A pastor performed a simple wedding ceremony in his study. He went immediately with the new husband to prepare for the groom's baptism. The preacher was overjoyed that the young man was professing his commitment to Christ on the same day he professed his love for his wife. As the pastor and candidate entered the baptistry at the beginning of the service, the pastor was caught up in the spiritual euphoria of the moment. He led the candidate to the proper place, lifted his hand toward heaven and said, "Happy and holy is the hour when a man and a woman are united in the bonds of matrimony - and also in baptism! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!" Each wedding anniversary will remind this man of the remarkable day in which he sealed his commitment to Christ and to his bride.

Baptism, though, is not as meaningful for everyone. The prominence of baptism in Christian worship has gradually eroded. Churches often tack baptism on at the beginning or end of a worship service with little or no explanation of the celebration's significance and meaning.

Since the time of Christ, believers have participated in baptism, sometimes with great fanfare and exuberance, and sometimes with solemnity and reverence. Regardless of style, though, the visual and emotional appeal of this confessional act is at the very heart of who we are as followers of Christ and as a people called Baptists. Baptism has significance for individual believers, for the church, and even for nonbelievers.

I. Baptism as an act of obedience

Some of the last words Jesus spoke to His disciples were the threefold instruction: make disciples, baptize those who believe, and teach them His commands (Matt. 28:19-20). If for no other reason, we baptize because Jesus told us to.

A television news camera crew was on assignment in southern Florida filming the widespread destruction of Hurricane Andrew. In one scene, amid devastation and debris, one house stood on its foundation. The owner was cleaning up the yard when a reporter approached him.

"Sir, why is your house the only one still standing?" asked the reporter. "How did you manage to escape the severe damage of the hurricane?"

"I built this house myself," the man replied. "I also built it according to the Florida state building code. When the code called for 2x6 roof trusses, I used 2x6 roof trusses. I was told that a house built according to code could withstand a hurricane. I did, and it did. I suppose no one else around here followed the code."1

Obedience is a characteristic of followers of Christ. In Matthew 28:20, Jesus said we should teach new believers "to observe everything I have commanded you." Baptism is an act of obedience both for the new believer and the church. We baptize because we desire to obey Christ's command.

II. Baptism as an opportunity to witness

The New Testament and church history seem to indicate that baptism served as the initial profession of faith of early believers. After Philip preached Jesus to the Ethiopian, the new believer's initial request was to be baptized (Acts 8). When the Philippian jailer responded to the preaching of Paul and Silas, he and believing members of his family were baptized (Acts 16). The same is true for Lydia (Acts16), Cornelius (Acts 10), the Corinthians (Acts 18), and others. For these believers, baptism was a silent witness, an outward expression, of their new faith and new way of life.

How is baptism a witnessing opportunity for us? According to Romans 6:1-4, our baptism is a witness to the saving work of Christ - His death, burial, and resurrection. As a symbol, baptism visually reenacts His burial in the grave and His resurrection to life. When we see a new believer walk into the water, go under the water, and come up from the water, we are seeing what Jesus did to save us.

Baptism is a dramatic representation of Christ's work of atonement (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Baptism is also a witness of what happens at salvation. Romans 6:3 declares that in salvation we have been "baptized into Christ Jesus" and "into His death."

Baptism symbolizes that as Christ died, was buried, and rose again, so the believer has died, has been buried to self, and now has new life in Christ Jesus. Baptism symbolizes that he or she is a new creature in Christ. Being a new creature in Christ is reflected even in the term baptism. The Greek term baptizo was commonly used in the first century to describe dipping cloth into dye.2 The cloth came out of the dye vat looking different than when it went in. Being a new creature in Christ means that our lives have changed. As believers adopt a Christlike character, the change becomes evident to those with whom they associate. Baptism symbolizes that change in the new follower of Christ.

Baptism is also a witness to nonbelievers. At Gilgal, Joshua set up 12 stones from the Jordan River (Josh. 4:21-24). The stones served as both a memorial to the saving acts of God and a way to teach the subsequent generations about the God who had delivered them.

The same kind of thing happens in the lives of persons who have yet to experience saving faith. New believers often ask friends and relatives, some of whom may be nonbelievers, to come to their baptism. Questions naturally arise in those who are unfamiliar with the rite. Children may ask, "Why is that man putting her under the water?" Others will wonder about or even hear for the first time of the significance of baptism.

The Holy Spirit can use the act of baptism as the initial entry point into the lives of those who will come to faith in Christ. Therefore, the very act of baptism can serve as a powerful witness of the saving work of Christ and the salvation experience of the believer.

III. Baptism as an open door into the church

The early church clearly took seriously the concept of church membership who were born again. Acts 2:47 tells us that "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." Peter's preaching earlier in Acts 2 tells us that those who had repented and received Christ were baptized. Therefore, the first church was made up of those who had been saved and were then baptized. In spite of some obvious cultural and social differences between the first-century church and today's church, the requirement for congregational inclusion should still be believer's baptism.

The late Dr. Herschel Hobbs wrote in his commentary on The Baptist Faith and Message, "Whereas one is born again into the church general, he becomes a part of a local church through believer's baptism. To the local church Jesus committed the two ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper that in their observance the church might witness to his saving work in its locality."3 The statement on the church in The Baptist Faith and Message begins, "A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers."

At baptism the new believer is making a commitment not only to Christ but to the local church. He or she is identifying publicly with this particular congregation. The body at this point also is assuming a responsibility for the new believer. There is a new member in the family. Being part of that local church means the congregation has a responsibility to include the new Christ follower, to encourage him or her in personal pilgrimage of faith, and to support the new believer as a brother or sister and as a friend. Everyone who is part of the fellowship of a local congregation should have experienced personal salvation and believer's baptism. This is not only baptistic, but it is the biblical pattern as well.

As long as the church has existed, baptism has been an integral part of the worship and witness of God's people. Let us never diminish the meaning or practice of this command of our Lord. Baptism should be a time of celebration for the believer and for the church. Every time we baptize we should recognize the importance of this public commitment of faith.

Dr. Jerry Winfield is Vice President of Development and Communications, Tennessee Baptist Children's Homes, Brentwood, Tennessee.