Truth That Matters

"What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?" - Jesus Christ

Believer's Baptism

In this article, we look at what the Bible says about baptism and address some common questions.

The root meaning of baptism

Baptismo is actually just the Greek word for "immerse". Nicander, a Greek poet and physician from ~ 200 BC, while discussing a pickle recipe, says that the vegetable should be first bapto (dipped) in hot water and then baptiso (immersed) in vinegar. Thus, Christ wants believers to be immersed in water. "Baptism by sprinkling" is a self-contradiction.

The Mode of Baptism

The mode or method of baptism follows from the root meaning and the significance: the person should be immersed in water. Pouring or sprinkling is not immersion. Do you think Nicander expected his cook to put only part of the vegetable in vinegar and have the other part sticking out in the air? Have you ever seen a person buried partially, part of his body is in the ground or tomb and part of it sticking out? A moment's reflection convinces us that the person should be immersed fully in water. The following are some arguments for other modes of baptism and my responses:

  • It would be impractical to immerse everyone, especially large crowds like in Acts 2:41. This is pure speculation. We simply do not know how commonly water was available in ancient Israel, how many volunteers were available for baptizing those interested (at least 120 on that Acts 2 occasion), how patient everyone was, and how many days were allocated to baptize everyone. Facts, not speculation, lead us to truth. The image (American soldiers in Iraq) illustrates how those who want to can obey God even in difficult situations.
  • It is dangerous to immerse infants. This is a faulty argument because it based on a faulty premise: Infant Baptism
  • Ancient church fathers prescribed/practiced pouring and sprinkling. See: Is something true if an apostolic father says so?
  • So many churches practice pouring and sprinkling. Truth is determined by what the Bible says, not majority opinion

The purpose/significance of baptism

By being immersed, a believer identifies with the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. We know this because Romans 6:3-4 tells us that salvation involves being immersed into Jesus Christ and his death. Since baptism is public, the person being baptized is testifying in public that he/she has become a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The prerequisite for baptism

"...the eunuch said, See, here is water; what hinders me from being baptized? And Philip said, If you believe with all your heart, you may. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." – Acts 8:36-37

As you can see, the person who wants to be baptized must have saving faith; that is, he must be born again. He should recognize that Christ died for him, and also that God put us in Christ when he died, so that we also died and rose again with Christ. He does not have to be a mature person or mature Christian. While it is true that we can never look in to a person's heart and verify whether the person is saved, some fruits will be visible (2 Timothy 2:19) and some check must be made when a person claims to be a Christian (for else local churches will be flooded with people who shouldn't be there). Compared to Philip's time, there are two great changes that are visible today:

  • It is comfortable and fashionable to be a baptized Christian, at least in some circles
  • Christian vocabulary has become confused because so may people use Biblical terms with non-Biblical meanings.

Because of these, it is worth taking the time to see if a person who claims to be a believer also shows some evidence that he is really a believer. Another point to note is that the Ethiopian eunuch was an adult. While children (not infants) can exercise saving faith, children are also far more likely than adults to confuse saving faith with something else. Therefore, it is appropriate to exercise caution and patience in dealing with children.

The requirement for baptism

If you're a Christian, you must be baptized because the Lord Jesus commanded it (Matthew 28:19, John 14:15). 

Other baptisms

Here are some of the other baptisms mentioned in the Bible - these should not be confused with the water baptism that believers need to take today:-
  1. The baptism of John - it was a symbol of repentance exercised by the Jews in response to the teaching of John the Baptist (Mark 1:4)
  2. The baptism of Christ (Matthew 3:13-17). The Lord Jesus had no need of repentance, nor did he need to testify that he had become a Christian, but he inaugurated his ministry by being baptized.
  3. The inaugural Jewish baptism of Acts 2:38
  4. The baptism in the Holy Spirit
  5. The baptism with fire (Luke 3:16); at the end, those who do not know God will be immersed (baptized) in the lake of fire (Revelation 20:15). Note that having tongues of fire on one's head (Acts 2:3) is not the same as being baptized with (immersed in) fire.

The image shows the River Jordan, site of some of these "other baptisms". Believers also use the site today.

Is there a connection between circumcision and baptism?

Circumcision was a sign of God's covenant with Abraham, and through him, the nation of Israel (Genesis 17:10). Here are some of the promises of the covenant:-
  1. I will make you a great nation
  2. I will give you the land of Canaan
  3. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you.
These promises were given to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3), his son Isaac (Genesis 26:2-4), and Isaac's son Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15). The promises thus apply to the Jews, the nation that is descended from Jacob - not to the church!.

Some of these promises have been fulfilled. Others are yet to be fulfilled. To summarize this covenant:-
  • Promises: Political, earthly, geographical, material
  • Prerequisite: You need to be a descendant of Jacob
  • Sign: Circumcision
It is important to realize that the prerequisite has nothing to do with the spiritual condition of the individual. On a per capita basis, the Jews have more than 100 times the number of Nobel prize winners than the world average. This is part of the fulfillment of promise # 1 above. Most of these Jewish Nobel Prize winners are certainly not spiritual; they are atheist or orthodox, practicing what Jesus called "vain traditions" (Mark 7:9). Despite their alienation from God, these Jews are enjoying the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham. [This does not mean that all Jews are going to heaven]

Thus, to become part of God's earthly people, Israel, all you need is to be born in a Jewish family. Thus, all Jewish males are circumcised - in infancy.

The church, on the other hand, is a completely different system:-
  • Promises: Spiritual and heavenly (John 14:1-3, Ephesians 1:3)
  • Prerequisite: Repent and believe in Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21, Acts 16:31, etc)
  • Sign: Baptism
It should be obvious that the church of the New Testament is a completely different entity from Israel. The prerequisite involves a genuine spiritual choice/decision made by the individual. Thus, although you may be a Jew because you are born in a Jewish family, you do NOT become a Christian by being born in a Christian family. Therefore, baptism is not for those born in Christian families. It is for those who receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. There is thus a fundamental difference between baptism and circumcision, no connection.

Is it right to baptize infants?

No, because the prerequisite for baptism (see above) is belief in Jesus Christ, which infants are not capable of.  The following are some arguments given in favor of infant baptism, and my responses to them:-

  1. Jesus welcomed little children (Luke 18:16). Yes, but this passage has nothing to say about baptism. Recognizing that infants are not ready for baptism is not being anti-child.
  2. Entire households were baptized (Acts 16:33) and it doesn't say that the households did not have infants, so the households must have had infants. This is a faulty argument from absence (see Rule 7a at Bible Interpretation). You can similarly argue that Priscilla and Aquila never had sex (because the Bible never says they did) and therefore were "perpetual virgins". There is no end of absurdities that can be conjured up by arguing from absence.
  3. Infants were circumcised, so infants should be baptized This argument follows from an analogy between circumcision and baptism - a false analogy (see previous item).
  4. In God's presence, the men, women and children were all included (Nehemiah 10:28). Again, this passage does not talk about baptism.
  5. In infant baptism, the parents take a pledge to raise up the child with Christian values and then the child takes up the same pledge. This sounds sincere but is different from the instructions and symbols that God has already given in the Bible, and therefore is wrong. See Example 16 at Bible Interpretation and points 14 and 16 at Bible Authority

So if you were baptized as an infant, it does not count in God's sight. If you have been saved, get baptized again.

Do we get the Holy Spirit when we are baptized?

No. In Acts 10:44-48, Cornelius and his family get the Holy Spirit first and are baptized later. The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove when he was baptized. It is wrong to draw a parallel between us and Jesus because his baptism was an inauguration of his ministry, not a symbol of his having turned from sin like us! We get the Holy Spirit when we believe in Jesus Christ.

Is baptism necessary for salvation?

No. Because:-

  1. Ephesians 2:8,9 says we're saved by grace (God's unmerited favor), not by works, lest anyone should boast. If baptism was necessary for salvation, people doing baptism could take credit for sending others to heaven - that would be abominable to God.
  2. Paul would never be thankful for baptizing so few people (1 Corinthians 1:14) if it was necessary for salvation!
  3. When we read both the clauses of Mark 16:16 carefully, we find that belief + baptism is sufficient for salvation, but only belief is the necessary element. Like good works (James 2:26) and confession (Romans 10:9), baptism is a companion to saving faith.