These are pictures of the oldest Christian church building we know of not in total ruins. It’s in a Syrian village known as Dura Europos. It was actually a house that was adapted to be used as a Christian meeting place. This ancient house church dates from the 200s and it contains, you can see, an immersion baptistery. This is the oldest baptistery that we know of. It shows that immersion in water was an important practice to those early Christians. But how important? How significant did they see the act of baptism?
Early Christian View of Baptism
Here are a few quotes from some early Christians that date back even before this little house church.
Justin Martyr (110 – 165 A.D.) wrote an explanation of Christian practices to the emperor, Antoninus Pius. Here’s something he said about baptism. “As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, ‘Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all…” “… [We] may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed…” (Justin Martyr, “First Apology,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 183)
Irenaeus (120-204 A.D.) ” And [Naaman] dipped himself . . . seven times in the Jordan. It was not for nothing that Naaman of old, when suffering from leprosy, was purified upon his being baptized, but [this served] as an indication to us. As we are lepers in sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord. We are thus spiritually regenerated as newborn infants, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.'” (Irenaeus, “Fragments From Lost Writings”, no. 34, Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, pg. 574)
Tertullian (140-230 A.D.) “Happy is our sacrament of water, in that, by washing away the sins of our early blindness, we are set free and admitted into eternal life.” “Baptism itself is a corporal act by which we are plunged into the water, while its effect is spiritual, in that we are freed from our sins” (Tertullian, “On Baptism,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol 3, p. 676)
Clement (150-200 A.D.) “… when you are regenerated and born again of water and of God, the frailty of your former birth, which you have through men, is cut off, and so at length you shall be able to attain salvation; but otherwise it is impossible. For thus hath the true prophet testified to us with an oath: ‘Verily I say to you, That unless a man is born again of water, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ Therefore make haste; for there is in these waters a certain power of mercy which was borne upon them at the beginning…Betake yourselves therefore to these waters, for they alone can quench the violence of the future fire; and he who delays to approach to them, it is evident that the idol of unbelief remains in him, and by it he is prevented from hastening to the waters which confer salvation.” (Clement, “Recognitions of Clement,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 8, pg. 155)
They saw baptism in water as the moment of regeneration, being born again and freed from sin. That’s quite the contrast to the way that baptism is viewed now almost 2 millenniums later in most protestant churches. Baptism is now commonly seen as just a public proclamation of your faith or simply an outward sign of an inward grace or something undergone to join a church, but not an essential element to the salvation of someone’s soul. Were those early Christians right to attach such significance to baptism? Or are many denominations today better enlightened on the matter?
Baptism from the Old Testament through Acts
Last Sunday we began a survey of water baptism in the Bible. And we looked at water baptism in the OT and in the gospels and then in the book of Acts. And I think we could see that it never was just a public display of one’s faith.
We saw baptism in the Israelites’ salvation from the Egyptians when they passed through the Red Sea with a wall of water on their right and a wall of water on their left and the cloud of God’s presence above them. Paul said they were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (I Cor 10:2). That was a great moment of deliverance from the Egyptians and entering a new relationship with Moses as their leader.
We saw baptism in the rituals that had to be done to set apart Aaron and his sons to be priests at the tabernacle. Not until they’d been baptized among other rituals could they serve as the priests.
We saw baptism in Jewish ceremonial cleansing. Whenever a Jewish person became ceremonially unclean for some reason, which happened quite often, to be clean and able to worship at the tabernacle they had to immerse themselves, baptize themselves in water.
We saw baptism in the cleansing of Naaman of his leprosy. When he rose the 7th time from dipping himself in the river Jordan as commanded by the prophet Elisha his flesh was restored and became like that of a little child.
We saw baptism commanded by the prophet John who came to prepare the way for the Lord. He commanded a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And most of the common Jewish folks submitted to John’s baptism. But of the Scribes and Pharisees who did not, Luke 7:30 says, they “rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John.” Jesus told one of those Pharisees, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
We saw baptism commanded by Christ. After His redemptive work on earth was done, repentance and baptism were still required. The preaching of John was transitioning us into this last age of history, the Christian age, where repentance and baptism are part of God’s terms of salvation. Though baptism now has to be joined with faith in the gospel, faith in the redemptive work and Lordship of Jesus.
And we saw those terms of salvation being preached by the apostles and prophets of Christ all through the book of Acts.
Well, this morning I want us to just finish our survey of water baptism in the Bible. We’re going to look at water baptism in the epistles of the NT, the letters that apostles and prophets of the Lord wrote to Christians, passages in which Christians are reminded of their baptism and what happened there and the significance of it. Then, Lord willing, in our next study we’ll consider the arguments that are often made to say we have misunderstood all these passage that we looked at last Sunday and that we will look at today.
Romans 6:3-4, 17
What happened at the baptism of the Christians to whom Paul is writing is described in v 3-4, but let’s get a little context by starting at v1. “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?” So Paul is going to deal with this argument someone might make to excuse or justify continuing in sin, just going on willfully practicing sin in their life. The argument is that the more we sin the more grace it takes for God to forgive us. So if we sin more it makes God more gracious to grant us forgiveness. And isn’t that a great thing to give God the opportunity to demonstrate just how incredibly gracious He is?” Hmmm. “Should we do that?” Paul says, v2, “May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?” Paul is saying if we’re Christians, if we’re saved, if we stand in the grace of God, then we have died to sin. And the verses that follow in this chapter show us that he has in mind the imagery of slavery. Sin is personified as an old master that we used to serve and who had authority over us and who determined what would happen to us. But now if we’re Christians, if we’re saved, we are dead to that old master, sin. And that means 2 things. It means #1 that our old master sin can’t do anything to us. A master cannot do anything anymore to a slave who has died. Sin cannot determine our destiny anymore. And #2, it means that we do not serve our old master, sin. If a slave is really dead, then that slave does not go out and plow the master’s field or fix his dinner. If we’re Christians, if we’re saved, that’s us in relation to sin. We are dead. .
Now, how does that happen? How do we become dead to sin? Well, certainly it involves a decision on our part not to serve sin anymore. But a slave is not dead and freed from his master just because he decides “I don’t want to serve my master anymore.” The master will still have say over what happens to the slave even if the slave decides not to serve him. But that decision is part of how we become dead to sin. But it also involves this. Look at v3, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” When we’re committed to serve Christ rather than sin, and in faith and obedience to Christ we’re baptized into a relationship with Him, then in that baptism, Paul says, we come “into His death.” We are connected there with His death. His death becomes ours at that moment. We appropriate it. It comes to apply to us at that moment. And at that moment as far as our old master sin is concerned we are dead. Then look at v4, “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.” So baptism is a burial where we are untied with Christ and His death. We become dead and buried with Christ in the water, and sin no longer has any say over us at that moment. And from that watery grave we rise to a new life, the old self, the slave of sin, is dead, and a new self, a slave of God, is alive. And Paul is saying we must, with the Lord’s help, keep it that way. The old slave of sin has to stay dead and the new slave of God has to stay alive.
Now, look at v17 where Paul refers again refers to this death, burial and resurrection that we undergo. v17, “But thanks be to God that though you were slaves of sin, you became obedient from the heart to that form of teaching to which you were committed…” Notice the word “form” there. It’s the word tupos in the Greek text. It means a semblance, a likeness, a copy, an imitation, or an image of something, or a shape that comes out of cast or a mold, or an impression of a stamp, something like that. Well, what semblance or likeness or imitation or image of the teaching did they obey? Of first importance in the teaching they heard was the death, burial and resurrection of Christ (I Cor 15:3-4). And they obeyed the semblance, the likeness, the image of that that by killing and burying the old self, the old slave of sin, with Christ in baptism, and then being raised up to new life with Christ. And Paul says “thanks be to God that you did that,” because it united you with Christ and freed you from sin.
I Corinthians 12:13
Paul is talking in this passage about how though as Christians we are very different from each other in many ways, in race and social status and we have different gifts and different abilities, we are all one body in Christ. And in this verse he explains how we became one body in Christ. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” I don’t know about you, but that sure reminds me of John 3:5 Jesus saying “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit He cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Paul says “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” We come into the body of Christ when we submit to the Spirit of God, when we let the Spirit of God change us, give us a new heart, bring to us to repentance, which leads us to be baptized. Then we become a member of the body of Christ. And when we become a member of His body, that’s when His status, His inheritance, His relationship with the Father, all that becomes ours. And baptism apparently is the moment we come into His body.
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For…” Explain it to me, Paul. How did I become a son of God through faith in Christ Jesus? “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”
There are 2 things that these Christians did because of their faith in Christ Jesus. One is they were baptized, which brought them into Christ. That’s where they were united with Christ and His redemptive work. But they also did something else. Just being baptized by itself doesn’t bring you into Christ. You must also do this other thing that these Christians did, which is really the big thing and more difficult thing. These people were not just baptized, they clothed themselves with Christ. Clothing yourself with Christ is, I think, talking about a choice that we make to be like Jesus in our hearts and lives.
Listen to some other passages from the same Paul that use the same language. Romans 13:13, “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. 14 But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts.” You see to put on the Lord Jesus, to clothe yourself with Christ is to decide to not be engaged in things like carousing and drunkenness, sexual promiscuity and sensuality, strife and jealousy, but instead to be like Jesus in your character and in your behavior. Listen to Colossians 3:9-10, what the Colossian Christians did when they were converted. Paul says, “you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on [you clothed yourselves] the new self who is being renewed to a full knowledge according to the image of the One who created him.” You see becoming a child of God involves a laying aside the old self and putting on the new self, clothing yourself with Christ, deciding to be like Jesus… and then being baptized.
And that’s how (Galatians 3:26) we become sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. True faith, real trust in Jesus, is not just acknowledging that He’s the Son of God who died for us. It is to so trust Him that you do what He says you need to do. You decide to let Him rule your life, you clothe yourself with Him, and you obey His command to be baptized into a saving relationship with Him. That’s true faith in Jesus. And when faith works in that way then you become a son or daughter of God.
“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word…”
How are we sanctified and cleansed? By the washing of water with the word. So cleansing involves the 2 elements of water and the word. We need to let the word wash us of our unbelief and our stubborn unrepentant hearts and we need to be washed in water. And once washed by the word and water, then we’re clean before God and sanctified, set apart as His people. And Christ gave Himself up for us to make that sanctification and cleansing possible.
Paul says here if we’re in Christ, if we’re Christians, we have been circumcised. And he’s saying that because of some false teaching in Colossae that is saying circumcision is essential if you want to be a child of God. And so Paul says if you are in Christ you’ve been circumcised. You have undergone something that means everything and far more than circumcision ever meant for a Jew. For a Jew circumcision was a requirement to be in the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants. Genesis 17:14 God said to Abraham, “But an uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” So it was a requirement of the Jewish people to be in that particular covenant with God and it was a sign that they were God’s chosen people. Well, if you’re in Christ you had your circumcision that brings you into the new covenant with God and that is a sign of God’s chosen people today.
Paul explains it like this, Colossians 2:11, “in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; 12 having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
So our Christian circumcision involved 3 things.
- #1 the removal of the body of the flesh. I think he’s means “the flesh” in the sense of the fleshly sinful nature. (The removal of the body ruled by the fleshly nature.) Similar language in 3:5, “Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed, which amounts to idolatry.” The removal of the body of the flesh is talking about doing away with a body that follows the fleshly nature in immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed. Repentance basically I think is another word for it. That’s the first thing he mentions here involved in our Christian circumcision.
- #2 is burial and resurrection with Christ in baptism, being united with Christ in baptism.
- And #3 is faith in the working of God. You see in v12, “having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” When we’re baptized we’re not trusting the water to unite us with Christ and save us. Like Naaman when he was baptized in the Jordan River, he wasn’t trusting the dirty water of the Jordan to cleanse him of his leprosy. Naaman had faith in the working of God; he was trusting that God would cleanse him when submitted to God’s command to baptize himself in the Jordan. When we are baptized, we are trusting God to do what God said He would do when we, with hearts committed to Christ, are baptized in His name. We’re trusting God to cleanse us of our sins and make us alive together with Christ.
Another passage that speaks of how Christians were saved. “For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. 4 But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, 5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,”
The main point here is that we did not at all deserve to be saved. God did not look at us and think, “Wow, you’ve really made up for all your sins yourself with all your righteous deeds. You’ve lived such a holy godly life you have earned salvation. I am indebted to you. I owe you salvation like a paycheck that you’ve earned.” The only thing we’ve earned is divine retribution. We have accumulated on God’s earth here an enormous unrepayable debt to God. Paul says that we wouldn’t even be doers of good deeds now had it not been for what God had done for us and the working of the Holy Spirit in our lives. God had to do some work to motivate us to change our ways. And so the basis of our salvation is not deeds which we have done in righteousness. Our salvation is not at all like a paycheck that we have earned. The basis of our salvation is the incredible the love and mercy of God.
But God had some very simple conditions that He required us to meet before He would save us. Paul refers to them here as “the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” I don’t know about you, but that also sure reminds me of John 3:5, Jesus saying, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit He cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” God requires that we allow the Holy Spirit to renew us, to change us, to bring us to repentance, to give us a new heart and new spirit. You may remember Stephen in Acts 7 preaching to the Jewish Sanhedrin, and he could tell they weren’t really taking to heart what he was preaching and they had no intention of submitting to the Lord in their lives and he said, “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.” God requires that we not resist the Holy Spirit, that we allow Him to change us by submitting to His word. And then God requires that we be regenerated, reborn in being washed, in being immersed. And that is not at all earning our salvation. That doesn’t at all make us worthy of our salvation. Those are just God’s conditions that we must meet before He will give us the gift of salvation that we so don’t deserve.
“Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
If you’re familiar with the book of Hebrews you know that it’s full of illustrations from the OT, and we have one here. It has to do with the old covenant priests. This language of drawing near referred to what the priests would do when they came near to the symbolic presence of God at the tabernacle to offer sacrifices and burn the incense and trim the lamps and all of that. They were drawing near to God. But you may remember from last Sunday, before they could ever do that, before they could be priests and enter the tabernacle and perform the services of worship there, they had go through certain consecration rituals, which involved the sprinkling of blood and their bodies being washed with water, an immersion in water.
And the Hebrew writer is saying here that as Christians, like the priests, we can draw near to God in worship and prayer and study and in service that pleases and honors Him. And we should have full assurance that God accepts us and welcomes us, because we’ve undergone our own consecration ceremony that has set us apart as priests. We’ve been sprinkled with blood and washed with water. It happened at the same time. In the water of baptism the blood of Christ was applied to us and our hearts knew it and our hearts believed in the efficacy of the blood of Christ and so they were cleansed of a guilty conscience. We rose from the water feeling a great relief of our burden of sin knowing that in the water the blood of Christ washed us of all our sin and made us acceptable to God.
I Peter 3:21
“Corresponding to that…” To what? To what he talked about in the previous verse, where he said, “in [the ark] a few, that is eight persons, were brought safely through the water.” Noah and his family experienced a salvation involving water. They were brought to safety through water. Corresponding to that, sort of like that…
Peter says, “baptism now saves you“. Now, I didn’t write that. The apostle Peter wrote that. But it shouldn’t surprise us that Peter wrote that, because the same Peter you remember told crowds on Pentecost who wanted to know what they should do about the fact that “God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom they crucified,” Peter told them, “Repent and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” And so in a sense baptism now saves you. Not that there’s any power inherent in the water itself to erase sin, but it’s the act of faith and submission that the Lord has commanded of us if we wish to be saved. It saves us in the same sense that baptism in the Jordan cleansed Naaman of his leprosy. There’s no power inherent in that dirty Jordan River to cure leprosy. But baptism in that Jordan cleansed Naaman’s leprosy, because it was the act of faith and submission that God through His prophet Elisha commanded Naaman to do in order to be cleansed. In that sense baptism cleanses us of sin.
Peter further explains here what he means by baptism in v21. He explains what saving baptism is. He says, “not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
So he explains that the baptism that saves is not just any old bath you take that removes dirt from your flesh. Everybody takes a bath to wash dirt off sometimes and that doesn’t save them. It is more than just immersing your body in water.
The baptism that saves is a baptism in which you are an appealing to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s last phrase “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” I don’t think should be separated from the phrase just before. I think they go together. The baptism that saves is an appeal to God based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words it’s a response to the gospel and believing that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead, thus He really is everything He claimed and He really does have salvation to give. It is a response to that and an appeal to God based on that. And it is an appeal to God for a good conscience. Your conscience is basically your self-analyzer. It’s that part of you inside that tells you about yourself and how you’re doing, that tells you if you’re doing right or wrong and where you are with God. That’s your conscience. And having a good conscience means honestly believing inside that you are doing right in your life and you have God’s forgiveness and favor. It implies repentance. It implies that you made this decision that “I’m going to do right in my life. I’m going to give back what I’ve stolen. I’m going to end this immoral relationship. I’m going to be honest with people. I’m going to love my neighbor. I’m going to follow Jesus.” And a good conscience involves believing you have God’s forgiveness. The baptism that saves is when you want that good conscience, when you want to live right and know you have God’s forgiveness, and you believe the gospel, and you’re baptized to appeal God for His salvation in Christ so you can have that good conscience.
– James Williams