Ask Steve: Baptism









Question: Steve, what is the biblical view of baptism?

Answer: Christian baptism is the outward testimony of what has occurred inwardly in a believer’s life. It is meant to show the congregation that the believer has experienced the salvation of Christ, has committed to following Him throughout his life as Lord and Savior, and has submitted himself to be accountable to the fellowship of the church. Christian baptism illustrates a believer’s identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. When a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, the merits of Christ are imputed to the believer, who when united with Christ, receive all the benefits of His life, death, and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4). That reality is publicly illustrated in water baptism, in which the participant is immersed into real water and taken out momentarily afterwards.

The action of being immersed symbolizes dying and being buried with Christ. It symbolizes cleansing from sin as part of the New Covenant. The rising out of the water pictures Christ’s resurrection, symbolizing the believer’s new spiritual life and the hope of the new life that will inevitably come. As a whole, the baptism ceremony represents a believer’s escape from eternal judgment and incorporation in to the universal church, the bride of Christ. Because of the one time nature of justification and inclusion into God’s family, baptism happens only once, not to be repeated again. The only exception is if the first baptism was done by the person when he was an unbeliever, whether the confession came from a Protestant or non-Protestant background.

There are a few things that need to be noted about Christian baptism, the first being its soteriological implication. The person being baptized must be a Christian, one affirmed by the body of Christ. Baptism cannot be the means to which a person is saved, otherwise baptism would be a work that is added onto salvation, which is characteristic of Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, and even various sects of Protestant denominations including the Church of God and Latter Day Saints. Basically, water baptism must be the demonstrable proof of salvation and the celebration of a person’s justification before God, and not the means of it.

Another thing to remember about baptism is that it is not just an act of affirming one’s inclusion in the body of Christ, but also the first major step of obedience in a Christian’s life. That major step is the believer’s desire to publicly proclaim his faith through the act of baptism, which shows that he desires to follow Christ and be part of the church. This fruit of obedience is clearly in line with what Scripture teaches, as Jesus states in Matthew 10:32, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” Therefore, water baptism is the first major sign that a Christian has been saved and is bearing fruits of obedience to God. This should ideally be the first major step of obedience before the Christian can partake of the Lord’s Supper and other major ministry responsibilities. 

The administering of baptism is different depending on one’s tradition, but there is a biblically supported view to this as well. Scripture shows water baptism as the believer being totally immersed in a mass of water, but some evangelicals do not believe that this is the necessary mode of baptism. In other words, they believe that there are other methods of water baptism that are as valid and efficacious. For example, Roman Catholicism and Presbyterianism believe that baptism can be ministered through water sprinkling, where the elder/minister sprinkles or pours water on the believer’s head instead of placing his full body under water.

Many within the Reformed tradition even believe in a two-stage baptism process, involving infant baptism and adult baptism. Infant baptism is when the baby is “baptized” with sprinkled or poured water over his head. However, this stage has a much different meaning than the biblical portrait of baptism. Infant baptism supposedly signifies the baby’s inclusion into the covenant community of the church, in which the parents vow to raise the child faithfully according to the teachings of Scripture until the Lord brings that child to true regeneration and salvation. In many ways, this process resembles what physical circumcision was to the community of Israel in the OT, which is why this teaching is held by many within the covenant theology/continuity camp. When the baby grows up (and hopefully) comes to saving faith, the believer would then be baptized (or confirmed as fulfilling his destiny) a second time (even through water sprinkling again, if that is the ecclesiastical view of the church). The Catholic tradition follows a similar methodology, only the soteriological implication is different: they believe that infant baptism washes away original sin and is a work efficacious to bring the believer closer to justification before God.

Although water baptism does not save any individual, it is an issue that is still worth defending because of its soteriological implication and its influence on ecclesiology. The NT does not present a link between the OT practice of circumcision and the NT practice of baptism, therefore one cannot equate it to imply the same principle. Infant baptism is nowhere mentioned or supported in Scripture. It is unbiblical because baptism is for those who voluntarily come forth to proclaim the baptism that has happened in their heart (regeneration). Infants cannot do this, therefore they are still unregenerate, and may even grow up to be lifelong unbelievers, or even God haters for that matter.

In terms of the mode of baptism, Scripture is silent on whether or not sprinkling and pouring of water is a valid alternative option for adult baptism. Though sprinkling and pouring is certainly not heretical, it is also not the most biblically transparent. The best remedy to this situation is to simply follow the model presented in Scripture, which is full immersion baptism. Whenever John the Baptist or the Apostles baptized believers, they did so by dunking them in a pool of water, symbolizing the complete nature of the cleansing, the death, and the resurrection of the believer onto life. In contrast, sprinkling does not have this same effect. Baptism by immersion is the only mode that fully illustrates the radical change of nature that has taken place in the believer’s life, that he is a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).

In conclusion, the proper and safe view of baptism, as supported by Scripture, is that is must be post-salvific, with regenerate adults only, happen only once, and involving full immersion into a body of water. This is the form of baptism that does the most justice to the Bible’s teaching on the subject matter.