Saint Peter said that. Also, Jesus said at one time, "He who believes and is baptized shall be saved."
Just what role does baptism play in our spiritual walk?
I will be the first to say it, “Baptism is a strange custom.” It is one of those things that you or I would not have made up, except in a sense that it would be something like a hazing. We may have made this up to be like a rite of initiation into a certain group – like a bizarre ritual a college kid has to go through to be part of a fraternity or sorority.
To be truthful, this is how many people view baptism – this and nothing more. For instance, most churches make baptism a necessary action in order to become one of its members. It is understandable why the churches should do this and I agree that baptism should be a part of membership, but the unfortunate aspect of this requirement is that the meaning of baptism is then in danger of being degraded to mean only that. It is like a hazing to get into a club.
But baptism is not a hazing. It is instead a practice that was given to us by Jesus and has some specific purposes for us. More than we usually recognize, the practice of baptism was given to us as a means to strengthen our walk with the Lord. There are two principle ways in which it does this.
Baptism and the Grace of God
I first turn in the Bible to the passage of Romans 6:1-10. In this part of the Apostle Paul’s letter, the overall subject is actually the role of the grace of God in the life of a believer. Paul is saying that our relationship with God is based only on the grace of God. It is not based on our own level of perfection, or rather it should be said, our lack of perfection. Our relationship with God does not come from our efforts to do something, but from God extending to us his grace, despite our failures.
However, Paul wants to make it clear that this does not mean that we should live in any way that we choose. “What shall we say then?” Paul asks. “Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?”
Paul immediately answers his own question: “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?”
It is at this point that the subject of baptism comes in. Paul continues, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?”
Baptized into Death
The act of baptism is to illustrate that when we are baptized, we have associated ourselves with the death of Jesus Christ. Baptism is, in this way, a type of death. Paul speaks as if this understanding of what baptism means was an accepted fact by those to whom he was writing. Baptism is not literal death, of course. It is instead an image of death. However, it might be asked, if we do not literally die in our bodies, what is this death supposed to illustrate?
Paul continues, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection.”
As I said, the death that we die in baptism is not a literal death, but it is instead meant to illustrate something. We see that baptism is also an illustration of resurrection. This point is what Paul next explains.
Dying to Sin
“Knowing this,” Paul continues, “that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.
“Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.”
When Jesus rose from the death that he experienced, he was resurrected never to die again. He cannot die again. He demonstrated that death has no power over him. Death gave its best shot, and Christ was victorious. Neither can Christ sin, because sin is that which leads to death, so neither does sin have power over him.
Consider Yourself Dead to Sin
This is where our baptism comes in and why it is to have meaning for us. Our baptism is to illustrate to us our new life in Christ.
Paul next writes: “Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”
Baptism Saves Us
The Apostle Peter said much the same thing, which brings me to my second point about baptism. He writes, “For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit… Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:18,21 NAS).
What did Peter mean when he said, “Baptism now saves you?”
Jesus said much the same thing in the gospel of Mark. “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
It is not, as some would like to convince you, that the act of baptism itself redeems us and justifies us before God. Peter himself clarifies the point that baptism does not carry this meaning. “Not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience,” he tells us.
It is not as if it is as simple as taking a bath to remove the dirt from off our bodies. That will not do it. What we are instead seeking is a good conscience, and this cannot come from an external washing, no matter what method that we use.
Baptism Saves Us, but from What?
It is here that I make my second point about the importance of baptism. I want to speak on the subject of baptism as it relates to a good conscience and to salvation.
I made the point a few weeks ago in one of my sermons that the word salvation had a broader context than we often think. When someone talks of “salvation,” or of “being saved,” we usually think of this to mean we are saved from hell, being saved from damnation and from an eternal separation from God.
It does mean these things, of course, but it also means more. We need salvation not only after we die (our literal death), but we need salvation even now. The word salvation implies that there is something from which we must be saved. If I am drowning in Lake Nokomis and I yell out, “Save me!” I am not asking you to come and read to me the Four Spiritual Laws or some other Christian tract. In that context, I do not need salvation from hell, but from being drown in the waters of the lake.
Likewise, in this life we also need salvation. Right now, none of us need salvation from hell, not while we are still breathing the air of this earth and our hearts are still beating. So what is it then? Peter tells us what it is from which we presently need salvation. He speaks of it as “an appeal to God for a good conscience.”
If baptism will be an aid to give us a good conscience, then what we must need salvation from is a bad conscience. How are we to gain this salvation and how is baptism supposed to help us?
Saving Us from a Bad Conscience
We all know that a bad conscience comes to us when we have done something that we knew we should not have done. Perhaps we have stolen something, we have cheated someone, or we did something else that we inwardly knew that we should not have. We did not listen to “that little voice inside ourselves,” as we sometimes put it.
As a result of our wrong-doing, we now are not able to look someone in the eye, we cannot sleep and we toss and turn in our beds at night because that thing that we did is troubling us, or maybe we hope someone does not find out about that thing that we did. When these things happens to us, our consciences are bothering us. We have a bad conscience.
Who would not want to be saved from this? We can, of course, avoid it all. We can avoid it by not doing those things in the first place. But this is easier said than done. There are just too many temptations out there. People or things or opportunities present themselves to us that entice us to do something wrong. It would be nice to have some help when these temptations come.
This is where baptism comes in, and that how it can save us. Baptism, in and of itself, has no power to do anything, but we should not underestimate the meaning of a ceremony or a token.
A Personal Illustration
On my left hand, on my third finger, I wear a band made of gold – a wedding ring. The one that I am wearing now is the third one that I have had, not because I have been married three times, but because the first one I lost on a beach in Mexico and the second one that Vivian bought for me in Venezuela turned out to be a gold plate over some other cheap metal. That one eventually just broke. Well, for some years we did not bother getting another. It was, after all, just a ring.
However, when we lived in Venezuela and also in Guatemala, I had to do a lot of traveling all throughout those continents. As I flew from country to country, sometimes I would be sitting next to a woman on an airplane or in an airport, for example, who would begin to flirt with me. It always began quite innocently – just being friendly really. I was sometimes the first to say “hi” as I sat down next to someone in an airport terminal gate or in the plane, but quite frankly, I did mean it just to be friendly. I said this to everyone. Occasionally however, if the conversation continued, it became apparent to me that a woman may have had more in mind.
There were a few times when I had to bring out my wallet and show the woman sitting next to me a photo of my wife Vivian and start to talk about my family.
A seat mate in an airplane once told me after I had showed her my photos, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were married. I thought you were single because you did not have on a wedding ring.”
People who travel are sometimes tempted to do something or act in a certain way that people who stay near home are not. People who are away from their families sometimes act as if all restraints for decent behavior can be left at home. But they cannot.
It is not true that “Whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” You bring everything that you have done back home with you. They are all packed up in your bad conscience, just like you bring back the other souvenirs that are packed in your suitcase.
When I traveled, I was tempted in ways that I would not have been if I had just stayed home. I did not need that temptation and I did not want that temptation. After that woman had said that to me about my ring and after we got off the plane and went our separate ways, it occurred to me that a wedding ring would likely have “saved” me from the temptation that she had brought to me.
When I finally returned home after that trip, I did not tell Vivian what happened (I did not want her to worry about me on every trip), but I asked her to take me to a jewelry store and buy me a new ring.
The Meaning of Baptism
I tell you this story to help you understand why I believe that our baptism in Christ should be as public as we can reasonably make it. It is a public declaration that our old selves, that person who acted and did things in a certain way – that person is now dead.
The person that is now alive is a new person. This person is one who has risen with Christ. This new person is no longer available to the world, because now he or she belongs to Christ.
Baptism is a symbol. Being baptized does not make us a Christian any more than going out and buying a ring to put on our finger makes us married. But we should not underestimate the power of a symbol. It tells others much about us. Being baptized is a declaration to others that we now live for Christ and are not available to live for the Devil.
“Baptism now saves you.”
“He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”
Our open declaration for Christ in baptism saves us from many temptations that we would otherwise face. It also confirms to us, within ourselves, that we have made this commitment. This confirmation that we have cemented in our lives will keep us standing when we might otherwise have fallen.
What is the meaning of baptism? It is both an illustration of what has happened to us in our salvation in Christ. We have died to sin and risen to live for Christ.
In addition to this, baptism is an outward token of that commitment. This confirms it in ourselves and demonstrates to others that we are now living for Christ.