This article presents two selected portions of the Zondervan Pictorial Dictionary treatment of this so very important word.
BAPTISM (baplizm), a term derived from the Greek baptisma (antecedent, baptizo); the etymological significance of the word often has been obscured by a lack pf exegetical clarity and by forced interpretation. Its true meaning can be found only in its usage and its theological significance. Its antecedent meaning involves its Judaic usage in the OT times, and its practice by John the Baptist. Its incipient meaning lies in Christ's baptism and His interpretation of it. Its formal meaning is to be found .in its apostolic interpretation, particularly Pauline.
The Apostolic writers, particularly Paul, enlarged the concept of the spiritual aspect of baptism by relating it to the whole of the redemptive act. To the generic symbolism of cleansing, Paul attributed to its spiritual significance the quality of entry into the righteousness of Christ through an identification with Christ Himself. Spiritual baptism is the means by which the redeemed sinner is incorporated into the spiritual body of Christ, not merely as an act of initiation, but as a state or condition of personal righteousness. It is, therefore, the only access to identification with the redeeming Christ.
Baptism may, therefore, he regarded from two perspectives: its subjective significance, as the baptism of the Holy Spirit in which the believer is brought into positive relationship to God; and its symbolic significance, as the objective manifestation of the believer's acquiescence to that relationship. Its subjective significance lies in its nature as spiritual baptism, while its objective form relates to its symbolic significance.
Its subjective significance is represented in the NT by many analogies. It is regarded as the means of participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. In Romans 6:3-5, Paul relates the actual spiritual condition of his readers to such a participation in the death and resurrection through baptism. "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, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." This identification is not merely to the death of Christ, in which the believer has also died to sin, but to the resurrection of Christ, in which the believer has found "newness of life." Spiritual baptism is therefore an entry into the new life in Christ —a passage from the old creation into the new creation. This involves not merely forgiveness of sins, but an impartation of the life and righteousness of Christ to the believer (II Peter 1:4). The believer is "in 'it," and Christ is in the believer. Moreover, this identification, effected through spiritual baptism, cleanses the believer through the blood of Christ (Titus 3:5f). True baptism is, therefore, incorporation of the believer into Christ's righteousness and an infusion of that righteousness into the believer.
It’s symbolic significance is depicted in its objective form. While much debate has focused on the varying interpretations of the forms of baptism, each form (immersion, sprinkling or pouring) is clearly associated with the concept of cleansing and identification, which are, as reflected in its spiritual significance, its two integral parts. Immersion, however, depicts more clearly the symbolic aspect of baptism since its three steps of immersion –going into the water, submersion — going under the water, and emersion — coming out the water, more closely parallel the concept of entering into the death of Christ, experiencing the forgiveness of sins, and rising to walk in the newness of Christ's resurrected life (Rom. 6:4).
The genius of Christian baptism, however, is to be found not merely in its symbolic significance, but in its actual effect in the life of the believer. TRUE BAPTISM MUST ALWAYS BE VITALLY RELATED TO FAITH
Only through responsive faith to the regenerative work of Christ can the soul participate in spiritual baptism, and subsequently in the symbolic form of the act itself. Through faith, as a commitment to the person of Christ, the believer is brought an actual relation to God through the radical change of nature which is inherent in spiritual spiritualism. Faith is a "surrender-in-response" relationship to the Holy Spirit, who, through spiritual baptism, brings man into vital union with God.
While much emphasis in recent evangelical use has been placed on the "symbol only" concept of baptism, and, while the NT pointedly abstains from ascribing a sacramental value to the act itself, a renewed emphasis upon the spiritual significance of baptism will restore to its proper place a much neglected aspect of this doctrine. No statement of the doctrine can be a truly Biblical one if it fails to emphasize that beyond the symbolic and commemorative act performed by man there is the inward operation of the Holy Spirit, bringing man into a redemptive relationship through his participation in and identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and the subsequent infusion of the merits of that death and resurrection into the life of the believer, by which he may live as one dead to sin, but alive to God (Romans 6:11).