Relationships are a big deal to God. The Bible tells us that life is all about our relationship with God and our relationships with people; everything else is secondary. The word “covenant” is the favorite Bible word to describe the establishment of a formal relationship with God.
A covenant is an explicit agreement and commitment between two parties. God offers himself to us through Jesus Christ and his gospel—offering forgiveness, the Spirit, and a new life. Humans respond by faith to receive God’s promises. Faith is to both trust and follow: it is personal trust in God and his promises in Jesus Christ and a commitment of the mind, the heart, and the will to follow him. This is what the Bible means when it teaches that we are “saved by grace through faith” (Eph. 2:8-9).
In this covenant relationship, God is the primary initiator, provider, and sustainer.
In Jesus Christ, he gives us his love, forgiveness and new life, and by his Holy Spirit, God draws us to himself and provides us with the desire and will to follow him.
But, on our part, we must receive and embrace God’s offer of a relationship with himself by a faith commitment. The water baptism ceremony is the formal means given to us by God, as a provision of his grace, so we can place our faith in Jesus Christ. Acts 2:38 describes baptism as the way we pledge ourselves to him as a formal commitment and receive his promises.
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Repentance is turning away from sinful lifestyles. Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ is to explicitly pledge allegiance to Jesus and his gospel. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the promise of God’s intimate presence from that moment forward.
These commitments made in water baptism have many similarities to commitments made in a wedding ceremony. Both ceremonies are the formal means of entering into a covenant relationship. In a wedding ceremony, the focus is the heart, as formal promises and pledges are made. The marriage covenant ceremony provides the formal means for expressing the internal commitment of the heart through verbal confessions, signatures on the wedding license, and the exchange of rings. Afterward, the one presiding over the ceremony can formally and with full confidence introduce the couple as “husband and wife.”
Likewise, in a baptism ceremony, the focus is the heart, as God’s promises are received, and the pledge of faith and loyalty is made. Again, God made his promises in advance: He will give us complete forgiveness of all our sins, the empowering presence of his Holy Spirit, and the shear joy of a future with him in eternity. We respond by verbal confessions with our mouths that we believe what Jesus did for us on the cross and that we commit ourselves to follow him by faith, as his disciples.
The confessions are then made physically concrete when we re-enact our faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus through being fully immersed under the water and then rising up out of the water, as our sins are washed away by God. In the spiritual realm, we simultaneously experience the promise of an immersion in the Holy Spirit that results in the Holy Spirit’s ongoing presence with us. Afterward, the one presiding over the ceremony can formally and with full confidence introduce the person as “forgiven and indwelt by the Holy Spirit.”
Before a Person Gets Baptized…
There are two things that require clarification before a baptism.
First, the person presiding over the baptism must make sure that the person being baptized understands who Jesus is, what he did on the cross, and what God promises to all of those who place their faith in him. The person should understand that his or her salvation is by grace, God’s gift. The candidate for the ceremony should believe that all the merit which makes him or her right with God is the merit of Jesus Christ and his gospel (his death, burial, resurrection, and exaltation as King). In this knowledge, a person will be grounded in the love of God expressed for us in Christ Jesus.
Secondly, the person being baptized should understand the double-sided nature of faith as an ongoing commitment. Specifically, on the one side, they need to understand what it means to repent and turn from sinful lifestyles. On the other side, they need to understand what it means to trust and follow Jesus, which is to be his disciple.
Specifically, this means that candidates for baptism must have a good understanding of what the Bible teaches are sinful lifestyles and what it means to turn from them in repentance.
Each person will need mental clarity on the things God calls sin and how God empowers us to turn away from sinful lifestyles. Furthermore, the person being baptized must be ready to fully and consciously turn from any sinful lifestyles with which they struggle, in the power that God provides. They will need someone to guide them into a repentance plan for persistent and hard-to-turn-from sin patterns as well as someone to disciple them through that plan after baptism.
In sum, on the positive side, candidates for baptism must appreciate the greatness of Jesus and his gospel and the seriousness of what it means to truly follow him as a disciple. They should be able to state, in explicit terms, what it means to trust and follow him and the ways in which they are planning to live out this commitment. It is important that they also understand the importance of being personally discipled by others in the church, especially in the early period of the Christian life, so that they become grounded in the ways of Jesus. They need to understand that church involvement is essential for the life of faith.
Once these things are established, a person is ready to be baptized.
Arrangements for a Baptism Ceremony:
- The water is to be sufficient for full immersion. Make sure that the water is warm enough and safe (river baptisms require advanced planning).
- Make sure that proper clothing for the baptism is present, for both modesty and comfort. Typically, people are most comfortable bringing their own clothes and towels (the church should also have garments for those who make the decision to be baptized at an unplanned time).
- Have the candidate for baptism change into the clothes that he or she will wear in the baptism, before starting the baptism ceremony. Make sure the person has towels with them.
- It is often helpful to ask the person to write out a clear statement (typically one page) on why they want to be baptized. This statement will often be read out loud, just before the baptism. As the years go by, it might be very helpful and reassuring for the person to look back at what they believed when they were baptized.
How to Baptize Someone:
- When everyone is ready, ask any children present to please be quiet, and establish the mood through a brief prayer and Scripture reading.
- Where possible, the one leading the baptism process will explain what the person being baptized is doing and what it will mean in his or her life (for the sake of family and guests).
- If there is time, the leader may ask the person who is about to be baptized (typically while he or she is standing or sitting in the water) to explain why he or she is being baptized and what this commitment means personally. As stated above, the written statement is often read out loud at this point.
- We recommend that the person(s) doing the baptism ask the following three questions:
- Do you personally place “trust in” and rely on Jesus’ work on the cross to give you the forgiveness of your sins?
- Do you commit “to follow” Jesus Christ by faith, according to the teachings of the Bible, and with God as your helper, for the rest of your life?
- Can you confess with your mouth the great confession? Jesus is Lord!
- This person is now ready. The baptizer may invite others to join them in the act of baptizing the person. The baptizer will have the person gently pinch (to a close) their nose with their hand. The baptizer will hold the wrist of the person being baptized with one hand, and the back of the neck with the other. The baptizer may tell the person who is about to go under the water, “As you go under the water, just express gratitude as a prayer in your heart for Christ’s gift.” Just before the baptizer puts a person under the water, they will state: “Based upon your confession of faith, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The baptizer will completely immerse the person in the water and then bring them back up saying, “Buried with Christ in baptism, raised to walk in newness of life.”
- After the person being baptized comes up out of the water, the baptizer may place hands on the person baptized and pray. The prayer might be as simple as a prayer that “the Holy Spirit will richly indwell the person and that God will guide them to do good and important things with their new life in Christ.”
- It is great to celebrate this decision. Sometimes parents or others help make it a big deal—for example, a special gathering afterward for presents, speeches, and a meal. It is great to take pictures and record a video of the event and then to pass along any pictures and videos to the office at your church. A person’s baptism is definitely worth celebrating, and we can take our cue on this from the rejoicing that goes on in heaven every time a sinner repents (Luke 15:10).
 This passage may be the most important passage on baptism in the Bible and in church history. It is paradigm for the book of Acts (as 2:39, 8:11-13, 8:35-36, 16:14-15, 16:31-33, 18:8, 19:5, 22:14-16). It is part of the Nicene Creed which ends with these words: “we acknowledge one baptism (immersion) for the remission of sins.” For more information, see Tony Twist, Bobby Harrington, and David Young, Baptism: What Does the Bible Teach? (Renew.org, 2019) and Michael Strickland and Anessa Westbrook, New Birth: Conversion and Baptism (Renew.org, 2021).