It’s just a symbol. Baptism doesn’t save you.
I often hear these words in conversations about baptism. For some very complex historical reasons, the topic of baptism often begets more talk about what baptism is not than what it is. But in these efforts to distinguish and to correct, I fear that we end up deemphasizing a sign that our Lord very much wanted us to emphasize.
The New Testament apostles believed baptism was important. Jesus commissioned his followers to make disciples by baptizing them (Matt. 28:19). The book of Acts shows this command being obeyed as the nations responded to the proclamation of the gospel. Often faith was expressed through baptism, meaning that the moment of saving faith would forever be marked by the moment of one’s baptism.
Later, the apostles reflected theologically on the meaning of the sign. Paul informs us that baptism represents union with Christ. Just as Christ died, was buried, and was raised, so, too, the one who has been joined to Christ by faith has died with him, been buried with him, and been raised with him to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). In this way, baptism visibly displays that the sinner is now a new creation in Christ. In another place, Paul connects baptism to the circumcision of the heart (Col. 2:11-12), making it a symbol of inner repentance and renewal.
There are also social ramifications to baptism. In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul writes, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.” While Paul is certainly speaking here about receiving the Holy Spirit through faith, this event was visibly demonstrated via water baptism. A person’s baptism marked his or her entrance into the church, the body of Christ.
At my church, every baptism begins with a confession that “Jesus is Lord.” While there are other ways to express faith, confession of the lordship of Christ is the banner that unites all of God’s people. No matter one’s background or race, there is now no distinction. We are united by one, all-encompassing reality: we all acknowledge that Jesus is the King and Ruler of the universe (Rom. 10:12-13).
Andrew Fuller, eighteenth-century British Baptist theologian and pastor, once wrote that baptism is the “boundary of visible Christianity.” While faith is invisible, baptism is the visible sign of faith. One’s baptism represents the “going public” of faith. It marks a moment in time for a new public identity as member of Christ’s visible people.
I often have conversations with unchurched friends who speak of faith as a strictly private matter. Recently, someone told me, “God and I have our own understanding.” As tempting as it is to opt for a customized plan for relating to the Creator of the universe, God has not revealed that any such individualized course exists. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). There is only one way to God, and Christ defines and embodies it.
Jesus makes it evidently clear that there is no such thing as private faith. In Matthew 10:32-33, he says, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” The only kind of faith Jesus recognizes is public faith, and baptism is the God-ordained method for taking your faith public.
If you are a Christian, Jesus says you must be a public Christian. In our secular age, public expressions of faith are often awkward and uncomfortable. In our current cultural context, public faith may even feel immoral. Nevertheless, Jesus’ followers must not be ashamed of identifying with the one who died to save us. There’s no such thing as secret faith.
If you claim to possess private faith, based on everything God has revealed to humanity, I want to ask you to reconsider. Jesus never gives us that option. On the contrary, the Bible is full of Jesus’ warnings that allegiance to him has a cost in the world. He denies would-be followers who are not willing to pay that cost. Baptism is the first step toward a life lived joyfully under his lordship. Have you gone public?