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Why Baptism Matters

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June 28, 2009

Special Message

In 1998, John MacArthur preached a sermon, “Baptism: A Matter of Obedience" in which he said:

[Baptism] is not a particularly popular subject today—it’s not of great interest in the evangelical community; it’s been years since I’ve seen any new book written on baptism or any book emphasizing baptism or any series of messages or any preacher or teacher emphasizing baptism…. The interest in baptism has sort of gone away—sad to say, in many cases.

He adds, “It’s amazing how many people who proclaim Christ and confess Christ, have never been properly baptized.”

I confess that when you search for my sermons by topic on our church web site, only one on baptism pops up: “Why We Do Not Baptize Infants” (from Sept. 8, 1996). I also have an article on the web site, “Baptism: Some Common Questions Answered.” I have many other sermons that touch on the subject of baptism, especially from the Book of Acts. But because my normal method is to work through books of the Bible verse by verse, I have not preached any messages dealing exclusively with baptism, except for the one mentioned. But it is helpful at times to see how Scripture treats a particular topic. So I thought it would be warranted, in light of the baptism today, to speak on, “Why Baptism Matters.” The main idea that I want you to understand is that…

Baptism matters because it is the necessary result of genuine saving faith.

We live in a day when over one-third of Americans claim that they have been born again, but very few of them live any differently than the rest of the population. These professing Christians may have “invited Jesus into their hearts” or gone forward in response to an evangelistic appeal. The follow-up counselors explained to them that they had just received Christ and the Bible promises eternal life to all that receive Him. So they assure them that they are now eternally secure in Christ.

But are they? Maybe, but maybe not. The real issue is, has God changed their heart? Has He raised them from spiritual death to spiritual life through the power of the Holy Spirit? If there is genuine spiritual life, there will be evidence of it. There will be a longing to know Christ better through God’s Word. There will be a new hatred of sin and a desire to please the Lord in everything. There will be a new love for others, especially for other believers.

While these changes grow over time, with many struggles and setbacks, there will be an overall progress of growth in obedience to the Lord, stemming from a changed heart. If the person has no desire to obey God, his faith was not genuine saving faith. C. H. Spurgeon put it (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, [Pilgrim Publications] 23:225), “But if you have a faith which never touches your heart, a faith which never causes you to rejoice or mourn, a faith which neither makes you hate sin nor love the Lord Jesus, I charge you shake off your faith as Paul shook the viper from his hand, for it is a deadly faith…. Only the living faith which works upon the heart and influences the desires and the affections can be the faith of God’s elect.”

We are saved by grace through faith alone, but saving faith is never alone. It always results in a life of obedience to Christ (see Eph. 2:8-10). As 1 John 2:3 says, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” And one of His important commandments is that we confess our faith in Christ through water baptism. I want to show you from the Book of Acts how closely baptism was connected with saving faith as an act of obedience. Then I’ll tie everything together in outline form.

Let’s begin just before the Book of Acts with the Great Commission, which Jesus gave just before His ascension. He said (Matt. 28:18-20), “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Note that it is impossible to obey the Great Commission and neglect baptism. It is an integral part of Jesus’ final command to His disciples. Frankly, that’s a bit surprising, because Jesus did not emphasize baptism during His earthly ministry. But He puts it right there in the context of making disciples and teaching them to observe His commandments. That fact alone should convince us that baptism is important. Let’s see this from the Book of Acts.

Note Acts 2:38, the conclusion of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost. In response to the question from the crowd, “What shall we do?” Peter said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; …” (For a more thorough treatment of these verses, see my sermon, “How to Receive God’s Forgiveness,” [11/12/2000].) Peter was not saying that baptism brings forgiveness of sins. In the very next chapter, he says (Acts 3:19), “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away,” but he does not mention baptism at all. Many verses (e.g., Acts 10:43; 16:31) show that our sins are forgiven through faith (or repentance), apart from baptism.

But the point is, there was a close connection in the minds of the apostles between belief and baptism. The idea of an unbaptized believer is foreign to the New Testament. Faith in Christ brings forgiveness of sins. Baptism is the outward act that demonstrates the inward faith. Consider a few other passages in Acts, noting that the order is always belief, then baptism:

Acts 2:41: “So then, those who had received his word were baptized; …”

Acts 8:12: “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.”

Acts 8:36-38: “As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” [And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’] And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.”

While verse 37 [in brackets] is missing from the earliest Greek manuscripts, its insertion in later manuscripts shows what the church held to be the necessary qualification for baptism.

Acts 10:44, 46b, 47, 48a, which records Peter’s experience with the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house: “While Peter was still speaking these words [the gospel], the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message…. Then Peter answered, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’ And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Acts 16:30-34, which recounts Paul’s experience with the Philippian jailer and his family: “And after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.”

Advocates of infant baptism use this text to support their view (which shows how hard up they are to find any verses for their view!). But the text says that those in the jailer’s household heard Paul speak the word of the Lord (which implies that they were old enough to understand it), and that not only the jailer, but also his whole household, believed the gospel. For our purposes, the point is that Paul’s instruction included Jesus’ command to be baptized, which they obeyed.

Acts 18:8: And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with his whole household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.”

In Acts 19:1-5, Paul met some men who had received John’s baptism, but didn’t know about Jesus. When Paul told them about Jesus, their response was (19:5), “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

I’ve gone through all of these references to show that there was a clear pattern on the part of those who responded to the preaching of the gospel in the Book of Acts, namely belief followed by baptism. The apostles were following the pattern that the Lord gave them in the Great Commission: make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to observe all that He commanded them.

Now I want to tie all of this together and draw some principles in outline form to show why baptism matters:

1. Baptism is distinct from saving faith.

In baptism, a person confesses his or her faith in Christ. But saving faith is distinct from baptism, and it is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that saves, not baptism.

A. Saving faith is your personal response to Christ’s sacrifice for your sins.

Paul summarizes the gospel message (1 Cor. 15:3-4), “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” Or, as he gives his own testimony (1 Tim. 1:15), “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” The point is, Christ didn’t die to help us have better self-esteem! He didn’t die so that we could have happier marriages or more successful careers. He died for our sins. If you take sin out of the picture (as many popular TV preachers do), then Christ didn’t have to die. And, you do not have any good news.

The Bible is clear that our sins have alienated us from God. If we die in our sins, we will spend eternity separated from God, paying the just penalty for our sins in conscious torment in hell. But the good news is that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, came to earth to bear the punishment that we deserve. He lived a perfectly righteous life, so that He had no sin of His own to atone for. Being fully human, His death could atone for human sins. But He was also fully God, so that His death had infinite value. As Paul put it (2 Cor. 5:21), “He [God] made Him [Christ] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”

But does that mean that all people then are saved from God’s righteous judgment? No, it is only those who believe the good news about Jesus’ death and resurrection on their behalf who are saved. As we have seen (Acts 16:31), “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

But it is crucial to understand that saving faith is not just mentally agreeing with the facts about Jesus. Rather, saving faith involves repentance, or turning from your sin. You cannot turn toward God without turning from sin. It also involves renouncing any trust in your good works to save you. Instead, you entrust your eternal destiny entirely to what Jesus did on the cross for you. You believe that He paid the penalty which you deserve. The difference between mental assent and genuine faith is the difference between saying that you believe a plane will fly and actually getting on the plane. You really trust the pilot and the plane only when you get on board.

So the question is, “Have you gotten on board with Jesus Christ as your only hope for heaven?” Have you turned from your sin and from trusting in your own good works and instead trusted in Jesus alone to deliver you from God’s judgment? If so, one of the first signs of it should be baptism. Why? Because …

B. Baptism is the outward confession of the inward reality of saving faith.

I often use the analogy of a wedding ring to illustrate this. My wedding ring does not make me married. I could have gotten married without a ring, or I could wear a ring, but not be married. My marriage is based on the commitment which Marla and I made to each other. But my wedding ring is an appropriate symbol of the unseen truth that I am married to Marla. It tells the women of the world, “I am not available! I am committed to my wife.” Baptism is the public confession that says, “World, I am no longer available. I am now committed to my Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

We’ve replaced this in our day with altar calls, where to confess your faith in Christ, you go forward. But altar calls are not in the Bible. They came into the evangelical world through a heretic named Charles Finney. He did not believe in the substitutionary atonement of Christ. He viewed salvation as a human decision, which anyone could make. So he invited people to come forward, where they could declare their decision for God. But the New Testament way to confess your faith is not to go forward. It is to be baptized in obedience to Jesus’ command. Baptism is distinct from saving faith. It is the outward confession of the inward reality of saving faith.

2. Baptism is the necessary result of saving faith.

A. True faith results in obedience.

We’ve already seen this. James 2:26 puts it, “Faith without works is dead.” If someone claims to have believed in Christ, but there is no change in his heart so that he wants to obey Christ, he needs to go back and examine his heart, to see if he is truly saved.

But you may wonder, “How long should it take for faith to result in obedience? How much time should elapse between a person’s trusting in Christ and his being baptized?”

The Book of Acts indicates that it shouldn’t be too long. Baptism seems to have been one of the first evidences of faith in Christ. With all of the false professions of being born again in our culture, perhaps it is advisable to make sure that a person really understands what it means to be saved. There should be some evidence of the new birth.

A woman in my church in California wanted to be baptized, but she was living with a man out of wedlock. They had been together twelve years and had an 8-year-old daughter. She asked me what she should do. It was a dilemma, because if she married the man, she would be entering into marriage with an unbeliever, which is forbidden. But if she left him, she would be breaking up what in effect was a family, removing her daughter from her father. After much counsel, I advised her to legalize what was in effect already a marriage. But the man would not agree to this. He was proud of living together “without a piece of paper.” At that point, her only option if she wanted to follow Christ was to leave him. She did and then I baptized her. Her faith in Christ led her to make the difficult decision to obey Christ rather than to live in sin.

In the case of children who want to be baptized, the child should give some clear evidence of being truly born again, both in terms of understanding and behavior. He should be old enough to grasp something of the significance and meaning of baptism, and old enough to remember the event as a definite commitment to Jesus Christ. The reason he should want to be baptized is not because his friends have gotten baptized! He should want to do it in obedience to Christ. True faith results in obedience.

B. Baptism is a matter of obedience to Christ.

Jesus Himself submitted to baptism, in obedience to His Father. In so doing, He identified Himself with those whom He came to save. He set the example for our obedience in baptism. And, as we saw in the Great Commission, Christ commanded baptism for all that follow Him. We cannot willfully neglect baptism and at the same time claim to be His disciples.

Someone may object, “But I’m a shy person. I could never get up in front of all those people!” Can you imagine a bride telling her fiancé, “I really love you, but I’d just be too embarrassed to stand in front of all those people and confess that I love you”? Jesus said (Matt. 10:32-33), “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Jesus said (John 14:23), “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.” If you love Christ because He has saved your soul, then you will want to let everyone know it. Obedience to Christ’s command to be baptized is an initial way to confess that you love Him.

3. Therefore, baptism really matters.

  • Baptism matters in your relationship to God.

It tells the Lord that you love Him and are willing to obey Him. In some cultures, you can say that you believe in Christ and you may be ridiculed or ostracized. But if you get baptized, you’re marked for death! Although we don’t face this, your baptism should be saying, “Lord, I’m willing to forsake everything, even my own life, to follow You!”

  • Baptism matters to the church.

It greatly encourages others in the church to see you make a public confession of your faith in Christ. It’s like going to the maternity ward, where you look through the window at all those new little lives. It fills you with joy and hope over the miracle of new life. It encourages us to see the transforming power of the gospel. Even if you’re not a recent convert, you owe it to us! Your obedience will encourage us to obey Christ, even when it’s hard.

  • Baptism matters to those outside the church.

Baptism can be a powerful witness of the saving power of Jesus Christ. This is especially true when a young person gets saved and begins to live in obedience to Christ in his home. Rather than sassing his parents, he cheerfully obeys them. Rather than complaining about helping around the house, he looks for ways to help. His baptism shows that the difference in his life is because he now follows Jesus Christ.

Many semi-religious, unbelieving parents have their children baptized as infants as a magic protection plan. They think that being baptized insures that the child will go to heaven. They may say to their child, “We baptized you as an infant. Why do you need to be baptized again?” If he lovingly, sensitively explains from the Bible the true meaning of baptism, backed up by his changed life, it can be a powerful witness to them.

  • Baptism matters to you.

It is a public testimony of your faith in Jesus Christ. It pictures that you are totally identified with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-6) and that He has washed you from your sins (Acts 22:16). It symbolizes your separation from the world and your union with Christ, your Bridegroom. Later, you will be tempted to go back to the world. Your love for Christ may grow cold. But you can look back to your baptism and say, “I knew then the reality of Christ. I can go back to Him again and He will welcome me, because I belong to Him.”


The most important question from today’s message is, “Have you truly repented of your sins and trusted in Christ alone to save you from God’s judgment?” If not, why not? But if so, the next question is, “Why do you delay?” Be baptized as a public confession that you have trusted in Christ as your Savior and Lord!

Application Questions

  1. If you encountered a professing Christian who said, “Jesus is my Savior, but I’m waiting to follow Him as Lord,” what would you say? What Scriptures would you use?
  2. What factors might warrant holding off after conversion on baptism for a time?
  3. Should baptism by immersion be a requirement for church membership? Why/why not? Support with Scripture.
  4. Some groups teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. Is this a serious heresy? Why/why not?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christian Life, Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church), Faith, Soteriology (Salvation)

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