The Biblical Basis for Baptism
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The Biblical Basis for Baptism

Acts 2:36–47  (ID: 1663)

What does it mean to be baptized? Who should be baptized? Who should not be baptized? Alistair Begg answers these questions and instructs all who profess faith in Christ to be baptized. In baptism, new believers symbolically convey their union with Christ. It is not just a casual affair or a formality but an expression that the believer’s life is changed and forever belongs Christ.

Series Containing This Sermon

Seven Marks of an Effective Church

Acts 2:42–47 Series ID: 22401

Encore 2014

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25905

Sermon Transcript: Print

Last Sunday morning, in preparation for sharing in the Lord’s Supper together, we mentioned the fact that the Bible introduces us to two sacraments or ordinances which the Lord Jesus has left to us. We recognize that there are some parts of Christendom who recognize some seven ordinances, but we said that, along with the rest of Protestant theology, we had come to the conviction that there were two which were clearly given to us by Christ. These two basic elements of the church, we said, were very, very important.

And since last Sunday it seemed appropriate for us to set to rights our convictions concerning the Lord’s Supper, and then since we are about to share in baptism this evening, we determined that it would be important for us to lay down the biblical basis for baptism. And so, in some ways, this Sunday overlaps with last, for those of us who were present. For those of us who were not and would like to know something about the biblical teaching on the Lord’s Supper, then the tapes are available along with others in the vestibule at the conclusion of our worship.

We said last time that the sacraments or ordinances—and I will use these words interchangeably this morning—the sacraments or ordinances which Jesus left to us each have material elements in them. In the case of baptism, it is water. In the case of the Lord’s Supper, it is bread and wine. And each ordinance is distinguished from its reality by the material itself, so that it is not in going into the baptism pool that someone is saved, but being in that baptism pool signifies the cleansing which Jesus brings. It is not by eating the bread and drinking the wine that we continue to live in Christ, as if by imbibing something that was sufficient for our progress, but rather, these elements speak to us of a reality greater than themselves. 

And so we sought to affirm that this visible object or sign points to a reality which is different from and more significant than itself. We said—and I want to underpin it again this morning—that the sign is secondary, and it is outward and visible, while the reality is primary, inward, and invisible. And as true as that was in relationship to the Lord’s Supper, it is very important that we understand that it is so in relationship to baptism itself. In the sign of baptism, the reality is displayed, but it is not dispensed.

Now, the fact is that anyone who wanders around a church building for any length of time at all—and largely any kind of building—will be smart enough to realize that baptism is something which is practiced. With the exception of the Salvation Army and the Quakers, virtually every area of church life practices baptism. And so most people know something about it. And in that lies one of our greatest problems. Because in knowing a little bit, we often don’t know enough, and it is subject to unbelievable confusion and misunderstanding. Nowhere was that clearer than down through the dark Middle Ages. So it was that when the Reformers picked up on the whole issue of baptism, they determined that it was vitally important that whenever you shared any sacrament—they determined there were two—it was important that the Word of God was proclaimed. Because it was only, said the Reformers, in the explanatory proclamation of the Word that the confirmatory nature of the sacraments themselves might be understood.

As I thought about that in this past week, I determined that I was glad that we have determined to reduce the number of people baptized at a time, because I think we’ve fallen foul of the notion that the baptisms might stand by themselves. And so this evening, we have less people being baptized, thereby allowing us the opportunity to proclaim the Word of God within the context of baptism, so that nobody would come to the service and assume that somehow or another this might be understood all by itself. Augustine, or Au-gus-tine, described the sacraments as visible words of God. And in these visible portrayals, he said, the Word of Scripture is made manifest.

Now, the ordinance of baptism is rich in its significance, it is broad in its impact, and consequently, we could spend a tremendous amount of time studying it. One book that I was dealing with this week had some four hundred pages, and the bibliography had 234 entries on the subject of baptism. That was one book. But I want you to relax, because we’re not going to try and get into all of that. I essentially want to hit the basics with you. Because, I say again, there is tremendous confusion concerning it.

A couple of years ago, when we moved into another home, we had a responsibility on a cleanup day to clean up a swimming pool area. And with a group of men from the neighborhood, I was enlisted to be a part of this operation. And it was obviously a time of great significance, because the swimming pool during the winter months had filled up with all kinds of water, and frogs, and green slime, and all manner of stuff, and so it was very important that in the removing of the tarpaulin which had covered the pool area, it was done successfully and with care. And so they gave to me a corner of the pool area that I was supposed to hold onto the tarpaulin and move, and at a signal from the leader of the group, he determined that we would all move in unison. That was fine. I was happy to be a part of it. And when they shouted, “Move!” I moved—and moved myself right into the deep end of the pool, covered myself in green slime, and frogs, and all manner of filth. And I thought that I was standing, you see, on the concrete edge of the pool, but I was actually standing here, and so when I walked forward, I just walked into thin air; I walked into an eight feet chasm and then descended into water.

There was a moment of distinct silence, since I had only moved into the neighborhood a couple of months and no one knew me and didn’t know how to respond, and then when they saw that I thought it was funny, then they just died laughing. People were falling over on the grass and just going, “This is unbelievable!” And then the questions started: “Hey, did you say you were a Baptist minister?” And all the confusion that surrounds the subject of baptism was represented in the intervening hours between that point and the end of the cleanup day.

And I could guarantee you that if I gave out sheets of paper right now for you folks to write down the nature and significance and biblical basis of baptism, if we laid the congregation end-to-end, it couldn’t reach a conclusion. Because there is such unbelievable confusion as to who should be baptized, what it means to be baptized, who should not be baptized—and so I want to address it with you.

Where Does Baptism Come From?

One of the questions that people always have is, “Well, where did this come from? I mean, did baptism just kind of pop up with John the Baptist?” No. We can’t take time to it, but if you go back into the Old Testament, you will notice that there were all kinds of ritual washings and cleansings. You read about them in the book of Exodus; now the psalmist speaks of his own spiritual cleansing in terms of washing and renewal.[1] When you come into the intertestamental period between the book of Malachi and the book of Matthew, you discover that in the Essene sect and in the Qumran community, as well as in other areas, there were all kinds of expressions of baptism. When John walks onto the stage of human history as the kind of tangible link between the Old Testament prophets and the New Testament apostles, he walks on as “the Baptizer”; he walks on proclaiming a baptism of repentance and calling disciples to himself, and as they come to him as his disciples, he baptizes them upon their profession of repentance of sin.[2]

Jesus walks onto the stage of human history, begins his public ministry, and you read in Matthew 3—and you may want to turn to this—you read in Matthew 3 that when Jesus came to John, who was baptizing in the Jordan, he came to John “to be baptized by John.”[3] Now, you will recognize that he was some thirty years of age at this point. This caused John no small amount of confusion, because he said, “Haven’t we got this upside down? Shouldn’t I be getting baptized by you?”[4] Jesus says, “No, it is right for me to get baptized in this way, because it allows me to do the right thing before God.”[5] That’s what the phrase means, “[Thus it is fitting] to fulfill all righteousness.”[6] What does it means to “fulfill all righteousness”? It means to fulfill the righteous requirements that God has.

Jesus was baptized because he recognized that as the promised Messiah, he was called to identify with the people who he came to deliver.

Now, again, we could camp on this, but let me give you two words which explain why Jesus was baptized. Word number one is the word identification. Jesus was baptized because he recognized that as the promised Messiah, he was called to identify with the people who he came to deliver.  And he was going to say on numerous occasions, “I have given you an example that you should follow in my steps.”[7] And doubtless, if there was some pastor somewhere preaching that it was important for people to be baptized, and Jesus himself, of course, had not been baptized, the ultimate out would have been, “Hey, that’s very interesting, but we read the whole of the New Testament, and there is no record of Jesus being baptized.” But, of course, there is. And he was baptized as a point of identification.

The second word is the word consecration, because in his baptism Jesus was consecrating himself publicly to doing the will of the Father . He was recognizing that before the watching world, he was going to reveal all that his life and ministry would mean. And there is a very real sense in which, when Jesus went down into the Jordan to be baptized by John, he gave a foreshadowing of the fact that he would go down into death, he would be raised in newness of life, and it would be by both his death and resurrection that he made salvation possible.  So that was very much pictured in the baptism of Christ himself.

You discover in the Gospel of John that within a very short period of time, Jesus authorized his disciples to start baptizing. And in John chapter 3 we read of the fact that some of the disciples of John the Baptist were concerned about this, and in John 3:22: “After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized.” So you had this baptism taking place simultaneously. John clarifies it in 4:1, where he says that “the Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining and baptizing more disciples than John”—qualification—“although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples.”

Why would that ever be? For the very same reason: that if Jesus himself had not been baptized and someone said, “You should be baptized,” they would have said, “Hey, but he didn’t.” And if Jesus did the baptizing, immediately it would emerge that some people would say to each other, “Who baptized you?” And somebody would say, “Jesus baptized me.” And someone else would say, “Well, Peter baptized me.” And then the folks would say, “Aha! The only baptisms that count are the Jesus baptisms. Yours is inferior.” And loved ones, I want you to know this morning—it may be a surprise to some of you—that there are churches in our immediate neighborhood here who have similar focuses in relationship to the one who does the baptizing, as if the significance lay in who was conducting the service. That is secondary and ultimately irrelevant to the significance of it itself.

So, Jesus in the beginning of his public ministry initiates baptism—a baptism of repentance and faith in himself. At the end of his ministry, as he takes leave of his disciples and he tells them, “Okay, I’m out of here, I’m going to heaven; now this is what I want you to do,” he gives them four commands that they are to go and do these things: they are to “make disciples” and they are to “[baptize] them.”[8] Incidentally, in those words, which you’ll find in Matthew 28:19, the only phrase that comes in the imperative is the phrase “to baptize.” “Make sure you do this,” he says. “Make sure that people are baptized.” So, if the church is commanded to baptize, then presumably those who are made members of the church through faith in Jesus Christ are themselves to be the recipients of baptism .

Now, that’s the line that I’d like to trace with you for just a moment, because all of that is by way of background. Who should… What does baptism mean? Let’s deal with that one first: What does it mean? And then we’ll come to who should be baptized.

What Does Baptism Mean?

Let me tell you four things that baptism means. First of all, baptism is a confession of faith in Christ. Turn back to the passage we read earlier, Acts 2:38: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart … [they] said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’” And he replies, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ.”[9] When you go through the Acts of the Apostles, this comes time and again. They were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and they were baptized as a confession of their faith in Jesus Christ.

By the time the early church was dealing with this, they were very, very clear. And if you turn to Acts chapter 8 for just a moment, you will notice in there—some of you—that you’ve got a verse missing. If you have an NIV and you look at verse 36, and then you look for verse 37, you’ll see it isn’t there, and it goes immediately to verse 38. So you want to know, “Who’s monkeying around with the Bible? Who took this stuff out of here?” Well, we don’t want to get off on this for the moment, but the later manuscripts do not have verse 37. That’s why the NIV puts verse 37 at the bottom of the page. The question was, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And the answer that the early church had understood perfectly was this: “If you believe with all your heart, you may. And if you do not believe with all your heart, you may not.” Why not? Because baptism is a confession of faith in Christ. If there is no confession of faith, there is no significance in the baptismal waters. 

Secondly, baptism is expressive not only of our confession of faith in Christ but is expressive of our communion with Christ. You need to turn to Romans chapter 6 to understand this, and Paul gives clear instructions concerning the nature of baptism. He says in verse 3, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Salvation is not conveyed in baptism. Nevertheless, salvation is crucial. And baptism is a crucial, pivotal moment in a person’s salvation. And one of the great mistakes that the church has made over the years is to divorce baptism from confession. So we call people to faith in Jesus Christ and we say, “This is what you should do,” and then we never, ever mention baptism. And then days go by, and months go by, and years go by, and somebody says, “I never knew this!”

Well, the apostles never made that mistake, because they said, “This is what it will mean to become a Christian: it will mean repenting of your sin, turning to faith in Jesus Christ, and being baptized as an expression of your faith in Jesus.” They would never have conceived of salvation minus baptism. Because baptism, more than any other symbol, conveys our communion with Jesus.

In baptism tonight, people are saying, when they go down into this water here underneath me—at least it will be underneath me—they are saying, “I have died with Christ. As he died, so, united with him, I died with him to my sin. And I have been raised with Christ; as he was raised from the dead, so communion with Christ means that I have been raised to a brand-new life.” So that in my baptism I am saying, “I am hanging tough with Jesus. I am united with Jesus. I have confessed faith in Jesus. I am all tied up with Jesus. When God looks from heaven and sees me, he sees me and Jesus holding hands, if you like. He sees Jesus and I completely interwoven. He does not see me apart from Christ. He does not see Christ apart from me. And in my baptism, I was displaying the nature of that communion.”

Baptism is expressive of the fact that our lives are irrevocably wrapped up with Jesus Christ.

It’s not just a thing! It’s not just an event! It’s not just something you do! It is expressive of the fact that our lives are irrevocably wrapped up with Jesus Christ.  And if they’re not, then stay away! And if they are, then come.

The hymnwriter puts it perfectly:
O Jesus, I have promised
To serve thee to the end;
Be thou forever near me,
My Master and my Friend;
I [dare] not fear the battle
[When] thou art by my side,
Nor wander from the pathway
If thou wilt be my Guide.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O, let me see thy footprints,
And in them plant [my] own;
My hope to follow duly
Is in thy strength alone.[10]

Have you seen the footprints of Christ? Was he baptized? Yes or no? Yes. Let’s just try that once again; I’m not sure that everyone’s awake. Was Jesus Christ, by historical record, baptized? [Congregation: “Yes!”] Okay. Does Jesus command the church to baptize people? “Yes.” Okay. So far we’re doing very nicely. Okay, ’cause you’re going to back yourself into a corner that you cannot get out of, so hold on.

When people are confronted with the nature of communion with Christ, they need to recognize too that baptism—and this is the third thing—is indicative of our consecration to Christ. Okay? Confession of Christ, communion with Christ, consecration to Christ—and I’ve gotta keep moving—the fourth thing is that baptism looks forward to our consummation with Christ. In Romans 6:22, Paul says, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.” So in the baptism pool the person says, “I’m going somewhere. I’m heading on from here. ‘I press on toward[s] the goal to win the prize for which God … called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.’[11] I’m forgetting those things which are behind, and I’m heading on.”[12] Okay? So that’s what it means: a confession of faith in Christ, a communion with Christ, a consecration to Christ, and a picture of our consummation with Christ.

Who Should Be Baptized?

Well then, here’s the question: If that is what it means, then who should be baptized? Back again to Acts 2:37. They asked the question, having been cut to the heart, “What shall we do?” Because when the truth of the gospel grips a heart, people don’t just walk out the door and say, “Well, that’s very interesting.” Oh, if it rattles in our minds, they may say that. But when it grips our hearts, we know, “There’s something I’m supposed to do. There’s got to be a response to this.” And so Peter tells them, “Repent and be baptized.”[13] And then we read, you will notice, that those who received his message—verse 41, they “accepted his message”—they “were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

Come really quickly with me, ’cause I’ll give you your homework here. Acts 8:12, just answer the question: Is this a pattern or not? Faith and baptism. Acts 8:12: “But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Acts 8:35—we’ve turned to it already—Philip explains Isaiah 53, the Ethiopian eunuch says, “‘Why shouldn’t I [get] baptized?’ And he gave orders to stop the chariot,”[14] and his baptism service took place right there in the water.

You go into 9:17, the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Ananias goes to the house as God has commanded him; he places his hands on Saul; he explains to Saul; Saul is “filled with the Holy Spirit”; verse 18, “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes”—you remember, he couldn’t see, he was blinded on the Damascus Road—and “he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Okay? So he encountered Christ, he repented of his sin, his eyes were opened, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, he was jolly hungry, but he got baptized before he had his dinner. He didn’t have his dinner and get baptized. That’s what I call immediate obedience. Some of us have put many a dinner in between our obedience to Christ—many a breakfast, many a lunch. And the Lord alone knows what we’re waiting for.

Acts 10:47: “Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.’” Remember, God comes upon them up there in that area where they had not been present in Jerusalem? And “so he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

We could go on into chapter 16, and on into chapter 18; just follow the line through. Take a concordance, look up baptism, and ask yourself, “Can I, as a reasonable person—prepared to set aside my background, any kind of prejudice that I may have created, any sense of tradition that I may have set above the Scriptures—can I deny the fact that the practice of the New Testament church was to baptize those who profess faith in Jesus Christ?” That’s the question you must answer. Was it the practice of the New Testament church for baptism to precede faith or for faith to precede baptism? Never mind about the Council of Nicaea; I don’t want to hear about the second century at the moment. I don’t want to hear about Luther, or Calvin, or any of the rest of the guys; those were just guys. This is the Bible. You’re a sensible person. You’ve got a Bible. Read it. And ask yourself the question: Does baptism follow upon profession of faith? If so, then it is to be those who profess faith in Christ who are baptized. I mean, you don’t need much more than a seventh-grade education to work this stuff out.

How Does Baptism Relate to the Church?

“Well,” says somebody, “how does it relate to the church?” It’s integral to the church, to the local church. That’s why people say to me, “Well, could you come over to my swimming pool and baptize me?” Only if I have to. But I don’t want to. Why not? Because baptism is in the context of the church. You say, “Well, there wasn’t a building at the Jordan.” No, we’re talking “church,” we’re not talking “building.” We understand that. It was within the context of the gathered church that baptism took place. That’s why there is no significance, really, in baptizing yourself in your bath.

I mean, the guy told me the other night on Open Line, when he called me up, he says, “You know, do you know about Mr. So-and-So’s baptism?”

I said, “No, I never heard of it.”

He said, “Yeah, he baptized himself.”

I said, “Oh, very interesting. Where did he come up with that one?” Well, nobody knows, but he’s made a jolly rite out of it, and he’s got hundreds of people following in his wake!

In the New Testament period, a Christian unattached to a local church was unknown. A person’s response to the gospel in baptism would have brought them into the fellowship of the local company of God’s people.

Baptism is integral to the gospel, it is integral to conversion, and it is integral to the church. In the New Testament period, loved ones, a Christian unattached to a local church was unknown.  A Christian unattached to a local church was unknown. A person’s response to the gospel in baptism would have brought them into the fellowship of the local company of God’s people. That’s why, when they were baptized in Corinth, they weren’t in any doubt.

“What happened to you today?”

“I’ll tell you what happened to me: I realized that Jesus is the person that he claimed to be, I repented of my sins, I trusted in him, and I was baptized, and I joined the church in Corinth! And you know what? They had a communion service right there and then, and I had my first communion. The whole deal!” Repentance, faith, baptism, communion!

When we divorce baptism from membership of the local church, and when we divorce membership of the local church from baptism, in both cases—which we do in this church!—then we put ourselves outwith the framework and pattern of New Testament practice . If you divorce baptism from membership and membership from baptism, then you’ve got it wrong. Well, you say, “Well, you’re standing up in your own pulpit saying you’ve got something wrong right in the church?” That’s what I’m telling you. “Then it has to be fixed!” Yes, if we’re going to be obedient to the Bible, it has to be fixed.

The process is clear: the Word of God is proclaimed, the person responds in repentance and in faith, they are told that their repentance and faith is pictured in baptism, they are baptized, they are brought into membership of the local church, and that happens at the Lord’s Table. That, you see, covers all the questions about where one piece fits with another.

What Is My Response to Be?

Now let me summarize this, if I may. The real issue this morning is this: Where am I in relation to all of this? First of all, have I come to faith in Jesus Christ? That’s not just the acceptance of an idea; it’s not just the rearranging of priorities. Faith in Jesus Christ is submission to his lordship. Jesus, in Luke 6:46, he turns to his disciples and he says, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do the things I tell you?”[15] “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”[16] It’s a good question; parents ask it all the time: “Don’t tell me you love me; show me you love me! Obey me!” Jesus said, “If a man loves me, he will obey my commandments.”[17] Okay, so if we love him, we obey his commandments. Is it a commandment to be baptized? Yes? Okay, it is a commandment to be baptized. And love issues in obedience. Then can I ask all of you who remain unbaptized believers, what in the world do you think you’re doing? I mean, what is your strategy? What are you waiting for? I mean, are you waiting to become a “better” person, because only “better” people get baptized? Then you’ve misunderstood it.

When Peter describes this issue using the picture of Noah and the ark in 1 Peter 3—and this is my final illustration—he uses the word “pledge”; you can find it there in verse 21. That word for pledge, which he described in relationship to baptism, was the word most commonly used in the sealing of a business contract. And some of you this morning are businessmen, and you understand this; you deal with contracts all the time. And that word for pledge was imperative in business dealings in the context of Peter’s day.

“Do you accept the terms of this contract?” the question would be asked, “and do you bind yourself to observe them?”

And the answer would be given, “Yes.”

“And what do you have to show for your binding commitment to the contract?”

And the person would say, “My pledge.” And it would often be marked by an insignia: “And I hereto set my pledge to this contract today; I am bound to it.” That is the exact word that Peter uses.

Jesus, therefore, comes amongst a company like this this morning, and he asks, “Do you accept the terms of my service? Do you accept the privileges and promises? Are you prepared to undertake its responsibilities and demands?” And baptism is like a soldier’s oath of loyalty upon entering the service of his commanding officer.  

See, here will be water. What hinders you from being baptized?

Let us pray together.

If God has spoken to you concerning these things, realize that it is God’s Word which convicts and draws us, not the influential words of a man. “O Master, let me walk with Thee in lowly paths of service free.”[18] Lead us in the paths of righteousness for your name’s sake,[19] Lord Jesus, we ask it. Amen.

[1] See, for instance, Psalm 51.

[2] See Matthew 3:6.

[3] Matthew 3:13 (NIV 1984).

[4] Matthew 3:14 (paraphrased).

[5] Matthew 3:15 (paraphrased).

[6] Matthew 3:15 (NIV 1984).

[7] John 13:15 (paraphrased).

[8] Matthew 28:19 (NIV 1984).

[9] Acts 2:37–38 (NIV 1984).

[10] John E. Bode, “O Jesus, I Have Promised” (1868).

[11] Philippians 3:14 (NIV 1984).

[12] Philippians 3:13 (paraphrased).

[13] Acts 2:38 (NIV 1984).

[14] Acts 8:37–38 (NIV 1984).

[15] Luke 6:46 (paraphrased).

[16] Luke 6:46 (NIV 1984).

[17] John 14:23 (paraphrased).

[18] Washington Gladden, “O Master, Let Me Walk with Thee” (1879).

[19] See Psalm 23:3.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.