Let’s answer this in five parts:
An ordinance given to the local church by Jesus Christ:
In Matthew 28:16-20, Jesus tells the disciples to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
The disciples would receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and then become the Apostles, or leaders of the early church. Baptism was to be a regular part of worship for God’s people. Here are some passages that highlight the practice of baptism from Acts:
An expression of our unity with Jesus Christ:
In Romans 6:1-7, Paul explains that baptism is a sign that “we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”
It has been said that baptism is an outward expression of an inward faith. It’s true—baptism, by itself, has no meaning apart from being a religious ritual. However, when we understand baptism as the visible expression of salvation, it becomes chock full of meaning and depth.
Baptism is a visible expression of the Gospel—namely, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. When a person goes down into the water, it symbolizes death. When they are momentarily held in the water, it symbolizes burial; and when they are brought up out of the water, it symbolizes resurrection. The beauty of baptism, in part, is that it allows the person being baptized to proclaim the Gospel in a visible, tangible way!
For Believers only and by immersion only:
Let me be clear: baptism is NOT necessary for salvation. In Ephesians 2:8, Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Our salvation is secured by Jesus’ work on the cross, not by ours in a baptismal pool.
This is why you will sometimes hear baptism referred to as “Believer’s Baptism.” I understand that many other denominations baptize infants; however, the pattern that you find in the New Testament (see above), and the symbolism of baptism (see above) makes it so that it should be practiced by the church and done only with those who have already trusted in Jesus Christ.
Further, if baptism is a visual expression of our unity with Jesus Christ, and our unity with Him is based on having faith in Him, how is it that infant baptism can be legitimate? While a difficult conclusion to come to, it’s essential for our understanding—we can’t affirm infant baptism. An infant is incapable of making a conscious confession of faith in Jesus, and therefore does not qualify for baptism.
What about the way we perform baptism? Some denominations sprinkle or pour water over the head of an individual. Again, going back to the New Testament pattern, we find that baptism is always done in a relatively large body of water (river, sea, stream, etc.) Furthermore, the Greek word, baptizo, from which we get “baptism” means, “to immerse, to submerge.” The definition entails that those who were baptized were put down into the water so as to cover their body, and then brought up from the water.
An even more compelling narrative is the baptism of Jesus in Matthew 3:13-17, which says, “After being baptized, after Jesus came up immediately from the water…” So, based on the NT, we have three compelling truths: Jesus was baptized by immersion, individuals are baptized ONLY after they have trusted in Jesus, and those believers are baptized by immersion.
Done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Going back to Matthew 28:16-20, we find that Jesus gives the disciples a commission to make disciples, and to baptize them. If we are not careful, we will miss an important aspect of baptism—it is done in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
As Christians, we believe in a Trinity. The Godhead is a tri-unity, with three persons, equal in authority, power, and essence. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are all equally God, and work in harmony to bring about God’s purposes. When a person is baptized in the name of the Trinity, that individual is affirming that the full Godhead had a hand in salvation. Those who have simply been baptized into the name of Jesus miss the instruction given by Jesus Himself.
When Jesus was baptized, we see that the Trinity is present—Jesus comes up out of the water, God the Father speaks “out of the heavens” and the Spirit of God descends like a dove.
The entry point for local church membership
Going back to the pattern in Acts, we find that those who believed in Jesus Christ were saved, baptized, and then added to the local church. In being added it meant that they were known by others as a follower of Jesus, and could therefore benefit from teaching, fellowship, service, etc.
The same is true today. Baptism is the entry point for an individual to come into a local church as a member. It allows the congregation an opportunity to hear and affirm their testimony. We are committing to pray for/with the person, walk/work alongside of the person, and seek to advance the Kingdom of God with the person.