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Not long ago, I received a special offer in the mail. I usually toss these things in the trash, but this one included an offer for a subscription to a magazine that I sometimes enjoy reading. Better yet, a free book offer came with the subscription, and what really hooked me was the book’s title: How to Clean Almost Anything.

I’m a bit of a clean nut, so I knew I had to own that book. I sent away for the magazine subscription and got the book as well. Months later, needing a tip on how to clean something, I went looking for the book but couldn’t find it. I said to my wife, “Have you seen that book, How to Clean Almost Anything?”

“No,” she replied. “You probably threw it out the last time you cleaned up!”

Whether you’re a neat freak like me who’s constantly getting rid of clutter or a clutter bug who wishes your home looked more like a spread in a decorating magazine, I’m sure you recognize the value of cleanliness. We’d all like to have clean bodies, clean homes, and a clean environment.

But there’s something far more important than external cleanliness—something that isn’t covered in the pages of How to Clean Almost Anything. It’s a clean spirit, a transformed inner person, and the Bible tells us how to achieve that kind of cleanliness.

Calling on God’s name

In Acts 22:16, we read that God spoke to the apostle Paul through Ananias, saying, “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on [God’s] name.” As we read this verse, we might ask, What is it that washes away our sins? Is it the baptism, or is it calling on God’s name?

The Bible makes it clear that sins are washed away by calling on God’s name. In Psalm 51, the psalmist confessed his sin to God, saying, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (verse 17). And he pleads, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (verse 7).

Baptism is a symbol that we have called on the name of the Lord to cleanse our sins. External symbols are important—but not if we allow them to become an end in themselves. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day had that problem. They were meticulous about ritual purity, carefully performing their ritual washings, but Jesus saw that they weren’t really allowing God to cleanse the sin from their hearts. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean” (Matthew 23:25, 26).

An inside job

A while back I cleaned the windows outside our house. I did a good, thorough job, using a squeegee and scrubbers. When it was finished, I stood back and admired my sparkling clean windows. But not long afterwards I was inside the house looking out, and suddenly I realized how many spots there still were—on the inside. Cleaning the outside alone wasn’t enough.

That’s the way it is with spiritual cleanliness. It isn’t enough to keep our bodies and our environment clean. Even going through a ritual of spiritual cleansing, being baptized, is not enough unless it reflects an inner reality. God is concerned about getting the squeegee on the inside. He wants us clean and new from the inside out.

So does baptism matter once we’re clean inside? It certainly does. Almost every time the message of salvation is preached in the New Testament, it’s coupled with the command to be baptized. “How are we saved?” people asked the apostles. Over and over, they replied, “Repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38).

It reminds me of the story of the Syrian general Naaman that’s told in 2 Kings 5. Naaman suffered from the dread disease of leprosy. An Israelite girl who was a slave in his household told him about the prophet Elisha, who could heal diseases by the power of the God of Israel. Naaman went to see the prophet, who told him to bathe seven times in the Jordan River.

Naaman wasn’t too impressed with this counsel. The Jordan River was muddy—nothing like the beautiful rivers in his homeland. At first he argued with himself that if the prophet had the power to heal, why hadn’t he just spoken a few words? After all, what mattered was God’s healing power, not the empty ritual of bathing in a river.

Yet Naaman chose to trust God and obey Him. He went through with the ritual. He obeyed God’s command— and sure enough, he was healed of his leprosy!

If Naaman had gone out on his own and bathed in one of those beautiful Syrian rivers, it wouldn’t have done him a bit of good, for the mere fact of getting wet in a river wouldn’t have cleansed him of his leprosy. God alone had the power to accomplish that. But God did require that Naaman obey His command and bathe in the actual Jordan River. And when he did, he was cleansed from his disease.

Baptism works the same way. God’s real desire is that we have clean hearts, and washing our skin with water won’t accomplish that. God wants to erase the sins of our past, to transform the pain of our lives, to make us over anew. At the same time, however, God does ask us to perform the outward act that symbolizes the transformed heart. He asks that, as a sign of our repentance and our commitment to a new start, we step into the waters of baptism to show the world that He has cleansed us.

What kind of baptism?

Does it matter to God how we are baptized? Yes, it does. Just as there was only one river in which Naaman could bathe if he wanted to demonstrate his obedience and trust, so there is one method of baptism that is used throughout the Bible, and it’s the only method ever described in God’s Word. The Greek word baptizo, from which we get our word baptism, means to dip, to immerse, to plunge something under water. Early Christians referred to baptism as being buried and rising again with Christ (Colossians 2:12). Only one kind of baptism can symbolize burial and resurrection. Only one kind of baptism can symbolize being plunged into the washtub and emerging completely clean. That’s biblical baptism by immersion.

God’s Word tells us that baptism matters. It matters that we do it, and it matters how we do it. If we are to respond to God with trust and obedience, we’ll take His teaching on baptism seriously.

After baptism

But we’ll also remember that repentance and baptism mark a beginning, not an end. As we grow in Christ, He continues to change us. If you really want to know “how to clean almost anything,” allow the power of God into your life. His Holy Spirit really can cleanse you of any and all sin. There’s no “almost” about it.

God’s cleansing power works not only on our hearts but on our minds. I don’t know about you, but there are things in my life that I’d rather forget— memories, experiences, things I’ve seen. When God cleanses us, He makes all things new (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The story is told of a minister in England who was walking down the street with a friend who was the president of a large soap-manufacturing company. As the men walked, they passed a bar with the sounds of people carousing inside. Drunkards were reeling out into the street. The businessman said to the minister, “It doesn’t look like your gospel is working very effectively to change people’s lives.” Pointing to a very dirty street urchin standing nearby, the minister said, “It doesn’t seem your soap is working very well either.”

The soap manufacturer replied, “Of course my soap works—but you have to apply it!”

“Exactly!” the minister replied. “The gospel works, too, but you must apply it.”

The gospel—the good news—is that forgiveness and renewal through Jesus can change us, can make us clean. When we accept that gift and step into the water of baptism to show that we accept it, then the most powerful cleanser in the universe begins to work in our lives.

Why Baptism Matters

by Doug Batchelor
From the October 2014 Signs