What Is Christian Baptism?
The Mode of Baptism. The term “baptism” has a vague connotation in our modern society. This is reflected by modern dictionaries which define the term in this manner: “a Christian ordinance marked by the symbolic use of water which is applied by immersion, pouring, or sprinkling.” But what is the original meaning of the term “baptism?” Did the original term have the flexibility with which it is used today?
“Baptism” is actually a transliteration (letter for letter representation) of the Greek word baptisma. The dictionaries of the ancient Greek language define baptisma as “a dipping, washing, or immersion.” The concept of pouring or sprinkling had no connection with the word! When compiling his New Testament, which he entitled Living Oracles (1820’s), Alexander Campbell removed the modern ambiguity associated with “baptism” by translating (giving the meaning of) baptisma as “immersion.” Dr. Hugo McCord, in his translation of the New Testament (1988), did the same, as well as David Stern in his Jewish New Testament (1989).
That an immersion or overwhelming is meant by baptisma is clear from the Septuagint (LXX), an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. Baptisma and its cognates are used in Jewish ceremonialism where dipping occurred in blood, water, or oil (Exodus 12:22; Leviticus 4:6, 17; 9:9; 11:32; 14:6, 16, 51; Deuteronomy 33:24). The priests dipped their feet in the Jordan (Joshua 3:15), Boaz entreated Ruth to dip her bread into some vinegar (Ruth 2:14), and Jonathan dipped his staff into a honeycomb (1 Samuel 14:27). The idea of dipping, plunging, or being overwhelmed is evident from several other passages (see 2 Kings 8:15; Job 9:31; Psalm 68:23; Isaiah 21:4; Daniel 5:21; Ezekiel 23:15). That baptisma and its cognates are not the same as sprinkling or pouring is evident from Numbers 19:18: “Then a man who is ceremonially clean is to take some hyssop, dip it [bapto—baptizo] in the water and sprinkle [periraino—rantizo] the tent and all the furnishings and the people who were there.”
Ritual washing where the whole body was cleansed had its roots in the Old Testament (Exodus 29:4; 40:12; Leviticus 8:6; 14:8; Numbers 19:7, 19; Deuteronomy 23:11; 2 Samuel 12:20). Naaman the leper at last obeyed the command to immerse himself (2 Kings 5:14): “So he went down and dipped [baptizo] himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.” These washings are also recorded in the non-inspired Jewish writings of the Apocrypha (Judith 12:7; Ecclesiasticus 34:25). Likely, ritual bathing was required of Gentiles who became proselytes to Judaism. Archaeological examples of Jewish ritual baths from the first century still exist today.
Jesus used the term baptisma symbolically to refer to his suffering (Mark 10:38). But even here it has the meaning of “being overwhelmed.” When the prophet John came on the Judean scene, we find him immersing. “Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water” (John 3:23). “Plenty of water” would not be needed for sprinkling or pouring. After Jesus was baptized by John, “he went up out of the water” (Matthew 3:16). It would be totally unnecessary to descend into the water if baptism was actually sprinkling or pouring. The disciples of Jesus took over John’s immersing. John became lesser as Jesus became greater (John 3:22–4:3).
After the Resurrection, Jesus commanded Christian immersion for those who would accept his gospel (Matthew 28:18–20; Mark 16:15, 16). At the church’s beginning, about 3,000 people were immersed that day (Acts 2:38, 41). Due to plenty of Jewish ritual baths in Jerusalem, notably those south of the temple mount, and their early start in the morning (Acts 2:15), this feat would have been easily accomplished. Christian immersion is called “a burial” by Paul, a term which would make no sense if referring to pouring or sprinkling (Romans 6:3, 4; Colossians 2:12). Immersion is aptly illustrated by the Ethiopian eunuch: 1) he saw a body of water, 2) he went into the water along with Philip, 3) he was immersed by Philip, 4) and they came up out of the water (Acts 8:36–39).
The testimony of the early church after the first century is for immersion. In the context of baptism and the cross, a second century Christian wrote, “While we descend into the water laden with sins and dirt, we rise up bearing fruit in our heart and with fear and hope in Jesus in our spirits” (Barnabas 11:11). Several baptistries for immersion have been discovered in ancient church buildings by archaeologists. It was likely due to a scarcity of water in places that led some church leaders to change the mode from immersion to sprinkling or pouring. This exception is found in the Didache (Teaching), another second century document: “But if you have neither [running water or some other water], then pour water on the head . . .” (Didache 7:3). Instead of seeking out the means of obeying God, this writer made his own exception. This exception of pouring or sprinkling became the general rule in Roman Catholicism. The Greek Orthodox Church, however, still immerses (although the wrong subjects). They do so because Greek is their first language and they know the true meaning of baptisma.
The Purpose of Baptism. Our modern religious world gives various reasons for Christian baptism, but many of them fall short of the biblical teaching. A prior commitment to the “faith only” position, which developed in the Protestant Reformation (1500’s), causes many people to misinterpret passages on baptism. So we hear things like “one is saved before baptism” tied to the idea that “baptism is an outward sign of an inward work of grace.” Others would contend that baptism is just another good work of the Christian life. Still others would say that baptism is for joining a particular denomination. But what does the New Testament say concerning the purpose of baptism?
In anticipation of the establishment of the church, Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19, 20). Immersion is obligatory to become a disciple of Jesus. By it we surrender ourselves to the ownership of the triune God. In Mark’s gospel account we read: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Immersion goes hand-in-hand with faith as prerequisites to salvation. A trusting faith in Jesus that is obedient in immersion results in salvation.
The establishment of the church by the preaching of the gospel—Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection—included the command to be immersed. Peter told those who believed in Jesus, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). These people were not saved at the point of belief (Acts 2:37). They had to change their hearts and submit to water immersion to receive God’s forgiveness. Throughout the Book of Acts people received salvation through immersion (Acts 2:41; 8:12, 13; 10:48; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5). It was the urgent response of the Ethiopian eunuch who heard Philip preach Jesus (Acts 8:35–39). Paul was not saved on the Damascus Road by “faith alone” when he encountered Christ. Rather, it was three days later when he was told by Ananias: “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16; see 9:18). The power for the cleansing of Paul’s guilt was in the death of Christ—but he could only receive it by submitting to Christian immersion.
Looking back on the immersion of their readers, New Testament writers reminded Christians of their change of status. Paul wrote,
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).
In baptism we contact Jesus’ saving grace. We reenact his death, burial, and resurrection. We also die to our old sinful selves and are raised a new man (Romans 6:2, 6; see Colossians 2:11, 12).
Only “in Christ” is salvation found (Acts 4:12; Ephesians 1:3–14; Romans 8:1). And we come “into Christ” by faith and immersion. Paul wrote: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were immersed into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26, 27). Outside of Christ we are in the rags of sin, but in Christ we take on his righteousness (see 2 Corinthians 5:21). God adopts us as sons by our connection with his natural Son, Jesus Christ. We then become the heirs and beneficiaries of God’s promises.
Peter presented Noah’s experience as a type that prefigures Christian immersion. Noah and his family were saved through water and so is the Christian.
In [the ark] only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge [appeal, NASB] of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:20, 21).
Baptism is a spiritual washing where God is implored to forgive us by Christ’s saving work.
Jesus, as our High Priest, poured out his blood to give us access to God. The writer of Hebrews admonishes: “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22; see 9:14). The Hebrew Christians had contacted the cleansing blood of Jesus when they were immersed in water. Paul also speaks of immersion as a “washing” that has justifying and sanctifying effects (Ephesians 5:26; 1 Corinthians 6:11). Justification is brought about by Jesus, while sanctification (being set apart or made holy) comes by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus beforehand saying, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). When a person is immersed by faith, he receives the gift of the Spirit (Acts 2:38). That we are saved through immersion and given God’s Spirit is clear from Titus 3:5: “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.” The person who by faith has been immersed for the forgiveness of sins has God’s Spirit dwelling in him. Anyone without the Spirit does not have Christ, his blessings, nor eternal life (Romans 8:9–11).
When we are immersed into Christ, he adds us to his body—also known as the church or kingdom (Acts 2:41, 47; John 3:5). One cannot be forgiven, indwelled by the Spirit, or a part of Christ’s church without Christian immersion. “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Corinthians 12:13).
Immersion is not a meritorious work by which we save ourselves apart from God. It is, however, an obligatory response to the saving work of Christ. We are not saved by “faith alone.” We must repent and be immersed to receive God’s salvation. In immersion God blesses us by uniting us with Christ, forgiving our sins (justification), giving us a clear conscience, renewing and sanctifying us by the Holy Spirit, and adding us to the body of Christ.
The Subject of Baptism. In modern religion there are varying ideas on who should be “baptized.” Many religious groups baptize infants and have a later “confirmation.” Others would only baptize believers. At least one religious group practices proxy baptism where an individual is baptized for a deceased family member. So the question arises: “According to God’s Word, who is a proper subject for baptism?”
Since immersion is “for the forgiveness of sins,” that is to receive salvation (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21), one would necessarily have to be a lost sinner. An infant has no concept of what is right or wrong and therefore should not be immersed. He is neither lost nor saved, but safe. Jesus noted the purity and innocence of young children when he said, “Let the little children come to me . . . for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14, 15). Only until one understands the difference between good and evil can he become a sinner. Children develop differently so this happens at various ages depending on the child.
Faith in Jesus as God’s Son is also a prerequisite to immersion: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). Every conversion experience we read about in the New Testament involves an individual’s personal faith in Jesus Christ. For this reason early Christians are described as “believers” or “the ones who believe” (Acts 2:44; 4:32; 10:45; 15:5; 16:1; 21:25; 1 Corinthians 14:22; 1 Thessalonians 1:7; 1 Timothy 4:12; 6:2). Salvation only comes through faith (Galatians 3:26, 27; Ephesians 2:8). In infant baptism, the subject has no personal faith in or knowledge of Jesus Christ. The same could be said of the dead person for whom another is baptized in proxy baptism.
There were households recorded in Acts who obeyed the Lord in immersion: Cornelius’ relatives and friends (10:24, 48), Lydia’s household (16:15), and the Jailer’s family (16:33). But, we should not think that any infants or young children who were incapable of understanding the gospel were a part of these families. Those converted were able to hear the preaching of God’s Word (10:44; 16:32), believe it (16:34), and respond in immersion.
One’s faith is expressed in confession (Romans 10:9, 10; Acts 8:37 [KJV]; see Matthew 10:32). Again, this is something that is impossible for infants and the dead to do for themselves. Modern religious practice requires someone else to speak for them. God requires us, however, to speak for ourselves (2 Corinthians 5:10).
A final prerequisite to baptism is repentance toward God. For salvation to take place, repentance must accompany immersion (Acts 2:38; see Luke 13:3; 24:47; Acts 3:19; 11:18). If one does not have a change of heart, immersion is of no spiritual value. Of course, an infant has no sin to repent of and the dead are past the point of this being a possibility (Hebrews 9:27).
According to God’s Word the subject who qualifies for immersion is a sinner who believes in Jesus Christ, confesses this faith, and turns from sin in repentance. The practice of infant baptism is a later development (3rd century A.D.). Dr. Everett Ferguson, a church historian, argues from ancient funeral inscriptions that infant baptism arose from “emergencies.” Infant mortality rates were high and parents began to question the condition of their unimmersed children who were on their deathbeds—so they began to baptize them. This “exception” later became the norm. The theological explanation to support this practice was firmly established by Augustine (4th-5th century A.D.) and his doctrine of Original Sin, that is, inherited guilt from Adam’s sin. However, other early writers such as John Chrysostom rejected this false teaching.
Proxy baptism is based on a misunderstanding of 1 Corinthians 15:29. If proxy baptism actually took place among Christians in the first century, it must be said that Paul never endorsed such a practice, but only used it for an illustration. Groups who practiced proxy baptism such as the Cerenthians and Marcionites (2nd century A.D.) were viewed as heretical by mainstream Christianity. The practice is directly opposed to every passage concerning Christian baptism in the New Testament, along with those texts which deal with personal responsibility before God.
Have you, by faith, been immersed into Christ to have your sins washed away? Are you a part of Christ’s body, the church? Are you clothed in the righteousness of Christ? Are you indwelled by the Holy Spirit?
(Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society.)