Question: What is the purpose of water baptism? Is it a sign of the believer’s covenant with the Lord, similar to circumcision? At the very least, it seems valuable to me as a tangible memory or similar to building an altar of remembrance of one’s new commitment to Christ. However, many today wait a long time to be baptized; this is in contrast to the New Testament times where people seemed to be baptized quickly.
Answer: There are those who believe that water baptism is essential to salvation. They will point to such passages as Acts 2:38 in which Peter says “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” and Acts 22:16 where Ananias instructs Paul to “be baptized and wash away your sins.” But Paul makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 1:13-17 that this is not the case. He writes:
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
If baptism was essential to salvation, Paul could not and should not have separated it from preaching the gospel. Christ, indeed, would have sent him to baptize if it were required.
But if it is not essential for salvation, or doesn’t actually wash away sins, then what does it do? And I believe it does what you suggested. It is a symbol that is an aid to faith. Faith is what saves us, is what washes away our sins, but baptism gives visible and tactile expression to that faith. Human beings need to give such expression to our inward beliefs to help solidify them in our souls.
In addition, the outward demonstration of faith given in baptism helps others to be more aware of our faith and acts as an encouragement to their own faith. The Bible does not emphasize this but it is a reality. And you are correct that normally new believers were almost immediately baptized upon conversion. This did not always give much opportunity for a crowd to gather. So the symbol is much more for the believer than for his or her fellow Christians.
However, there is nothing that says we must be baptized immediately. The early church began a process of teaching new converts to ascertain whether they were genuine followers of Christ before baptizing them. This seems to go too much counter to the New Testament example. But for us to make it a part of a community worship opportunity seems a judicious use of the symbol to help everyone rejoice with the new convert.
Other articles on baptism: