Since the Protestant Reformation, the issue of baptism has been a source of much controversy. While arguments about doctrine have become less prevalent in recent years as such topics have become less in vogue, there continues to be disagreement over this subject – though it seems as though it ought to be a relatively straightforward and simple topic.
This piece is not a comprehensive study of all the various issues associated with baptism with a lengthy series of ‘proof texts’ – there are plenty of articles like that which have been written over the years. Instead, I am addressing this to an audience of believers who have heard confusingly competing teachings about this subject, and who may have ended up being not quite sure what to believe. Rather than seeking to present a series of logical, ‘air-tight arguments,’ I will simply present how I think about the issues associated with baptism, as well as address some of the most common questions.
Underlying Roots of Differing Views
Much of the controversy seems to me to be rooted in a battle between: 1) the Roman Catholic view of baptism; 2) the Sola Fide view of the Reformationists; 3) an Enlightenment-era (and Hellenistically-rooted) view that ‘spiritual things’ matter, whereas ‘physical things’ (with baptism being a physical act) are ultimately ‘of this world’ and therefore do not.
In keeping with the early creeds and writings of the Church Fathers, many Protestants continue to view baptism as a sacrament – a ‘means of grace,’ as opposed to a ceremonial symbol with no real spiritual significance.
Since the Reformation, however, for others the Sola Fide tenet often seems to have been used to create a false dichotomy that prevents any real significance from being assigned to this ritual at all. Some even seem to feel as though they are ‘doing the work of God’ by emphatically insisting that this biblical ritual is totally unnecessary and even superfluous.
Though it was a universal practice in the early church and is spoken of on numerous occasions within the New Testament (including Jesus’ direct instructions in the Great Commission), for whatever reason, many churches today don’t characterize baptism as being all that important, or even significant enough to include a mention of it in their Statement of Faith.
In looking at the various arguments, I do believe this very ‘low view’ of baptism emerged largely as a knee-jerk reaction against what they saw as attributing to the waters of baptism some sort of a mystical power (apart from faith), rather than an intentional desire to ignore the teachings of Scripture (and the example of Jesus) which paint baptism as a practice that was intended to be an integral element of the Christian faith.
While I understand and appreciate much of the thinking and motivation of the 16th-century Reformationists, I would nonetheless advocate for a return to classic Christianity rather than using a theological formula from the 16th century as the litmus test for doctrinal truth. Measuring one’s doctrine and theology against a 16th-century standard – or, for that matter, a 19th-century American revivalist view – is simply not as safe or as wise as relying on the Scriptures as the ultimate source of theological and doctrinal truth.
Recent Changes in Christian Thinking
All that being said, believer baptism has actually become more prevalent in recent years, as fewer ‘exegetes’ have sought to define and defend a comprehensive systematic theology that seeks to excise the need for such a physical expression of faith.
In today’s less doctrinaire and more experiential world, new converts have increasingly chosen not only to take the passages pertaining to baptism at face value, but they have also found there to be much meaning found in a physical ritual that signifies the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ – and which emulates the way Christ himself began his own ministry.
Even members of denominations that historically have not practiced believers’ baptism increasingly have sought to identify both with Christ and the early Christians, and requested baptism as an adult.
Such an approach makes a good deal more sense than losing the importance of baptism in favor of a rationalistic debate over the question of the exact instant at which a person ‘crosses over from death to life’ – with the answer to which being one where I would simply defer to God. I would propose that we collectively quit ‘arguing about words’ (2 Timothy 2:14) and instead simply seek to do what God told us to do, and to practice this most ancient and significant of ceremonies as a part of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Does being baptized constitute an attempt to earn one’s salvation?
Some have made the claim that to attach any real significance to baptism transforms it into a ‘meritorious work’ that one is performing in order to earn their salvation.
In Colossians 2:12, Paul notes that the active agent in baptism is God, not man, however – and that the person being baptized is actually a passive recipient:
…having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.
Such language is not at all consistent with the argument that baptism is something the recipient is doing in an effort to ‘earn their salvation.’ Rather, it is a ritual where a covenant is sealed – not unlike a marriage ceremony – and it is clearly linked to “faith in the working of God.”
Saved by Christ Alone
When it comes to religious controversies, the issue of erroneous ‘category assignment’ is the source of many problems. Many disputes are rooted in false conflicts between concepts that simply belong at different levels of a hierarchy of belief. This results in numerous controversies and endless arguments where the Bible is used against itself in often illogical and inherently irresolvable disputes as both sides just ceaselessly and unknowingly argue past one another.
In an effort to circumvent this problem here, I would always want to note that there is but one, single overarching element that alone accounts for our salvation – there is nothing else that belongs in this same category, or at this same level of the ‘hierarchy.’ That one thing is that Christ shed his blood and died on the cross on our behalf. At the most basic and fundamental level, this is the only thing that saves us – the one thing that atones for our sins and allows us to be reconciled with God.
I have often said that it would be important to remember – if you ever find yourself standing in front of God and he were to ask you why you should be allowed to enter heaven – that you most certainly should remember not to tell him it’s because you were baptized . . . or because you have faith . . . or because you ‘tried to live a good Christian life.’ However important these things may be, any one of them at this most fundamental of levels would be the wrong answer – because relying on any of them would be implying that your sins were ultimately being atoned for on the basis of something other than the blood of Christ.
Going down a level from Christ’s death on the cross, whether a person comes to have faith in Christ is the pivotal element as to whether or not that person will respond in such a way as to be reconciled as a result of what Christ did on the cross. We come to God in faith – we come to believe that Jesus was who he said he was, and we acknowledge in faith that it is by virtue of his death on the Cross that we are able to be reconciled with him.
As an element of this, however, once we believe we still have to make a decision as to whether we wish to align ourselves with him or to continue to live a life of rebellion. If we choose to submit our lives to him and his will, in faith, we will repent. This will certainly result in a change in our behavior, but the fundamental element is the surrendering of our will to God – not the improved behavior.
Once a decision has been made to turn in faith and repentance to God, the practice we read about in the book of Acts in the early church was to go through a religious ritual – a ceremonial washing. This is what baptism is, and I think of it as being quite analogous to a wedding – a physical ceremony where our covenant with God is sealed.
Some have sought to turn the covenant we have with a personal God into something more akin to a legal contract, the benefits of which are obtained seemingly by perfect adherence to a very explicit and exacting set of terms & conditions. This seems a lot like a formula (“Say these magic words in precisely this way!”) by which one becomes legally entitled to forgiveness from God. On its face, this seems to resemble very little that God ever modeled for us in the Scriptures.
Such a mentality often causes its adherents to become consumed by the question, “But, we must establish the point at which someone crosses the threshold from death to life; at what exact moment does an individual become saved?!” – with some even concluding that any misunderstanding regarding the answer to that question renders one’s conversion invalid.
Let’s look at another passage – not related to baptism – but one that could have at least something to say in response to this question. In speaking of the old covenant, in Romans 4:9-11:
We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.
Though this is a reference to the Old Testament covenant, it seems to indicate that, at least under the old covenant, God considered coming to faith as the pivotal moment when one ‘crossed from death to life’ – even though that was prior to the point when that covenant was actually sealed. Not only was Paul illustrating the continuity between the Old and the New Covenants, but such thinking would also seem to be consistent with what we read in John 5:24:
“I tell you the truth; whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”
On the flip side, disappointingly and inexplicably, many would-be logicians have pointed to this and other Scriptures to absolve everyone of any need to be baptized at all.
Such an approach to the Bible in general and baptism in particular seems very puzzling. Why would any believer exhibit a refusal to submit to a clear biblical practice such as baptism as some sort of a ‘badge of honor’ – seemingly, I suppose, as proof of what a ‘high view of faith’ they hold – and ascribe some sort of nobility to refusing to acknowledge and submit to the clear words of numerous passages from the Scriptures?
While ultimately we’re saved only by virtue of Christ’s atoning death on the cross, unless you believe everyone has been reconciled with God, one does need to become a Christian.
When we read in the Bible about people becoming Christians, they believed, repented, confessed Christ Jesus as Lord – and they were baptized. This causes me to say that a person isn’t really finished becoming a Christian – they haven’t ‘sealed the covenant’ – until they’ve been baptized.
If someone is trying to find a way to justify not being baptized (perhaps finding a ‘loophole’ by pointing to other passages that state that we are ‘saved by faith’) and subsequently decides not to be baptized, I don’t think they – to use the word in a slightly different way – are acting in ‘good faith.’ For whatever reason, they are looking for something that is analogous to a legal loophole.
In the Great Commission, Christ himself instructs us to be baptized – so why would motivate we even look for such a loophole? Insofar as possible, shouldn’t each of us just desire to do what Christ told us to do?
Do exceptions disprove the rule?
Once someone asserts that baptism is ‘necessary’ or important, however, others quickly pose a mystifying array of theoretical questions about whether it is being asserted that a person isn’t saved until ‘their nose breaks the surface’ on their way up out of the water, about what this means for the (apparently, scores of) people who presumably have been killed in car wrecks on their way to be baptized, or about the fate of someone who comes to faith in Christ while they’re stuck in the middle of the Sahara Desert and dies without being able to be baptized.
I am not seeking to address such extraordinary circumstances here (though I would refer back to the aforementioned passage in Romans 4), but again would simply say that if a person has come to faith in Christ they ought to be baptized, if at all possible.
I find an obsession with questions
about extraordinary circumstances or exceptions to the
rule to be somewhat distracting, and the motivation for
raising them a bit puzzling. I am also reminded of the
legal maxim, “Hard cases make bad law” – which
highlights the fact that basing normative practices on
exceptional, out of the ordinary circumstances is not
a wise approach. Is simply doing what we were told to do in the face of ordinary circumstances really such a controversial notion?
A Straightforward Approach
For a number of years, I attended a church where the minister spoke in his sermons of what Christ did on the cross, about the need to come to a saving faith in Christ, to commit your life to him, and to be baptized. When someone was baptized, the person performing the ceremony typically read a number of Bible passages about what baptism means, and everyone just did what God said they were supposed to do upon coming to faith in Christ.
Afterwards, everyone was happy that the person had become a Christian. I saw a lot of baptisms, and there were no ‘doctrinal watchdogs’ lurking about, attempting to pin down any of those who were being baptized as to what instant they thought they had ‘crossed over from death to life.’
And that was as far as anyone took it . . . no parsing of words, no trying to bind or reduce God to a set of legal statutes or doctrinal systems – and no derisive observations about any other group’s doctrinal assertions or misconceptions.
This is exactly how I believe God would have us approach this subject. The pivotal element toward which we are working is to bring a person to faith, but they’re not really done becoming a Christian until they’ve been baptized, because that is the ceremony where the covenant is sealed . . . but we need always to keep in mind that the ultimate basis for anyone having their sins forgiven is solely a result of the shed blood of Christ.
I saw a Statement of Faith on one church’s Web site – they said they would “baptize anyone by immersion upon a credible statement of faith” – such an approach seems to make perfect sense. As I said earlier, I’m often troubled and mystified to see how many churches’ Statements of Faith make no mention of baptism at all.
A presentation of the gospel is intended to bring people to where they understand, believe, and commit their lives to Christ – to come to a saving faith in Christ and the power of his blood. Once they’ve come to faith, however, the Scriptures say they are to be baptized. I don’t understand why such a biblical instruction would not even be mentioned in a Statement of Faith – what is the thinking behind such a glaring omission?
So, for anyone who is waiting for an incriminating word to pounce upon, I do believe baptism is ‘required’ – but I do think the use of that word sometimes reflects a skewed way of thinking about Christianity. It can easily be construed so as to reduce salvation to a formulaic set of ‘legal requirements,’ making some sort of a ‘lawyerly’ argument that involves a parsing of words similar to debating the definition of the word “is” – but that is most certainly not what I am doing here.
Why the Distortions?
In everyone’s defense, I think a good bit of the reason that so many who are at different points on the doctrinal spectrum end up taking such skewed positions is in reaction to excesses associated with someone else’s position . . . with that other side’s position, in turn, being distorted as a result of a distortion they were (correctly) perceiving in the first (or some other) party’s doctrinal assertions. I think this has caused people on all sides of this particular doctrinal divide to inadvertently distort their own positions as a reaction to what they perceive as a wrong perception or level of emphasis on the part of another.
I think this can best be corrected by refusing to formulate our own theology in response to what we perceive as someone else’s misconceptions. Instead, let’s just look at what we were told in a very straightforward manner to do – and then do our best to do it.
One additional note . . . while I am not horrified when I hear of a church that offers baptismal services only 2-4 times per year, this practice does seem to me to be out of sync with the spirit of the commands and examples we see in the Bible. Those examples clearly indicate that the normative practice in the early church was to be baptized as soon as one came to faith in Christ. This practice is not difficult to understand, as it seems logical that one would wish to seal the covenant they were entering into with God in the way He had ordained as soon as they were able.
Certainly the waters of baptism possess no magical power – we are saved solely by the power and as a result of the grace of God – but baptism was clearly regarded in the 1st-century church as a normative part of a Christian conversion, and I can find no reason not to regard it in that same way today.
Bible Passages – About Baptism / Examples of Baptism
Below is a cataloguing of many passages that pertain to and illustrate examples of New Testament baptism. Though some will respond that some of these passages are referring to a ‘spiritual baptism’ that has nothing to do with a baptism in water, I have never been able to come to any conclusion other than that the sum total of all these passages clearly indicate that the early church practiced baptism in water.
I have seen some of these verses elicit a very hostile reaction on the part of some, but am providing no additional commentary here as to what any of these passages mean – I am simply cataloguing them to be read, meditated upon, and harmonized by the reader – hopefully, with an eye toward coming to understand them in the way the original authors intended that they be understood.
Passages Pertaining to Baptism
• Romans 6:3-6 – 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.
If we have been united with him in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be rendered powerless, that we should no longer be slaves to sin - because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.
• Matthew 28:18-20 – Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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.”
• Mark 16:16 – [Then Jesus] said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
• Acts 2:38-39, 41 – Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
• Acts 22:16 – “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
• I Peter 3:21-22 – And this water [of Noah’s flood] symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
• Galatians 3:26-27 – You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
• Colossians 2:11-12 – In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men, but with the circumcision done by Christ; having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.
• Titus 3:5 – . . . he saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.
• John 3:5 – Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, unless a man is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
• Matthew 3:13-17 – Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. A voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
• Hebrews 10:22 – . . . 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.
Examples of Baptism
• Acts 2:41 – Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about 3,000 were added to their number that day.
• Acts 8:12-13 – But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Simon himself believed and was baptized.
• Acts 8:35-38 – Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And he ordered the chariot to stop. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.
• Acts 10:46-48 – Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
• Acts 16:14-15 – One of those listening was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home.
• Acts 16:25-33 – About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved - you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized.
• Acts 18:8 – Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized.
• Acts 19:1-5 – While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”
They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”
So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
• Acts 22:14-16 – “The God of our fathers has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and to hear words from his mouth. You will be his witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on His name.”