In his first epistle, the apostle Peter makes mention of the great deluge in the days of Noah, and how eight individuals were saved from the water, by the water (cf. 1 Peter 3:20). The same water which destroyed the world (cf. Genesis 6-7) also lifted the ark of Noah to safety. Concerning this water, Peter then goes on to observe, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (2 Peter 3:21; ESV)”
Baptism is an essential Christian doctrine found throughout the New Testament. The practice was first introduced through the prophet John, called the Baptizer (cf. Mark 1:4), and was subsequently incorporated by Jesus into His own ministry (cf. John 4:1). Jesus, following His resurrection, instituted baptism as an integral part of the Gospel message of salvation (cf. Mark 16:16) and discipleship (cf. Matthew 28:19-20). When Peter was asked on the day of Pentecost as to what men could do concerning their relationship with God following the crucifixion of Christ, Peter commanded them to repent and be baptized (cf. Acts 2:37-38). It was in baptism that men were both saved and added to the body of Christ (cf. Acts 2:41, 47).
The word “baptism” is an English transliteration of a Greek word which means to immerse or bury, and the baptism taught by Christ and His apostles was an immersion in water, following repentance, for the forgiveness of sins (cf. Acts 8:36, 38) It is the process by which we call on the Lord for salvation (cf. Acts 22:16). Paul poetically links the act of baptism, being buried in water and then coming forth, to the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (cf. Romans 6:3-4).
When we look at Peter’s statement concerning baptism, he succinctly embeds nearly the entire doctrine of Baptism into a single sentence. From Peter’s declaration we glean the following: 1) Baptism involves water. 2) Baptism, being an immersion in water, might be mistaken for a bath, but it is not. 3) Baptism is a necessary element of the process of salvation; without Baptism there is therefore no salvation for the disciple of Christ. 4) In baptism we are making an appeal to God; we are calling on the Lord for salvation. 5) Baptism produces an inward cleansing, a cleansing of the conscience from the guilt of sin when we are forgiven by God of those sins (cf. Hebrews 9:14, 10:22). 6) The divine power at work in baptism is the same divine power by which Jesus was raised from the dead.
Let’s take a moment to make two observations from these points beginning with the last: the power at work in baptism is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is the resurrection which gives the cross its power. Many thousands of individuals were crucified by Rome and we suppose that a good many of those were subsequently buried. It was not the cross itself which made the death of Jesus unique. Jesus was different because He alone rose from the dead after being buried, showing the weakness of death in the face of God’s power. Moreover, “we know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God (Romans 6:9-10; ESV).”
Likewise, in Christian baptism, being in the image of the death and burial of Christ, the process of going into the water is not nearly as important as coming up out of the water and beginning a new life in Christ. Baptism is the birth (cf. John 3:3, 5), but we celebrate births not just because the pregnancy is over but rather because it is the beginning of a new life, full of potential. So it is with the saint of God: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4; ESV).”
The second observation is this: Baptism is an appeal, or a petition. It is a prayer without words, done in obedience to the command of Christ and trusting in His grace to save. The prophet promised, “All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved (Joel 2:32).” Baptism is the fulfillment of this promise. The penitent Saul of Tarsus was urged by Ananias, “Why are you waiting, rise and be baptized, calling on the name of the Lord, and wash away your sins (Acts 22:16).”
Baptism, being an appeal, shows an earnest desire for God to act in our lives. If we today have sin, and we desire for Christ to wash those sins away, the command to the sinner today is the same as it was on Pentecost: “repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38a).” If you want to be done with the world and its ways, and to be freed from the condemnation of the world, the message of the Gospel is this: Be joined to the death of Christ, but even more, be joined to His life, that you too may walk in newness of life.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.