When you ask, “What is baptism?” many people will likely reply with a description of the act. It is being dipped in water. It is having water poured over our heads. Baptism, however, is much more than just an act. The true nature of baptism is found in the promises that are associated with it in God’s Word. It is a means of grace. It is the putting to death of the old nature and the birth of a new one. It is a gift given for all to receive.
In baptism we receive the forgiveness of sins and salvation. At the end of his Pentecost sermon, Peter, a disciple of Jesus’, gave this invitation: “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:28a NASB). Peter told his audience that baptism would result in the forgiveness of their sins. When he wrote his letters, Peter again emphasized the saving effects of baptism: “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 3:21). Writing through the Apostle Paul, the Holy Spirit confirms to us that it is in baptism through faith that we are clothed in Christ: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26, 27).
The forgiveness we receive is possible because in baptism our old nature is put to death and a new nature is born. “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 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, knowing this, 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” (Romans 6:3-7). Death is the necessary consequence of sin. The judgment against us is death, eternal separation from God. In order for us to die and still live, God in Christ died in our place. He took on Himself the death we deserve. He then invites us into His death by drowning our old nature in the waters of baptism and raising us to life in His resurrection from the dead.
Because all the benefits of baptism are given to us as a gift, these benefits are available to us all regardless of age or mental maturity. When we continue reading Peter’s Pentecost sermon, we hear, “…and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:28b, 29). The promise of forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit are for us and our children. Again, grace is a gift as is seen in Romans 3:24, “being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus” and Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God…” Because grace is a gift, because faith is a gift, because forgiveness is a gift, we trust God to give us these promised gifts even if we don’t or can’t understand their value when they are given. Then we trust that as we grow and mature, God will give us a better understanding of the gifts. We trust that God will cause us to apply the faith He has give us so that we will continue to live in the forgiveness and new life He gave in baptism.
The true meaning of baptism is found in God’s promises given to us in His Word. God gives us the gift of forgiveness of sins by bringing us into the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus through baptism. This participation in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus results in the death of our old, sinful nature and our new birth.