Baptism and New Life
By David Feddes
Every year millions of people around the world are baptized as the sign of new life in Jesus Christ. Have you been baptized? If so, does your baptism mean anything to you? Is there something spiritually fresh and alive about you? Or do you think of your baptism as just a ritual without any real impact? If you’ve been baptized, you need to grasp the importance of it.
If you haven’t been baptized, maybe the subject of baptism doesn’t interest you at all. But should you just ignore it as a ceremony that’s not for you? You’d be far wiser to find out more about baptism and the new life that it signifies.
Criminal in a Coffin
Let’s begin with a true story, the story of a criminal baptized in a coffin. Here’s what happened, according to an eyewitness who was visiting the prison and saw the baptism of this particular prisoner.
The man was incarcerated not for stealing cars or selling dope, but for the crime which our society is perhaps least prepared to pardon. In a drunken stupor this man had molested his ten-year old daughter.”
It was a hideous crime, yet now the inmate wanted to be baptized. Why? Was it just a convenient jailhouse conversion in hopes of getting paroled sooner? Was the inmate perhaps afraid that nobody would ever again love him or have anything to do with him?
No, this criminal did not make his profession of faith in abject panic. His conversion was not prompted by the dread that, unless he reformed his life, no one–least of all his family–would ever accept him again. The real turn had come several days earlier when the man’s wife and daughter had visited the prison in order to forgive him. It was only then … that the molester got on his knees and begged for the mercy of both God and his family.
The man didn’t repent in order to earn forgiveness. He repented only when he realized that forgiveness was already there for the taking. His past was no longer held against him. He could have a new life. Once he knew that, he knew he had to bury his old life and make a fresh start with God and with his family.
A guard escorted the prisoner from behind a fence that was topped with razor wire…. After a pastoral prayer, the barefoot prisoner stepped into a wooden box that had been lined with a plastic sheet and filled with water. It looked like a large coffin, and rightly so…
Pronouncing the trinitarian formula (“I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) the pastor lowered the new Christian down into the liquid grave to be buried with Christ and then raised him up to life eternal. Though the water was cold, the man was not eager to get out. Instead, he stood there weeping for joy. “I want to wear these clothes as long as I can,” he said. In fact, I wish I never had to take a shower again.” His baptismal burial was too good to dry off. “I’m now a free man,” he declared. “I’m not impatient to leave prison because this wire can’t shackle my soul. I know that I deserved to come here, to pay for what I did. But I also learned here that Someone else has paid for all my crimes.
“When I get out of this place,” he added, “I want to do two things…. I want to find a church where I can get down on my knees and thank God, and I want to get home to my family.”
That’s the story of the criminal baptized in a coffin.
Now, most people who are baptized are not criminals in prison, and most baptisms don’t happen in a coffin-like box. But in a sense every baptism involves a criminal in a coffin. Each of us is born a criminal in relation to God’s law. We come into a sinful world as sinful beings. And baptism puts us into a coffin. The sinful self and the sinful world are buried and left behind. The baptized person emerges from a watery grave into a new life and a different world. As the Bible puts it, “All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized 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” (Romans 6:3-4).
Baptism marks you as a member of the community of faith, as part of the body of Christ, the church. You die to your old identity as a sinner without God and rise to a new identity as a child of God. You die to your old community in the fallen human race and rise to a new community, God’s family, the church. Baptism is a seal of union with Christ, a sign that what happened to Jesus also happens to you in some mysterious sense. Baptism is a sign and seal and celebration that your sinful self has been nailed to the cross and buried with Jesus, and that through his resurrection you have come alive to a brand new reality. Baptism is also a challenge to keep thinking of yourself that way and to keep living like it. Scripture says, “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:11).
Counting on Christ
Baptism is a seal of solidarity with Jesus Christ, of being joined to him in such a way that his reality becomes our reality. Baptism is also a sign of separation from every other religion besides the gospel of Christ and of separation from every other supposed savior besides Jesus. You must count on Jesus to wash away your sins by his blood, and count yourself dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Otherwise you are doomed. Your sins cannot be forgiven unless they are crucified and buried with Christ. You cannot live a new life or overcome death or avoid hell unless you are united with Christ in his resurrection. Only Christ can get us beyond the grave and into glory.
The true story of the baptism of a criminal in a coffin shows that even the worst of us can have forgiveness and new life through Jesus. The flip side is that without Jesus, there is no forgiveness or eternal life. To make the point, here’s another story about a criminal in a coffin. This isn’t a true story–it’s from an old TV show–but it makes the point.
A wicked woman murdered someone and was sentenced to life in prison. She was eager to escape, and she came up with a plan. She knew another inmate, an old man, who had the job of burying prisoners who died. Any time there was a death, he would build a casket, place the body in it, cart it out to a burial ground outside the prison wall, lower it into a hole, and cover it with dirt. This old man was going blind and needed cataract surgery, but he didn’t have the money to pay for it. The woman, seeing it as a chance to escape, promised to give the old man lots of money if he would help her. He reluctantly agreed.
Her plan was this. The next time she heard the bell toll which signaled the death of an inmate, she would wait until night and then sneak over to the room where the old man worked. She would find the casket, crawl in, lie down with the dead body, and pull the lid shut. The next morning the old man would roll the casket to the burial ground outside the walls, with the clever woman and the corpse inside the coffin. Then, when nobody was looking, he would pry it open, and the woman could make her escape.
Eventually the night of opportunity came. The bell tolled. The woman slipped through the darkness and found the casket. She lifted the lid, slipped into the box, and pulled the lid shut. A few hours later she felt the coffin moving. Soon she would be outside the prison walls. She would be free. She smiled. Her plan was working perfectly.
After awhile, though, her smile began to fade. She waited … and waited … and waited … but nothing happened. What was wrong? Why didn’t the old man open the lid? She tried to push it open, but she couldn’t. The lid was nailed tightly shut, buried deep in the earth. Finally, in the darkness of the coffin, the woman lit a match and stared in horror at the face of the dead body next to her. It was the old man himself who had died.
That’s what happens when you count on the wrong person to save you. You can’t count on a dead person to save you from death. Only Jesus has the power to save you. There have been various religious figures throughout history who claimed to offer the way to be saved, but these founders of other religions are dead. You don’t want to be stuck in the same coffin they’re in. They can’t save you, and the religions they started can’t save you. The only one who can save you from sin and death is Jesus. He is the only one who rose from the dead, so he is the only one who can raise you from the dead. Without him you are doomed. With him you will live forever. Baptism points to Jesus. Baptism seals the fact that Christ, and Christ alone, brings salvation. By faith you must count on him.
What the Water Means
Why is baptism so important? A few words are spoken, and a person gets wet. What is so special about that? Does the water of baptism have magical or supernatural power? No, water is water. It doesn’t wash away sin or give eternal life. Water can wash dirt from your body; it can’t wash sin from your inner being. But the water of baptism represents the blood of Christ, poured out when he was nailed to a cross, and Jesus’ blood does wash away sin and purchase eternal life.
If you’ve never seen a baptism, you may wonder what actually happens. Not all baptisms look alike. One may take place in a prison yard, another in a river, another in a magnificent church building. But whatever the differences, every valid baptism has certain things in common. Every baptism involves words and water.
What are the words of baptism? The Christian leader who baptizes someone declares, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Why use these particular words? Because Jesus says so in the Bible. Jesus says in Matthew 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Every valid baptism marks a person with the holy name of the blessed Trinity. To be baptized and bear the name of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit, is a wondrous privilege and an awesome responsibility.
Baptism involves not only words but water. The water is applied in different ways, depending on the practice of each pastor or church. The person may be completely immersed in water or sprinkled with water. Either way, sprinkling or immersion, fits with the Bible and highlights a beautiful reality.
Some churches and pastors baptize by complete immersion, and that’s definitely one good way to do it. When someone is plunged completely underwater and then comes out again, it’s a vivid picture of plunging into death with Christ and rising again to new life. In the words of Romans 6:4, “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.” That’s one precious meaning of baptism.
It’s not the only meaning, though, and complete immersion is not the only valid mode. Another mode of baptism practiced by many churches and pastors is sprinkling. Some wonderful promises in the Bible are connected with sprinkling. Isaiah 52:15 speaks of Christ and says that he “will sprinkle many nations.” In Ezekiel 36:25-26, God promises, “I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” In 1 Peter 1:2, the apostle Peter speaks of “obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.” Hebrews 10:22 says, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and have our bodies washed with pure water.” Over and over in the Bible, being sprinkled is a picture of having guilt washed away and being set apart from the world as God’s holy people.
Is sprinkling or immersion more valid? Asking that question is like asking whether a bath or a shower is more valid. The main point of bath and shower is the same: getting clean and fresh. So too, the main point of baptism, whether by immersion or sprinkling, is getting clean through Jesus’ blood and receiving fresh, new life through his Holy Spirit. Sprinkling highlights certain aspects of biblical teaching, immersion highlights other aspects, but both sprinkling and immersion are valid baptism. Both include all the benefits of Christ which baptism signifies and seals. All the biblical promises about sprinkling apply not only to those baptized by sprinkling but also to those baptized by immersion. By the same token, all the biblical truths about being buried and raised with Christ apply not only to those baptized by immersion but also to those baptized by sprinkling. Don’t get hung up on the mode of baptism; instead, hold on to the meaning of baptism.
What Are You Waiting For?
The apostle Paul, one of the key figures in the Bible, knew from his own experience the amazing meaning of baptism. At one time he went by the name Saul and was a cruel killer of Christians. Then he encountered the living Lord Jesus and found how wrong it was to fight against Christ. At that point a Christian named Ananias helped Saul take the first steps in making a new start. Even though Saul had been a horrible enemy of Christians, Ananias greeted him as “Brother Saul” and treated him as a fellow member of God’s family. After telling Saul he would become a great witness for the Lord Jesus, Ananias said, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Just like that, the murderous sinner Saul was baptized. His sins were washed away, and he ended up becoming the mighty missionary Paul.
The water of baptism isn’t what actually washes sins away, of course. “The blood of Jesus,” says the Scripture, “purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7), and that promise of washing in Jesus’ blood is displayed and confirmed in the baptismal washing.
Paul’s terrible sins were washed away, and your sins can be washed away too. You don’t have to wait to be baptized until you are clean enough to be acceptable to God. If that were the case, none of us could ever be baptized. Baptism reminds us that even though we are dirty, God makes us clean. Even though we are dead in sin, God makes us alive in Christ Jesus. Even though we are dry and empty, he fills us with the living water of his Holy Spirit. To be baptized is not a declaration of your own qualifications. It’s an admission of your need and an acceptance of Christ’s provision.
You may think you’re so bad that you can’t possibly be forgiven and transformed, but are you worse than Paul was? Are you worse than millions of other sinners who have received baptism and new life? If God accepted me, he can surely accept you as well. Paul speaks for all Christians when he says,
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior 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 Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs, having the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).
Baptism is a visual enactment of those words. What an astonishing before-and-after picture of the transforming power of God’s love in Jesus Christ! Before, there’s foolishness, slavery, hatred. After, there’s rebirth as sons of God who inherit everything that is God’s, including eternal life. Paul never tired of telling other people about the love of Christ and the amazing change that comes when we are connected to Christ. Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
If you’ve never been baptized, but you know your sinfulness and believe in Jesus’ blood, his resurrection, and his life-giving Spirit, then, to quote Paul’s friend Ananias, “What are you waiting for?” Be baptized and wash your sins away through calling on the name of Jesus in faith.
If you’ve been baptized in water at some point in the past but have never entered into the reality of rebirth, repentance, and faith, now is the time to accept what your baptism signifies.
“Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord” (Acts 3:19). Don’t despise baptism. Be washed in Jesus blood, and be filled with his Spirit.
Privilege and Responsibility
Baptism is God’s way of marking you as a part of his church and as a member of his covenant. That involves great privilege. And with great privilege comes great responsibility. As Jesus put it, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Baptism isn’t just about what you can get from God. It’s also about God’s claim on you.
It’s a privilege to be baptized in the name of the Father, to be part of God’s family, loved and protected by him. But with the privilege comes responsibility. If you are baptized in the name of the Father, you must obey as his child and treat the rest of the family as dear brothers and sisters.
It’s a privilege to be baptized in the name of the Son, Jesus Christ, to be washed by his blood and share in the benefits of his death and resurrection. But with the privilege comes responsibility. If you are baptized in the name of the Son, you must honor your Savior and follow Jesus wherever he leads.
It’s a privilege to be baptized in the name of the Holy Spirit, to have the living God make his home within you, giving you rebirth and renewal, uniting you to Christ, making you more and more like him, and filling you with fresh life and power. But with the privilege comes responsibility. If you are baptized in the name of the Holy Spirit, you must keep in step with the Spirit and not grieve him.
So how about it? Have you been baptized with water? Have you been born again by God’s Spirit? Jesus says that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). Being “born again” can be a sudden, dramatic experience, but it doesn’t have to be. God’s Spirit is not bound to just one way of working. When a person comes to Christ, it may be sudden or gradual, dramatic or low key. It may be in response to one gospel message or to long years of living in a godly family. It may be a combination of many things. But whatever the process, this must be the result: Trust God as your Father, believe that your sins are forgiven through Jesus, experience his Spirit living and working in your life, and accept baptism as the seal of God’s promise: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.