There is much debate and confusion concerning water baptism. This is sad because the subject is such an important aspect of Christianity. Only by going to the Bible and studying all of the passages that relate to the issue can we get at the truth. When we do this, we find the answers to five fundamental questions.
Question #1: Who Is Qualified For Water Baptism?
The Bible plainly teaches that only born-again Christians can rightly submit to water baptism. To be born again, one must put saving belief (faith) in Jesus Christ (John 1:12-13; 3:3; 3:16-18; 1st John 5:1). Born-again Christians are people who have heard the gospel of Christ, seen themselves as sinners bound for hell, understood that Jesus died to pay the debt for their sins, and genuinely believed in Him as their personal Savior. This belief (faith) in Jesus brings eternal forgiveness and salvation to the individual (John 3:16; Acts 10:43; Romans 1:16-17; Galatians 3:26; Ephesians 2:8-9; 1st John 5:1,13).
Such “believers” are qualified for water baptism because they have experienced Holy Spirit baptism (Matthew 3:11; John 7:37-39; Acts 1:5; 10:44-48; 1st Corinthians 12:13). Holy Spirit baptism is God the Holy Spirit taking up residence within the person who has put saving belief in Christ. This happens at the initial moment of the saving belief. Actually, it is Holy Spirit baptism that produces the “new birth” that makes one a born-again Christian. It is nonsense for people to claim to be Christians if they haven’t experienced Holy Spirit baptism (Acts 11:15-18; 15:6-8; Romans 5:5; 8:8-11, 8:14-16; 1st Corinthians 6:19; 2nd Corinthians 1:22; 3:3; 5:5; Galatians 4:6; Ephesians 1:13-14; Ephesians 4:30; 1st Thessalonians 4:8; 2nd Timothy 1:14; 1st John 3:23-24; 4:12-13).
All of this means that the common practice of baptizing infants is wrong. Likewise, it is equally wrong to baptize any adult who hasn’t put legitimate saving belief in Christ. The fact is that anyone, regardless of age, race, or religion, who hasn’t been baptized with the Holy Spirit has no business whatsoever being baptized in water. This is why water baptism is oftentimes rightly referred to as “believer’s baptism.”
Question #2: Does A Person Have To Submit To Water Baptism To Be Saved?
The answer is, No. The New Testament provides us with approximately 200 verses that teach that salvation comes through belief (faith) in Christ. Many passages use the word “faith” while others use words such “belief,” “believe,” or “believed.” Obviously, these words are interchangeable in regards to the salvation experience.
If water baptism played any part whatsoever in salvation we would find it consistently mentioned in the Bible whenever the plan of salvation is presented. What we find, instead, is the exact opposite. For example, the apostle Paul admitted that he didn’t even do much baptizing (1st Corinthians 1:13-17). Likewise, he didn’t mention water baptism when he gave the Corinthians his definition of the gospel (1st Corinthians 15:1-11). Paul’s words and actions seem very strange if water baptism is required for salvation. Paul was like Jesus, who didn’t baptize anyone Himself (John 4:1-2).
It’s true that Peter mentioned water baptism in the invitation he gave in his sermon on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:37-38), but he didn’t mention it in other sermons he preached (Acts 3:12-26; 5:29-32; 10:34-43). As a matter of fact, the Bible even points out that those who were saved after hearing the Pentecost sermon were saved by belief (Acts 2:44).
The fact is, to contend that water baptism is vital to salvation is to create two plans of salvation. Putting it simply, the people of the Old Testament age, not being baptized, would have been saved in a different way than the people of the New Testament age. For that matter, even the people who placed saving belief in Jesus during His three-and-a-half-year earthly ministry did not experience Christian baptism unless they later did so once the church age was begun following His death, resurrection, and ascension. That group included the apostles. While it’s true that many of these believers were baptized in the Jordan river by John the Baptist, John’s baptism was not Christian baptism. When an individual was baptized by John that individual was simply making a public profession of repentance (Matthew 3:4-12; Mark 1:4-5; Acts 10:34-37; 18:24-25; 19:1-5). This repentance was supposed to prepare the individual to accept the Messiah, who was soon to come and offer salvation (Matthew 3:11-12; Luke 7:24-30). This explains why John was hesitant to baptize Jesus (Matthew 3:13-14). John knew that Jesus had no sins to repent of and that He was the Messiah.
Getting back to the Old Testament believers, despite the fact that they did not experience Christian baptism, they were saved (Psalm 23:6; Luke 7:37-50; 23:39-43; Hebrews 11:1-40). There is even an entire chapter (Romans chapter 4) that is devoted to the teaching that salvation has always been through saving faith in the one, true Lord.
Finally, one last piece of evidence that proves that water baptism isn’t a requirement for salvation is the fact that no one can baptize himself/herself. This means that a third party, someone besides the believer and Christ, factors into the salvation equation. This sets up the possibility of some unthinkable scenarios.
For example, what if a pastor, for whatever wrong reason, refused to baptize the genuine believer? That would put the believer in a bad spot because he/she wouldn’t actually get saved until they could find a pastor who would baptize them. Or, what if a person believed in Jesus as Savior during the winter and couldn’t be baptized until the spring because his church did its baptizing in the local river and the river was full of ice? And what if that person died while waiting for warmer weather to be baptized? Are we going to say that the soul of such a person would end up in hell simply because he picked the wrong time of the year to believe in Jesus? Or, what if a person believed in Jesus as Savior on the death bed, mere moments before dying, and went out into eternity without being baptized because there wasn’t a preacher there on the scene who could drag that person out of the hospital bed and get him to a bathtub for baptism?
Do you see what I mean? To make water baptism a necessary part of salvation is to throw the door wide open for some bizarre scenarios, all of which could end in sincere believers dying and going to hell. But all that gets eliminated when the salvation experience is understood to include only the individual and the Lord.
Question #3: Why Should The Christian Submit To Water Baptism?
If water baptism isn’t a requirement for salvation, why should the Christian submit to it? He/she should do so because water baptism is a beautiful object lesson. On the one hand, it shows what has happened in the Christian’s earthly existence. First, in going under the water, the Christian is publicly saying, “I am now dead to sin” (Romans 6:1-2; 6:6-7; 6:11-14). (The waters of baptism have even been called “a liquid tomb.”) Second, in coming up from under the water, the Christian is saying, “I am now alive to walk in the newness of the Christian life” (Romans 6:4; 6:6; 6:8; 6:10-14).
On the other hand, water baptism also shows what will happen in the Christian’s eternal existence. First, in going under the water, the Christian is publicly identifying himself or herself with Christ’s death and burial (Romans 6:3-5; 6:8). Second, in coming up from under the water, the Christian is publicly identifying himself or herself with Christ’s resurrection from the dead (Romans 6:5; 6:8-9). You see, by submitting to water baptism, the Christian is saying, “I know that Christ will not leave my body in the grave and that my body will one day be gloriously resurrected, just as His body was” (1st Corinthians 15:20-24; 15:42-50).
Understanding how water baptism is a two-fold object lesson makes it easy to understand why Jesus commanded that those won to Him should submit to it (Matthew 28:19). The Bible even says that a Christian can be saved from a guilty conscience toward God only by submitting to water baptism (1st Peter 3:21). If the Christian refuses water baptism, he or she will eventually feel guilty about the disobedience (Luke 6:46; John 15:14; James 4:16).
In the days of the early church, those who believed in Christ as Savior were expected to immediately submit to water baptism (Mark 16:15-16; Acts 2:37-41; 8:12; 8:26-40; 9:17-18; 10:44-49; 16:14-15; 16:25-34; 18:8; 19:1-7). Keep in mind that the early Christians had no church buildings, pews, aisles, or altars. Therefore, a water baptism in public was a profound way for an individual to openly confess Christ as Savior (Matthew 10:32). For that matter, it still is!
Question #4: What mode of water baptism is correct?
Total immersion is the only mode of water baptism that is described in the Bible. This is seen not only in the passages that describe John the Baptist’s baptisms (Matthew 3:13-16; John 3:23) but also in the passage that describes Phillip baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch in the days of the early church (Acts 8:35-39). Putting it bluntly, the modes of sprinkling and pouring are just not scriptural.
Those who would object to this interpretation need to remember that it’s baptism’s object lesson that makes the mode so important. Again, water baptism is supposed to show the Christian’s death and burial to sin as well as Christ’s own physical death and burial. Accordingly, total immersion in the water is the only mode that truly pictures death and burial. When we bury a corpse, we don’t just sprinkle or pour a bit of dirt over that body. Instead, we immerse that body completely in the ground.
Question #5: What Words Should Be Said During Water Baptism?
Frankly, the exact words said during a water baptism don’t seem nearly as important as the mode. Jesus told His followers to baptize “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Peter told a group of Jews to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). Later, he told a group of Gentiles to be baptized “in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:48). Paul baptized a group of believers “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5).
Most churches use the Matthew 28:19 words. This verse is one of the Bible’s proof texts that God is one God who exists in three distinct personages. In the verse, Jesus says to His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name (singular) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” You see, there is no need to immerse the believer three times into the water. To do so is to confuse the fact that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are One. Furthermore, it is to miss the fact that corpses aren’t buried three times.