When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left his apostles to continue the work of preaching the gospel, and his charge to them was:
“Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptised shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
It is important to note the order of events specified by Jesus – first, belief of the gospel, and second, baptism. It is essential for our salvation that we first of all learn about the gospel by reading the Bible, and then to signify our beliefs by being baptised. These instructions of Jesus teach us how futile it is to baptise (christen) babies, as they are incapable of believing the gospel before their christening.
Belief and repentance
The Acts of the Apostles shows how the apostles set about their work of converting men and women to Christianity. They did precisely as Jesus had commanded them – preaching and baptising all who believed. Philip’s words made it clear that baptism would only be administered after belief – “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest” be baptised (Acts 8:37). The apostle Peter informed his hearers of the importance of the act of baptism – “Repent, and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Sins are a barrier to salvation and need to be forgiven before eternal life can be bestowed by God.
The form baptism takes
The method appointed by God for the initial removal of sins is the believer’s submission to baptism. “Arise, and be baptised, and wash away thy sins” (Acts 22:16). The call to repentance involves our acknowledgement of the need for past sins to be removed (washed away by baptism), and for those who are baptised to follow a completely different way of life (Christ’s way, which we are encouraged to follow). This change of attitude is implicit in the very meaning of the word baptise which has been transferred direct into the English language from the Greek. The Greek word baptizo literally means “to dip” or “to plunge” and was used specifically by the dyeing trade, in the process of immersing cloth in the dye to bring about a change of colour. Scriptural baptism follows this custom, and in every mention of it, it is complete burial in water of the believer as a token of his changed attitude of mind.
This form of baptism – a burial in water – is also a representation of death and resurrection (as will readily be perceived). This being so, the apostle Paul taught that it was a recognition by the believer of his own association with the death and resurrection of Jesus, through which baptism became possible. “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptised into Jesus Christ were baptised into his death?” (Romans 6:3). As this burial symbolises the death of the old man of the flesh (“our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin may be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin” – Romans 6:6), so the coming out of the water is a representation of resurrection – the beginning of a new life in Christ. In his associated repentance, and with his past sins having been washed away, a baptised believer rises to a “newness of life” (Romans 6:4). By this means a believer is “born again” (John 3:3-5), and truly becomes a Christian.
The hope obtained through baptism
By the process of baptism a believer has the opportunity to change completely his attitude of mind and strive thereafter to follow the footsteps of Jesus (see 1 Peter 2:21). “If ye then be risen with Christ (in baptism), seek those things which are above… Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For ye are dead (in baptism), and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3). Henceforth, his manner of life is coloured by the knowledge that he will be subject to the judgement of Jesus when he returns from heaven to set up the kingdom of God on earth. Then, if received favourably by the Lord, he will experience a change of nature – “We look for the saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body” (Philippians 3:20-21). “When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:4). In this privileged condition, believers will also be “kings and priests to reign on the earth” (Revelation 5:9-10), infallibly dispensing benefits to mankind as their minds are deflected from the evils associated with this present world to the beauties and the blessings associated with the laws of God (see Micah 4:1-4).
For those who thus faithfully obey the commands of Jesus, the event of death is no barrier to the realisation of these hopes. God has promised to raise from the dead all those who put their trust in him and to them will be granted the gift of eternal life. The resurrection of Christ is the divine guarantee of this. “Now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s (by baptism) at his coming” (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
Baptism is an act of obedience to all who believe the gospel. Its administration to infants in any form is unauthorised and unscriptural. It is only enjoined on those who have a scriptural understanding of the good tidings of the kingdom of God and the things concerning the name of Jesus Christ. To such it is the means of that present union with Christ which is preparatory to perfect association at the resurrection and therefore necessary to salvation.