What is baptism?

In its most generic sense, baptism is a religious ceremony involving the ritual application of water to a new believer. It sounds simple enough and yet churches have argued for centuries over the purpose of baptism, when to baptize, and how to baptize.

Why do we even have baptism?

Christians have baptism because:

  • Jesus was baptized (Mark 1:9), and we want to emulate Him.
  • Jesus instructed the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19)

When do we baptize?

Some churches argue that we should all be baptized in infancy, but the scriptural support for this practice is extremely weak.

Whenever we read about baptism in the Book of Acts, it is always done to an adult in the context of them hearing the Gospel and becoming a Christian. It is never done to an infant (unless you apply the argument from silence fallacy based on the term “household” in Acts 16). However, if you read below about the relationship between baptism and salvation, it will become abundantly clear that baptism should always be done very soon after someone becomes a born-again Christian, which would be impossible with an infant.

How is baptism done?

Some churches argue that we should baptize by sprinkling a small amount of water on someone’s head, but whenever we read about baptism in the Book of Acts, it is always done by full immersion in water (Acts 8:38-39). Note that the Greek word used here (baptizó) means to submerge, while a different Greek word (rhantizó) refers to sprinkling (see Hebrews 9:13 for example). And just in case it is still unclear, the section below on the relationship between baptism and salvation will make it clear that full immersion is correct.

Secondly, some churches argue that we should only baptize in the name of Jesus. They base this teaching upon verses like Acts 2:38 and the fact that the apostles performed many miracles using the phrase “in the name of Jesus.”

In my own personal opinion, I believe that we should baptize just as Jesus instructed the apostles to baptize: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. After all, God (Galatians 4:4-5), Jesus (1 Peter 3:18), and the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) all play a role in our salvation (1 Peter 1:2), so why not baptize in the name of all three? Also, since the doctrine of the Trinity is critical for our salvation and yet so often misunderstood, I believe that we should take any chance we can get to reinforce the correct understanding.

You may still disagree with me, and that’s fine, too. This is one of those areas that’s not worth arguing over. In the end, the doctrine of the Trinity teaches that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all one God, so it’s probably equally fine just to baptize in the name of Jesus.

Is baptism required for salvation?

Some churches teach that either baptism by itself is what saves a person or that baptism is at least a step required as part of the salvation process. In both cases, baptism becomes a work as part of a works righteousness means of salvation. However, since we know that salvation is by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9), then we can conclude that baptism serves a different purpose.

But doesn’t Peter imply that baptism is what saves someone?

  • “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” (Acts 2:38)
  • “and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 3:21)

When a person is saved, they receive the Holy Spirit to dwell within them (1 Corinthians 2:12 and 2 Timothy 1:14), and “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.” (Romans 8:9) So if baptism were truly what saved a person, then:

  • Why do we see in Acts 8:16 and Acts 19:1-7 where people had already been baptized but had not yet received the Holy Spirit?
  • Why do we see in Acts 10:47 where people had already received the Holy Spirit but had not yet been baptized?
  • Why didn’t Jesus tell the thief on the cross that he had to be baptized before entering Heaven (Luke 23:43)?
  • Why did Paul write that Christ didn’t send him to baptize but to preach the Gospel? (1 Corinthians 1:17)

Notice that whenever baptism is mentioned, it is always written in the passive tense (e.g. “be baptized”). In other words, the new believer never baptizes themselves, but it must be done to them, which hints at the purpose of baptism. Another hint is that baptism is always mentioned in the context of repentance or being made holy:

  • “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” (Romans 6:3-4)
  • “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” (Galatians 3:27)
  • “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4)

We know that John the Baptist baptized many people, including Jesus, but did Jesus ever baptize people? Both John 1:33 and Acts 1:5 tell us that Jesus baptizes all Christians with the Holy Spirit. With that in mind, we begin to understand that our true baptism is the one that happens inwardly at the moment we are saved:

  • “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.” (Titus 3:4-7)
  • “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13)

The final piece to the puzzle comes when we compare the New Testament practice of baptism to the Old Testament practice of circumcision. Regarding circumcision:

  • Genesis 17:11 explains that God instituted the practice of circumcision as a sign of his unilateral covenant with Abraham.
  • Jeremiah 9:25-26 explains that God will punish those whose circumcision is merely a physical one and not a spiritual one.
  • Romans 2:28-29 confirms that circumcision is not merely outward and physical but there is an even more important inward circumcision of the heart by the Holy Spirit.
  • Romans 4:9-11 explains that Abraham had faith and was declared righteous before being circumcised so then circumcision became a sign and a seal of the righteousness that he already had received by faith.
  • Exodus 4:24-26 explains that God almost killed Moses for not circumcising his son, presumably because any prophet who failed to keep God’s covenant would be unfit to disciple others. Apparently, even though physical circumcision was merely symbolic, it was also an act of obedience that God took very seriously.

Notice that circumcision and baptism sound very similar, but we need one more passage to link the two together:

“In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:11-14)

When we put it all together, we reach our conclusions:

  • There is a true baptism through the Holy Spirit that happens in the spiritual realm when we are born again. Once we receive this true baptism, we should receive the symbolic baptism.
  • The baptism ceremony should be done by full immersion because it symbolizes that we are dying to our old selves, to our flesh, and to our own sinful nature much like Jesus died physically and was buried in a tomb. Then, we emerge out of the water to our new selves, to our new life, and to our new nature in the Holy Spirit much like Jesus rose again on the third day to conquer sin and death.
  • Although the baptism ceremony is symbolic and not required for salvation, it is still something that we should do soon after being born again as an act of obedience.

When we teach correctly the symbolism behind baptism, it becomes a wonderful way to reinforce the Gospel and make sure that we are not creating false converts.

Is baptism a public profession of our faith?

Some churches teach that baptism is a way to publicly proclaim that we have decided to follow Jesus, but the Bible doesn’t teach this idea. I can understand the logic for this teaching, because we want to make it a celebration, and if someone is claiming to be a Christian but doesn’t want to complete the very first act of obedience, then they may not be truly born again.

In 2 Kings 5, we read about a military commander named Naaman who had contracted leprosy and sought out the prophet Elisha for healing. Elisha told Naaman to wash himself seven times in the Jordan River to be healed, and at first Naaman was too proud to follow the instructions. He must have thought that such a silly act was a waste of his time. However, when Naaman finally listened, he was healed just as Elisha had said. Afterward, Naaman must have realized that he should never have doubted the word of God. In much the same way, I wonder whether God specifically designed baptism, which must seem silly to atheists, as a way for us to prove our faith in Him. After all, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27).

So although the Bible doesn’t teach that baptism is a public profession of our faith, I see no problem with that logic, provided that we’re also still teaching the Biblical purpose of baptism with all of its rich symbolism so as not to cheapen the act.