Its Mode and Its Meaning
Believers baptism is one of the two ordinances (religious ceremonies) of the church prescribed by the Bible. It is commanded by Christ. Near the end of His earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus issued to His followers what has come to be known as the "Great Commission." He said:
All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:18-20).
A COMMAND OF JESUS
The fact that the Lord made reference to His abiding presence "to the end of the age" shows that this commission was to involve not just the few who were gathered around Him that day. It is for all "those who will believe on Me through their word" (Jn. 17:20). In other words, all those who would put their faith in Christ right up until the end of the Church Age. The military would call such commands "standing orders." They are to be followed by all believers until the day of Christ's return.
The commission given to us by the Lord Himself is that we engage in the work of evangelism, calling others to faith in Christ, and enlisting them to be followers of Christ, as we ourselves are. These individuals are to be taught and trained. And they are to publicly declare themselves to be Christ's followers by participating in the ordinance of believers baptism.
A STEP FOR BELIEVERS
Logically, the command to baptize others also implies the need to be baptized. That means this is a step of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ. We sometimes call it "believer's baptism" because it is an act of public witness on the part of those who have believed. We read in Scripture, "Then those who gladly received his [Peter's] word were baptized" (Acts 2:41). And, "When they believed Philip as he preached...both men and women were baptized" (Acts 8:12). And, "'See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?' Then Philip said, 'If you believe with all your heart, you may'" (Acts 8:36-37). Also, "Many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized" (Acts 18:8).
Since this ordinance is for believers, it follows that it is for those who are old enough to understand the gospel of grace and trust Christ as personal Saviour. Only when a person reaches the age of accountability can he make an informed decision to put his faith in Christ. While some groups practice infant baptism, that is not the biblical pattern. Believer's baptism is what the Bible prescribes.
NOT A MEANS OF SALVATION
It would be well to mention here that this act does not save a person, or somehow add to the salvation Christ has purchased for us. To suggest that would make baptism a kind of "good work" that helps to earn God's acceptance. On the contrary, salvation is completely "by grace [a gift] through faith...not of works lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:8-9). Similar to the other ordinance Christ gave us (the Lord's Supper), baptism is a step of obedience for one who already possesses eternal salvation, through faith in Christ's finished Calvary work (Jn. 3:16; 5:24; Rom. 1:16, etc.).
INVOLVES TOTAL IMMERSION
The word "baptize" is carried over from the Greek language (baptizo). The basic meaning of the word is to dip, immerse, or overwhelm (as with water).
Various groups use sprinkling or pouring as the mode of believer's baptism. However, total immersion is the mode that most closely follows the meaning of the word. Further, this method best suits the theological significance of the act. Through faith, we are identified with Christ in His death and resurrection. In a very real sense, when Christ died upon the cross, the Christian died too. God sees us as being in Christ, legally participating in His death (II Cor. 5:21). That is how our sins were fully paid for.
And the resurrection life that is ours is the life of Christ planted within us by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Paul testifies, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Gal. 2:20). Baptism is meant to be a symbol of our identification with Christ in His death (going down into the water) and His resurrection (coming up out of the water).
WITNESS TO A NEW BEGINNING
Baptism becomes not only a sign that we are identified with Christ. It is also a declaration that we will seek to live "in newness of life"--a life pleasing to God. Speaking of Christ's death, Peter says, "[He] Himself bore out sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness" (I Pet. 2:24). Baptism expresses before others our desire to "live for righteousness." In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul puts it this way:
"[You were] buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead....If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth, for you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 2:12; 3:1-3).
And in Romans we're told, "We were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Rom. 6:4).
Baptism is a public profession of faith, an act of public testimony, in obedience to the command of Christ. It says to all who witness the event, "I am a Christian and I want to live a life that is honouring to God." This service should be an occasion of great joy for all concerned (Acts 8:39; 16:33-34).
BAPTISM & CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Finally, is it proper to insist that an individual be baptized before becoming a member of the local church? Yes, and here's why. Believer's baptism is one of the two great ordinances of the church, along with the Lord's Supper. It does not make a person a Christian. Baptism is a public witness to one's prior commitment to Christ. On the other hand, church membership is a public witness to one's support of the local church. Though both are important, our allegiance to Christ should always take priority over our allegiance to a local congregation.
Though there is no formal church membership mentioned at first, the order is suggested at Pentecost--"Those who gladly received his word [who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, after Peter's sermon] were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them [they were joined to the church]" (Acts 2:41). Believer's baptism identified them as followers of Christ.