The baptism of water is a sign of the believer's repentance, a sign that he accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer is participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Being baptized "with the Holy Spirit and with Fire" refers to the renewing and cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. The Worldwide Church of God practices baptism through immersion. (Matthew 28,19:2,38; Acts 6,4:5; Romans 3,16: 1-12,13; Luke 1:1,3; 9 Corinthians 3,16; Peter; Matthew)
Baptism - a symbol of the gospel
Rituals were an outstanding part of Old Testament worship. There were annual, monthly and daily rituals. There were rituals at birth and rituals at death, there were sacrificial, cleansing and insertion rituals. Faith was involved, but it was not salient.
In contrast, the New Testament has only two basic rituals: baptism and the Lord's Supper - and there are no detailed instructions for their implementation.
Why these two? Why should one have any rituals at all in a religion where faith is in the foreground?
I think the main reason is that both the sacrament and baptism symbolize Jesus' gospel. They repeat the fundamental elements of our faith. Let's look at how this applies to baptism.
Images of the gospel
How does baptism symbolize the central truths of the gospel? The apostle Paul wrote: «Or do you not know that all we were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? So we are buried with him through baptism into death, so that, like Christ raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too can walk in a new life. Because if we are connected to him and have become like him in his death, we will be like him in the resurrection » (Romans 6,3-5).
Paul says that baptism represents our union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection. These are the primary points of the gospel (1 Corinthians 15,3: 4). Our salvation depends on his death and resurrection. Our forgiveness - purification from our sins - depends on his death; our Christian life and future depend on his resurrection life.
Baptism symbolizes the death of our old self - the old person was crucified with Christ - he was buried with Christ in baptism (Romans 6,8; Galatians 2,20; 6,14; Colossians 2,12.20). It symbolizes our identification with Jesus Christ - we form a community of destiny with him. We accept that his death happened "for us", "for our sins". We admit that we have sinned, that we have a tendency to sin, that we are sinners who need a Savior. We acknowledge that we need cleansing and that this cleansing is done through the death of Jesus Christ. Baptism is one way by which we confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer.
Risen with Christ
Baptism symbolizes even better news - in baptism we are raised with Christ so that we can live with him (Ephesians 2,5-6; Colossians 2,12-13.31). We have a new life in him and we are called to live a new way of life, with him as Lord who guides us and leads us out of our sinful ways and into just and loving ways. In this way we symbolize repentance, a change in our way of life, and also the fact that we cannot bring about this change ourselves - it happens through the power of the risen Christ who lives in us. We identify with Christ in his resurrection not only for the future, but also for life here and today. This is part of the symbolism.
Jesus was not the inventor of the ritual of baptism. It developed within Judaism and was used by John the Baptist as a ritual to represent remorse, with water symbolizing purification. Jesus continued this practice and after his death and resurrection they also used the disciples. It dramatically illustrates the fact that we have a new basis for our lives and a new foundation for our relationship with God.
Since we were forgiven and cleansed by the death of Christ, Paul realized that baptism meant his death and our participation in his death. Paul was also inspired to add the connection with Jesus' resurrection. As we rise from the baptismal water, we symbolize the resurrection to a new life - a life in Christ, living in us.
Peter also wrote that baptism saves us "through the resurrection of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 3,21). Baptism in itself does not save us. We are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Water cannot save us. Baptism saves us only in the sense that we "ask God for a clear conscience". It is a visible representation of our turn to God, our belief in Christ, forgiveness and new life.
Baptized into a body
We are not only baptized into Jesus Christ, but also into his body, the Church. "Because we were all baptized into one body by one spirit ..." (1 Corinthians 12,13). This means that someone cannot baptize themselves - this has to be done within the Christian community. There are no secret Christians, people who believe in Christ, but nobody knows about it. The biblical pattern is to confess Christ before others, to make a public confession of Jesus as Lord.
Baptism is one of the ways in which Christ can be known through which all friends of the baptized can experience a commitment. This can be a joyful occasion where the church sings songs and welcomes the person to the church. Or it can be a smaller ceremony in which an elder (or another authorized representative of the church) welcomes the new believer, repeats the meaning of the action, and encourages the baptized in his new life in Christ.
Baptism is basically a ritual that expresses that someone has already repented of their sins, accepted Christ as the Redeemer, and begun to grow spiritually - that he is indeed already a Christian. Baptism is usually done when someone has made a commitment, but it can sometimes be done later.
Teenagers and children
After someone comes to believe in Christ, he or she comes into question for baptism. This can be when the person is quite old or quite young. A young person may express his belief in a different way than an older person, but young people can still have faith.
Could some of them possibly change their mind and fall away from faith? Maybe, but this can also happen to adult believers. Will it turn out that some of these childhood conversions were not genuine? Maybe, but that happens to adults too. If a person repents and has faith in Christ as well as a pastor can judge, then that person can be baptized. However, it is not our practice to baptize minors without the consent of their parents or legal guardian. If the parent's parents are against baptism, then the child who has faith in Jesus is no less a Christian because he has to wait until he or she grows up to be baptized.
It is our practice to baptize in the Worldwide Church of God by immersion. We believe that it was the most probable practice in Judaism of the first century and in the early church. We believe that complete immersion symbolizes death and burial better than sprinkling. However, we do not make the method of baptism an issue to divide Christians.
The important thing is that the person leaves the old life of sin and believes in Christ as his Lord and Savior. To further the analogy of death, we could say that the old man died with Christ, whether the body was properly buried or not. The cleaning was symbolized, even if the funeral was not presented. The old life is dead and the new life is there.
Salvation does not depend on the exact method of baptism (the Bible doesn't give us much details about the process anyway), nor of exact words, as if words per se had magical effects. Salvation depends on Christ, not on the depth of the baptismal water. A Christian who was baptized by sprinkling or pouring is still a Christian. We do not require baptism again unless someone considers it appropriate. If the fruit of a Christian life - to give just one example - has been there for 20 years, there is no need to argue about the validity of a ceremony that took place 20 years ago. Christianity is based on belief, not on performing a ritual.
The infant baptism
It is not our practice to baptize babies or children who are still too young to express their own beliefs because we see baptism as an expression of faith and no one is saved by the faith of their parents. However, we do not condemn as unchristian those who practice infant baptism. Let me briefly address the two most common arguments for infant baptism.
First, scriptures like Acts 10,44:11,44 tell us; 16,15 and 16,34 that entire houses [families] were baptized, and households typically included infants in the first century. It is possible that these particular households had no young children, but I believe that a better explanation is to consider Acts 18,8 and that apparently entire households came to believe in Christ. I don't think the babies had real faith, nor did the babies speak in tongues (Vv. 44-46). Perhaps the whole house was baptized in the same way that household members believed in Christ. That would mean that all those old enough to believe were baptized too.
A second argument sometimes used to support infant baptism is the concept of frets. In the Old Testament, children were included in the covenant, and the rite of inclusion in the covenant was the circumcision made on infants. The new covenant is a better covenant with better promises, so children should certainly be included automatically and marked as early as infancy with the rite of passage of the new covenant, baptism. However, this argument does not recognize the difference between the old and the new federation. Someone came into the old covenant by descent, but in the new covenant someone can only enter by repentance and faith. We do not believe that every descendant of a Christian, even to the third and fourth generation, will automatically have faith in Christ! Every human being has to come to faith.
There has been controversy over the right method of baptism and the age of the baptized for centuries, and the arguments can be considerably more complex than I outlined in the few preceding paragraphs. More could be said about that, but it is not necessary at this time.
Occasionally, a person who has been baptized as an infant would like to become a member of the Worldwide Church of God. Do we think it necessary to baptize this person? I think it has to be decided case by case, based on the person's preference and understanding of baptism. If the person has recently come to a point of faith and devotion, it is probably appropriate to baptize the person. In such cases, baptism would make it clear to the person what a decisive step of the faith was taken.
If the baby was baptized in infancy and has lived for years as an adult Christian with good fruit, then we do not need to insist on baptizing her. Of course, if they ask, we would like to, but we do not have to argue about rituals that were done decades ago when the Christian fruit is already visible. We can simply praise the grace of God. The person is a Christian, regardless of whether the ceremony was performed correctly.
Participation in the Lord's Supper
For similar reasons, we are allowed to celebrate the Lord's Supper with people who were not baptized in the same way that we are used to. The criterion is belief. If we both have faith in Jesus Christ, we are both united with him, we were both baptized into his body in one way or another, and we can share in bread and wine. We can also take the sacrament with them if they have misconceptions about what happens to bread and wine. (Don't we all have misconceptions about some things?)
We should not be distracted by arguments about details. It is our faith and practice, those old enough to believe in Christ, to be baptized by immersion. We also want to show benevolence to those who have different beliefs. I hope that these statements are enough to clarify our approach.
Let's focus on the bigger picture that the apostle Paul gives us: Baptism symbolizes our old self who is dying with Christ; our sins are washed away and our new lives are lived in Christ and in his church. Baptism is an expression of repentance and faith - a reminder that we are being saved through the death and life of Jesus Christ. Baptism represents the Gospel in miniature - the central truths of faith that are re-imagined each time a person begins the Christian life.