Baptism: Who, What, When, Why and How
The goal of this article is to answer the following questions that are often asked about baptism:
1) What is baptism?
2) Is baptism necessary for salvation?
3) What is its history?
4) Who should be baptized?
5) When should one be baptized?
6) Who can administer baptism?
Keep in mind that a full understanding of baptism isn’t required to obey the command to be baptized. When people in the New Testament heard the gospel and were told to be baptized, they didn’t ask questions or take classes on what baptism meant or how it worked. They simply obeyed. Therefore if you are left with more questions after reading this article, feel free to ask, inquire, and study so that you can grow in your understanding; but don’t use your lack of understanding to justify your lack of obedience to the command. Often times, understanding comes only after obeying.
What is baptism?
The word “baptize” is a transliteration of the Greek word “baptizo” which means to immerse fully in fluid. For Christians, it is the ceremonial initiation into the church (Ephesians 4:5, Mark 16:16, Matthew 28:18-19, Acts 2:37-38). Though some denominations baptize by sprinkling water, the word means to immerse completely; and baptism has both biblically and historically been conducted by immersing completely in water.
- A pledge of a good conscience towards God (1 Peter 3:21)
- Submission to Christ (Galatians 3:27)
- Identity in His death and resurrection, symbolizing death to sin and resurrection to new life in Christ (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12)
Is baptism necessary for salvation?
Mark 16:16, which says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned…” seems to suggest that baptism is necessary for salvation; however, this verse (just like every other verse of the bible) must be read carefully, in context, and in light of all the other verses which talk about the same subject. In this case, we need to read Mark 16:16 in light of the other verses that talk about baptism and salvation. I would argue that baptism is necessary in that it is a commandment which is given to be obeyed, but it is not prerequisite to salvation.
Verses to consider:
One of the criminals who hung there [next to Jesus on the cross] hurled insults at Him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “Since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The thief on the cross was never baptized, yet Jesus said “today you will be with me in paradise”. Some have argued that the thief on the cross didn’t need to be baptized because he died before the resurrection – before baptism was required for salvation (according to some). However, I would point to the Gentile believers in the book of Acts (after the resurrection) who “received the Holy Spirit” (which was only granted to believers – those who have been saved according to John 7:38-39) before being baptized.
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. 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…
Also, Romans 1:16 says that the gospel “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes”. It doesn’t say “for the salvation of everyone who is baptized” but for everyone who believes.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians clearly explains that we are not saved by any work, but only by grace through faith.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works so that no one can boast.
In 1 Corinthians 1:14-17, Paul teaches clearly that his goal wasn’t to baptize people, but to preach the gospel. He separated baptism from the gospel (which is the power of God for salvation) when he said, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel”.
So does baptism save you? In one sense, yes; in another sense, no.
…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God.
1 Peter 3:21
Peter says that baptism does save you, but not the physical act of dipping in the water, it’s the pledge you are making with God.
So what does Mark 16:16 mean when it says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved”? It simply means that all who have A & B will receive C. It’s almost like saying “whoever is happy and smiles will feel joy”. It’s not the act of smiling that gives you joy, but the fact that you are happy. Smiling is just the automatic response of someone who is happy. Baptism is the automatic response of one who believes, because obedience is the evidence of our belief.
We see clearly from the bible that baptism isn’t necessary for salvation, but if someone refuses to be baptized, it is evidence that they have not truly repented because they are refusing to obey a biblical command.
Where did baptism come from? (What is its history?)
There is no Old Testament reference to baptism. The first time we see the word in the bible is in Matthew 3.
In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”
People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
Matthew 3:1-2; 5-6
Even though baptism isn’t mentioned in the Old Testament, it’s interesting to note that the people John the Baptist was baptizing seemed to be familiar with the practice. They didn’t ask what baptism was, and he didn’t have to explain – they already knew what it was. The Jews of that time would have been familiar with baptism for 3 reasons: types, ceremonial washings, and Mikvah.
Types are events that took place which act as symbols for things that were to come. For example, 1 Peter 3:20-21 explains how the event where Noah’s ark passed through the water saving only a handful of people symbolizes the waters of baptism which now save us. Another example is in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 where Paul explains that when the Israelites passed through the waters of the Red Sea, “they were baptized into Moses…” These were actual events that took place, but they served as pictures of something that was to come.
it was Jewish custom (and Levitical law), for unclean things to be made clean – often by washing. In Exodus 30:18-21, for example, we see instructions given to Moses by God to make a bronze basin for water where the priests would have to wash themselves before entering into the Tent of Meeting. We see a similar law given to the Israelites in Numbers 19:7-8. It was (and still is) a very common, and biblical practice for Jews to ceremonially clean things, including themselves, in order to be used by God.
Mikveh is where the act of baptism as seen in the New Testament (by complete immersion in water) came from. After the Babylonian captivity, Gentiles (non-Jews) were able to become Jewish proselytes through Mikveh. Mikveh allowed for non-Jews to be converted to Judaism by ceremonial cleansing through a tub filled with water. It was an outward demonstration showing that someone was trading their previous identity for a new one. For Jewish converts, it was a declaration that they are turning from their old way of life, and identifying themselves with the people of God.
For Jews to be baptized, it was a radical statement. They were confessing that they were impure and that they were not identified with God’s people. Being baptized, they were seeking cleansing and repentance.
Who should be baptized?
Anyone who makes a conscious decision to respond to the gospel invitation should be baptized. If you hear the gospel and are cut to the heart, and ask “what must I do” then you should repent and be baptized. The gospel invitation is to come to Christ, leaving your previous way of life behind you. Baptism is the outward demonstration that you have made that decision. Some denominations baptize infants. I would ask them, “Has that infant made a decision to follow Christ?” Obviously not, therefore I would counsel against baptizing infants and toddlers.
How old should one be? It’s different for everyone. Some people have responded positively to the clear gospel message at very young ages, and they fully understood their decision. I would say they should be baptized.
When should one be baptized?
Throughout the New Testament, the pattern was always to repent and be baptized. There was never a waiting period for counseling, or teaching on doctrine and baptism. It was an immediate response to a believer’s profession of faith. In Acts 2 when Peter preached to a large crowd, 3000 people responded to the gospel message and were baptized that same day. When Philip preached the gospel to the Ethiopian eunuch, “they came to some water and the eunuch said, ‘look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?’ And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.” (Acts 8:36-38)
Who can administer baptism?
There is no scripture that says that an elder, pastor, deacon, or any other church leader is responsible to baptize people. However, the Great Commission was written to all believers as our marching orders until Christ comes back.
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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The same believers that are commanded to make disciples are the same believers that are commanded to baptize and teach them.