I recently was asked my position on Baptism. I am typically standing upright in about waist deep water and bend slightly over, the position of the person being baptized is typically to lean backwards into the water. Ok, dad joke. Seriously, it is a pretty big deal in Christianity, but knowing why it is and how to deal with the topic is a key issue for every believer. Ultimately, it is a matter of life and death… but not one you have any control over at all.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized intoChrist Jesus were baptized into his death? – Romans 6:3
Notice that the verse above is passive on your part, you have been baptized. It happens to you. Yes, you consent to the physical act, but you still cannot baptize yourself. That is a pretty important point. So, where do you start in figuring out what this is all about?
I suppose it comes up so often because the scriptures are loaded with references to it and I find myself mentioning it all the time, but typically in a summary fashion like, “we are baptized into death”. The question then naturally comes up for a variety of reasons, the most common of which include:
- I was christened / baptized as an infant, should I be again?
- I got dunked as a kid, but I [did / did not] understand the process, should I as an adult go through the process again?
- I got baptized, but it did not stick because I had a really rebellious season.
- I was baptized [in another faith tradition] that did not teach what you were talking about in that last sermon, explain this to me?
- I think that baptism is a cultural thing and not required for salvation, so why should we still bother with it?
- I have doubts about God and Jesus, but I generally think of myself as a Christian, should I get baptized or avoid it?
All of these are great questions and most of them are pretty straight forward to answer in a one-to-one conversation, but answering them in person and walking them out with someone who has some discernment is a good idea because no two people have the exact same story or questions. Needless to say, there are a common set of scriptures that underpin the whole doctrine of baptism, and two thousand years of church study and teaching on the topic to look at for how people have wrestled with these and similar questions. I won’t pretend that this brief article will touch anywhere near the whole well of information on the subject. It should be, however, a pretty good FAQ on the most common set of answers and information. It will help guide the dialogue.
First, we should look at what the basic premise of baptism is in the New Testament: a funeral and resurrection celebration. This sacrament* was taught by the earliest believers as a public proclamation of their faith. Many people miss the basic premise of baptism, thinking of it either as a rite of passage or as a requirement for salvation. Some churches do teach both of these things, however that misses the basic symbol that the Scriptures use to describe this wonderful “sacred oath” that believers in Christ freely observe after their acceptance of the Gospel.
*The word Sacrament is used for some religious ceremonies and derives from a term meaning “solemn oath”, so it is a specific kind of profession of faith through action, a statement of belief. There can be a lot of confusion around this term, including common dictionary explanations of it as “a means of grace”, but as will be explained that is an incorrect definition, for Christ is the only means of Grace and baptism is a metaphor in action. Basically, most Protestant churches teach the idea of sacrament very differently than their Catholic counterparts.
First, a little basic common sense: Baptism cannot be a core requirement for salvation for several reasons, not the least of which is that one must already be a believer in the resurrection of Christ and understand the symbol that this act entails before obeying the requirement. Is it a requirement for believers? Yes, but that is an act of the will AFTER one believes, this is a RESPONSE to salvation. How can we know? Quite simply, Jesus proclaims with His own words that a thief on the cross next to him will be with Him in paradise (Luke 23-40-43), which meant that he would never be able to be baptized into this belief before he died that very day. Baptism symbolizes, or is a metaphor of, death and resurrection. Christ spoke of it figuratively linking both the “cup” and the “baptism” with his own death as a ransom.
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. – Colossians 2:11-12
This should actually help a new believer understand another major topic of Scripture, circumcision, in a new light as well. The New Testament dwells on the topic enough to raise a question in the mind of any believer, one of Jewish heritage especially, about how this essential and core requirement for Jews was simply done away with in Christ. The answer is quite simple: Circumcision was a prophetic foreshadowing of the death of the firstborn son (for Abraham, that point to Issac at the Akhedah, but for all future believers it pointed to Christ) and it was always considered a matter of the heart (an outward act that reflected an inward belief, compare Romans 2:28-29 with Deuteronomy 10:12-16). This topic will not deal in detail with the issue of circumcision, but as Paul mentioned in Colossians, we have more (not less) in Baptism. Once this first act was literally fulfilled in the death of Christ, something else took the place as a proclamation of faith – this time pointing not to the death only but also to our resurrection with Him!
Jesus also used Baptism as a metaphor of death:
Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” And they said to him, “We are able.” And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” – Mark 10:38-39
This is particularly interesting because Jesus had already been baptized at the start of his ministry, but here he spoke of it as a future event. There were two kinds of baptism referenced: John’s and Christ’s. John preached remission of sin, the outward washing which is a symbol of what Christ has come to do and what only He can accomplish; this is a surrender.
Baptism is a symbol of both death and resurrection, not only of washing away sins, but dying to the bondage of sin. What this means, in practical terms, is that you are free from sin, not that you will never sin again as a believer. Put simply, you were a slave, owing a debt that you could not pay, and Christ in making you free has purchased that debt – thus it is as if you were already dead, legally speaking, and no penalty could be further applied to you because your life is now His. Baptism celebrates the burial of your old self and resurrection of the new, but you still have a journey ahead of you!
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. – Romans 6:4-11
John’s baptism was known already, lots of research into ancient ceremonial baptisms is around on the web within an easy search, and people were able to understand in part the idea of symbolic ceremonial washings. But just like communion, which uses simple bread and wine, Jesus took a very common thing that people knew in the area around them and loaded it with a very specific meaning for the believer. One of the most common questions that arises is based on whether this baptism of Christ must always be followed by a spiritual gift. This confusion often arises because of a specific passage. Note that there is quite a lot going on in this, not just the issue of John vs Christ’s baptism. However, note also very clearly that Apollos was ALREADY a Christian BEFORE he was baptized and received his particular special gifts. It is helpful to read the end of Acts 18 and the beginning of Acts 19 without the break in the chapter marker…
18:24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord. And being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately. And when he wished to cross to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. – Acts 18:24-28
19:1 And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. – Acts 19:1-6
Note: While there is not space here to give an exhaustive discussion on spiritual gifts, especially tongues, if this is an area of concern you should read 1 Corinthians 14 in whole. Prophecy can be simply understood as proclaiming the Gospel (especially with boldness) as seen in Acts 19:8, a few verses after the above passage, with respect to Apollos. You also find this in numerous places in scripture if you search for “bold” or “boldness”. Also note that in v6 from the above passage shows that this instance was accompanied by a sign of filling, but other instances of baptism do not show a corresponding sign, so it should not be taught as mandatory expectation or evidence; the link is that they were not baptized only away from sin but into the name of Christ. A similar issue occurs in Acts 8:9-24 with Simon the magician. If we made the unique situations common, then we should expect to be carried away like Philip in Acts 8:39!
The straight forward point is that Baptism is an act, often the very first act, of obedience on the part of a believer in publicly proclaiming their understanding of the Gospel message. The proclamation of the Word of God and the movement of the Spirit first cuts to the heart, then we respond with baptism. It is not the water that is the point, it is the name of Christ that is significant… Peter explains this as the proper response to hearing the Gospel after his sermon in Acts 2:37-41 and then again in his letter, where he specifically refutes the idea that baptism is a washing (it is internal, an act of the conscience and thus of the will to be obedient for one that believes).
…God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him. – 1 Peter 3:20-22
For clarity, when Peter says that Baptism now saves you, he is is not saying that the act of going under the water saved you any more than the act of the flood saved mankind (Noah + 7) – it was the ark, a specific provision from God, that saved them – they acted in obedience and were immersed* into God’s provision, then when the flood came they were saved through it. This is just like the verse above that speaks of circumcision as a heart issue, baptism is an internal reality of what actually happens at your conversion to Christ, the old dies and the new is born. The physical act of baptism is not what saves you, it is just the outward act of obedience to proclaim the new inward reality.
Note: The word baptism means submersion or immersion (see here). This is speaking of the full and complete subjection of the self into Christ, not necessarily requiring that full immersion in water be absolutely required. The early church taught this clearly in a book called the Didache, which was a first century order of services manual that dealt with practical issues in the church, such as baptism in the winter when it was too cold to find a moving stream or lake.
The links to symbols in the old testament revealed in the new are not limited to Noah and the flood. Baptism followed the death of the firstborn in the Exodus, hinted at in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, which talks of both the cloud of God and the sea as foreshadowing of baptism Granted, the term here may simply mean “immersed in”, but Paul’s context is that this was a crossing-over, like Christian baptism, and thus we should no longer serve idols because we have been baptized into, or immersed into life with, Christ. The context of 1 Corinthians 10 as a whole really deals with not making religion an idol ESPECIALLY Christian symbols (the latter verses allude to communion).
Perhaps the most important summary point is that disciple makers should always present the option to obey the call to be baptized, but should not be heavy handed with it. If it is clearly explained, it is difficult to imagine why any believer would not want to join in the joy of proclaiming the Gospel in this way. Baptism should be desired by the believer, often quickly upon conversion, such as with Phillip and the Ethiopian, even directly after a presentation of the Gospel Acts 8:34-39. Don’t miss the fact that this Ethiopian had already been in a detailed study of the scriptures, a personal copy of which was not an inexpensive thing to possess in that time, and was already on a quest for the truth. So, does every believer need to be baptized? Yes, but that happens at the hands of God (Titus 3:3-7 especially v5). Disciple-makers are called into obedience to baptize the bodies of all who will come, but it is the Spirit that gives life. It is really important to note that it is more than OK to have doubts before baptism – the disciples themselves worshiped and doubted, but they also obeyed the call.
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”– Matthew 28:16-20
The practice of bodily, if possible immersive, baptism should be performed by every believer. For good reason, many churches (including ours) require a believer to have been baptized at some point (whether here or somewhere else) as a requirement for membership. The reason is quite simple and practical – if someone cannot obey or publicly proclaim their faith in this way, how can they carry forward in other responsibilities of membership? However, it is not core essential when matters of actual physical life and death are clearly at stake; consider the jailer in Acts 16. While it is likely that he and his household were eventually baptized, the text is silent on the timing and details, but if he had died that night his salvation would not have been in question for the disciples that told him to simply “believe”. Therefore, one does not have to be baptized to be saved, but one must be saved before they are baptized – otherwise they are just taking a bath! (Remember 1 Peter 3, above.)
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” – Acts 16:30-31
We recognize that there is only one baptism, just as there is only one death and resurrection. The person doing the baptism does not appear to matter all that much (certainly it is not a “priestly only” duty) and the place or congregation you were baptized in is irrelevant to the fact that there is only one Church anyway, with Christ as the head. Compare (Eph 4:4-6; 1 Cor 1:13-15; 1 Cor 12:13)
We also recognize that the new man comes from the work of God in us, having been raised with Christ in the present tense. Christ is the fullness of God, so not outward act (like circumcision) forces God to grant us forgiveness, but because of this the act of baptism recognizes what Christ has done. Because his act of obedience was complete, and only because of who He is, we are then fully forgiven and free not because of our act but his. Baptism, then, is a response of worship that proclaims Christ.
Consider: Col 2:9-14; Gal 3:23-29
For further research and reading, there are a whole slew of articles here:
- The Gospel Coalition, Baptism Topic Page
- Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry: Baptism Topic Page
- Christian Research Institute: Baptism Topic Page
Of course, there are innumerable articles and viewpoints on the subject, thus the scriptures should be your rule and authority. With the verses presented above, and the opportunity to address your conscience on the subject, you should make a conscious choice to obey or not. The leadership of Berean Church would be honored to help you walk that journey out, so if your questions lead you to speak with us, please let us know.
NOTE: DRAFT NOTES FROM HERE ON… These may get edited more in the future, but much has already been written on these topics in other places!
This topic does not deal with the unique circumstances of Christ’s baptism by John. Some additional scriptures and terse references are included below for self study.)
Mat 21:25-27 – Christ asks whether John’s baptism came from God or men.
Mark 1:4-8 – John the Baptist’s ministry is described as, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and he states that while his baptism is of water that Christ baptizes with the Holy Spirit.
Luke 7:29 – an interesting place where those who had been baptized by John also recognized his role as prophet ushering in the Christ.
Acts 10:36-39 – the early church recognized the uniqueness of Christ being baptized as the start of His ministry
Also – Acts 13:23-24
Christ baptizes with the Spirit
Links to Great Commission
Also, it is not baptism as an act that accomplishes anything, but belief and baptism are both acts of surrender available to all… consider Mark 16:16
“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved…”
(note, it says whoever does not “believe” will be condemned, but is silent on baptism in the second half, which some may use to say baptism is required and others to say is the first act of obedience as a disciple)