What is baptism?
The practice of baptism didn’t start with the prophet John. It was a common practice in the first century for religious teachers to baptize their followers. By agreeing to be baptized, the follower expressed his commitment to learn, practice and pass on the teachings of his master. The act of immersion in water was a public declaration that one was taking his relationship to the next level: from simply being a follower to becoming a dedicated student, or disciple, of a religious master. Today, water baptism is a public declaration of one’s desire to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. By being baptized, we are following the example of the sinless Christ who was baptized by John (Romans 6:4, Matthew 3:13-16).
The word “baptism” means “to plunge under, dip completely or immerse in water.” That is why most evangelical churches perform full immersion baptisms as opposed to other methods such as sprinkling of water, dabbing the forehead with water or pouring a small amount of water over the candidate’s head.
Water baptism is a ceremony rich in Christian symbolism. It is a picture of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (Colossians 2:12, 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Standing in the water is a symbol of Christ on the cross; going under the water reminds us of Christ buried in the tomb, and coming out of the water is a picture of Christ being raised on the third day. This practice also illustrates the cleansing and washing of sin operated by the Holy Spirit as a result of repentance and redemption (Acts 2:16). Finally, it is a symbol of the new birth Jesus speaks of in John 3:3-6. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v.5). Going under water creates a picture of the “sinful self” being put to death and coming out of the water shows the person emerging as a new creation.
It is important to clarify baptism does not bring eternal security to anyone, nor is it essential to salvation. In fact, salvation has to happen first—before baptism. It is only by faith in Jesus Christ, God’s gift to us, that we can be saved (Eph. 2:8-9).
In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus commands his disciples to “go therefore and make disciples of all the nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 2:38, Peter says, “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ.” Every person who repents of their sins and believes in Jesus as their Lord and Savior can—and needs to be—baptized. Water baptism by full immersion is an act of obedience to the Word of God; a public declaration of our commitment to follow our master and teacher, Jesus Christ; and an outward demonstration of an inward change.
When should a child be baptized?
There is no reference in the Bible to a specific age at which children can or should be baptized. However, God does provide guidelines that we should take into consideration. A child, like any adult, must understand the Gospel message; experience personal repentance; be able to articulate a basic profession of faith in Jesus Christ; and manifest a commitment to obey the Word and Spirit of God (John 14:21, Matt. 28:19). As we consider candidates for baptism, it is fundamental we remember the words of Jesus, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt. 19:14). We must guide children with this command in mind. Baptism should be a memorable and meaningful experience for children. The older a child grows, the more likely he or she will look back on his or her experience with confidence it reflected a sincere desire to follow the Lord.