When churches go wrong and turn into cults, one of the ways they do this is to put mystical qualities into baptism and specifically into the baptism that they and they only offer. This means that it is only if you are baptised by them that you can receive the full benefits.
This is a distortion because in the NT we see that because we have one Lord and one baptism we are part of the one Church wherever we are.
1. In Acts the instruction is frequently to repent and be baptised. This is because baptism is an overt, open and public event that declares a radical change of life. The Jews were seen as part of God’s people by birth and were given circumcision as a mark of this. However, if you were a non-Jew and you decided to become a Jew, you were circumcised and it seems that some would go through a washing/baptism ceremony. This would give two pictures
a. You were treated as moving from unclean to clean
b. The washing was also a reminder of how the people of Israel were brought from slavery into God’s place the promised land through water (Red Sea, Jordan) which was described as baptism
2. When John the Baptist tells the people, they have to repent and be baptised in the Jordan in effect it is telling them that they must own up to being unclean and living outside of God’s people/place even though they were ethnically Jews.
3. For the early church, the imagery is
a. Baptism represents cleansing from sin
b. Baptism represents death and resurrection in Christ. It is even deeper from moving from one place to another. You die to your old life in Satan’s kingdom and rise to new life in Christ’s (Romans 6:1-10; Colossians 2:6-20). Note how the Colossians passage is firmly in the context of freedom from legalism and superstition,
It is important to think about exactly what baptism is doing. It is not that the water itself changes you. It is rather, as Peter puts it
21 And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from[g] a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This is the important verse because throughout the ages false teachers have taken the phrase “baptism, which now saves you,” and said “Look, it is the baptism that saves.” However, this is to miss the metaphorical nature of the language demonstrated by the next line. Baptism is a way of showing outwardly that our consciences are clean.
It is similar to saying “With this ring I thee wed.” The ring does not make you married but acts as a seal on the commitment you have made, it is evidence of that commitment and shows that your words are binding.
This links to the point made in Colossians 2:11-12 that what counts is not the outward physical sign but if it represents what has happened inwardly through the Holy Spirit.