18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive,he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits – 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolises baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience towards God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”NIV
I was probably in my early teens when, one Sunday evening, I attended an after-church meeting in a home in Culcheth, near Leigh, in Greater Manchester. The large room was full, and we listened to a cassette tape of a preacher who spoke at length, but held my attention throughout. He had a gentle voice, and didn’t shout. He was remarkably clear and captivating. I knew then that he was different to most other preachers I’d heard.
The preachers’s identity was David Pawson, who died last Thursday (Ascension Day) at the age of 90. Especially when I was a student, and in my early years of ministry, I used to listen to cassette after cassette containing his Bible teaching, and make my own notes. Even today, if I’m preparing to preach on a passage, I will often listen to David to see how he dealt with it.
His sermons were memorable, and I still remember so many of the things he said. It may have been preaching on this very passage that he said these three things about baptism:
- It is an act of submission;
- It is an act of separation;
- It is an act of salvation.
In water baptism we submit to the Lord Jesus. He commanded this act;
In water baptism we are separated from the old world and brought into a new one – just as it was for Noah and his family. It was quite literally a ‘watershed’ in their experience. David Pawson said that for each one who submits to baptism, they are undergoing a ‘little flood’ which separates them from the old era and brings them into a new one;
Water baptism might also be said to be the outward part of conversion. I once read that the word ‘’pledge’’ (21) carries the idea of sealing a contract. The earliest gospel preaching repeatedly called people to baptism as well as repentance and faith. There is no power in the rite of baptism as such to wash you clean. The power is in the living Lord Jesus. Baptism by itself makes no difference. But if the person being baptized is expressing their faith in Christ it makes a very great difference. It’s like when you repent and believe you enter into a contract with Jesus and in baptism you seal it.
As somebody once said: ’The idea of an unbaptised Christian is totally alien to the thought of the New Testament writers.’