Lesson 3: The Meaning of Baptism

Sacrament of BaptismEarly Christians felt baptism was so important they built their houses of worship near running water whenever possible. Those who have visited ancient churches in their travels have seen many were constructed right over springs so that baptisms could be performed with living water.

The importance of the sacrament is also reflected in the New Testament’s constant use of baptism to describe the Christian life. It utilized the human need for water to proclaim that Christ provides the essentials for real abundant living. Baptism is the water of life that nourishes the human spirit.

Today, preachers tend to use passages dealing with the cleansing benefits of water. Protestant theology focuses so much on human depravity, we celebrate baptism washing away our sins. The sacrament is a means of grace by which God purifies sinners enabling them to begin a new life in Christ. Evil spirits are exorcized, so that the Holy Spirit might take their place.

In olden times, this led to debates about whether this was a one time cleansing or renewable. These disagreements were pretty much resolved by making confession an adjunct practice and confirmation a renewal of baptism. Originally, confirmation was the part of the baptismal ceremony when the new Christian confessed the church’s creed to confirm they were now part of the community. Now we are comfortable speaking of a daily repentance that in essence is another renewal of our baptisms.

Another more divisive controversy led to our neglecting bible passages that feature drowning in the waters of baptism. When Evangelicals insisted immersion was necessary for a real baptism, other Christians began to pass over references to being submerged. That meant losing wonderful imagery about dying and rising with Christ. We seldom hear preachers proclaim that the baptized walk in newness of life after experiencing the death of their old person. Evangelicals do appropriate words about being born again but usually apply them to making a decision for Christ more than baptism.

A biblical reference often missed is putting on Christ. Scholars say it refers to the white garment placed on the newly baptized when they emerged naked from the water. Again the idea is starting a new pure life with Christ.

But perhaps the primary loss has been the failure to acknowledge the communal nature of baptism. The emphasis has become an individual becoming a believer rather than the community welcoming a new member. People speak of baptism saving people rather than incorporating them into the Body of Christ. With that change, we have pretty much lost the idea of the Church being a counter-cultural community that practices the love of Jesus rather than the power of politics.

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  1. paul wildman says:

    Thx for this Fritz i am particularly persuaded by the ‘born again’ symbolism this lesson speaks of in immersion above and also putting on Christ two great symbols for ‘rebirth’ so necessary in today’s turbulent world. ciao paul

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