade and a half or more in church… something seems wrong imo when a person who has spent a decade or so going to church needs instruction on the basics… Why does a teenager who grows up in church need a basics lesson ? We need to be addressing the issues causing the need to have instruction classes as teenagers, not the other way around, having the instruction class fill in where a decade of church has not taught the basics. We need to be living lives that teach at least the basics of a Christian life along with church teachings doing it on Sunday morning… if they are not we better look at the root…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You’re right, we don’t hear all that much teaching on baptism.

    I don’t think baptism is merely, or even primarily, a symbol. That is not the impression I get from Scripture. Conversion/baptism/receiving the Holy Spirit/becoming part of God’s church are all very active and closely intertwined in the Bible. Much about this subject is yet a mystery to me.

    Liked by 1 person

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