The subject of baptism has always been a controversial one, especially with regard to its essentiality in the process of man’s salvation. Opponents of the Truth have spent generations seeking to find ways of justifying some kind of justification apart from baptism, most notably by watering down baptism’s significance and bolstering faith and grace. But are faith and baptism irreconcilable? Does baptism somehow defeat the purpose of the heart- or belief-driven spirit?
But anybody who claims that baptism means nothing simply has not read the New Testament. It is absolutely undeniable that there is some merit to baptism, although its application is a source of great discord amongst those who claim to follow Christ. “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). If one is going to remove the baptism from Christianity, what is stopping him from removing the faith, or the body, or even the Father, for that matter. According to the Bible, there is one baptism, not two or three, and it is essential. But what kind of baptism is it?
The Word Itself
The word that is used in the New Testament for baptism is BAPTISMA (baptisma) for the noun, and BAPTIZA (baptiza) for the verb. According to Vine’s Dictionary of the Bible, the noun form (baptisma) means “consisting of the processes of immersion, submersion and emergence.” The most important aspect of this definition is that it entails the entire process of entering, staying, and exiting the place of burial.
The verb form (baptiza) means “to baptize, primarily a frequentative form of the word to dip, was used among Greeks to signify dyeing of a garment, or the drawing of water by dipping a vessel into another.” Here, again, notice that the entire process of dipping and removing is described. When one is dyeing a garment, she does not simply sprinkle that garment with the dyeing agent. How ineffective! Rather, a complete burial is necessary. Also, one cannot say a garment has been “dyed” until it has gone through the entire process of being cleaned, prepared, dipped into dye, removed, and dried. Perhaps this is the same with the process of salvation. Visualize these two definitions and you will undoubtedly realize the importance of both liquid and complete burial in both descriptions.
The word baptism is used numerously in the New Testament. It is almost always used to refer to a man or woman who obeys the call of another Christian to partake of the process. In a few cases (Mark 7:4,8, Hebrews 6:2) it is used to refer to ceremonial washing, and in other places to refer to the burial of a person in his burdens or afflictions (Luke 2:50). One fascinating idea of the word baptism is that those items which are baptized in the name of somebody become “closely bound to, or the property of, the one into whose name he was baptized” (Vine’s Dictionary of the Bible). The word is also used, almost entirely, with reference to water (Acts 8:36, 10:47, Hebrews 10:22).
Of course, one of the most controversial aspects of baptism is its relationship to water. Some try to assert that full immersion baptism in water was only practiced before the ascension of our Lord, that is, during the time of John the baptizer. Clearly, John was baptizing in water (Mark 1:4, Matthew 3:1-6, John 3:22, 3:3-5). Such a practice was actually common for the Jews, as baptism was a ritual cleansing of the body. Consider the story of Naaman, who was a powerful military advisor to the King of Aram. In 2 King 5:10, Elisha the prophet prescribed full immersion in the Jordan River as a miraculous cure for leprosy. This argument, therefore, seeks to clearly downplay the role of baptism in the lives of Christians. Their proof text is usually Matthew 3:11, which says, “I [John the baptist] baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; for He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Some will automatically assume from this passage that water baptism is undeniably removed at the establishment of the church in Acts 2. But let us think about it another way. There are three baptisms described in this verse, water, Spirit, and fire. It has already been proven that John was baptizing with water, so at the time of the establishment of the church, that was a common practice. But was this kind of baptism abolished because of the advent of Holy Spirit baptism? Certainly not. And if such is true, then at what point does fire baptism occur? Is water baptism an exclusively pre-Christian practice?
“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18-20) Notice the way Jesus describes entrance into discipleship. It is through baptism that we are “made disciples.” One cannot be a disciple of Christ – notice it is of Christ and not just a disciple of John the baptist – without being baptized in His glorious name. Second, if this baptism is still only referring to John’s baptism of repentance, which would have been abolished on the day of Pentecost, then why is it applied to “all nations?” It has been stated in the Bible that John came only to preach to the sons of Israel (Luke 1:17, Malachi 4:6), and not Gentiles. In the same way, John was not baptizing individuals in the name of “the son” or “the Holy Spirit.” Let us also consider a few examples of people after Christ’s ascension who were baptized, fully immersed in water.
Examples of Baptism
The apostle Peter was there when our Lord gave the
commission to preach to all the nations, so he understood very well what was
inherently involved in
”making disciples.” Peter preached exactly what he was supposed to have preached, as a Christian and not as a Jew alone, and baptism was always the outcome. Consider Acts 2:14-38, in which Peter begins his discourse by saying, “You men of Judea, and all you that dwell in Jerusalem, be this known unto you, and give ear unto my words…” It is at this point that he preaches Christ and Him crucified, with the result that those listening are “pricked to the heart” and ask Peter and the brethren what needs to be done. In response to this inquiry; “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). That day, 3,000 souls were added to the church. The question that we must ask ourselves is what we need to do! When we consider our own sins, and the cruel nature of Christ’s death upon a cross, which one of us will not be pricked in the heart? Which one us will not bow his head and feel the deep regret that accompanies the guilt of sin? Contrasted so starkly with the individuals on the day of Pentecost is Felix, the governor who sat and listened to Paul preach the Gospel “quite often” but never took the necessary steps to ensure his salvation (Acts 24:24-27).
Philip is another preacher of the Word who understood the details of baptism, because on more than one occasion he was instrumental in convincing others to get baptized. Acts 8:12; “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.” One point that we can make is that men and women are both welcomed into the church, and baptism is not a strictly masculine action. Galatians 3:28 states that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, neither male nor female…” Second, part of preaching the “good news about the kingdom of God” included preaching about baptism. Otherwise, why would these people want to respond to his speech by requesting baptism? One cannot separate baptism from the kingdom! In later verses, Philip is found preaching to a eunuch from Ethiopia (Acts 8:26-39), who questions him about a verse from Isaiah 53. Begin with that prophecy, Philip “preached Jesus to him.” By preaching Jesus and discussing the prophecy of Isaiah, the preacher convinced the eunuch to get baptized. Inherent in “preaching Jesus” is preaching baptism. Once again, they cannot be separated. Notice a few other things about this text: the eunuch was baptized as soon as possible, in the least likely of all places. He did not wait until he found a more appropriate time and place for baptism; if this act is not necessary, then why the rush? “They both went down into the water…” We all must be baptized by somebody, and there must be a witness around to attest to the action. We cannot baptize ourselves. Obviously, the baptism was full immersion in the water, because they both needed to get out of the chariot and descend into the pool. If the baptism were simply sprinkling, then why not just baptize the eunuch right there in the chariot? Finally, the eunuch did not “go on his way rejoicing” until after the baptism had taken place. If this Ethiopian received salvation by faith alone, then why did he not rejoice right there in the chariot before his baptism?
The apostle Paul, when his name was still Saul and he was a persecutor of the church, explains his own conversion in Acts 22. In Acts 9, Saul meets Christ on the road to Damascus and is blinded. The Lord says, “Rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do” (Acts 9:6). Notice that whatever it is that will be told to Saul was not his choice. It will be something that he “must do.” After meeting Ananias and receiving back his sight, Saul is baptized. Later, Paul explains the event thus, “‘And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name’” (Acts 22:16). It is baptism that washes away our sins. We must also see that baptism is an action that we either decide to take, or decide to reject. We can “delay” at it. We must make the choice to “arise” to do it – that is, baptism is not just an action that we have done to us (passively), but it is an action that we decisively make.
In Acts 10, the Bible reader is introduced to a man named Cornelius, who is noted for his general kindness and righteousness (Acts 10:1-3). But for all his righteousness, he was not saved. He had not been baptized, because we read in Acts 11:14, in which Peter is recounting the events of his encounter with Cornelius, “And he shall speak words to you by which you will be saved, you and all your household.” It is not that Cornelius was already saved by his faith or his works according to the Law. He was not saved, and only a relationship with Christ, beginning with belief and baptism, could have saved him. After speaking to Cornelius for most of Acts 10, Peter finally concludes his discourse by saying, “‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized…’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:47-48). Baptism is not just a choice we have, it is the only choice that saves! It is a direct command.
There is no place in the New Testament that teaches that ones is saved without baptism. In fact, just the opposite is true. Almost every time that belief in the Word or the Gospel occurs, it is followed by obedience (baptism). When Lydia believed in Acts 16:14, she was baptized. When the Philippians jailor heard the word spoken by Paul and Silas, he was baptized (Acts 16:32). When the Corinthians heard the preaching, “they believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8). The Ephesians also “heard this, and they were baptized” (Acts 19:5).
What must I do?
As was already mentioned in Acts 2:37-38, the listeners on the Day of Pentecost heard Peter preaching about Jesus Christ and were pricked to the heart. In response to the message, they asked Peter what they had to do to be saved. His answer was simple: baptism. As a true act of faith and obedience, baptism embodies the self-sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ. Romans 6:1-11 makes it clear that we should never expect to “live with Him” until we have likewise died with Him through baptism. He suffered for us, was hung on a cross for our sins, and was buried to prove the love and mercy of God. We ought to mimic that life, “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (Romans 6:5-6). If we have not been baptized, then our sins are still weighing heavy on our souls. It is only those who are willing to take up their cross and follow Christ who will know for sure that they have been forgiven. “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). If you want to walk in newness of life, then you can do that now by humbling yourself and following Jesus. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).