This catchy expression is oft-encountered when the subject of baptism/immersion arises. It is not an expression found in the Bible. While its absence does not mean that such teaching is not there, its absence should give us pause about whether such teaching is scriptural. It seems that the expression is a rather old one since Augustine spoke of baptism as “the visible form of an invisible grace.” The question is, though, did Augustine mean what those today mean by the expression?
There are several things that we should all realize about baptism. 1) It is by immersion. If the Greek word had been translated, it would have been translated as dip or immerse. Those who protest that translation would have to speak of Holy Spirit sprinkling or pouring on of fire, Matthew 3:11. Any other manner is an assumption. 2) It is for those old enough to understand the word, in other words, baptizing children is an assumption in the household passages (Cornelius in Acts 10:2, Lydia in Acts 16:15, the Philippian jailor in Acts 17:31, and Crispus in Acts 18:8) or from the unscriptural view of original, inherited sin. 3) It is an action that God has ordained in response to belief in the message of the gospel. Look at all the conversions in Acts. Every one of them involves baptism/immersion. Even if one were to argue against the necessity of baptism for salvation, he certainly has to contend with the fact that everyone who converted was baptized and Jesus, himself, submitted to John’s baptism of repentance even though He had committed no sin.
Once the basic Biblical facts of baptism are established, the debate becomes about the necessity of baptism. Does God require that we be baptized? It has always struck me that even though everyone agrees that we need remission/forgiveness of sins to enter the kingdom, they deny that scripture tells us that we receive that forgiveness through baptism, Acts 2:28, Acts 22:16, Romans 6:1-6. The Bible also tells us that we are “baptized into Christ”, Romans 6:3, Galatians 3:27. How else do we get into Christ? We often hear that the sinner’s prayer involves inviting Jesus into our hearts (a phrase and action not in scripture), but how do we get into Him? Peter says that baptism “saves us”, 1 Peter 3:20-21. At what point do we “put on Christ”? Paul says in Galatians 3:27 that it is after baptism.
One further point. Would we say that it is important for us to be buried with Christ? See Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12. If Christ was baptized to “fulfill all righteousness”, does our baptism mean anything in regards to fulfilling righteousness?
So is baptism a sign? Yes, in the sense that it has meaning. Romans 6:4-9 clearly gives the meaning of the figure of baptism, and verse 3 clearly tells us that what Paul is speaking of is baptism. One may protest that he is talking of Holy Spirit baptism. If so, how? And I would say, then, that he is just as likely to be speaking of baptism with fire. Being immersed in the Holy Spirit is what happened to the apostles in Acts 2:2-4 and Cornelius in Acts 10:44-46. Is this what Paul is referring to in Romans 6? If so, then each of us must speak in tongues (languages) which was the consequence of those Holy Spirit baptisms.
While baptism is a sign in the sense that it represents something, the assertion of the phrase above is that it is merely a demonstration by a saved person that he has accepted the gospel and is now of Christ. If we look at the construction of phrase in such verses as Acts 2:28 and Acts 22:16, we see that forgiveness of sins, which delineates a Christian, is obtained in conjunction with baptism. Forgiveness of sins is a function of baptism as Peter says in 1 Peter 3:20-1. We say, therefore, that baptism is more than a figure of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. And it is more than a sign to others that we are publicly acknowledging our newfound Christian status. What if we want to make no such profession? Then we must be free to ignore baptism altogether. In fact, one cannot become a Christian until he is baptized. Considering all that the Bible says about baptism, does it feel correct that we can simply ignore it? Our own savior was baptized.
The one who hears the gospel and believes, such as the eunuch in Acts 8:26ff, is now repentant of his sins. How does he receive forgiveness for those sins? He submits to immersion in water for the remission of sins. The scripture nowhere tells us that baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace. Would you think that the Jews of Acts 2:38, the Samaritans of Acts 8:16, the Ethiopian Eunuch of Acts 8:36, Paul of Acts 9:18 and Acts 22:16, Cornelius and household of Acts 10:47-48, and all the rest in Acts saw their baptisms as merely a sign to others that they had been saved?