The Christian church has been divided over questions surrounding baptism for centuries. Should people today be baptized? Who should be baptized? How should they be baptized? Is baptism necessary for salvation?
Some in the church baptize infants. Others say that only those who are old enough to believe should be baptized. Among these groups, there are also varying methods of baptism - some sprinkle, some pour and others immerse the baptismal candidate. Some believe baptism is necessary for salvation while others believe it is not.
Since there has been so much division over baptism, we can assume the Bible does not come right out and answer all of these questions directly. And that assumption would be correct. But with a careful look at the Scriptures, and placing tradition aside, we can come to some sound conclusions on these issues.
The word baptize does not always refer to water baptism.
The first thing we need to understand is that often when the word baptism, or some form of it, is used in the New Testament, it is referring to “identification” and not what we know of as water baptism. Because of this, we have to be sure of the context of a passage of Scripture before equating the word baptism with water baptism. Context is key.
One of the meanings of the Greek word baptizo (bap-tid'-zo) that we translate “baptize” is “to immerse.” This word is often used to mean “to identify with” or “to immerse ourselves in.” We often will say a person is “immersed in his work”, or “immersed in a book.” That means that the person is fully engaged in that job or book with all his being. Likewise, the Christian is to be baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. NKJV
These verses are not speaking of water baptism, but of identification. When a person is born again, or saved, they “identify” with Christ. Now they call themselves a Christian, a follower of Christ. They have identified themselves with Christ. And as they identify themselves with Christ, they identify with His death by dying to themselves and their sin nature, while at the same time they identify with His resurrection by walking in newness of life. This is simply one place where we see the word baptism used to refer to identification with Christ and not water baptism. We will see others as we go through this study. Remember, context is key for a proper understanding of water baptism.
Another area that tends to cause problems in understanding what the Bible has to say about baptism is tradition. Many churches and denominations have wonderful histories and, with that, many traditions that have been picked up over the years. Traditions are wonderful things as long as they do not contradict biblical truth, which they often do.
Jesus saw the traditions of the Jews of His day as being an obstruction to their following the Word of God.
Then the scribes and Pharisees who were from Jerusalem came to Jesus, saying, 2 "Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat bread." 3 He answered and said to them, "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? NKJV
The Scribes and Pharisees were so concerned with the traditions that had been passed down from their fathers, that they allowed those very traditions to cause them to disobey God’s Word. The same thing happens all too often today. The traditions of the church that have been passed down through the ages many times cause Christians to disobey the truth of God’s Word. Traditions can be wonderful things, but tradition cannot be allowed if it is contrary to the Word of God.
Before we can answer the question of who should be baptized, we have to know if baptism brings salvation or not. As stated earlier, there are many who believe that baptism brings salvation to one extent or another. This is known as baptismal regeneration. One common proof text for this view is found in 1 Peter.
1 Peter 3:18-22
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, 19 by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, 20 who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21 There is also an antitype which now saves us — baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him. NKJV
It would appear that verse 21 clearly states that baptism saves. But again, every time the word baptism is used in the Scriptures it does not necessarily refer to water baptism. And context is key. Here in this passage, Peter is comparing Noah and the flood to the Christian and baptism. Verse 19 says that Noah and his family were saved “through” the water. The Greek word dia (dee-ah’) translated “through” carries the meaning “in spite of” in this context. The flood of Noah is never referenced in the Scriptures as a means of salvation, but as a means of judgment. Noah and his family were saved by God in spite of the judgment of the floodwaters, not by them. Peter is saying that judgment is coming again to this world. And just as Noah was saved by his identification with God and His Word, so a person is saved by identification with Christ in His death and resurrection.
Notice verse 21. It says, “baptism,” and then it says, “not the removal of filth form the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience towards God.” Peter is not speaking of water baptism, but of “the answer of a good conscience.” This is speaking of a person’s response to the gospel of Jesus Christ, not water baptism. In spite of the judgment that is coming to this world, a person can be saved by faith in Christ just as Noah was saved by faith in God. So these verses are not speaking of salvation through water baptism. These verses speak of a relationship, not an action.
The Bible is clear that salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ, and not by any action or activity we can do.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, 9 not of works, lest anyone should boast. NKJV
A person is not saved by works, nor by sacraments, attending church, by being good or reading the Bible. Salvation is given by the grace of God to those who trust in Jesus Christ by faith.
But what does it say? "The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith which we preach): 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, "Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame." 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For "whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." NKJV
Salvation comes when we call on the name of the Lord Jesus. It comes to the person who cries out to Him because he or she realizes that they are a sinner and their sins have separated them from their Holy God. They realize that the only way to be reconciled to God is to have a savior who can take away their sins and restore their fellowship with God. And that Savior is Jesus Christ and Him alone.
Salvation is separate from water baptism. In fact, salvation is the prerequisite for water baptism.
Now an angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, "Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." This is desert. 27 So he arose and went. And behold, a man of Ethiopia, a eunuch of great authority under Candace the queen of the Ethiopians, who had charge of all her treasury, and had come to Jerusalem to worship, 28 was returning. And sitting in his chariot, he was reading Isaiah the prophet. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go near and overtake this chariot." 30 So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah, and said, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 And he said, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he asked Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 The place in the Scripture which he read was this: "He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before its shearer is silent, So He opened not His mouth. 33 In His humiliation His justice was taken away, And who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth." 34 So the eunuch answered Philip and said, "I ask you, of whom does the prophet say this, of himself or of some other man?" 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this Scripture, preached Jesus to him. 36 Now as they went down the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said, "See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?" 37 Then Philip said, "If you believe with all your heart, you may." And he answered and said, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." 38 So he commanded the chariot to stand still. And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him. 39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip was found at Azotus. And passing through, he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea. NKJV
This Ethiopian Eunuch did not know Christ until Philip explained the scriptures to him. When he understood the explanation, his eyes were opened and he believed in Christ. Then in verse 36 he said, “What hinders me from being baptized?” There was only one thing that Philip said was required. Philip answered and said, “If you believe with all of your heart, you may.” And the Eunuch’s answer makes it clear what he was to believe.
There is no place in the Scriptures where we see that you have to become a Jew to be baptized. There is no place where we see that you have to change your ways or leave you friends to be baptized. We don’t see anywhere that says you have to join a certain church or denomination or memorize your Bible to be baptized. The only prerequisite for baptism is that you believe in Jesus with all of your heart. Now, believing in Jesus Christ means believing in all that He is, all that He said, and all that he did. It means placing your trust, your entire life and eternity, into His hands. Remember, even the demons believe in God (James 2:19). If you believe with all your heart that Jesus is the Son of God sent to take away your sins, and if you have accepted that gift of salvation in Christ from God, then you too may be baptized.
Baptism does not bring salvation, but salvation is a prerequisite to baptism. That is the pattern we see throughout the New Testament. People are saved, and then baptized. And that is what Jesus told us to do in what has become known as “The Great Commission.”
And Jesus came and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." Amen. NKJV
In verse 19, Jesus says that we are to first make disciples of all nations. The word “disciple” means a learner or a student. We must teach them the gospel first. When they become a student of Christ, then they are to be baptized. The order here is not to be overlooked. First, make disciples. Share the gospel so they can come to accept Christ as their Lord and Savior. Then baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Finally, teach them to walk according to the Word of God.
Old Testament Pictures
There are several Old Testament pictures of New Testament baptism.
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, 2 all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, 3 all ate the same spiritual food, 4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. 5 But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6 Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. 7 And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play." 8 Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; 9 nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; 10 nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. 11 Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. 12 Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. 13 No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. NKJV
Verse 2 says that during the exodus from Egypt, all of the children of Israel were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. And verse 6 tells us that these things from Israel’s history became an example to us.
Israel was in bondage in Egypt. This represents all of mankind being in bondage to sin. A deliverer was sent by God to Egypt to lead the people out of the bondage they were in. Likewise, God sent His Son to deliver us from our bondage to sin. The people trusted in and followed Moses as he led them out of Egypt and they became free. Likewise, we have to trust in and follow Christ to be led free from sin. The wilderness wandering of the people represents the time when Christians learn to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Many never do fully surrender to the Spirit, and wander as Israel did for much of their lives. Others, obedient to the Holy Spirit and the Word of God, enter into the rest found by trusting wholly in Christ and walking in the Spirit and not in the flesh. This is represented by Israel entering into the Promised Land. Keep in mind, the Promised Land is not representative of heaven, but of the rest that is found by faith in Christ and walking in the Spirit.
Let’s look at the big picture. Israel’s bondage in Egypt represents our bondage to sin. The exodus from Egypt represents our deliverance from sin by faith in Christ. And the Promised Land represents the rest we have when we enter into the fullness that Christ has for each of us in the Spirit led life. Then, we can easily see how the crossing of the Red Sea represents baptism. And notice that the Red Sea crossing happened after deliverance from Egypt. Likewise, water baptism should happen after salvation.
Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality.
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. 7 For he who has died has been freed from sin. 8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts. 13 And do not present your members as instruments of unrighteousness to sin, but present yourselves to God as being alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. 14 For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace. NKJV
In this passage from Romans, verse 6 tells us that the “old man” was crucified with Christ. When does that happen? It happens when a person is “identified” with Christ in His death. The old nature is crucified, or put to death when a person identifies with Christ in His death.
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. NKJV
The Apostle Paul was not hanging on a cross when Christ was crucified. When was he crucified with Christ? He was crucified when he placed his faith and trust Christ, when he identified with Christ in His death and resurrection.
When you put your trust in Christ, and believe in Him with all of your heart, you actually die to who you once were. And you are resurrected into a new life in Christ.
2 Corinthians 5:17
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. NKJV
And that is exactly what it means to be “born again.”
Jesus answered and said to him, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." NKJV
With that in mind, let’s look at what water baptism is. It is an outward symbol of a reality that has already taken place in the heart and life of the believer. In water baptism the dunking under the water represents death to our “old man” and the rising again out of the water represents resurrection into new life in Christ. Notice it only represents this reality. The reality should have already taken place in the heart and life of the person being baptized. And that is exactly why many practice full emersion baptism instead of sprinkling or pouring. As we saw, the Greek word for baptize means to immerse. The immersing into the water is a picture to those witnessing the baptism of the death of the new believer to who he was, and the coming up out of the water represents the new life in Christ that the new believer has entered into.
Is there more than one baptism?
There are many who teach that there are two baptisms a person must undergo as they enter into new life in Christ. They say that first there is water baptism, and then there is the baptism of the Holy Spirit; water baptism as a result of salvation, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit being a separate thing entirely. The Bible tells us there is only one true baptism for the believer.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. NKJV
The true born again Christian church throughout the world is referred to in the Bible as the body of Christ. There is one body of Christ (one Church). There is one Spirit who works in and through that one body, the Holy Spirit. There is one Lord over that body, Jesus Christ. There is one faith among that body, faith in Jesus Christ. There is one baptism into faith in Jesus Christ, and that is by the Holy Spirit when the person accepts Christ. Finally, there is one God who is above all of the people of the church, through all of the church, and in all of the people of the church. (In the person of the Holy Spirit, God is in all or dwells in all who have placed their trust in the Lord.)
So there is really only one baptism for the believer and that is the baptism in which the Holy Spirit baptizes each person into the body of Christ at the point of their salvation.
1 Corinthians 12:13
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free — and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. NKJV
When a person accepts Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, they are baptized into the body of Christ (the church) by the Holy Spirit, not by water baptism. Water baptism is simply an outward representation or confession of the baptism that already took place in the person’s heart and life by the Holy Spirit. The Bible is clear that a believer is filled by the Holy Spirit or empowered by the Holy Spirit for the work the Lord has for them. And this filling or empowering can happen over and over again as necessary throughout the life of the believer. But there is only one baptism for the believer, and that is by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ at the moment of salvation.
So what is water baptism? It is simply an outward demonstration of what has already happened in the person’s heart and life. It is not necessary for salvation and is not part of salvation. Furthermore, it has nothing to do with the indwelling or empowering of the Holy Spirit. Water baptism is simply a way to demonstrate outwardly what has already taken place inwardly.
John the Baptist even spoke of this baptism.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, 9 and do not think to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones. 10 And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 11 I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather His wheat into the barn; but He will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire." NKJV
In this passage, John is addressing the self-righteous Pharisees and Sadducees. He tells them to bear fruit of repentance rather than the fruit of self-righteousness that they were producing in their lives. The fruit of repentance leads to salvation and eternal life with Christ, and is what is considered “good fruit” in verse 10. Yet if they do not produce that good fruit of repentance, but continue to produce the rotten fruit of self-righteousness, they will be thrown into the fire, verse 10. John is clearly saying that repentance will lead to eternal life while self-righteousness will lead to being cast into the fire or hell for eternity.
John goes on to say that he is only baptizing them with a water baptism of repentance, something very common in his day. But he says, “One is coming after me.” Here he is speaking of Jesus. And Jesus will be the one to judge the fruit in their lives. He will be the one who will look at each ones life and judge them accordingly. And based on that judgment, He will either baptize them with the Holy Spirit or with the fire of hell.
At the end of verse 11, most texts read, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (emphasis mine). The word “and” used there is the Greek word kai (kahee). It is a conjunction and is translated elsewhere in the New Testament as and, but, or, also and so, among others. It is the context of the passage that helps us understand the meaning of kai, and therefore the proper translation.
In the context of this passage, John the Baptist is comparing the good fruit of repentance with the bad fruit of self-righteousness. In verse 10 the tree that bears bad fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire, a picture of the unrepentant person being cast into hell. It is implied that the good tree remains alive, a picture of eternal life in heaven for the repentant person. In verse 12, that picture changes from fruit trees to wheat. Referring to Jesus, John says He will gather the wheat into His barn. This is a reference to Jesus gathering the good part of the crop, the repentant, into heaven. But Jesus will also burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. This is a picture of the waste part of the crop, the unrepentant, being cast into the eternal fire of hell.
If Jesus is going to separate the good fruit from the bad, and the wheat from the chaff, then the context of the passage compels us to translate the conjunction kai as our English word “or.” Jesus is separating dissimilar things in this passage. The good fruit, the good wheat, the repentant person will be baptized with the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, His church, just as we saw in 1 Corinthians 12:13. But the bad fruit, the chaff, the unrepentant, He will baptize with the fire of hell for eternity. This speaks of the one baptism. That is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit for the repentant believer in Christ, or the baptism of the fire of hell for the unrepentant person who rejects Christ. Every person ever born will face one baptism.
The reason the English word “and” is used at the end of verse 11 is because of what took place in the book of Acts. In Acts chapter 2, as the Holy Spirit is poured out on the believers for the first time, tongues of fire came upon each of them (Acts 2:3). This was an amazing event where God poured out His Spirit and there was a visible, tangible sign of that work. This was the birth of the church. This was a unique time with a unique manifestation of the Spirit as the church was birthed. It is not typical for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, and it is never again seen in the Scriptures. But because it happened, translators will use the English word “and” in verse 11as if John is speaking of that day in Acts Chapter 2, instead of the English word “or” that the context demands. John was not speaking of that day referenced in Acts chapter 2. He was speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees who, for the most part, were not a part of that event in Acts.
So again, we see one baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit upon the believer as that person repents and confesses their faith in Christ. Water baptism is simply an act done out of obedience to the Lord that is an outward representation of that work that already has taken place in the life of the believer.
Do Old Covenant practices apply?
Water Baptism in the New Testament is likened in some ways to circumcision in the Old Testament. Circumcision in the Old Testament was a sign that you were a Jew. Whether you were a Jew or not had much to do with your family heritage and following the laws of Moses. Circumcision was only a sign, the reality was in your heart and your actions. In the same way, water baptism is a sign that you are a Christian. You are a Christian when you place your trust in and surrender you life to Jesus Christ as Lord. You are a Christian because of the change that took place in your heart and life when you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior. Water baptism is an outward sign of the reality that is in your heart and your actions. There are some similarities between the two practices, but there is a limit to those similarities.
In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, 12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
Water baptism represents death to yourself and new life in Christ. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born-again to inherit the kingdom of heaven (John 3:3). When you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you die to your old nature, your old desires, wills, and ways. You are then born-again in new life with the Holy Spirit as your leader, not your human nature.
Circumcision would initiate a child into the Old Covenant, water baptism does not initiate a person into the New Covenant. The New Covenant is in the blood of Christ.
Likewise He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you.
You do not enter into the New Covenant by water baptism, but by accepting the shed blood of Jesus Christ to cleanse your sins. Therefore, there is no reason to baptize infants and young children until they are at an age where they can understand they are a sinner and in need of a Savior, and they can understand that Savior is Christ Jesus. The parallel of Old Covenant circumcision and New Covenant baptism cannot be drawn any further than the scriptures take them.
It is clear that as we set aside our traditions and look carefully at the Scripture text in context, we can answer many of the questions about baptism that cause division in the body of Christ.
Should people today be baptized? The Lord commanded us to baptize new believers, and the early church, found in the book of Acts, did baptize, therefore, we should also. A good practice is this- if Jesus taught it, and the early church as seen in the book of Acts practiced it, we should also. But salvation does not hinge on baptism. One can be saved without ever being baptized. The thief on the cross next to Christ was saved by His repentant heart. He never had an opportunity to be baptized, yet Jesus told Him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:40). A person should be baptized out of obedience to Christ and as a witness to others, not to gain salvation.
Who should be baptized? It seems clear that only those who have made a conscious, intelligent decision for Christ should be baptized. Infant baptism is not found in the Scriptures because an infant cannot make that decision with understanding. We see from the New Testament teaching and the Old Testament pictures that water baptism comes after salvation and only to those who have believed in Christ with all of their hearts.
How should they be baptized? The word for baptism means to immerse. Furthermore, immersion most clearly represents what has taken place in the life of the new believer, the dying to self and the resurrection to new live in Christ. So immersion seems to be the most appropriate method. Is the mode of baptism so critical as to cause division in the body of Christ? I don’t believe so. If someone is in the hospital on their death bed and they come to receive Christ, I would sprinkle them if they desire to be baptized as a new believer. I believe that immersion should be the preferred method, but it is more about the new believer’s obedience to Christ and the proclamation the new believer is making to the world than about the mode of baptism.
Is baptism necessary for salvation? The Bible is very clear, absolutely not. Furthermore, baptism does not bring a person into the New Covenant, nor does it make them a member of the church of Jesus Christ. All of these things are done by faith in Christ Jesus, and the working of the Holy Spirit.
It is my prayer that this article helps you understand what the Bible has to say about baptism. May the Lord richly bless you as you continue in His Word.