He who believes and is baptized will be saved.
It wasn’t until I was a cognitive seven years old that the soul-altering waters of baptism were sprinkled on my brown-haired head. My earliest years had little connection with formal religion and faith, until we moved next door to an active Lutheran family. My parents weren’t irreligious, but rather, due to the turbulence of the union of their dissimilar pasts, church going had never gained a foothold in their marriage. One of my earliest, most cherished memories, however, was the white illuminated face-of-Jesus nightlight above my bed that would add a glow to my mother’s face as she prayed me to sleep.
Eventually those avid Lutheran neighbors coaxed us to attend, and after several years of growing involvement, my parents had me baptized. As a commemoration of this important spiritual event, they gave me my first King James Version Bible. That Bible rested faithfully on my bedroom bookshelf for years. I vividly remember perusing it, from time to time, because it contained colored pictures of biblical stories and great maps. I don’t remember, however, reading any deeper into it than Genesis chapter one. It basically gathered dust.
The above verse from the Gospel of Mark was quoted by the Lutheran pastor when he baptized me. I certainly don’t recall him reading it or suggest that it had any impact on my “deaf, dumb, and blind” self-centered mind. I, also, do not remember having an active faith in God, or that I understood that my baptism was anything more than a “rite of passage” into formal membership in our local Lutheran church. It never crossed my mind that that private ceremony of being sprinkled with water had any immediate or lasting effect on my soul.
But this is what was hidden in that first “verse I never saw” when I was seven and for many years to come.
If a person lives their entire life within a Christian tradition that views baptism and other sacraments as merely symbolic, even unnecessary, it is easy to read Scripture through these lenses. It was not until many years later, however, that I saw the importance of stepping outside of our modern assumptions to consider what was the underlying beliefs and practice of the early Church—those who had learned their faith directly from the apostles. Once I recognized the possibility of an alternate religious view, and applied this to the overall reading of Scripture, many direct references and indirect allusions to baptism rose to the top and began to make life-altering sense.
When our resurrected Lord summarized His Great Commission to his followers in the command to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…,” this included the command to “baptize” and “teach” (Mt 28:19,20). It was in this same context that our Lord told His followers, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mk 16:15, 16a).
When the very first folk “were cut to the heart” and came forward in response to the first Christian sermon demanding, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), Simon Peter did not say, “Go down to the rectory and sign up for the year-long membership class.” Nor did he say, “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.” Rather he said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized … and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
When one reads the New Testament with an open mind, it’s easy to see how baptism was considered the means by which believers were recreated, “born anew … of water and the Spirit” (Jn 3:3-6). Through baptism, believers and their families became “in Christ,” members of the Church, the Body of Christ.
Saint Paul communicated this to all the churches under his care. To the Galatians, he wrote, “in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal 3:26,27).
To the Ephesians, he reminded them that, after they had “heard the word of truth, the gospel of [their] salvation” and consequently “believed in him,” they were then “sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” which implies baptism, which “enlightened” the “eyes of [their] hearts” (Eph 1:13,14,18). By this, they became “in Christ,” and as Paul told the Christians at Corinth, “if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17).
In his first Epistle, the apostle Peter wrote, “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ …” (1 Pet 3:21-22).
This fundamental belief in the importance of baptism was carried onward in all the early church communities. In the Didache, a first century document that most scholars believe was written concurrently with the New Testament, the anonymous author wrote: “Concerning baptism, baptize in this way. When you have said all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit …” (ch. 7).
This is particularly described by Justin Martyr (105-165) in his First Apology, in which he presented an entire chapter on the importance of baptism:
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. (First Apology, LXI)
My point for this short summary of New Testament and early church sources is not to give an apologetic defense of the importance of baptism. Rather, I merely was to illustrate how from the beginning, baptism was assumed to be the start of the Christian life—how through baptism believers are washed clean and become new creations in Christ, members of the Church, the Body of Christ.
This is true for all baptized Christians, whether they realize it, believe it, or not. For me, it took many years to appreciate this gift of grace. As I said, when I was baptized a Lutheran at age seven, I had no idea that this embarrassing, inconvenient act, which I assumed was nothing more than a rite-of-passage into local church membership, actually recreated me into an adopted child of God.