THE BAPTISM OF JOHN
John the Baptist did not invent baptism. During the period between the OT and the NT period, a practice emerged among the Jews called “proselyte baptism.” Any Gentile who wanted to convert to the Jewish religion and be admitted into the Jewish church had to make a profession of faith in Judaism. Then, if he was a male, he had to undergo circumcision. Finally, he had to take a purification bath because he was considered ceremonially unclean.
The Pharisees were outraged when they heard John declare that Jews needed to repent and be baptized (purified) in preparation for the coming of the Messiah (Matt. 3:2). The Pharisees found their security in the old covenant. They thought of circumcision as the means to salvation. But Paul clearly says circumcision does not save (Rom. 4:11); rather, it was a sign of God’s covenant promise to circumcise the hearts of His elect (Gen. 17:7; Deut. 30:6); “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit” (Rom. 2:28-29).
BAPTISM REPLACES CIRCUMCISION
Jesus took the rite of cleansing and identified it with His new covenant. As a result, baptism replaced circumcision as the outward sign of inclusion in the new covenant community. Baptism, like, circumcision, does not save. Rather, it assures believers that their hearts are circumcised (cleansed from sin) “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul sees a direct link between OT circumcision and NT baptism: “In Him you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands …by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism…”
Some churches argue that only adults who make a conscious profession of faith can be baptized. Historically, however, the majority has believed that just as the OT covenant promise was given to Abraham [the father of all believers] and to his seed, the NT covenant promise has been given to believers and to their seed; and just as the old covenant sign was given to believers and their children, the new covenant sign is given to believers and their children.
Baptism replaced circumcision as the sign of God’s covenant promise to circumcise the hearts of His elect to trust in Christ and to obey God out of thankfulness for salvation. Salvation may come before, during, or after the administration of the sign. The validity of baptism does not rest upon the one who receives it or administers it. It rests instead on the character of the One whose promise it signifies.
[Adapted from R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian]