When Jesus gave the great command of the great commission He said “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20) Here the Scriptures cannot be clearer. 1. Go make disciples. 2. Baptizing them (disciples) 3. Teaching them (disciples). The disciples were to make more disciples by preaching the gospel, baptizing those who believed , and then teaching them to obey all that Jesus had commanded. Interestingly, no plan for world evangelism has been devised that beats that plan. It is the only one that is tested and proven and mandated by Jesus Himself. It worked in Acts 2, it worked with the man from Ethiopia, it worked with the house of Cornelius, and it worked for the Apostle Paul. Preach the gospel (1 Corinthians 15:1-4) in the power of the Holy Spirit, baptize those who believe, and then teach them to be obedient to all Christ taught. This is not complicated.
Water baptism in the New Testament is clearly immersion. I can find no other method. Baptism is only for believers. It is only for those who believe the facts of the gospel or “good news” about Christ and put their whole trust in Him. The criteria is not church membership, what one believes ought to be said at baptisms, or even what one believes about baptism.
What about “baptism for the remission of sins”? John the Baptist baptized “unto repentance”, (Matthew 3:11). His water baptism was not actual “repentance” but was “unto” repentance. Those he baptized desired to be identified with the community of faith who had chosen to repent (change their minds) and follow the one who would come, of whom John preached. Being immersed in water was not the cause of repentance; it said to the onlookers “I have repented”. In exactly the same way baptism “for” the remission of sins is not a mechanical action that obligates God to forgive sins in conjunction with immersion. Over 50 times in the New Testament it is made plain that salvation is by faith. Obedience always comes after faith in Christ, not before. The “natural” or unregenerate mind is not subject to the law of God neither indeed can he be. (Romans 8:7) Those who teach that no person can be saved until he or she is immersed also teach that only after baptism will they receive the Holy Spirit. This is inconsistent with Peter’s statement when he defended baptising the house of Cornelius to the church leaders in Jerusalem saying “ If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (Acts 11:17) In Acts 10 the record is given of Peter’s visit and his message to Cornelius and those of his household. Peter ended his message to them by saying “To him (Jesus) all the prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). While Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit was given to those who believed the message of the gospel and Peter asked “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47) This is consistent with all of the other Bible passages that teach clearly that men are saved by grace through faith.
When the believer is immersed in water he is saying to the world and to God, I am dying to myself and my way of doing things, and I am being raised to live my life God’s way. We thus reenact the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus and are “marked out” as followers of Jesus and of the household of faith. Water baptism never stands alone and one baptized 100 times will still be lost if he or she did not first have faith in Christ. In baptism we look to Christ and what He accomplished on our behalf when He died for our sins, was buried, and raised from the dead. Water baptism does not join us to the church nor does it join us to God but it does cry out to a watching world “I belong to Christ and I purpose to live only for Him!” So we correctly sometimes say he or she was “baptized into Christ”. Of course we speak figuratively just as we do when we eat the bread and drink the cup. We are not literally eating the body of Christ or drinking His blood. We know that we receive Him by faith, not by physical eating. The symbols are not nearly as important as what they represent. We might eat unleavened bread, a cracker, or some other bread. And, we likely drink Welch’s grape juice, or perhaps even wine, but not literal blood. So the elements of the supper, when we commune with our Lord and His people, only represent His body broken for us and His blood shed for us until He comes. It is not a literal eating and drinking of his body and blood.
In my view, water baptism is much the same. We are not literally dying when we go under the water, we are symbolically dying. We are “baptized into His death” in a figurative way, we are not literally dead as He was. We are symbolizing our death to self and sin and our being raised to live the new life He gives. Thus it was necessary for Paul to say right after he talked about being “baptized into His death”, “reckon yourselves to be dead” (Romans 6:11). We are baptized “for the remission of our sins” by submitting to immersion in the watery grave of baptism.
Just as Adam was our head before we became Christians so now Christ is the “new Adam”, our federal head. As in Adam all die, so in Christ all live (1 Corinthians 15:22). Because Christ is now our representative, when He died we died with Him (2 Timothy 2:11), and when He was raised we were raised with Him. Baptism is a beautiful and holy reenactment of those truths. Thus our eternal salvation was completed before we were born, completely outside of us or our abilities. “This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him,We shall also live with Him.”(2 Timothy 2:11)
When we come to God’s open book we should come with an open heart. Unless we are willing to be shaped by it, both in what we believe and practice, we will miss many of its truths. We should be careful to not give more weight to a thing than the Bible does. Some Bible truths are more important than others (1 Corinthians 15:3, Hebrews 6:1) and we should assign the same importance to them the Bible does as best we can. (This makes all the fuss about singing in worship pretty silly..)
The mission of the followers of Jesus has not changed since He gave the great command “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you”. If we are faithful to do this we have done well. It is not our job to “convert”, win debates with sinners, but to preach the good news about what Jesus has accomplished for them in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is worthy of noting that the reason we can “go” and “make disciples” is because He has all authority and power in heaven and on earth. We go in his name, his authority, to tell the good news and then baptise and teach those who believe with all their hearts.
Churches that make a big fuss about Jesus and what He has done and is doing are growing. Those who major on anything else are not likely to grow. Our task is not to build churches, church growth is a result of preaching the good news about Jesus. If we will keep the main thing the main thing church growth will happen. Our mandate from heaven is to invite people to Jesus, not to church. There is a difference.