The Purpose of Baptism
There are two fundamental purposes of baptism. In exploring these purposes, it is helpful to understand that baptism did not start with Christianity. This was a common religious practice. Sometimes the baptisms were of water of a variety of different modes - sprinkling, immersion, etc. Sometimes they were of blood. People from various groups and movements often baptized themselves! The reason John got his name "the baptizer" was because he was doing something few people did! That is, he was participating in other people's baptisms.
In Christianity, baptism is not intended to be a private experience. When you found Christ as your personal Savior - that was an intensely private experience. But once you have entered the family of God, there is nothing private about it! You are part of this wonderful thing called the Church, the Body of Christ, brothers and sisters related together in God's family.
Almost everything of spiritual significance that happens to you after your salvation happens in connection with your family - the extended family of God. And that includes baptism. Baptism is an ordinance of the Church of Jesus Christ. John baptized people. People didn't do it on their own.
What are the two purposes of baptism? First, it is an individual public profession of personal faith in Jesus Christ and surrender to Him. This is why it is so important that a person be old enough to understand what is happening and to be able to make such a commitment to Christ. This is why our baptisms at Grace Church are so special. It's a mature person professing, "I know what I'm doing. And I want you to know, I belong to Jesus Christ. I'm surrendered to His will in my life." Such testimonies bring great joy and blessing.
Is the purpose of baptism for the baptized person's benefit or for the congregation's benefit? For whose benefit is the Bible's command for baptism? The answer is "for both." That's why the congregation of the church, the baptized person's extended family, must attend and participate when people are being baptized. This is for your benefit. It's a biblical command of God.
The second reason for baptism is often lost in the study of baptism, but it is both biblical and consistent with the history of New Testament Christianity. Baptism was the initiation rite into the fellowship of the local church of believers.
The concept of baptizing persons who have no commitment to joining an assembly of believers is not found anywhere in the Bible. Bishop Stephen Neill has said it this way: "The New Testament knows nothing of membership in the church" (the local assembly) "by faith alone, without this accompanying act of obedience and confession."
In the early Church, following the Lord in the waters of baptism was the official, public pronouncement that a person was a believer in Christ and was part of that wonderful movement called Christianity. While there was much joy in this, there was also much personal cost as persecution often followed. Baptism was an "initiation ordinance" into the fellowship of the church.
There are still many places in the world today where an individual's baptism provokes persecution. In Communist countries there are often severe consequences to being baptized. In our culture, no one is persecuted because they are baptized, although they may have difficulty with some family members, depending on the family church background.
But baptism is the rite of initiation into the local church. In it a person is saying, "I am not just a 'lone ranger' for Christ. I am part of God's family." Such a person comes into a family of mutual commitment and love and relatedness to one other.
Baptism is required for Grace Church membership. Some who would like to be members refuse to be baptized. Why would the church require baptism for membership? Does baptism make you wiser in voting on a church budget? Does being immersed in the waters of baptism somehow contribute to the decision of who to call as your pastor, or in the exercise of other church membership decisions and responsibilities? Of course not!
Why, then, would Grace Church put an obstacle like this in the way of membership? The answer is that the Bible commands baptism for every believer as the first step of obedience to the Lord following salvation. Therefore, while worship and participation at Grace Church is open and available for everybody in the world, membership in the church is only for those who know the Lord and are surrendered to His will according to the Word of God. Such men and women are the core of what God is doing, and going to do, in the ministry of this church.
Membership is for people who love the Lord. Jesus said, "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14: 15). Church membership is available to people who love the Lord enough to obey the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ.