“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Baptism and Identity
Many current issues center on personal identity as our culture wrestles with the age-old question, “Who am I?” The world’s inability to cope with this question or provide meaningful answers has generated mass confusion. This is increasingly obvious in the increase of aimless adolescents and the discussion surrounding sexual identity.
We can all agree that identity is a crucial matter to personhood. Without it, the self languishes and accomplishes nothing. But given a strong sense of identity, a person lives passionately.
This is true not only in the secular world, but also in the realm of faith. The issue of identity is not a material or social construct. It gets to the question of who I really am. The Christian who struggles to understand his or her identity in Christ is positioned for a lifetime of aimless living. Contrast this with a believer who understands his identity in Christ and is therefore empowered to live passionately for the Gospel.
The Christian who struggles to understand his or her identity in Christ is positioned for a lifetime of aimless living.
I propose that baptism is an essential factor in bringing new believers through their initial identity crisis. The longer we withhold baptism—intentionally or otherwise—from a new believer, the greater the likelihood that we will produce anemic disciples. In extreme cases, failing to welcome a new believer into the community of faith through baptism may result in total loss.
Baptism is a First Step in Discipleship
Many churches do not baptize new believers immediately upon the confession of their faith. Rather, they wait until a Christian asks to be baptized or they subject them to a rigorous round of catechism in the Christian faith as a way to test their commitment and determine the veracity of their experience. Not baptizing a believer disobeys the direct command of our Lord.
Jesus’s command is clear: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” Note the order in which this command is given. The command itself is to “make disciples of all nations.” There are two ways in which disciples are made: (1) baptize them in the name of the Triune God, and (2) teach them to observe the commandments of Christ.
On the basis of this command from Christ, it is clear that the teaching aspect of discipleship (being taught how to observe the commands of Christ) follows baptism. Baptism sets the stage for effective discipleship. Withholding baptism from new believers or failing to expect it from all believers is a deprivation of the very first step of a Christian’s discipleship.
Withholding baptism from new believers or failing to expect it from all believers is a deprivation of the very first step of a Christian’s discipleship.
Jesus is Our Example
Matthew 3:13-17 chronicles the story of Jesus’ baptism by John. When Christ arose from the baptismal waters, the Father announced to the crowd and to the ages, “this is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the shape of a dove and rested upon him. Jesus’ identity was clearly revealed at his baptism.
The two elements revealed at Jesus’ baptism parallel to the believer’s experience. The new birth is adoption into the family of God (Rom. 8:15, 16). God is my Father, Christ is my brother, and the church is my new family. The Spirit also comes to reside in the heart of the redeemed: “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his” (Rom. 8:9).
Union with Christ
In Romans 6, Paul further builds on the union with Christ that is the part of every believer’s experience and shows how water baptism is an outward expression of what has taken place in the heart of a new believer. In Romans 6 and Galatians 2:20, union with Christ is considered as the foundation for sanctification and progress in a believer’s life.
As Christ’s baptism revealed his identity at the outset of His ministry, baptism helps the new believer to form their new identity in Christ and prepare for spiritual growth. Unless one grasps his union with Christ and the reality of that for which baptism is the symbol, he will be hindered in his spiritual development.
Baptism in Church Practice
From Acts to the present day in church history, baptism has identified believers with the Christian community. This is obvious in Acts 2:41-47 where those who believed were baptized and immediately associated with the Church. A contemporary example is the baptism of Muslim converts to Christianity. Reading the Bible or praying privately may go unnoticed, but baptism is an unmistakable sign that a person has renounced Islam and converted to Christianity. The act of baptism is an unmistakable shaper of identity.
If the sacrament of baptism holds such powerful meaning, why do we neglect it or withhold it from new believers until such a time as we deem them fit for baptism? Why only hold a baptism service once a year? To withhold baptism until spiritual growth gives evidence of salvation is futile indeed, for we withhold the great stimulus for spiritual growth that comes from one’s realization of one’s new identity in Christ. In another sense we hold new believers at arm’s length from the community of believers where they draw strength and support for the new life they have entered. But if they fall away we say, “See, it’s a good thing we didn’t baptize them, they weren’t really serious.”
Consider Matthew 28 again. Make disciples by doing two things: (1) baptize them in the name of the Holy Trinity, and (2) teach them to observe all the commands of Christ. Effective discipleship must prioritize the divine order: baptize the new believer, welcoming him into the community of faith and helping him to understand his new union with Christ; then, teach him to observe the commands of Christ.