By Pastor Glenn Pease
A visitor to a drought stricken area was talking to some of the citizens about their no rain situation. As they were complaining about the difficulties it brought to them he sought to comfort them with the it-could-be-worse philosophy. He said, "If you think it is bad here, you should go South. They haven't had rain for so long that the Baptists are sprinkling, the Methodists are using a damp rag, and the Presbyterians are issuing rain checks." The story is of doubtful historicity, but the point is true that water is essential and the amount of water available can be a determining factor in the mode of baptism. In John 3:23 we read that John the Baptist was baptizing in Aenon because there was much water there. This implies that a large quantity was necessary for an effective witness through baptism.
In Acts 8:36 we read that Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch were moving along and came to a body of water, and he said, "See here is water; what does hinder me to be baptized?" Until enough water was available the possibility of baptism was not considered. He was certainly not traveling in the desert without water, and so if it was a mere matter of sprinkling or pouring a little water on him there was nothing to hinder him from doing so before they came to a body of water. All of this is saying that an inadequate supply of water is a hindrance to a meaningful baptism.
Nature by means of water gives witness to its power in floods, tidal waves and cloudbursts of rain. The amount of water is a determining factor in the intensity of the witness. No one is greatly impressed by a normal rain, but when it falls in sheets and the streets become rivers people are wide awake, and they stand at awe at the power of nature and the witness it can give of that power through water. As Baptists we feel this has a parallel in the spiritual realm. We are to witness with water concerning the power of God in our lives, and the quantity of water makes a difference in the intensity of the witness. We feel that the biblical pattern of immersion of the whole person in water gives the most adequate witness. Those who sprinkle admit that immersion was the biblical mode, but they argue that it is nowhere commanded as essential, and so there is no reason the mode cannot be changed. But any change only weakens the witness.
We do not feel that baptism saves, and so there are millions who have been sprinkled who truly love Christ and are brothers and sisters in Christ. We continue to defend and practice immersion not because we think it is essential for salvation, but because we think it is essential as an adequate witness. If it was just a spiritual matter completely we could forget water entirely, but we cannot do so because literal water is essential to the witness. To get the point clearer, look at another example to get a better perspective. Let's say we are going to dramatize the experience of John being caught up into heaven. At one point we are going to bear witness to his vision to the glory of God on His throne. Some on the planning committee suggest that we use a flashlight behind a sheet to convey the glory of God. Others say we should hook up 3 or 4 floodlights. The first group says this last idea involves too much work, and the flashlight is so easy and convenient. But the others persist because they say that you cannot witness to the glory of God's unapproachable light with a flashlight. Even the floodlights cannot begin to convey the glory of God, but the flashlight will convey nothing but the weakness of His glory. It is better to have no witness at all than one that is so pathetically weak.
We feel that just as a flashlight bears little witness to the glory of God, so sprinkling bears little witness to the death and resurrection of Christ. Paul makes it clear in verse 3-4 of what we are witnessing to in baptism, and so we want to examine these two basic ideas from these verses. First we see-
I. IDENTIFICATION WITH CHRIST. v. 3
Paul says that in baptism we are identified with Jesus in His death. We are giving witness to the fact that as Jesus died for sin, so we will die to sin. We want to bury the old man of sin that clings to us and holds us back from fellowship with God. This does not mean that the Christian no longer sins after baptism, but that he is committing himself to never again live in sin. He identifies himself with Christ, and in so doing he cannot be un-Christ like without struggle and guilt. In other words, the Christian still sins, but no longer enjoys living in sin because of his identification with Christ. Sin becomes conspicuous and can no longer be practiced without the pangs of guilt that drive us to repentance.
Paul is writing to people who are deceiving themselves and trying to justify sin by saying that if they sin grace will abound all the more, and so we need not fear to sin. It was a subtle way of making sin lawful. Paul demolishes this idea by calling their attention to what they witnessed to in the water of baptism. They gave witness that were identified with Christ in His death. They were buried with Him, and the man of sin was no longer to be allowed to live. No clever reasoning can be allowed to displace this witness. If you allow the old man to revive and live in sin, you reject the witness of your baptism, and are no longer identified with Christ.
Baptism is to be a witness not only to the world, but a perpetual witness to your self in time of temptation. You are to look back, as Paul makes the Roman Christians look back, and remember what you gave witness to in the water of baptism. You said, "I bury myself with Christ. He died for sin and I die to sin. I can never again give myself to a sinful life." Baptism witnesses to what we have determined to do with our wills. By God's grace we will cease to serve sin.
We will stand with Christ until death in the battle against sin. The second thing we witness to in baptism is our-
II. IMITATION OF CHRIST. v. 4
As we are to be identified with Jesus in His death, so we are to be imitators of His life. Paul says, "Like as Christ was raised up from the dead even so we also should walk in newness of life." Jesus rose a new person, for when He died He bore our sins, but when He rose He was pure and spotless, and from then on He was eternally holy. It is certainly an ideal beyond us, and baptism will never be able to cleanse us and make us perfect as He was, but it is to be a witness of our determination to aim for this high and holy goal.
We are to imitate Jesus in His holiness, and though we cannot fully attain it, we can go far by His grace. If we consider the context, we can see just how important this concept is and the need for pursuing it. Paul is writing to Christians who were violating their witness. It shows that baptism is not automatic in its effect. It is not magic, and does nothing without the will of the person committed to its meaning. These Christians were trying to be identified with Jesus without imitating Him in newness of life. They wanted the blessings without the responsibility. Paul reminds them that this is folly, for they cannot identify with Christ without imitating Him, for the witness of baptism is in two parts, and they are as inseparable in meaning and life as they are in the act.
If you only go down in the water of baptism and do not come up, there will be no imitating of Christ, for you will be literally dead. Nor is it possible to come up to newness of life without having previously gone under. Without death there can be no resurrection. Both are essential for the full witness of baptism, and both are essential for a full Christian life. Only those who are both dead to sin and alive to Christ are giving full witness to the good news in their lives. Let us, therefore, recognize the serious significance of this witness with water. It is to be a symbol to others and to ourselves of what our lives must seek to always bear witness to, and that is that we are identified with Christ and His death, and we are imitators of His life in how we live.