Water baptism: What does the Bible teach?

I think it’s time to get some clarity on this issue. My kids often ask me, “Why do you talk about baptism all the time?” I don’t really, but they know that I tend to discuss it if it is brought up in some form. I believe that since Jesus emphasized it in His marching orders to His closest disciples, maybe we should also. I also think it is unfortunate that so many religious groups overlook it. Similarly, my dog barks when his water or food is missing. This is the very same reason that I want to make some noise when an important issue is overlooked or ignored.

First of all, I don’t think that baptism is the complete salvation story. Do a search for “ABCs of Salvation” in this blog to see further information on a more complete story of salvation. We never want to elevate anything above the grace of God and the blood of Christ. I think the best strategy to study baptism is just to walk through the New Testament and see what it says. This will not be a comprehensive study, but I hope these 7 points will be thorough enough. Here are the points from the Bible.

  1. John’s baptism of repentance was “for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mark 1:4) We know that Christian baptism (in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is the baptism that Jesus instituted in His Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20). But even John the Baptist prepared the way and set the example for coming to Christ. It is interesting that the Apostle John wrote about a discussion of purification that took place between Jesus’ disciples and a Jewish leader. Was it just coincidence that purification was being discussed as baptisms were taking place? I don’t think so. (See John 3:25–26 and related Acts 22:16.) There are examples of washings in the Old Testament for purification; the practical application remains for us today. (Search “Move on toward maturity” in this blog for Scripture references.)
  1. Continuing the focus here on John chapter 3, look back at verse 5. Jesus told Nicodemus that he must be born of the water and of the Spirit. You may have been taught that this water refers to a natural birth, water involved in childbirth, etc. But if we look at John’s writing style and see some patterns in the way he uses words, we will see that he typically uses the generic term water to refer to water baptism (See 1 John 5:6–8.) Also, if you look at John 3:5, Jesus has already transitioned into the importance of spiritual rebirth in the discussion. In John 3:5, it would seem superfluous for Jesus to have discussed being physically born as a requirement to get into God’s kingdom (a bit too oversimplified for the import of His message there). So the best interpretation: “born of the water” makes plain that water is involved in spiritual rebirth. It should be evident that we receive the Spirit, “born again of the Spirit,” there at the time of our water baptism. (See also Acts 2:38, Romans 6:3–5, Titus 3:5.)
  1. If you read through the examples of conversion in the New Testament, you start to see a pattern; faith and baptism are interconnected (e.g., Galatians 3:26–27). The two are not separated, not having distinct and differing purposes, as many would have you believe. The Great Commission (mentioned in point 1) is a great example of how Jesus explained the process of making disciples. First they hear and believe the gospel message. Next they are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Then they are discipled, i.e., taught to observe and put to memory the things that Jesus taught in His earthly ministry. The parallel to Matthew 28:18–20 is Mark 16:15–16. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” This is a pattern you will find throughout the New Testament.
  1. Get real about Acts 2:38. It is popular to quote this verse and emphasize only repentance. Baptism is just an aside, supplementary, right? I don’t think so. Peter was asked a direct question; the people were convicted and asked, “What do we do?” Peter gave a direct answer to a direct question. Why would he immediately supply supplementary information in response to a direct and urgent question? He said that repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus are for the forgiveness of sins. At that time they also would receive the Holy Spirit (remember John 3:5). It’s like simple math here. Action A + Action B = Result of A + B, i.e., repentance + baptism = forgiveness of sins and the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Has someone tried to teach you that the baptism first mentioned here is Holy Spirit baptism? Would that make sense in the structure of this sentence? No. Repentance + Holy Spirit baptism = forgiveness and reception of the Holy Spirit (again, twice?)? That does not make sense. Peter was not being redundant here.
  1. The Ethiopian learned about Jesus, and the official knew that he needed water baptism (Acts 8:26–39). After he learned the way of the gospel, he was not told to pray a prayer. He was not told to weep on an altar. He was baptized into Jesus Christ. He went on his way rejoicing. When? He rejoiced after he was baptized. It is the culminating act of faith and conversion in this example.
  1. Paul taught baptism, and it seems that he was aware that it was just part of an accepted creed at that time; people were baptized into Christ (Galatians 3:27). If you need further proof, look at Romans 6:3–5. We are buried with Christ into His death in baptism. We are also raised like Christ was resurrected (also Colossians 3:1). In Colossians 3:1, we see that Paul points back to a previous reference (in chapter 2) to being “raised with Christ.” This is obvious in the first sentence: “Since, then” or “Therefore.” What was mentioned in chapter 2 in connection with being “raised with Christ”? It is referring back to Colossians 2:12, “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” (ESV). Even 1 Corinthians 1:13 makes clear that it is important to be baptized “into” the correct name: the name of Jesus.
  1. Peter taught that baptism belongs in our salvation experience. 1 Peter 3:21 makes clear that baptism does also now save us. It is not for a physical washing or for removing dirt from the body. To be clear, he’s saying that baptism is beneficial spiritually, not physically. If you look at the verses just prior to 21, you will see the typology of the waters of the Flood in Noah’s time and the waters of baptism today. What did the Great Flood waters do? The Flood washed away the sin in the world. Baptism does the same in us today (Acts 22:16). This is Peter’s teaching here if we do an honest analysis of the text.

There is nothing about baptism that takes away from the importance of contacting the blood of Jesus. The best example of grace that I know in the Bible is God’s gift of His Son. We can’t miss the importance of the atonement in Jesus’ blood. This grace is imparted in faith/baptism as we become partakers of this divine gift. The blood of Jesus is contacted there in conversion. We need to see how the Bible harmonizes. We must not pit passages of Scripture against other passages of Scripture. If you trump 1 Peter 3:21 with Ephesians 2:8–9, aren’t you simply using the Bible to compete against itself? What did early Christians believe about baptism? Just look at the Nicene Creed. The early church believed that there was one baptism for the remission of sins. That one baptism, of course, is the baptism of Jesus’ Great Commission—in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I don’t think we need to change what the New Testament writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, have said about this issue. We shouldn’t try to undo what early Christians taught. Why should we try to correct them with a more sophisticated and convenient method of salvation? Just follow the teachings of the Bible. I hope this has been beneficial in your study. God bless you.

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®) Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. All rights reserved. ESV Text Edition: 2011

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