Water Baptism–A Scriptural Description

The subject of baptism has had a long and storied history in the church. But if Scripture is the sole authority, then it is there that we must go for our instruction on this issue. And if there is any passage which doctrinally teaches about baptism, it is the passage in Romans 6:1-7.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.

In this passage the analogy of baptism is drawn precisely. And this analogy is not to the Old Testament practice of sprinkling blood or water for purification, but on the central theme of the New Testament, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. These are two separate concepts. One’s view of this central truth determines what mode of baptism is acceptable.

Those who see baptism as being a purifying act would tend to authorize the use of non-immersion modes. With the possible exception of Acts 22:16, Scripture does not support such an analogy. The consistent analogy of Scripture with respect to baptism is death, burial, and resurrection.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death . . .”
Romans 6:3-4

Colossians 2:12 repeats this picture:

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.”
Colossians 2:12

Christ Himself associates baptism with His death. In Mark 10:38-39 and Luke 12:50, He speaks of His impending death as a baptism. The picture given is that the baptism reflects something that grieved Christ until it was accomplished. In Mark’s account, it is associated with the cup, which appears to be a reference to the cup of sorrow and death (Mark 14:34,36) Christ mentioned in the Garden of Gethsemane. Consistently baptism, when explained, is explained as a death, burial and resurrection experience.

Even in the one passage which may be viewed as a cleansing analogy, Acts 22:16, the cleansing is not the concept of sprinkling, but a thorough washing, requiring something much more thorough.

In those passages that give us some detail about baptism, two things emerge. First, the baptism is done in a body of water. Second, the people come up out of the water when the baptism is completed. Thus, the children of Israel were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea (1 Cor. 10:2). If we remember the story, they went into the Red Sea and the water stood on both sides as they walked through the bottom of the sea before coming up out of the sea. This is a picture of total immersion.

John conducted his baptizing in the Jordan, which would not have been necessary if baptism involved only sprinkling or pouring. There was something about being in the water. Mark tells us that Jesus was baptized into (eis in the Greek) the Jordan (Mark 1:9). The meaning which comes most naturally to this word is “into” or “in.” Afterwards, Jesus came up out of the water (Matt. 3:16; Mark 1:10).

Likewise, in John 1:26, John says that he baptizes “en” (in the Greek) water. This preposition can be translated “with” or “by”, but the most common meaning of the word is “in.” This corresponds with Mark’s account of baptizing into water.

In the account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, they went down into the water, he was baptized, and they came up out of the water (Acts 8:38-39). Again, as in the other places where the details are recorded, the baptism is associated with actually being in the water.

Thus, if we are to follow the example in Scripture, we should actually go into the water and then come back out. Further, if baptism pictures the death, burial, and resurrection, then the body should be placed into the water and brought back up, as Romans says, in newness of life.

There is a dearth of biblical support for other forms of baptism. Further, other forms lose the analogy of what baptism, biblically, symbolized – the death, burial and resurrection.

What is the function of baptism? I believe it is an outward symbol of an inward reality – the new life. It is not salvation, although it symbolizes the salvation experience. Christ Himself was baptized, yet He was never in need of salvation. John tells us that Christ Himself never baptized anyone (John 4:2). How strange for the man who came to save the world not to save anyone, if baptism is required for salvation. Yet, we know that Christ did save people. The thief on the cross went to heaven. Christ told Zaccheus that salvation had come to his house; yet, there was no hint of baptism. Christ told Nicodemus that belief would bring eternal life. Paul told the same thing to the Philippian jailer: “Believe and you will be save.” Paul tells the Corinthians that they were his children and he became their father through the gospel (1 Cor. 4:14-15). Yet, he says he baptized none of them, except Crispus and Gaius and the household of Stephanas (1 Cor. 1:14-16). He then makes the incredible statement: “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). For a man who spent his life converting the world, that is truly a remarkable statement if conversion is impossible without baptism. It makes no sense.

Further, if baptism is essential for salvation, the many passages in Scripture that say that if you believe you will be saved, are woefully inadequate in their presentation of the gospel. In fact, they are wrong if, indeed, baptism is essential for salvation.

Some would go to the Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38 passages to show that baptism is essential for salvation. The passages simply do not support such a position. To the contrary, Mark 16:16 supports the opposite position – that belief alone is essential to one’s eternal destiny. The passage says that the one who “believes and is baptized will be saved.” But Christ’s words do not stop there. Christ goes on to state “the one who does not believe will be condemned” and He states “these signs will follow those who believe” (Mark 16:17). Condemnation, in Jesus’ words, comes to the one who does not believe. It does not come to the one who is not baptized. It is belief, not baptism, that is the divide between condemnation and salvation, even as it is in John 3:18. Thus, while those who believe and are baptized will be saved, those who believe and are not baptized will likewise be saved. The only condemned ones are those who do not believe. Baptism, while not saving, is the normal practice for believers.

The passage in Acts 2:38-41, likewise, is unclear about the linkage between salvation and baptism. Peter said: “Repent and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” While clearly those who repent and are baptized are saved, the passage does not state what happens to those who repent but are not baptized. If we had no other Scriptures on the subject, we might conclude that the only sure way of salvation would be to repent and be baptized. But we have many other Scriptures that base salvation on faith alone. If you believe, you are not condemned. The gospel, not baptism, is the power of God to salvation (Romans 1:16; 10:17; 1 Cor. 1:18; 15:1-2). If baptism is required for salvation, then Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, to the Samaritan woman, to the Jews in John 5:24, to the people in John 6:40, to the crowd on the great feast day in John 7:38, to the blind man in John 9:35, to Martha in John 11:25-26, to the rulers in John 12:46, and John’s purpose for writing the book of John as expressed in John 20:31 are misleading and erroneous. In each place, it is stated that those who believe are saved. Belief, not baptism, is the sine qua non of salvation. Both Jesus and Paul were involved in bringing salvation to the world, though their ministries did not include baptizing.

I believe that baptism, being a sign of the inward baptism of the Spirit in our hearts (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:27) should follow conversion, not precede it. The example of Scripture is quite clear. In Acts 2:41, it is those who received the word who were baptized – men and women alike. In Acts 8:36, the eunuch asked Philip: “What prevents me from being baptized?” Philip answered: “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” Then, the eunuch was baptized. Cornelius was baptized after the Holy Spirit had come upon him (Acts 10:47-48). Lydia’s heart was opened and she was baptized (Acts 16:14-16). The Corinthians believed and were baptized (Acts 18:8). In each instance, the order is belief or conversion and then baptism. Nowhere does Scripture support a position reversing this order.

Because baptism always follows belief in Scripture, I do not find any support for infant baptism. Some go to the passage of Acts 16:33 where Scripture states that the Philippian jailor and all his family were baptized. They contend that this must have included the children as it says “all.” But the passage does not support the presence of children. Acts 16:34 states that all his household had believed. The baptism was as extensive as the belief, no wider. There is no evidence that children were baptized who could not believe.

An appeal to the early church is also revealing. In the earliest instruction on church matters, the Didache, written either in the late first or early second centuries, we find this teaching:

Now concerning baptism, baptize thus: Having first taught all these things, baptize into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in running water. And if you do not have running water, baptize into other water; and if you cannot in cold, then in warm. But if you have neither, pour water three times upon the head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The instruction to teach first precludes infant baptism. The preference for immersion is clearly seen. Running water is preferred, as Jesus was baptized in the Jordan. Still water is permitted, as the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized into a body of water. Cold water more aptly symbolized death, but warm water is permitted. If a body of water is not available, then pouring (not sprinkling) was permitted. There is no Scriptural support for this last alternative, but it appeared to be an accommodation of the church to circumstances.

Related Articles:
Water Baptism – Is it Necessary for Salvation?
The Translations of “eis” in Acts 2:38
Faith Saves; Baptism Doesn’t

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