What is Water Baptism?


Then Jesus came close to them and said, “All the authority of the universe has been given to me. Now go in my authority and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And teach them to faithfully follow all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:18-20, TPT, emphasis mine)

Today I want to dive into the subject of water baptism (pun possibly intended). I’ll cover a lot of ground, and I pray this is a helpful resource for ministries, traditions, and individuals with questions.

None could argue that water baptism is not important to the Christian faith. In fact, to the best of my research, I could only find two Christian branches that do not promote water baptism as significant to the life of a Christian, the Salvation Army and the Quaker denomination, which means that it is an overwhelmingly accepted teaching and a generally celebrated practice in all mainstream Christian fellowships, as it has been for millennia.

Now, I want to state early on in our discussion of water baptism that historically, many Christians have been persecuted and even sacrificed to death for their defense of water baptism. It continues today to be a subject that ranges in opinions. I do not intend to downplay the importance of water baptism, nor do I intend to exalt it higher than it belongs in significance. What I do hope to convey in this piece is what the Bible says about water baptism and how that ought to affect us today. May our traditions and long-standing practices only serve to communicate the message of the Gospel and expand the Kingdom of God—otherwise, Holy Spirit, You have total permission to trounce our traditions and make mince-meat of our religious ceremonies! (insert hands-lifted-emoji here, haha)

Also, there is some incongruity over whether or not to refer to water baptism as an “ordinance” or a “sacrament” of the Church, and I sensitively acknowledge that there are long-held convictions from Christian camps regarding both of these words (e.g., does a sacrament of water baptism in itself convey grace to people without requiring faith of the person participating in it?). However, for the purpose of this piece, I will use the two words interchangeably and explain what the Bible has to say about the practice of water baptism.

So, what is water baptism?

The short answer I have landed on is that water baptism marks the beginning the Christian life—an outward sign of the work Christ has done in our lives and identifies us as belonging to God, much like what circumcision represented for male believers in God under the Old Covenant. From my Bible school days, I remember Pastor John Lindell of James River Church saying that getting baptized in water is the first biblical step after committing to follow Jesus. But let me expound on this subject.

Physically, being baptized in water is a public ceremony, whether formal or spontaneous or otherwise, in which the candidate for water baptism is immersed completely underwater. Complete immersion (some use the term submersion) is the New Testament practice (Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:5, Mark 1:10, John 3:23, Acts 8:36-38, and elsewhere, and also see Paul’s explanation of baptism which indicates fully going underwater in Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12), whereas anything else, while it may certainly be a meaningful experience, is actually not faithful to the standard of Scripture and simply misses the biblical symbolism. In fact, historically the Greek word for baptism is baptizo and means “to plunge, dip, or immerse” something in water. Interestingly enough, the first recorded usage of the word baptizo reflects complete immersion as, in 200 BC, Nicander describes the process of making a pickle: “the vegetable should be dipped (bapto) into boiling water, and then baptized (baptizo) into the vinegar solution.” Notice how baptizo indicates that the object has now been permanently changed!

Spiritually, when the candidate for baptism goes down into the water, it is a picture of going down into the grave and being buried; coming up out of the water then is a picture of being raised with Christ to walk in newness of life, as Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12 both teach. It is a symbol of what Jesus has done internally for the believer: the old way of life is dead and forgotten, and the new way of life has come.

Let’s look at several instances in the Old and New Testament that either explicitly or implicitly describe water baptism. I will not provide an exhaustive list of every single mention or implication, but rather enough to translate our perfect Father’s heart on the subject.

What does the Old Testament say about water baptism?

The earliest foreshadowing that I can find of the symbol of New Covenant water baptism is that of the testimony of Noah in Genesis 6-8. Many of us are probably familiar with the seemingly mythological but actual real-life event of Noah and his family surviving a cataclysmic flood via a handmade ark. The rest of the earth’s population, however many that may have been, was atrociously corrupt and sinful, and therefore was swept away and forgotten in the floodwaters. Of course, the theological implications held in this narrative run as deep as those floodwaters, but let’s suffice it to say that wickedness was drowned in the water and what emerged was righteousness (see 1 Peter 3:18-22).

Similarly, another foreshadowing of water baptism could well be recorded in Exodus 14 as Moses led through the miraculously parted Red Sea a procession of families who were released from slavery, while Pharaoh and his squadron pursued closely behind. When those who were redeemed safely emerged from the water, the Sea collapsed on itself and swallowed up all the evil, idolatrous military. Again, righteousness emerged from the water and wickedness was drowned (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-4, although verse 5 fairly concedes that this is an imperfect illustration of baptism).

Another typification of baptism, but possibly much less known, is found in Exodus 30:17-21. For quick context, God was outlining to Moses and his people the tenets of the Law or Old Covenant, which explained how to live rightly with and for God before the New Covenant was instituted. He had ordained a certain lineage, “Aaron and his sons,” to mediate as priests between Himself and humanity, but as we see in the passage, the prerequisite for approaching God was for the priests to wash themselves with water in a bronze basin. This symbolized a partial cleansing of impurities, where what was then left before God was righteousness alone “so that they may not die.”

Certainly, as they merely foreshadow what was to come, each of these instances is imperfect in its illustrations, as would be other Old Testament allusions of baptism. But assuredly, the symbol is that unrighteousness goes into the water but righteousness comes out.

What does the New Testament say about water baptism?

Although the intertestamental period is largely silent regarding this subject, somehow it doesn’t seem unusual to the people of the day that the prophet John emerges onto the scene around 5BC baptizing repentant people in lakes and rivers. Remarkably, in fact, so many droves of people flocked to him to be baptized that it forever defined him as John the Baptist. Whether John initiated the custom of baptism or simply popularized it, we can only speculate. His baptism was one primarily of repentance (he claims this himself in Matthew 3:11, Paul echoes this in Acts 19:4 and elsewhere); in other words, people would confess their sins during the ceremony of water baptism (Matthew 3:6, Mark 1:4-5, and Luke 3:3).

Jesus Himself was baptized by John, which is almost like a reference point to the start of His public ministry, and God dramatically affirms it (see Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:10-11, Luke 3:21-22, and see also John 1:29-34 as the author recounts John the Baptist’s reflection back on the experience). Now remember, John’s baptism was one of repentance — so why did Jesus, completely unblemished from sin in every way, seek a baptism of repentance? Arguably this was humiliating for Jesus (and Mother Teresa famously presented that enduring humiliations is the only way to become humble), because what would people whisper about Him? Of course, wonderful Jesus always chose the humble, or humiliating, route — washing people’s feet, chatting with Samaritan women, identifying Himself with gluttons and drunkards, undergoing a baptism of repentance — but He clearly explains why He sought baptism, as pastor and theologian John Piper points out:

He says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). It is fitting. That is why he is doing it. It is fitting. Well, what is fitting? Fulfilling all righteousness is fitting. Evidently Jesus saw his life as the fulfillment of all righteousness. And the fact that participating in a baptism of repentance even though he had no sins to repent of… shows that the righteousness he wanted to fulfill was the righteousness required not of himself, but of every sinful man.

So Jesus’ baptism was a sort of typification of the work He had come to accomplish for mankind (see 1 John 5:6). Amen! Now, Jesus’ perfect sacrifice on the cross was once for all — His baptism in water was not. He expects His followers to be baptized and to baptize, as He commanded explicitly in Matthew 28:19 and Mark 16:16.

Now, it is safe to say that water baptism immediately became normative for the early Church following Jesus’ ascension into Heaven. Less than 2 weeks after Jesus was taken up into Heaven, about 3,000 new believers were baptized in water on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41) — that’s something outrageous! Again, in Acts 8:12, we see that “people believed Philip’s message of Good News concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result, many men and women were baptized” (emphasis mine), and in the very next verse, “Simon himself believed and (you guessed it) was baptized.” Later in Acts 8, we see Philip baptizing an Ethiopian eunuch immediately after he put his faith in the Lord Jesus (verse 38). Saul, later Paul, was immediately baptized after he was healed from his blindness and implicitly committed his life to Jesus (Acts 9:18), and later says of the experience (in Acts 22:16) that he was asked by Ananias regarding water baptism, “What are you waiting for?” And Peter gave the instruction for Cornelius’ entire household and an unspecified number of close friends to be baptized in water following their infilling with the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:24, 46-48). Lydia of Philippi and her entire family was baptized immediately after choosing to follow Jesus (Acts 16:14-15), and the same is true of Paul and Silas’s jailer and his family in Acts 16:31-33. The oddly named Crispus, everyone in his family, and many others under his influence all were baptized by Paul immediately after believing in Jesus (Acts 18:18, see also 1 Corinthians 1:14); and ‘as soon as they heard the news of Jesus,’ about twelve men in Ephesus were baptized in water (Acts 19:5).

To put on my pastor’s hat here, what I love about every single one of these instances is the urgency, the immediacy with which they received water baptism. Not a single person waited. They believed, they were baptized. They believed, they were baptized. They believed, they were baptized. Choosing to follow Jesus and then waiting for an extended period of time to be baptized is just not the standard outlined in Scripture.

Is water baptism necessary for salvation?

As meaningful, important, and non-negotiable as it is, water baptism is unquestionably not essential for salvation, nor can it in any way be equated with salvation. Track with me for a moment… if baptism is necessary for salvation, then what Jesus did on the cross for us was not actually enough. Of course, this is wrong! To suggest that water baptism saves a person is to erroneously suggest that we are saved by our works and not by faith alone. Let us remember that the Reformation centered on this issue, as Martin Luther’s opposition was to the Roman Catholic understanding that taught humanity is saved by participation in the sacraments.

I nod at theologian Wayne Grudem for his insight in this area, but the Roman Catholic argument that baptism is necessary for salvation is strikingly similar to the argument of Paul’s opponents in Galatia who said that circumcision was necessary for salvation. Paul’s response was that those who require circumcision are preaching “a different gospel” (Gal 1:6) and that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (3:10), even speaking very sharply to those who attempted to add any form of obedience as a requirement for justification: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4).

The Word of God teaches that there is no action on our part that is salvific, as clearly articulated in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (emphasis mine). Romans 6:23 echoes this brilliant truth, “The free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (emphasis mine). In fact, Jesus paid the price for our salvation because the Law was not sufficient to save (Romans 3:20, Romans 8:3, Hebrews 10:1-4, and elsewhere).

A clear example is the thief on the cross who hung next to Jesus: he put his faith in Christ, and Christ said matter of factly, “I assure you, today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), yet this sinner had certainly not been water baptized.

But, what about 1 Peter 3:21 where Peter says, “Baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”? Peter himself explains that baptism saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body – or, the part that saves you is not the outward, physical act — but as an appeal to God for a good conscience — or, the part that saves you is the inward, spiritual transaction between God and the individual. This can be paraphrased as “Baptism now saves you, not the outward physical ceremony of baptism, but the inward spiritual reality that baptism represents.”

Of course, I am not attacking any denomination, nor am I suggesting that to practice faith in the vein of the Roman Catholic Church is itself damning. There are traditions in the Roman Catholic teaching that I squarely disagree with, their understanding of baptism being one of them, but merely belonging to a particular brand of Christianity does not disqualify a person from salvation—or save them. Regardless of other beliefs, a Roman Catholic or anyone else who authentically believes that “Jesus is Lord and God raised Him from the dead,” has subscribed to the only single requirement for salvation (Romans 10:9), and that makes us brothers.

Friends — the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ was, is, and forever will be alone in its authority to save!

Who should be baptized?

The narrative examples of those who were baptized suggest that baptism was administered only to those who gave an honest profession of faith in Jesus. Because of what it represents, it is irrational for a person to be baptized who does not yet follow Jesus. And, however well-intentioned it may be, it is misguided for an infant to be baptized, as a baby is incapable of exercising faith in Christ. The Roman Catholic tradition teaches that “the faith which infants lack is… replaced by the faith of the Church,” or in other words, that the faith of the administering priests and family of the baby is transferred onto the infant. The sacrament itself confers grace on the recipient, regardless of the recipient’s exercise of faith. Unfortunately, this teaching has no basis in Scripture; therefore it is incorrect. As I have demonstrated earlier, no work can save a person, whether baptism or Communion or church attendance or donating to charity or anything else. So baptizing a baby not only misses the point of baptism, but it also fails to serve its intended purpose in the Roman Catholic interpretation, which is saving the baby. Only Jesus can save a person!

Once a person of any age reflects an understanding of the Gospel and has decided to follow Jesus, baptism in water is the next immediate, appropriate step.

So what does water baptism do?

As I have presented at length, water baptism is integral to the life of a Christian! I am learning, though, that baptism does more than only symbolize. The Holy Spirit uses our obedience in this area as a means to bring blessing on us as well. My friend Danielle said once that she witnesses all the time people emerging from the baptism waters speaking in tongues! Wow! Because baptism is so closely linked with salvation and obedience, it is no wonder that God uses this avenue to bring a supernatural favor on the individual’s life. I can personally attest that baptism services are among my favorite services to participate in — there’s a palpable, divine enthusiasm present that sets the new believer up for spiritual victory, supernatural success, and practical prosperity for the rest of his life.

So apart from the blessing that simple obedience brings, it is safe to say that God will bless you in ways that can only be received once you have been baptized in water.

Some churches require that a person be water baptized before he can become a member in their fellowship, which is not a bad idea. But keep perspective here: water baptism at a particular church or by a particular person is not really a badge of merit, and to interpret the ceremony as being “baptized into a church” is arguably to misunderstand baptism in the first place. I don’t imagine that Jesus lauds a person for where they got baptized, and He doesn’t necessarily expect it more than once. Once a person receives salvation, they should be baptized as soon as possible afterward, despite location or church membership—whether in St. John’s Cathedral by a priest, or in a river by a spiritual father, or at the YMCA swimming pool like we do in our church culture!

Should I be baptized?

With a chuckle I ask you not to overthink this! Are you a Christian? If so, have you been baptized in water since you started following Jesus? …Then get baptized! There’s a special sense of urgency that the New Testament discusses baptism in water, so I give you the same question that Ananias gave Saul in Acts 22:16: “What are you waiting for?”

Go on!



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