John 3:16, the most well known verse in the Bible, explains that Jesus died so we wouldn’t have to. However, it doesn’t teach that simply because Jesus died, no one will. It says only those who believe in Him will have eternal life. That is pretty profound. Jesus didn’t teach universal salvation. He taught that only those who had faith in Him, who trusted Him, who surrendered to Him would be saved.
This is not simply a mental assent to the facts of Jesus; this is a surrender to the will of the one we say we believe. Galatians 2:20 describes what this faith is like: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Having faith in Jesus is more than agreeing; it is surrendering. It is putting ourselves and our will to death. It is submitting to what Jesus taught.
How does this start? Romans 6:3-6 says:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
If living by faith means crucifying ourselves with Jesus, when does that happen? According to Romans 6:3-6 it happens when we are baptized into Christ. It doesn’t happen any other time. There is no amount of prayer that will accomplish that. There is no amount of “going to church” that will accomplish that. There is no amount of giving money to the church or to those in need that will accomplish that. There is no amount of ignoring temptation that will accomplish that. Only being baptized into Christ will accomplish that.
Further, remember that John 3:16 says Jesus died so we don’t have to. But, that death doesn’t just cover everyone. How do we get into that death? Romans 6:3-6 says when we are baptized into Christ, we are baptized into His death. It is not when we have simply agreed that Jesus died for our sins that we enter His saving death. It is not when we’ve told others about His saving death. It is only when we have been baptized into Christ that we enter His saving death.
Sadly, I hear of more and more Christians who once had so much faith in this teaching from Christ that they submitted to baptism in the name of Jesus for the remission of their sins who are not passing this teaching on to others. Because the majority of the religious world doesn’t accept it, they have started backing off. Maybe people can be saved simply by agreeing that Jesus died for them, they say. Maybe people can be saved because they are leading pretty good lives, in sincerity toward God. Maybe people can be saved because they said a prayer. Maybe they can be saved even though they weren’t baptized into Christ, but were baptized to show something else. This is what we are told.
Who are we to say how God can save people? That is what we are asked. My response? We aren’t anyone to say how God can save people. That is why we must say only what Jesus said. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). You see, when we say a person must be born of the water and the Spirit, that is must be baptized, we aren’t telling God how He must save people. We are only telling people what God said about how He would save people. Actually, we are taking too much to ourselves and telling God how to save people when we say that maybe God will save people some way other than how He said.
Romans 6:3-6 is pretty clear. If you want to be in Christ, you have to be baptized into Him. If you want to be in His saving death, you have to be baptized into it. If you want to be crucified with Christ, you have to be baptized into it. Let’s just say what God says about it and leave it at that.
Genesis 1:6-9 begins the story. At first, God created light. Then He separated the waters. Then he gathered the waters below the expanse together and from their midst He caused the dry land to come forth. In a very real sense, the world was born through water.
Then in Genesis 6-9, God decided to remake the world. How did He do it? He sent forth water, immersed the world in water, and then let the waters subside. The world was born again, if you will, through water. At the same time, Noah and his family were also born again through water. They were saved from the perverse generation that surrounded them by water. Their new lives began after they came through the water.
Moses followed this pattern with his life. He was born and then hidden in the water in Exodus 2:3 in an ark made of bulrushes. Yes, the word for “basket” in Exodus is the same as for Noah’s boat in Genesis. Moses’ infancy at once reaches back and calls to mind the reborn world, but also looks forward to the birth of national Israel.
The Israelites left Egypt following the death of the firstborn in Exodus 12. In Exodus 14, they came to the shore of the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army brought up the rear and the people were trapped. However, God divided the waters and Israel walked on the dry land that appeared (reminiscent of the dry land appearing in the birth of the world). The nation of Israel left their slavery and were reborn a nation as they walked between those waters. I Corinthians 10:2 even calls it a baptism.
This whole scenario was replayed when Joshua led the people across the Jordan in Joshua 3:14-17. The waters backed up and the people crossed on dry land, reminding and replaying their birth as a nation through water.
Is it any surprise then that when John the Baptist came on the scene folks had to travel out to the Jordan to hear him and heard the message of baptism in water (Matthew 3:6)? I don’t think it surprised the Jews at all. Birth and rebirth through water had been part of their stories since the beginning.
We should not be surprised either. When Jesus told Nicodemus that we had to be born again by water and the Spirit in John 3:5, the concept was not new. When Peter said, “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” in Acts 2:38, the Jews never thought, “Oh no, this is works salvation.” Rather, they simply saw a parallel to all that had gone before. Birth, rebirth, regeneration, new creation takes place through water. It had always been so and God’s use of it again made perfect sense.
When we read the whole story of the Bible, we see that baptism is not just some arbitrary command once John came on the scene and then taken up by Jesus. Rather, it is the fulfillment of all that has gone on before. We shouldn’t be surprised. We should simply obey and pass the message on to others.