Baptism has long been a subject of controversy, especially in respect to its purpose and its action. Uninspired men have written perhaps hundreds of books and millions of words about baptism. Many of these things we can read to our profit, but the only book on this subject that matters is the Word of God. Let us examine what the Bible teaches about baptism.
Before we can study baptism, we must narrow the field of study. Those who are familiar with the Bible know that it identifies several “baptisms.”
“Baptism” of suffering on the cross (Mark 10:38–39).
Baptism in water by John the Baptizer (Mat. 3:1–5, 11; Mark 1:3).
Baptism in water by Jesus and His apostles (John 4:1–2).
“Baptism” in the Holy Spirit (Mat. 3:12).
“Baptism” in fire (Mat. 3:12).
“Baptism” in the cloud and the sea (1 Cor.10:1–2).
Baptism of the “Great Commission” (Mat. 28:18–20, Mark 16:15–16). Of these, which baptism is relevant to moderns?
The baptism with which we are concerned is the one described in Acts 8:36, in which a man from Ethiopia said to Philip, “Behold, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” The baptism relevant to us is the one Peter commanded at Cornelius’s house: “Can any man forbid the water, that these should not be baptized…? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:47-48). This baptism is the one that same one that Peter wrote about (1 Pet. 3:20-21). He referred to the eight souls that were “saved through water” in Noah’s ark, and then stated: “Which also after a true likeness doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the interrogation of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
In about A.D. 62, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “There is…one baptism” (4:5). Thus, at the time of this writing only one baptism was in force. All other baptisms had fulfilled their function and were obsolete, or they were not yet in effect. Which baptism was/is the “one baptism”? It was the one of which we have already read in Acts 8, Acts 10, and 1 Peter 3—“Great Commission” baptism, as follows:
Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Mat. 28:18-19).
Obviously, this baptism is the one that has been in force since the Pentecost following Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension—and will remain be in force until the end.
Mere men did not invent the Bible doctrine of baptism. Jesus, in the Great Commission (Mat. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15-16), is its author, and He alone has the right to specify its element, purpose, antecedents, action, candidates, and every other facet of it. The New Testament is the exclusive source of this information.
Is baptism for everyone (i.e., all who are capable of responding to the Gospel)? One correct answer is, “Yes.” The Great Commission indicates that the Lord wants everyone to hear, believe, and obey the Gospel, which includes baptism. However, another correct answer is, “No.” Millions should not be baptized, not because God arbitrarily wills it, but because they are unprepared and unqualified for the act. Scriptural statements abound indicating various ones who should not be baptized:
Those who do not believe in Jesus as the Christ: “For except ye believe that I am he, ye shall die in your sins (John 8:24). Baptism will not benefit the unbeliever.
Those who will not confess their faith, even though they may believe: Before Philip would baptize the Ethiopian, the evangelist required him to confess his faith (Acts 8:36-37; cf. Rom. 10:9-10).
Those who will not repent of their sins: To repent means to determine to stop sinning and then to stop sinning. Those brought to believe in Christ by the preaching on Pentecost were told: “Repent ye and be baptized…” (Acts 2:38). Baptism is a hollow act if not preceded by repentance.
Those who seek to please others rather than to obey Jesus: It is right for parents, a spouse, or a friend to strongly desire one to be baptized into Christ. However, if one submits to baptism merely to please others, rather than to submit to the will of Christ, the act is vain. Those on Pentecost “gladly received the word” (Acts 2:41). One’s obedience must be “from the heart” (Rom 6:17-18).
Those who do not know, or who deny, the purpose of baptism: The Bible states this purpose variously. It is in order to: be saved (Mark 16:16), receive remission of sins (Acts 2:38), wash away sins (22:16), put on Christ (Gal. 3:27), and like expressions. Baptism is the line between those not forgiven and those forgiven, those not God’s spiritual children and those who are, those in the world and those in the church. If one does not comprehend the purpose of the Lord’s supper, he takes it in vain (1 Cor. 11:26, 29). So it is with baptism.
Baptism is for believers who will confess their faith in Christ and repent of their sins— and who understand baptism’s purpose in God’s plan of salvation. Those lacking these Scriptural antecedents are not Scriptural candidates for baptism.
“Will there be anyone in Heaven who has not been baptized?” When one stresses the New Testament’s clear teaching on baptism, a question similar to this often arises. This question does not concern infants or those who are mentally incompetent. Rather, it relates to those who have sufficient mental faculties to make them accountable and responsible beings before God. Will there be any such in Heaven who were not baptized? While such questions often seem to be designed more to appeal to emotions than to seek and accept the Truth, they nonetheless deserve a Biblical answer.
This question has two correct answers. The first correct answer is, “Yes, there will be many, many people in Heaven who were never baptized.” The Bible even calls many of them by name. Jesus said: “And I say unto you, that many shall come from the east and the west and shall sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (Mat. 8:11). Kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s book usually refers to the church (Mat. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7; 16:18–19, 28; et al.), but in this statement it obviously refers to the eternal Heaven. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never heard of baptism, but Jesus said they will be in Heaven. Hebrews 11 records a long list of great heroes and heroines of the faith. Starting just outside the Garden of Eden with Abel, the writer names many Old Testament saints to the time of the prophets, finally saying that time failed him to list others (v. 32). The writer affirms that each one lived “by faith.” The implication is unmistakable that each one named will be in Heaven at last, but none of them ever heard of baptism. The Bible contains numerous other illustrations of the same fact. So, yes, there will be many people in Heaven who were never baptized.
However, all of these had in common the following: They all lived before Christ died on the cross. Baptism was not a part of the Patriarchal or Mosaic law systems, under one or the other of which every person lived before Calvary. Salvation under those systems required faith in and obedience to God, along with animal sacrifices. However, the blood of bulls and goats could not remove sin (Heb. 10:4). That blood was typical of the sacrifice of Jesus’ perfect blood. Thus, the cleansing power of His blood “flowed backward” to redeem those Patriarchs and Jews who had been faithful to God in their respective law systems (Gal. 4:4–5; Heb. 9:15). We should not think this any more unusual than that Jesus’ blood “flows forward” to cleanse us of sin today. Subsequently, we will discuss the second correct answer to the question.
Controversy over the Scriptural action involved in baptism has raged for centuries. However, all such controversy would end if all men respected the authority of the Bible. It explicitly tells us the action of baptism.
To Christians Paul wrote: “We were buried therefore with him through baptism…” (Rom. 6:4a, emph. DM). Again, he wrote to Christians: “Having been buried with him in baptism…” (Col. 2:12a, emph. DM).
Acts 8:38–39 gives the fullest New Testament description of a baptism: “And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they both went down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And… they came up out of the water….”
What did Philip do to this man when he baptized him? Did he pour some water on him? Did he sprinkle some water on him? He did neither. If we let the Bible answer this question, it tells us he buried him in the water (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12).
One does not have to know the first letter of the Greek alphabet (the original language of the New Testament) to know beyond doubt or question that Bible baptism is immersion and never any other action. However, it might be helpful to know that there are three separate words in the Greek language for sprinkling, pouring, and immersion, just as there are in the English language. The Greek word meaning “immersion” is always the word that appears behind our English word, baptism and all its cognate forms (baptism is simply the Greek word baptisma spelled in English letters, an Anglicized, transliterated word). The Greek lexicons invariably define this word as an overwhelming, a dipping, a plunging, an immersion, a submersion—a burial.
There is no historical record of any other action related to baptism besides immersion until well into the third century. In A.D. 251, a very sick man by the name of Novation was near death and requested baptism. His attendants feared that immersion would kill him, so they poured some water on his head instead of immersing him. Centuries later sprinkling was added as another substitute for baptism. Both of these practices are unauthorized innovations of men.
The baptism pertaining to those who have lived since the Pentecost of Acts 2 (and that is to be preached and administered until “the end of the world” [Mat. 28:19–20]) is immersion in water (Acts 10:47–48) to save the soul (Mark 16:16; 1 Pet. 3:21). If the action of baptism is unimportant (as millions have been taught), one may as well discard any semblance of the act itself as important or necessary (which millions have done). However, the New Testament teaches that the act of baptism is necessary and that only immersion constitutes that act.
“Does the New Testament say what baptism is for?” Acts 2:38 states (KJV): “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins…” (emph. DM).
While Peter’s words seem clearly to teach that men must repent and be baptized in order to receive remission of sins, many argue otherwise. They aver that the preposition for is capable of more than one meaning, affecting the meaning of Peter’s statement. For is indeed capable of two meanings, almost opposites, depending on its usage, as our daily conversations illustrate. We “automatically” interpret the intended meaning, depending on context.
If one enters a store for a loaf of bread, he does so in order to get a loaf of bread. If, however, one is in prison for bank robbery, he is not there in order to rob, but because he has robbed, a bank. In the first case, for refers to a desired, unattained, result. In the second case, for refers to a result already attained. Those who reject the Scriptural purpose of baptism assert for remission of sins in Acts 2:38 means that men should be baptized because they have received remission of their sins. This cannot be Peter’s meaning for several reasons:
First, Acts 2:38 inseparably joins repentance and baptism by the coordinate conjunction, and, which makes them equally related to their common object, “remission of sins.” They are spiritual “Siamese twins.” Where one goes in relation to remission of sins, the other must go, also. Thus, if baptism is because of remission of sins, then so is repentance. However, one will search the Bible in vain to find a single instance in which God promised or pronounced forgiveness of any sin prior to repentance. Since repentance must precede remission of sins, so also must baptism.
Second, in instituting the Lord’s supper, Jesus said of the fruit of the vine: “For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Mat. 26: 27– 28, emph. DM). What for the remission of sins means in one statement, it must mean in both. Jesus did not shed His blood because the sins of men had already been forgiven, but that they may be forgiven. So it is with baptism and remission of sins.
Third, the Greek preposition, eis, translated for, points forward rather than backward, as the American Standard Version correctly reflects: “Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins” (emph. DM).
Fourth, many other passages teach that baptism is a condition of pardon (Mark 16:16; John 3:5; Acts 22:16; Gal. 3:27; Eph. 5:25–27; Tit. 3:4–5; 1 Pet. 3:21; et al.).
Protestantism generally denies that baptism is a condition of salvation from sin. It often does so, averring that it is a “work” and by which one cannot be saved.
Clearly, the Bible teaches that one cannot be saved by “works”: “For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory” (Eph. 2:8–9, emph. added). But one should “not quit reading too soon.” Just as clearly, the Bible teaches that one is saved by “works”: “Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith…even so faith apart from works is dead” (Jam. 2:24–26, emph. DM). Since the Bible does not contradict itself, we must conclude that Paul and James wrote of different kinds of “works,” for salvation clearly requires works of some sort.
Paul identified the works of which he wrote as those which are “of yourselves” in which one could “glory.” Similarly, he further stated the futility of seeking salvation by such works: “Not by works done in righteousness, which we did ourselves, but according to his mercy he saved us…” (Tit. 3:5a, emph. DM). No one can be morally good (i.e., “righteous”) enough or do enough good works to boast, “I have saved myself from sin and condemnation; God owes it to me.”
When James wrote that one is saved by works, what sort of “works” did he mean? The context indicates that he referred to works of obedience to God, which one’s faith causes him to do. He cited Abraham and Rahab as examples of those who were justified before God by such obedient faith (Jam. 2:21, 25). The Bible ever enjoins faith-actuated obedience, requiring our works in response, as necessary to salvation: “And having been made perfect, he [Christ] became unto all them that obey him the author of eternal salvation” (Heb. 5:9, emph. DM; cf. Mat. 7:21; Rom. 6:17–18; et al.).
Is baptism a work of which one can boast, or is it an act of obedience to Christ, based upon one’s faith? The Bible teaches that it is the latter. After stating that one is saved by God’s mercy, rather than by one’s “works of righteousness” (as noted above), Paul then wrote that God saves men “through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5b, emph. DM). The only thing in the New Testament to which the washing of regeneration can refer is baptism. Notice that Paul specifically excluded its being a “work of [man’s own] righteousness,” but rather identified it with God’s merciful plan of salvation. One who is properly taught will trust in the “working of God,” not in his own works, in baptism (Col. 2:12). Baptism is not a work of human merit, but a Divine command that men must obey to receive forgiveness of sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; et al.).
For failure to grasp the connection between baptism and the blood of Christ, many people woefully misunderstand the role of baptism in God’s plan. Those who understand this relationship do not question the necessity of baptism. Those who deny that baptism in water is necessary for one to be forgiven of sins sometimes accuse those who thus believe of teaching “water salvation.” They often make this accusation when we emphasize the unmistakable language of Acts 22:16: “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name.” The accuser may say, “You believe that water will wash away one’s sins.” However, neither Acts 22:16 nor any other passage of Scripture even hints that water can wash away sins. There is not enough water in all of the oceans, lakes, and rivers of the world to wash away even one sin. Had it been possible for water to wash away sins, the incarnate Word could have remained in Heaven.
Acts 22:16 does not tell us what element “washes away” or removes sins. We must look elsewhere for this information. Jesus spoke on this subject when He instituted the Lord’s supper: “For this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many unto remission of sins” (Mat. 26:28, emp. DM). Peter wrote on the same subject: “Knowing that ye were redeemed…with precious blood, as of a lamb without spot, even the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18–19, emp. DM). The principle stated in Hebrews 9:22 reaches all the way back to the offerings of Cain and Abel and culminates especially in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross: “Apart from shedding of blood there is no remission” (emp. DM). After speaking of the Christ, John explicitly identified the cleansing agent for sin: “Unto him that loved us and washed us from our sins in his own blood” (Rev. 1:5, KJV, emp. DM). The old hymn has had it exactly right all along: “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
If Ananias was not telling Saul of Tarsus (Acts 22:16) what would wash away his (and our) sins, what was he telling him? He was telling him when the blood of Christ would wash away his sins—at baptism. The conclusions are irresistible: No baptism—no blood; no blood—no forgiveness; no forgiveness—no salvation. Paul tied baptism and the blood of Christ together as follows: “Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:4). Obviously, one is not in Christ nor does he have the benefits of His death (i.e., His blood shed therein) short of baptism.
The New Testament teaches by implication when one should be baptized. When the multitudes on the day of Pentecost heard the Gospel, Luke records the response as follows: “They then that received his word were baptized: and there were added unto them in that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). It is highly unlikely that any of these came to this remarkable occasion with towel and dry clothes under their arms, yet they obeyed the apostolic command immediately.
When Philip “preached Jesus” to the Ethiopian on the road to Gaza, the man did not want to wait until they came to the next town, but besought the evangelist to stop at the first body of water sufficient to immerse him: “And…they came unto a certain water and the eunuch saith, Behold, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized?” (Acts 8:36). Philip immediately complied with this request (vv. 38–39).
When the jailor at Philippi asked what he should do to be saved, it was already past midnight (16:25). Yet, when told what he should do, he and his household were baptized “the same hour of the night” (vv. 30–34).
Ananias urged Saul of Tarsus to wait no longer to obtain the salvation he sought: “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name” (22:16). Saul responded in obedience immediately.
The immediacy of these baptismal responses in each case is unmistakable. The preachers did not suggest any delay, and the subjects did not request any delay for even an hour, much less a few days or until a “special baptismal service” could be planned a week later. The reason for such instant response should be equally evident. The faithful men who delivered the Gospel made it clear to these sinners that until they were baptized, they were still in the guilt and condemnation of their sins, which would cause them to be lost eternally.
The Bible therefore teaches that, at the earliest moment one learns that he is a sinner in need of salvation and that baptism is a God-given condition of forgiveness of one’s sins, he should be baptized. Baptism is more than a ritualistic act. It is more than a mere topic of theological curiosity or discussion. It is not merely an optional religious act. It is far more than a means of admission to a religious order built by men. It is not an act of human merit or righteousness. Rather, the Bible teaches us that baptism is the very act in which Jesus Christ cleanses and saves the sinner from his sins by His shed blood, whereupon the Lord adds him to His church, which is His earthly depository of those whom God has forgiven and saved from the guilt their sins that alienated them from Him (Acts 2:27–47).