Imagine that you were sitting in an airplane, before it left the ground, and you suddenly realized that one of the wings was very big and the other wing was very small. What would you do? You would get off that plane very fast, wouldn’t you?!
A plane cannot fly unless both wings are balanced. Otherwise it will tip over to one side and end up crashing. I want to suggest to you that our understanding of baptism is the same way. Many people tip over on one side, and many people tip over on the other side. And the right understanding of Christian baptism is “right” in the middle…a biblical balance.
So I want to tell you about two errors that many people fall into, and why they are wrong according to the Bible. Then I will tell you the truth about baptism, according to God’s Word.
First, one error is expecting too much from baptism. Some people believe that when they are baptized in a church, that baptism is like magic. It washes away all the sins they have committed so far, or washes away the “original sin” they have from being born into a race of sinners. Others believe that because they have been baptized, they do not need to be “born again,” because that happened in their baptism. And others believe that they do not need to study the Bible, or pray, or worship, or obey God’s commandments, because in some way their baptism guarantees that they have a right relationship with God.
But the Bible clearly says that no religious ritual can make us right with God:
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.
But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
So you see that it is not the “washing” or “pouring out” of the water in baptism that saves us from our sins and enables us to go to heaven when we die, but the “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” which happens because Jesus Christ died for us. It is not a physical washing that makes us right with God, but a spiritual washing that gives us a new heart. This is what Jesus meant when he told Nicodemus, who had observed all the required religious ceremonies, “You must be born again” (John 3:7). Nicodemus had been circumcised as a baby, which was the Old Testament precursor to baptism, like a seed is to the plant and the boy is to the man. But Jesus told him that all his religious activity meant nothing unless he turned away from his self-righteousness and turned to Jesus in personal faith. Nicodemus needed a new heart, and so do you and I, even if we have been baptized.
Second, however, there is another error that people believe about baptism, on the other side. Some people think too little of baptism. They know that baptism does not ensure our salvation, because they know that we are saved by faith, but they think that baptism does basically nothing. They think of it more or less as an empty ritual with no real meaning in their lives. They do not realize that their baptism is a special means of grace that places a serious responsibility on them to live as a Christian, committed to God and His glory. They do not realize that baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is a “sign and seal” of God’s covenant of love, which means they must love God in return, or be considered a traitor by Him.
Baptism is like a wedding ceremony, in a way. (In fact, the church is called “the bride of Christ” in the Bible.) When we become married, we make promises and give rings to each other. The rings do not cause us to be married, but they are a sign that we are married. And the fact that we are wearing that ring means that our life will change in many ways—our life must change in many ways. Would you say that your life changed after you were married? I know mine did, and one way was that if I am not faithful to my covenant of marriage, I wouldl be in a worse place than if I had never been married. The same is true of baptism: once that sign has been placed upon us, we have an increased obligation to be faithful to the covenant God has made with us:
What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.
The Truth About Baptism
The truth about baptism, according to the Bible, lies in between those two errors. Baptism does not guarantee the forgiveness of sins, but it is a sign that God has made a covenant with us.
So if you have been baptized, you still must repent of your sins and believe in Jesus. You will not be able to stand before God on the Day of Judgment and say, “I was baptized, so You should let me into heaven.” Only by trusting in Jesus Christ, and His death for our sins, can you escape the fires of hell. If you have never been born again by the Holy Spirit, ask God to give you a new heart. Tell him you are sorry for ignoring Him and disobeying His Word, and ask Him to forgive your sins because Jesus died for us on the cross. That is the only way God can forgive our sins.
If you have not been baptized, or if your children have not been baptized, you are missing a wonderful gift that God wants to give you. As I study and learn more about baptism, I have seen that my own baptism, which I received as a young boy, becomes more meaningful to me every year. How can I be unfaithful to a loving God who has given me this “wedding ring” as a token of His unending love? How could you refuse such a gift from the lover of your soul? And how could you not want to live your life for the Savior who died for you?
Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.
God is speaking to you through that passage, just as he was to the people at Pentecost 2000 years ago. Maybe you need to repent right now (turn away from your sins). Maybe you need to be baptized, or to bring your children to baptism. If God is calling you to commit your life to Jesus, or to receive this sign of His love, then talk to God right now about it and tell him you will do what He wants you to do.