Following Jesus: Water Baptism

Part three of a new series exploring four essential steps to following Jesus. In this third part we look at the relevance and importance of water baptism.

Today we move onto part three of our four part series looking at four essential steps involved with following Christ. As we’ve seen with all the steps so far, there is both an initial dimension to the steps and then an ongoing dimension. We’ve seen that there’s an initial repentance when we realise our lives are not in alignment with God at all and we turn towards him for the first time. But then there is the daily repentance as we seek to become like Christ but, inevitably, don’t always get things right, and need to turn back to God in repentance, realigning with his ways. The same goes for faith: there’s the first time we put our trust in Jesus to save us from our sins; but then we spend our whole lives trusting God for all manner of needs.

And that bring us to today where we’re going to take a look at water baptism. Though this perhaps, more than repentance and faith, seems like something that is solely a one-off act, I hope by the end of this we’ll see how relevant baptism is to our daily life too. Baptism is more than just some arbitrary religious rite; it’s a vital sacrament that is at the very heart of what following Jesus is all about.

Before we talk about baptism though, I want to talk about marriage. Marriage is a beautiful thing. It’s a covenant between two people, agreeing through the making of promises to devote their lives to each other. It’s a choice to faithfully love and serve that one person ‘til death do us part’.

Hard as it is to prove this, I do think there’s a mystical dimension at work when two people form this covenant with each other. But somehow, something seems to happen when two people make these life-long promises to each other.

I’m sure we’ve all heard people talk about how, despite perhaps living together for years before getting married, something changed when they got married. Theoretically, everything was the same. Same house, same couple, same circumstances. And yet something changed. They may have thought they were just getting a piece of paper confirming they’re officially a couple, but something more happened. They entered a covenant. Something felt different, even if they couldn’t explain what it was.

Baptism is the same. One the one hand, it can be seen just as an external declaration of the internal reality that we’re now followers of Christ. ‘It’s just a bit of paper’. And yet it’s not just that. Following Jesus without getting baptised is like being boyfriend or girlfriend—maybe even living together—but never progressing the relationship and forming a covenant promise together. And, of course, we want to be sure before we form a covenant with just anyone, but there reaches a point where if we’re, for whatever reason, hesitant about the idea of forming a marriage covenant with the person we’re with, we may find ourselves asking why we are still with them at all.

Similarly, if we have turned to Christ and put our faith in him, then baptism is the way we ‘put a ring on it’. It’s our public covenant to follow Christ for the rest our lives. It’s our statement to the world of love and faithfulness to Jesus, sealing our relationship with him. It’s also a change of our very status. Something happens when we become a married person, and it’s the same with baptism. We have a new status that becomes the bedrock of our faith.

I read a story recently about a guy in his late twenties who married his childhood sweetheart. They hadn’t lived together prior to marriage and up until his wedding day he was still under his parents’ roof. He and his fiancé got married and then went off on honeymoon. But when they came back and settled down into their normal lives the guy made a big mistake. After finishing his first day back at work, he instinctively went back to his parents’ house and slumped on the sofa there as he often did. About an hour later, his Dad asked him if he was going home to his wife any time soon. He’d totally forgotten! He headed straight home and very quickly needed to patch things up with his wife who, as you can imagine, wasn’t very pleased at all.

It’s a silly story, but it makes an important point. Though the guy was now officially married, it didn’t mean he knew how to live as a married person or how to be a great husband. He had a new status—‘married’—but he still had a lot of learning to do about what it meant to live with that new status. He was married and was now a husband, but he was only just beginning to figure out what living with this new status meant.

The same goes for baptism and our following Christ. When we turn to God, put our faith in Christ, and seal our relationship through baptism, our status changes. Before Christ our status was ‘in sin’ or ‘in Adam’. That’s to say, as a result of Adam’s original sin in the garden of Eden, we were all born with a sinful nature that, despite, of course, being able to do good things, meant sin, disobedience, and rebellion against God were inherent to our humanity. Sin was inevitable. But now, our relationship with Christ means we have a new status. We are declared ‘righteous’ and are now ‘in Christ’. (See Romans 5:12–21.)

But being declared righteous and being in Christ, doesn’t mean we will never sin again. Don’t we all know that’s the truth? Our status has changed, the inevitability of sin has been broken, but we still have to learn to live as baptised people with this new righteous status. We are now, as we see in Romans 6:1–14, ‘dead to sin’ but we have to learn to live as people who are dead to sin. It doesn’t just happen automatically.

This learning to live in our new status starts we embracing our new identification with Christ. In baptism we identify with Christ’s death and his resurrection. When we are immersed into the water, it symbolises our dying with Christ. And when we emerge back out it symbolises our rising up with Christ to new life. Out old status and nature is not just put away in a cupboard or something—it is killed off. Because we have died with Christ, we are dead to sin’s power over us. But we have to embrace this. ‘Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God,’ Paul teaches. It won’t just happen.

Baptism is the wedding ring of our relationship with Christ. It reminds us that we’re married and, as such, there are certain behaviours that are now right—and others that are wrong. ‘I’m married’ is a form of protection. The ring reminds us and protects us. It guards our status as a married person. The same goes for ‘I’m baptised’. It’s reminds us who we are and of our new status in Christ. When temptation comes we remember that we’re in Christ, that we died to sin, and that sin no longer has control of us. We are free.

It’s is interesting to see the way Paul uses the language of slavery and freedom. It’s hard not to see the parallels to the story of the Exodus. The children of Israel were enslaved by the Egyptians but God rescued them. Even when the Egyptians eventually let them go though, it wasn’t until they actually crossed the waters of the river Jordan that they were actually free. They too then had to learn to live as free people and, when the going got tough, they even longed at times to be slaves again with Egypt!

So there’s no doubt that baptism is important. It is an external declaration of our inner repentance and faith, but it also goes beyond that. It encapsulates our full identification with Christ and, as such, seals our relationship with him. Going through the waters of baptism confirms our new status in Christ. It’s a visible reminder that we have died with Christ and now risen with him. It affirms that we are now dead to sin and alive to God and that sin no longer has control over over. Baptism is the confirmation that we are no longer slaves; we are free. Truly free.

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The work of a critic is easy