What Does Baptism Mean?

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What Does Baptism Mean?

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What does it mean?

The sign which signifies the washing of sins, being included in God’s people, and being united with Christ in His death and resurrection.

Having seen who should be baptized and how they should be baptized, let us now determine what baptized means.  As we briefly mentioned above, in Romans 6 and Colossians 2, Paul uses the imagery of immersion to depict someone being symbolically united with Christ in burial and resurrection.  Let us consider some of the images which the NT writers use to describe baptism and their meanings.

Three Pictures

Washing away sins

The waters of baptism do symbolize a washing or cleaning from sin.  This is specifically seen in Acts 22:16 where we read “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”  The context of this verse is Paul’s conversion account (see 22:12-16).

  • It is important to emphasize that this is a picture.  The water itself does not wash away sin, it is not a matter of “removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).  (More on this will be mentioned below.)
  • Although these next verses do not have a specific mention of baptism – and may not actually deal with baptism – they do help us to understand the concept of “washing” as it relates to conversion.  And thus, as we consider the “washing away of sins” as a picture of baptism – we may consider these verses as we approach baptism.
  • In 1 Corinthians 6:11 we read, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”  In the context of this verse, Paul had just listed the qualities of those who “will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (see 6:9-11).  And these qualities were true of the Corinthians – but they were converted.  Part of this conversion included a “washing.”
  • In Titus 3:5 we read, “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”  We see that the “washing” is really accomplished by God in our regeneration (a word meaning coming from death to life).

We would be right to say, then, that baptism is a sign of this washing – an outward sign of the inward reality.

Being set apart / included in God’s people

In the Old Testament, circumcision was the outward sign of being a part of God’s covenant people.  Baptism, while not the same, is similar to this.  There are a few major differences between the Old Testament circumcision and the New Testament baptisms:

  • First, circumcision was administered to infants (or people who wanted to become a part of Israel).  Baptism was administered to those who have exercised faith in Christ
  • Second, circumcision was administered to males only.  Baptism was administered to both men and women.
  • Third, circumcision meant inclusion into a theocratic national entity.  Baptism meant inclusion into a kingdom “not of this world” that surpassed national identities. 

Nonetheless, we see that Scripture draws a connection between the two in Colossians 2:11-12.

  • Here we read, “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God.”
  • It is clear that Paul is drawing a connection between circumcision and baptism.
  • Significantly, both the mention of “circumcision” and “baptism” are tied to Christ!  As above, we see these verses closely correspond with the language of conversion.

Thus, we would be right to say that baptism is a sign of being included in God’s New Covenant people – the church, those who have experience “the washing” (see above) and have been “united with Christ” (see below).

Being United with Christ (Rom 6; Col 2)

The most significant picture of baptism is this – the believer’s union with Christ in his death and resurrection.  Not only does baptism vividly illustrate this doctrinal truth, but by doing so, it also provides a picture of the Gospel.  As we will see, this image not only reflects Christ’s work, but also how we should live now as Christians.

Death (Buried)

  • Death of judgment – being united with Christ – entering His death
  • Remember times when God has used water as means of his judgment on disobedience.  Here are 3 examples:
  • The flood (Gen. 7:6–24); The drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea (Ex. 14:26–29); and Jonah being thrown into the deep (Jonah 1:7–16)
  • We can consider then, that when those who go into the waters for baptism, they are going into the waters of judgment.  They, being united with Christ, are going to their justly deserved death.[1]
  • But the death of judgment is not the only death which baptism symbolizes.  In baptism we may also see the death to self & sin & the world.  While many of these passage do not mention baptism, the language of death and union with Christ appropriately brings our attention the symbol of baptism.
  • To self – In Galatians 2:20 we read, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live.”  Paul closely relates “the self” with “sin.” We read “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.”
  • To sin – In Galatians 5:24 we read, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Additionally, in a passage that directly mentions baptism, we read in Romans 6:2-3, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?”
  • To the World – By seeing the two previous truths, we may conclude with this third.  We read in Galatians 6:14, “ 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.” In 1 John 2:15 and following, we see that love for the world is in opposition to the truth proclaimed in the former two points.  See also James 4:4; Matthew 6:24.

Resurrection (New Life)

  • Being united in Resurrection – Entering His life
  • In the same way that entering the waters symbolized entering our deserved death and judgment, so too raising from the waters symbolizes our raising with Christ.  We pass through the judgment only on the basis of our being united with Christ. His perfect life, His righteousness, then, is our only boast!
  • Consider Romans 4:25, “[Jesus our Lord] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.”
  • See also Ephesians 2:5-9; Philippians 3:9; Colossians 2:12
  • Just as Baptism symbolizes more than the death of judgment, so too baptism symbolizes more than the passing through of that judgment on the merits of Christ.  In baptism we may also see that we are given new life, the life of Christ.  While many of these passage do not mention baptism, the language of union with Christ appropriately brings our attention the symbol of baptism.
  • We read in Romans 6:4, “We were buried therefore with him 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.”
  • In 2 Corinthians 5:15-17 we see that part of being “a new creation” is recognizing that the new life has replaced the old and that we should “no longer live for [ourselves] but for him who for [our] sake died and was raised.”
  • We earlier quoted the first part of Galatians 2:20, here is the second part: “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.”
  • Finally, in Colossians 3:1-17 we see many of the implications of this new life.  Paul instructs the believers of certain things they should “put off & put on.”  But it is all in the context of 3:1-3…
  • “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

In summary, then, we may say that in baptism believers are receiving the sign which signifies the washing of sins, being included in God’s people, and being united with Christ in His death and resurrection. 

  • Another way of summarizing what happens in baptism is this: “Baptism pictures (i) Christ’s redemptive work, (ii) my response in faith (as I come to be baptized), and (iii) God application of the benefits of redemption to my life.”[2]

[1] See Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 968, footnote 7.

[2] Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 980.