The gospel concerns the coming Kingdom of God. When we tell people about God's Kingdom, we conclude by inviting them to become members - to enter the Kingdom. Entrance into the Kingdom of God requires repentance and faith. The act of repentance, which is a turning toward Jesus, is for the forgiveness of sins, and can be expressed outwardly in water Baptism. God promises the gift of forgiveness to all who repent. Baptism is an outward expression of that act of repentance and symbolizes the washing away of our sins.
John the Baptist was the great prophet who, in the first century, prepared the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus. He said that God was about to do a new and wonderful thing through his Messiah (the chosen one, i.e. Jesus). Up until that moment all people have been caught up in their own selfishness, unable to know God. But now it was going to be possible to both know God and serve him through his Son, (i.e. enter the Kingdom of God).
To any person who wanted to know God and was willing to turn toward Jesus (i.e. repent), John offered, on God's behalf, the free forgiveness of all their sins, i.e. the removal of the barrier between mankind and God.
To drive home the tremendous step the person was making, and its consequences, John "dunked" the person in the river Jordan (baptised them). A good bath in the local river was a great symbol of what was happening. That person's sins were washed away, and they rose from the water a new person. It would be an event the person would never forget.
The disciples of Jesus continued the practice of baptism, although Jesus himself did not baptise anyone.
After Jesus' death the practice of water baptism continued along the same lines. Peter said to a crowd of Jews, "Repent and be baptised everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins", Acts 2:38. If you turn to God through Jesus Christ you will be forgiven everything you have ever done wrong. From then on you will be his friend forever.
Given this understanding of baptism, it would seem to be an act of adult commitment. A child who is seven days old can't repent, yet it does seem that infants were baptised with their parents during the New Testament period. The reason for this is that in the past God has always worked with families. If one member is blessed, all are blessed. Thus if the father believes, then the children are "blessed" by their father's faith. For this reason the children of a Christian home were baptised in infancy, since they could already be "children of God", or may be some day, cf. Ac.16:31-34, 1Cor.7:12-14.
We will meet many people having Christian parents who have always believed in Jesus, while others will tell us that at a certain point of time they became Christians. Picking the right moment to baptize is no easy matter.
In the first century the Jews practised proselyte baptism. When a person wanted to become a Jew they were baptised in water, either by sprinkling or dipping. If the person was the head of a home, then the whole family was baptised, although any further children born into the home were not baptised. They were automatically regarded as members of the Jewish community. We also know that the Essenes, a Jewish communal group living around the Dead Sea, practised water baptism. They did it by full immersion, and even did it to Jews who wanted to become full members of their community.
There is little difference between Christian baptism and the baptism of John the Baptist. It is a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, Act.2:37-38. In simple terms, it is a sign of repentance and the washing of forgiveness.
Yet there is one particular implication which specifically applies to Christian baptism. It is the coming of the Holy Spirit. Repentance and belief moves a person into the Kingdom of God, and thus into the presence of God. The New Testament speaks of this as the coming or "baptism" of the Holy Spirit - a washing with the Spirit. He fills us, Act.2:38. So it is most likely that water baptism also symbolizes the coming (washing) of the Holy Spirit.
There are three extra implications of water baptism which are often spoken of in Christian circles. Although there is much truth in these points, there is little Biblical support for their link with water baptism.
i] A death to sin. For a Christian, forgiveness entails their sinful nature being nailed to the cross of Christ. Jesus' death and burial is, for the believer, the death of sin and the burial of their sinfulness. Their old life dies with Christ on the cross and is buried with him. That doesn't mean we are now sinless, but it does mean we are that way in God's sight and eternally so. As far as heaven is concerned, we even now stand before the throne of God, perfected in his sight, Rom.6:1-4, cf. Col.2:11-12. Yet the "burial" or baptism that Paul is speaking of in these passages is most likely not a baptism in water but rather a baptism in suffering - i.e. he is speaking of our identification with Christ in his suffering on the cross
ii] Entry into the church. Water baptism is often spoken of as a symbol of entry into the church. Many see it as a public confession of Christ and thus a means of becoming a member of "the body of Christ" - they see it as a way of joining in fellowship with other believers. There is little biblical support for this view. It seems more likely that water baptism, as an expression of repentance, is between us and God.
iii] A sign of the new covenant. In the Old Testament God's covenant (or agreement) with the people of Israel was sealed in circumcision. Often believers see baptism as the seal or sign of God's promise of a new and unbreakable covenant based on Jesus' death for us. Again there is little biblical support for this point of view. The problem stems from a failure to understand the meaning of "baptism" in Colossians 2:9-12. In this context it means "immersed" into (identified with) Christ's death. Circumcision for a believer is a spiritual thing of the heart, Rom.2:28-29.
In the New Testament the word "baptism" is used in four ways. All have the idea of "immerse". The word was commonly used in the cloth-dying industry where it gained its meaning to "dip" in water.
i] Immerse in water - the sign of repentance
ii] Immerse in the Spirit. This "baptism" in the Spirit has two meanings. a) In Luke/Acts it refers to the empowering of the Spirit for service, as a fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel. b) In the Epistles it tends to refer to regeneration, i.e. the coming of the Spirit upon a person who is spiritually dead, making them alive at the moment of their belief in Jesus Christ, Rom.8:9-11, Gal.4:6, Tit.3:5-7.
iii] Immerse in suffering. For Jesus his passion was a baptism of fire, Matt.3:12
iv] Immerse in teaching. To immerse in the "Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" is to saturate a person with a knowledge of the Trinitarian God, Matt.28:19.
Churches such as the Baptist Church and the Church of Christ perform only adult baptisms. Infant baptism is performed in churches such as Roman Catholic, Anglican (Episcopalian), Methodist (Uniting), Presbyterian....
Christians today, do not allow this issue to divide them since it has nothing to do with a person's standing in the sight of God. Entry into the Kingdom of Heaven has nothing to do with the method of water baptism.
Those who hold to believers' baptism say that only a believer can be properly baptised, i.e. a person who has reached adulthood and has given their life to Jesus. Those who hold to family baptism say that God works in families such that the children of a Christian home are "blessed". These children are therefore baptised as an act of faith in anticipation (hope) of their personal acceptance of Jesus.
1. Water baptism is a sign or symbol of repentance and its consequence (forgiveness of sins).
2. The water itself does not save.
3. A person can be a Christian without water baptism.
4. It is a sign to the person being baptised.
5. Christians are divided on when we should be baptised and how. This is because the Bible is not clear on the subject.
6. Infant baptism today is a social custom. Baptism of a child of unbelieving parents is useful, in that the family is brought under the sound of the gospel.
A minister friend of mine in the Congregational church, on one hand practices family baptism, i.e. the baptism of infants from a Christian or nominal Christian home, and also believer's baptism. If anyone gave their life to Jesus while he was witnessing or preaching, he marched them down to the local beach and give them a good dunking "in the name of Jesus". Plenty of young people in the church couldn't pin-point the moment when they believed, since they had been brought up in a Christian home, so they didn't have to face the "ordeal".
So there's lots of different ways Christians practise baptism. The important thing to remember is that the "rite" itself is a sign or symbol of:
repentance (i.e. the turning away from self to Jesus) and;
its consequence (i.e. forgiveness - the washing away of sin and rising up out of the water as a new person in Jesus).
Imagine you were an Anglican minister with non-church families coming to you for baptism. How do you think you would handle this situation in a way that would honour Christ?