What Is Baptism?
The apostle Paul wrote the book of Romans basically to explain the gospel. And in this one section — chapter 6 — where he has been describing what Jesus has done for us, he writes these words: Romans 6:4,
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.
In short, Paul tells us that to be a Christian is to identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our old selves were buried with him in his death, and, just as he was raised, so we too are raised with him into a new life. This is at the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
Long before the word “Christian” became just a bubble you pencil in on some medical questionnaire, or long before the word “Christian” became an ambiguous title for a nation’s religious majority, to call yourself a “Christian” meant that you are identifying yourself with Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and then raised from the dead on the third day. To be a Christian meant that who you are could only be understood in light of what he did.
It’s actually in the book of Acts where Luke tells us the first time people started calling Christians Christians. They had been simply followers of Jesus, or disciples, but then in Acts 11:26, Luke says, “And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” The name has the meaning of belonging to Christ. It was not a term that the early Christians chose for themselves, but one that the Gentiles in city of Antioch gave them, because apparently, there were enough people walking around worshiping this Christ and identifying their lives with his that they needed to be called something. It wasn’t Judaism, and it wasn’t paganism, so in Antioch they said, “Oh, those are the Christ-people, the Christians.”
So from the very start, to be a Christian meant that you identify with Jesus Christ, and specifically, it meant that you identify with Jesus in his death and resurrection. The death and resurrection of Jesus was, of course, the most amazing thing he did. Not only did he teach with authority, and feed the multitudes, and heal the sick, but he was crucified. He was dead, and then he came back to life.
And Christians are those who say, “I am with him.” We say: “Who I am can only be understood because of what he did.” Our old selves have been buried with him in his death, and just as he was raised, we too are raised to live new lives. And that is what baptism is all about.
What Baptism Says
Now, baptism doesn’t make this happen. There is nothing special in the water than affects us. You know Carrie Underwood has that song where she says, “There must be something in the water.” But no. Carrie, you have an amazing voice, but there ain’t nothing in the water. That is not how it works. There’s no special potion in the waters of baptism, but baptism is a symbol of a spiritual reality.
Baptism is where Christians identity with Jesus’s death and resurrection, not by just saying it, but by dramatizing it. In baptism we are saying, to everyone, that we are with Jesus, that what he did, he did for me — and we say it in the most vivid way. We’re not just reciting a line, or signing our names somewhere. But we stand in water (real water!), we go under the water (really under it!), and then we come out of the water. And by doing that, we are saying something.
And for just a few minutes here, leading up to the baptisms, I want to explain this in a little more detail. I just have two points.
1. In baptism, we identify with Jesus’s death by acknowledging sin and darkness and reckoning its defeat.
Acknowledging the Darkness
There is no doubt that baptism acknowledges darkness. Half of the symbol is about death. The water symbolizes a grave. It is chaos and despair and gloom. And when you are baptized, you acknowledge that by standing right in the middle of it. You acknowledge the sin and darkness of this world, and the sin and darkness of your own life.
Baptism keeps us from sweeping the reality sin under the rug. We can’t not make a big deal about it because, as a symbol, we are waist-deep in it. When Jesus died to save us he acknowledged that there was something wrong with this world and wrong with us. He acknowledged that there was a curse and an enemy that we needed to be saved from. And we when are baptized — when we identify with him in this death — we say the same thing. We agree with him. We acknowledge the sin and darkness like he did. We say, “This world is a mess,” and “My life was a mess.”
Reckoning Its Defeat
But baptism doesn’t just acknowledge sin and darkness, baptism says the sin and darkness has been defeated.
At the moment of acknowledging sin and darkness, baptism also shows that we’re not afraid go there. We don’t just stand at a distance and say, “Yeah, there is such a thing as sin and darkness.” But we come face to face with it, and as we are under the water, we are completely surrounded by it. We face the darkness head-on — and the only reason we can do this is because we know that Jesus has already gone there before us in our place.
Think about it: one of the reasons so many people are not honest about their own sin is because they don’t know what to do with it. If you admit something is wrong, you also admit that something needs to change. That is not easy. And the only reason we can be honest about it— the only reason we can go there — because of Jesus has already died the death that sin deserves. And when he died that death, because we are united to him by faith, our old selves died with him.
As a symbol, when we are completely submerged in the water, when we’re the most vulnerable, that’s when we most vividly express our faith in Jesus. We can only go there because Jesus already went there in our place and did something about it.
When Jesus died to save us he acknowledged the reality of sin and darkness, and he also reckoned its defeat. He redeemed us from sin’s curse by taking the curse for us. He freed us from sin’s consequence by conquering the death owed to us. Jesus did that when he died, and when we are baptized, we say that he did that for us.
In baptism, we identify with Jesus’s death by acknowledging sin and darkness and reckoning its defeat.
And that brings me to the second point, the other side of baptism, that it’s not just about death, but also, and more so, about life:
2. In baptism, we identify with Jesus’s life as a new creation in a new relationship.
Paul says that we were buried with Christ so that, just as he was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. So this is the part we’ve been getting to — this is the point. We weren’t just united to the death of Jesus, but we were united to the death of Jesus so that we could be united to his life. We went to the grave with him. Our old selves have been brought to an end — so that now, we are raised as new people.
This is why we come out of the water. When Hilly and Eric and Elijah go under the water, they’re not going to stay under the water, they are going to be raised, and that signifies that they are a new creation. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that if anyone is in Christ — if anyone trusts in Christ and belongs to him — that person is a new creation; the old has passed away and the new has come.
That is what happens when we embrace Jesus by faith. His Spirit comes and opens our eyes and makes us new. In Genesis 1, at the very beginning before creation, we read about the Spirit hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). The earth was without form and void. It was just darkness and chaos, and the Spirit was there to bring from that chaos God’s creation. And baptism kind of reflects that. Symbolically, it’s as if the Spirit is hovering over these waters, and when we are submerged into them, in the chaos, the Spirit brings from that chaos God’s new creation. This is how we identify with Jesus’s life. When we embrace Jesus by faith, when we’re united to him, filled by his Spirit, we’re not the same. Baptism symbolizes that.
But it’s not just that we are new creations, we also have a new relationship.
When Jesus himself was baptized, the Gospels tells us that God the Father spoke from heaven and said: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). It’s this amazing moment when we see God the Father clearly say that Jesus is his Son, and that he delights in him. God is clear about his relationship with Jesus — he’s my son and he makes me happy.
And this is the part that is just too much for us.
When we identify with Jesus — and here in a few moments when that identity is expressed by baptism — God the Father says the same thing about us that he said about Jesus. As a symbol, we come out of the water, and God says, of Hilly, “This is my daughter who I love, and I am so happy with her.” And God says of Eric, “This is my son who I love, and he makes me glad.” And then God says of Elijah, “This is my son. I love him., and I’m proud of him.”
As God the Father spoke these words over Jesus, so now, as our Father, because we are in Christ, he speaks these words over us. We are no longer enemies estranged from him, but we are his children.
Baptism dramatizes this reality. Baptism shows that we identify with Jesus’s death by acknowledging sin and darkness and by reckoning its defeat, and baptism shows that we identify with Jesus’s life by being a new creation in a new relationship.
Father, there is no wonder why we want to baptize a lot of people. You have given this symbol to your church to communicate the most glorious reality we could ever be part of. Thank you for the symbol, and thank you more for the reality behind it. Thank you that Jesus defeated sin and darkness by his death, and that he conquered the grave to bring a new creation, to make us your sons and daughters. This is all by your grace. We cannot earn it. We cannot be good enough. But in your mercy, you have loved us. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
In Jesus’s mighty name, amen.