Book: The True Meaning of Christian Baptism

The most important prerequisite for baptism is that the believer experience genuine, profound repentance. Simply put, to “repent” means to turn around and go the other way! When John the Baptist began his ministry, he baptized believers unto repentance: “Now in those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ ” (Matt. 3:1-2). Many were baptized “confessing their sins” (verse 6). Reacting to the highly corrupt Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, John demanded that they “produce fruits worthy of repentance” (verse 8).

John was asking these pious Jewish leaders for evidence of repentance—evidence that they had begun to change their lives. Repentance means coming to the knowledge and understanding that you are a sinner—that you have not only lived in sin, but that you are, inherently, a sinner (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). True repentance will be apparent by changes in the way a person thinks and lives. As we will see, baptism marks the beginning of a new way of life free from sin. Thus, repentance—turning away from sin—is the foundational first step.

In order to fully understand repentance, we must understand sin. 

Letting the Bible Define Sin

Exactly what is sin? Sin is defined in the Bible as the breaking of God’s laws and commandments. Anything a person does that is contrary to the laws and commandments of God constitutes sin. The apostle John wrote, “Everyone who practices sin is also practicing lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness” (I John 3:4)—or “sin is the transgression of the law” (KJV).

Contrary to what you may have been taught, Jesus said He did not come to abolish the Law: “Don’t think that I’ve come to destroy the law or the prophets. I’ve not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). To “fulfill” means to magnify or amplify the meaning of God’s laws—making them even more binding! Verse 18 shows that as long as heaven and earth remain, the Law would remain in force. “Therefore, whoever shall break [even] one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven: but whoever shall practice and teach them, this one shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:19). Jesus also taught, “If you love Me, keep the commandments—namely, My commandments” (John 14:15). God’s laws and commandments are of the utmost importance to Him. The apostle Paul was inspired to remind us of what God said through the prophet Jeremiah: “I will [write] My laws in their hearts, and I will inscribe them in their minds” (Heb. 10:16). These passages clearly prove that the laws of God have not been abolished, as some wrongly assume. The fact is, God’s laws and commandments are designed to protect us from harm by defining sin (Rom. 7:7). Without the laws and commandments of God, we would never know what is sin and what is righteousness (Psa. 119:172).

Understanding the significance of sin is vital in understanding the purpose of baptism. Sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2)—and brings us under the penalty of death (Rom. 6:16, 23; James 1:15). You must come to realize that the sacrifice and blood of Christ is the only payment for such sin (John 3:16; Rom. 3:24-25). Only upon genuine, godly repentance of sin and the acceptance of Christ as personal Savior for the forgiveness of sin can the new believer be baptized (Acts 2:38). This brings about the complete remission of the believer’s sins and his or her full reconciliation to God.

Does this mean that after you are baptized you will never again sin? No, for we all stumble from time to time. But after you are baptized and have begun to strive to live God’s way, you will no longer live in sin, as does much of the world. Because of God’s love, He has provided a Savior Who takes away the sins of the world. John wrote, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And yet, if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate [one who takes our side] with the Father; Jesus Christ the Righteous; and He is the propitiation for our sins; and not for our sins only, but also for the sins of the whole world” (I John 2:1-2). Propitiation means a continuous atonement or ongoing condition of mercy.

Repentance Begins with God’s Calling

In mainstream Christianity, many new believers begin their “religious experience” by attending an “evangelistic campaign” or a “church revival.” In all likelihood, they are told that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God”—that “the wages of sin is death”—and that they need to “give their heart to the Lord” so they can “get saved.” They are no doubt warned that if they delay “accepting Jesus” they might miss out on going to heaven and end up in an ever-burning hell. Participants at such meetings typically respond, “Yes, yes, I need to give my heart to the Lord.” They are urged to “invite” Jesus into their lives: “Lord Jesus, enter my heart!” They are then assured that they are “saved.” Wrong! This is a false “conversion” based on emotion, the misapplication of Scripture, and a misunderstanding of salvation itself. Such a person is no more “saved” than the proverbial church mouse!

To begin with, you cannot “invite” Jesus into your life. Rather, God invites you to enter into a personal relation with Him through Christ. Notice: “No one can come to Me unless the Father, Who sent Me, draws him…” (John 6:44). Jesus repeats this vital point in verse 65, stating that “no one can come to Me unless it has been given to him from My Father.”

God has to do the calling—first—or you, of yourself, cannot come to Christ. God stirs up your heart and mind to desire the truth, to desire to know Him, to desire to understand why you are the way you are—why your life is such a mess. He helps you to see that you can repent and change. As a matter of fact, the Bible says “many are called but few are chosen.” And if many are called and few are chosen, how is it that there are millions of professing Christians?

Contrary to what is taught in the churches of this world, God is not offering salvation at this time to the whole world (He will at Christ’s return). Rather, God must presently call individuals as He sees fit—“as many as the Lord our God may call” (Acts 2:39). But how does God call? He reaches down and draws you to Him through His Spirit and through circumstances in your life. He opens your mind to understanding. He helps you to see how desperately you need a real relationship with Him.

Has God begun to call you? Has God given you a desire to seek Him, to understand His Word? Has God caused you to want to know the purpose of life? Indeed, the fact that you are reading this booklet is an indication that God may be calling you.

As God calls, He begins to reveal the need for repentance. In Acts 2, the apostle Peter was preaching on the Day of Pentecost: “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know with full assurance that God has made this same Jesus, Whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (verse 36). What was their reaction to Peter’s words? “Now after hearing this, they were cut to the heart”—or “pricked in their hearts” (verse 37). They no doubt understood that the Christ Peter was preaching was the same Jesus they had both known and rejected. They realized that their sins killed the Christ—because Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. In response they asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (same verse). For them, it was time to take action on what they had come to see.

God’s Solution to Sin: Repentance

Peter responded in verse 38: “Repent and be baptized each one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you yourselves shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (We’ll cover more on the Holy Spirit later.) Indeed, God must bring about circumstances in your life—in your heart and mind—that lead you to repentance, which here in Acts is called being “pricked” in one’s heart. You come to the understanding that you are a sinner—that you not only have sinned, but that you are a sinner. You develop a deep sorrow that leads to a change in your way of life—repentance—wherein you resolve in your mind to turn and go the other way. And God is actually causing this. Romans 2:4 says that it is by God’s goodness that you are led to repentance.

But ordinary human remorse over sin is not necessarily repentance. One must be wary of the “sorrow of the world” (II Cor. 7:10), which is really a passing emotional response resulting from the fact that one has been “caught” in some sin. Godly sorrow means you understand that the wages of your way of life, being sinful, are death—and that your sins have killed Christ. God’s graciousness is extended to those who have such real sorrow and repentance.

True repentance before God comes from a person’s innermost being and results from wanting to change one’s life completely. Genuine repentance is vital if you are to establish a relationship with God—for God is not interested in those who are superficial, but in those who truly desire a close and personal relationship. Recall that John the Baptist looked for “fruit worthy of repentance.” This means that if you are truly repentant, there will be evidence—real change in how you live your life. You will demonstrate an earnest desire to change your life completely and live according to God’s will. By earnestly seeking genuine repentance, God will grant you the gift of repentance, teaching you how you should live. You will certainly have much sin to overcome—but you will demonstrate by your actions that you have sincerely repented in your heart and mind. Only those who have evidence of repentance should be baptized.

It is also essential that you go to God the Father and confess your sins before Him. If you are honest and sincere in your quest for forgiveness, He will not only forgive your sins but will also forget them. When you come to God in genuine humility, remorseful for the sins you have committed, He will forgive your sins—and cast them away. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psa. 103:12). Upon godly repentance, God is able to remove your sins even from His mind. Notice Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and will not remember your sins.” God is indeed rich in mercy toward those who truly repent of their sins (Psa. 86:5).

To better understand godly repentance, study the example of King David of Israel. His prayer of repentance in Psalm 51 is a prime example of deep repentance. Also study Daniel’s prayer in Daniel 9:3-19, another fine example.

Repentance is also an ongoing process which takes place daily. A repentant attitude demonstrates humility and shows God that we fear Him—which means to stand in awe of His almighty power. Repentance means that we are willing to fully submit to God’s will—to keep the commandments of God. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep the commandments—namely My commandments” (John 14:15).

Repentance and baptism result in the believer’s justification. The term “justification” simply means to be made right with God. Justification takes place when the believer’s sins are removed by the blood of Christ and he or she is put into right standing with God. In order to receive God’s gift of justification, a person must repent toward God, believe in the sacrifice and blood of Christ for the remission of sins, and be baptized by immersion. The believer is then cleansed from sin and is without condemnation before God.

In Galatians 2:16, we read: “Knowing that a man is not justified by works of law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ, we also have believed in Christ Jesus in order that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by works of law; because by works of law shall no flesh be justified.” Justification, being put in right standing with God, cannot be accomplished through law-keeping—of any kind. No amount of law-keeping or obedience can erase one’s past sins. And even after conversion, Christians still sometimes sin. That fact alone makes ongoing justification by obedience impossible. Simply put, no work of any law can replace the atoning blood of Christ—or of Jesus living in us (verse 20).

Thus, Paul clearly states that we are justified by faith in Jesus’ sacrifice. But faith implies so much more than mere belief: You repent from the heart, are baptized, and enter into a covenant relationship with God. Yes, you do keep the commandments of God. Romans 2:13 states that “the hearers of the law are not just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified.” Indeed, one cannot continue in a state of justification and live in sin.

Counting the Cost for Baptism

Worldly Christianity teaches a “come as you are” approach to following God. But baptism as defined in Scripture is not to be taken lightly. It represents a person’s lasting commitment that he or she will turn away from the ways of the world, with all of its lusts and enticements, and wholly follow God’s ways. In considering baptism, be absolutely certain that you have made a definite determination in your heart to follow the will of God. You should not be baptized if you have any doubt as to your belief in God or that His Word is the standard by which we are to live.

In preparation for baptism, you must “count the cost”—understanding that such a commitment to God is for life. There can be no turning back. At baptism, you enter into a covenant with God. Thus, baptism becomes the most crucial decision you will ever make!

Jesus requires His followers to give up everything— including the self—in order to truly become His disciples. Christ used the example of “counting the cost” to demonstrate what is involved when contemplating a major decision in life. Baptism is just such a decision, involving total dedication to God. In Luke 14, Jesus said, “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate [love less, by comparison] his father and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers and sisters, and, in addition, his own life also, he cannot be My disciple” (verse 26). Obviously, Christ is not telling us to hate anyone. This figure of speech means we are to put God first, above all else. This is part of our baptismal covenant—to love God more than anything or anyone else. Otherwise, it is impossible to be Jesus’ disciple. In verse 27, He added: “And whoever does not carry his [own] cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple”—again demonstrating the need to do whatever is necessary in our commitment to God’s way.

Jesus then refers to “counting the cost” to determine if one’s level of commitment is sufficient to the task. “For which one of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has sufficient for its completion; lest perhaps after he has laid its foundation [he] is not able to finish…. Or what king, when he goes out to engage another king in war, does not first sit down and take counsel, whether he will be able with ten thousand to meet him who is coming against him with twenty thousand?... In the same way also, each one of you who does not forsake all that he possesses cannot be My disciple ” (verses 28- 33).

To “forsake all” means that nothing can stand in the way of your commitment to God. You put God first. You are to love God with all your being. God wants you to totally surrender yourself to Him. When you accept Christ as personal Savior, you proclaim your willingness to change and obey God in all things. Your earnest desire must be this: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).

“Counting the cost” for baptism is something you need to think deeply about before making any commitment before God. You must genuinely want to change your life and be obedient to God—regardless of circumstances. If you fully understand this and are absolutely repentant before God—and you accept Jesus as your personal Savior—then you are well on the road to baptism.