Updated: Nov 19, 2021
by Dr. Gary Linton | Updated July 6th, 2020
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What is the significance of water baptism? How are we to baptize? Is sprinkling or pouring sufficient or is immersion required? What is the correct baptismal formula? Is baptism a requirement for salvation?
Baptismal regeneration is the name given to doctrines held by some Christian denominations which maintain that salvation is intimately linked to the act of baptism, and that salvation is impossible apart from it. If this is true, then it isn’t primarily the finished work of Christ alone that saves us, but the act of baptism. This is a works salvation and not faith alone and is an erroneous doctrine.
New Testament baptism can be paralleled to Old Testament circumcision. Paul went to great links to explain in the case of Abraham, faith came first and then circumcision. Abraham was justified by faith and circumcision was an outward sign of justification by faith. “How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised” (Romans 4:10-11).
New Testament baptism is similar. We are saved (justified) by faith alone and not by any works that we do, and this includes baptism. Baptism, like circumcision, is a sign and seal of justification by faith. We first place our faith in Christ who alone saves us from our sins, then we follow the Lord in water baptism which is an outward sign of our inward faith in Him. The moment we place our faith in Jesus, we become “the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Paul said, “Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3)? This is a dry baptism. When we put our faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit baptizes us into the body of Christ. “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). This is not water baptism. The Holy Spirit, not a man, is baptizing us into the body of Christ, not water.
“Therefore we are buried with Him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). Because we have been baptized by the Holy Spirit into Christ at conversion, “Therefore we are buried with Him by (water) baptism.” Baptism is an outward sign of what has already taken place in our heart.
Frequently Misunderstood Scriptures
He who believes and is baptized will be saved. Just before His ascension, Jesus commissioned His disciples, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). The first part of verse 16 seems to indicate that both believing and baptism is required for salvation. Context is paramount. Jesus went on to say, “he who does not believe will be condemned.” Jesus did not continue on as in the first part of the verse to include that the lack of baptism excludes us from salvation, but the failure to believe alone. He did not say, he who does not believe and is not baptized will be condemned. He simply said that the one who does not believe would be condemned not the one who isn’t baptized. Therefore, it is believing that saves and not baptism.
Born of water and spirit. Jesus told Nicodemus, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. Nicodemus saith unto Him, How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born? Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:3-5).Context is imperative. Nicodemus, “Do I return to the womb where I was once birthed and be born all over again?” Jesus answers his question in context of natural birth. Every woman knows “born of water” refers to a water or natural birth. A woman’s water breaks and shortly thereafter a child is born. Jesus goes on to clarify this further by saying, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6). The context makes it abundantly clear that Jesus was referring to both a fleshly and spiritual birth. “That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.” A person cannot be born of the Spirit unless they are first born of the flesh or natural birth. Hense, man must be born again. A person in this life has already had a fleshly birth and therefore to see the kingdom of God they must also have a spiritual birth – “born again.”
For the remission of sins. On the day of Pentecost, at the end of his message, Peter said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). Was he saying we are to be baptized in order to be forgiven and without out being baptized there is no forgiveness? The Greek preposition “eis” is found over 1700 times in the New Testament and is translated a myriad of ways. Just as our English word “for” can have different meanings, eis does as well. While one seems to support that baptism is required for salvation others do not. Greek scholars such as A.T. Robertson maintain the Greek preposition eis in Acts 2:38 should be translated “because of” or “in view of,” and not “in order to,” or “for the purpose of.” Passages such as Matthew 12:41 translate this same word “because of” communicating the result of a particular action. Nineveh “repented at the preaching of Jonah.” The word translated “at” is eis as well. The clear meaning of this passage is that they repented “because of’” or “as the result of” Jonah’s preaching. If we are to be consistent with the way the preposition eis is used in conjunction with baptism, we must conclude that Acts 2:38 refers to being baptized “because” they had received forgiveness of sins.
Baptism does also now save us. Peter uses Noah and his family being spared from the flood as an antitype (opposite) of water baptism. “When once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by (through) water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us” (1 Peter 3:20-21).At our first glance of these two verses, we see that eight souls were saved by water through a universal deluge upon the earth. Like Noah and his family, we also are saved by water. This is true, but we must interpret this in the entire context of the flood (Genesis 6-9). The same water that then flooded the earth, judged and condemned the rest of mankind. All of humanity living on the earth died by water, while only eight people were saved by water. Only those who listened to the Word preached by Noah concerning God’s impending judgement and took refuge in the ark were saved by (through) water. The rest of mankind died by water. Had they listened and entered the ark, they would have been spared. “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto them: but the Word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Hebrews 4:2). The ark was a type of Jesus. Only those who fled the coming judgment by first entering the ark of safety were saved by water. The rest were judged by water. Water or baptism is of no value whatsoever unless we first take refuge in Christ our ark of safety. If we are baptized without first trusting Jesus as the only one who can save us from the wrath to come, baptism profits us nothing. On the contrary, baptism seals our judgement.
Preach the gospel not baptism. The Corinthians were boasting and arguing over who they were baptized by and which carried the greatest weight and importance. Some were baptized by Peter, some Apollos, and some Paul. This brought division in the church then as does boasting over which denomination is best and preferable, etc. It brings divisiveness in the church instead of unity.Paul fed up with it all said, “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. I thank God that I baptized none of you…For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel…lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect” (1 Corinthians 1:10, 14 and 17). Paul makes it abundantly clear that baptism wasn’t part of the gospel message of the New Testament Church and it shouldn’t be ours either. He takes it a step further indicating that including baptism as a part of the gospel message is to make the cross of Christ of none effect. In their case, the rite of baptism was being used to nullify the message of the cross. Let’s preach Christ!
The Proper Mode of Baptism
The original Greek verb for baptism is “baptidzo.” It means “to immerse.” Though some churches sprinkle or pour water in the baptismal ceremony, it is when a believer is completely submerged and then raised up out of the water that true baptism has taken place. To baptize in any other way is not a true baptism.
Is pouring or sprinkling the correct mode of baptism? No. If the mode of baptism is incorrect, is it authentic? Does God honor such baptisms? While it is true that sprinkling or pouring water over the baptismal candidate is not the authentic means of baptism, I’m sure God honors it if we’re being baptized for the right reason – because we’ve trusted Jesus as our only hope of salvation. God is not as legalistic as most of His followers.
What if we were baptized by either sprinkling or pouring and later God revealed to us that it was not the proper means of baptism? We must always follow our own personal conviction. “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Romans 14:5). If the Holy Spirit has enlightened us concerning the proper and improper mode of baptism, He has done so for a reason. We must walk in the light God gives us (Matthew 25:29). “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). In such cases, being baptized again would be appropriate.
The Proper Baptismal Formula
What is the correct baptismal formula to be spoken over the one being baptized? Should we be baptized in the name of the Lord? In the name of Jesus? Or in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit? Which is the correct formula?
We are told in Acts 19:5 “in the name of the Lord Jesus” and Acts 2:38 “be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ.” In Matthew 28:19-20 we’re told to go forth, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
The “Jesus only” or “oneness” doctrine upholds that baptism is to be done “in the name of Jesus” rather than the trinitarian formula “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” This formula is usually associated with Oneness Pentecostalism, however, some trinitarians also baptize in Jesus’ name. Those who ascribe to the oneness doctrine believe that “Jesus” is the name of God revealed in the New Testament and that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three manifestations or titles of the one God – Jesus.
The first church I planted and pastored was in a somewhat small town. There was an apostolic church that was pretty dominant in that area. Since we were a new church and I was young in the ministry, some of their people would come by and talk with me now and then. Baptism was one, among many, of the doctrines they wanted to dispute with me. Being young in the ministry, I suppose they thought they could easily persuade or at least confuse me. After many discussions on this topic, I finally looked them square in the face and said, “I got it, I’m going to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost – In Jesus Name.” It baffled them to say the least.
The formula we use isn’t as important as why we’re being baptized. Are we just going through some religious motions or are we being baptized because we have turned our life over to Jesus and trusted Him as our Lord and Savior? Are we being baptized because He’s our only hope of salvation and we want to follow Jesus in water baptism? If this is our reason for getting baptized, the purpose of our baptism far outweighs the formula being used. Baptism can be a wonderful spiritual experience, or we can go down a dry sinner and come up a wet sinner.
There is no scriptural basis for infant baptism. Throughout God’s Word baptism was always the first step in following Jesus after one’s conversion. Baptism follows conversion, conversion doesn’t follow baptism. A person is baptized because they have made a commitment to Jesus as their Lord and Savior. A child should never be baptized until they’re old enough to understand what they’re doing. Based on their understanding of the gospel, they commit their life to Jesus, and follow Him in water baptism.
Baby dedication is another thing altogether. This is more for the parents than the child. Though there is something spiritual that can take place at this time because of its parents committing him or her to the Lord. The Lord may from that day forward cause His hand to be upon the life of the child and the parents in a supernatural way. This is seen clearly in Hannah’s dedication of Samuel before he was even born and her subsequent commitment of him to the Lord after he was weaned (1 Samuel 1). God honors our commitments!
The Purpose and Significance of Water Baptism
Having discussed the error in baptismal regeneration, the mode and formulas of baptism, that it is not part of the gospel message, and the fallacy of infant baptism, what is baptism? What is the significance of water baptism? Though baptism is symbolic, it is far more than that.
It’s a public confession. When a person is baptized because of surrendering their life to Christ, they are making a public confession of their faith in Him. It testifies to his or her community what happened when their life was changed by Jesus. It confirms and strengthens the new believer’s commitment and gives the believer the opportunity to openly testify to others of their experience with Christ.“Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of Me and of My Words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when He cometh in the glory of His Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:38). “Whosoever therefore shall confess Me before men, him will I confess also before My Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). “That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:9-10). This confession is the first step in following Jesus. It seals our salvation, but it’s only the beginning. We must go forth from water baptism to continue to confess Him before men, thus overcoming the evil one. “They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11).
It’s a declaration of what happened. Immersion is a picture of burial. The old man is dead and buried. A new man is raised up out of the grave, reborn to live a new life by the power of the Holy Spirit. Burial is significant, in that, it suggest finality and permanency. A person may temporarily die and be resuscitated, but when they have been buried, they can no longer be revived. Their death is permanent!The old man is dead and gone once and for all. There’s no more reviving. It’s final! We’ve died, been buried and a new man is risen to walk in newness of life. “For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:5). If you feel you’ve never properly buried your old man, sinful nature, and dedicated your whole self to the Lord, don’t wait any longer—find a place to participate in water baptism and be totally free!
It corresponds to being added to the church. “Those who had received His Word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). They weren’t baptized and then thrown out into the world to fend for themselves. Before we are baptized in water, we are first baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ – the universal church (1 Corinthians 12:13). When we are baptized in water, we are to be placed into a local body of believers where we can grow in our new life.Far too frequently this has been left out of the equation of water baptism. A new convert needs more than to simply be added to the universal church. This is wonderful and indeed takes place at conversion. However, this alone is not sufficient. It’s far too abstract in our life and walk as a new convert. A new believer needs something more concrete – the local church! They must be anchored into a local body of believers.
It’s a commitment to discipleship. “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). After being baptized, they were locked into the local church and committed to the process of discipleship, to be molded into the image of Jesus, learning to follow Him fully.This was what Jesus commanded and expects. His commission was, “Go ye therefore, and teach (make disciples of) all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). Baptism is the first phase of the discipleship process and of “all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” It’s the first command to follow and obey in the process of discipleship. It should be noted that “all things” is extremely comprehensive and would take a lifetime of teaching and discipleship to accomplish.
Though discipleship is a lifetime commitment, the emphasis here is on helping the new believer make Jesus the Lord of their everyday life. Let’s make Jesus Lord!