line of people being baptized

What is the purpose of water baptism (according to the Bible)? Ask people this question and you'll get a variety of answers. Most of them are wrong.

Let's let the Bible speak for itself on this matter.

Welcome to part 8 of my biblical baptism series. These posts build on each other. If you need to catch up, here are links to the previous posts:

  1. Introduction
  2. Is Scripture Descriptive or Prescriptive?
  3. Defining 'baptism'
  4. The Baptism of John
  5. Why Was Jesus Baptized?
  6. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
  7. The Baptism that Jesus Commanded

...

So far in our study on baptism, we have:

In this post, we turn our attention to the question, "According to the Bible, what is the purpose of baptism?"

I implore you to stay with me until the end, because it is my firm conviction that this question is one of the most important and controversial questions of our time.

Heart exam

Before we begin, I ask you to conduct a quick personal heart check.

  • Are you honestly and sincerely fully committed to seeking after GOD's will for your life?
  • Are you honestly seeking the truth?

Many people have already predetermined what they "know" about this subject and are just looking to reconfirm it.

Don't be one of them.

We must always ensure our heart is prepared to receive GOD's message.

Today's popular belief about baptism

Let's just get this out of the way up front, shall we.

The most popular belief on water baptism today goes something like this:

Baptism is a public profession of an individual's decision to follow Jesus. It's an outward sign to the world of what has already taken place inside. Jesus has already cleansed the person from their sins as soon as they first believed that Jesus is the Son of GOD and prayed for Him to be their Lord and Savior.

But is this popular doctrine in harmony with what all of Scripture says?

I'm convinced based upon my study that this doctrine is not, in fact, biblical, and in the paragraphs below I will provide what I believe is overwhelming evidence that led me to my conclusion.

What did Jesus say about water baptism?

As Jesus was about to ascend into heaven, he instructed the apostles:

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matt. 28:18-20 NIV)

Mark's account reads:

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.
(Mark 16:15-16 NIV)

Much earlier in His earthly ministry, Jesus had spoken with the Pharisee Nicodemus.

John wrote:

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?”

Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
(John 3:1-5 NIV)

We noted in part 7 of this series, that the early church consistently understood Jesus' statement in John 3:5 to be a reference to water baptism (see also Titus 3:5).

David Bercot, a student of early Christian writings (generally between 100-325 A.D.) since 1985 and author of multiple books, says of his early days reading these writings:

"...it took the wind out of my sails when I discovered that the early Christians universally understood Jesus' words [in John 3:5] to refer to water baptism."
—David Bercot, Will The Real Heretics Please Stand Up?, p. 77

Using only Jesus' own words, He pointed at three purposes of water baptism:

  1. Water baptism is a part of a person becoming His disciple.
  2. Water baptism, when combined with belief in Jesus, saves a person.
  3. Water baptism is a part of the new birth and a requirement for entering the kingdom of GOD.

Now, in case you're frowning, shaking your head in disagreement, or moving the mouse toward the Close button (if you're reading this on the Internet), let's take a quick timeout.

I know that what I'm saying is quite different than today's popular belief.

But please, stay with me on this.

Ask yourself: How often is that which is popular and that which GOD wants the same?

What did the apostles teach about water baptism?

Peter on Pentecost

In Acts 2, on the day of Pentecost some 50 days after Jesus had been crucified, when the apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues, Peter preached to the Jews that they had crucified the Savior.

Consider what the Bible says:

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.” 37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
(Acts 2:36-41 NIV)

It's both humorous and sad (mostly just sad) how people who claim to be believers will resist the plain message in these words.

For example, Jeremy Myers, in his post entitled "No Christian Baptism in Acts 2," says:

"The baptism of the Jewish people on the day of Pentecost was identical in symbolism and significance to the baptism of the Jewish people three years earlier as part of the ministry of John. This is not a 'Christian baptism.' It is still a Jewish baptism. ... They were just now trying to be more fully Jewish by turning away from the corruption that had come upon Judaism of that day, and were turning toward a Judaism which accepted and believed that the Messiah had come in Jesus Christ, and the new order of God's Kingdom had arrived on earth."

So, Jeremy would have us believe that Peter's message in Acts 2 is just a call to a pure form of Judaism.

There is no evidence of this in the text, however.

Instead, what we see is a desperate cry of "What shall we do?" from a broken and convicted group of people who have just learned that they—personally—killed the Messiah!

Peter's response was to repent and be baptized.

There's no plea for them to pray a sinner's prayer or invite Jesus into their hearts.

Regardless of what men may say, the message of Acts 2 is clear: If you wish to be saved, repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus.

Conversions in the book of Acts

In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit records numerous conversions to Jesus.

Each time we are given a detailed account of what occurred, we find the new believer(s) submitting to water baptism:

  • The 3,000 Jews on Pentecost (Acts 2:36-41)
  • The Samaritans, including Simon the sorcerer (Acts 8:4-13)
  • The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40)
  • Saul/Paul (Acts 9:1-19; 22:6-16)
  • Cornelius and family (Acts 10:34-47)
  • Lydia and family (Acts 16:13-15)
  • The Philippian jailer (Acts 16:25-34)
  • Many Corinthians (Acts 18:8)
  • 12(+?) Ephesian disciples (Acts 19:1-7)

In other situations (Acts 13:12, 48; 14:1, 21; 17:4, 10-12, 34; 18:4, 24-28; 28:24), baptism isn't explicitly mentioned.

Does this mean that those individuals weren't baptized in water?

Not at all, for the apostles and evangelists were consistently obeying and teaching the instructions of Jesus everywhere they went.

In these cases, the Holy Spirit is simply informing us that these persons became Christians.

As we have noted and will note again, we find these evangelists and apostles teaching the essential nature of water baptism. Thus, to fail to practice what they preached would have made them hypocrites and GOD would never have approved of them and confirmed His approval through the ongoing miracles they performed.

Additionally, Scripture, as well as other early Christian writings reveal that there was no confusion or division whatsoever among Christians about the gospel message and what one must do to be saved.

Those who taught differently, such as the Gnostics, were labeled heretics and weren't accepted Christians at all.

Regardless of why baptism isn't mentioned in every situation in Acts, it is undeniable that water baptism was a regular practice in the early church, for Jew and Gentile alike, and that Scripture makes no mention of Christian water baptism being practiced on the basis of any cultural significance.

Peter's Writings on the Purpose of Baptism

In Peter's first letter, he draws a comparison between the water baptism of Christians and the great flood of Noah:

15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
(1 Pet. 3:15-22 NIV)

As with Acts 2, I've heard countless attempts to twist, confuse and pervert Peter's words here.

I admit that this passage can be a tad difficult, particularly in some of the older translations such as the KJV.

However, the message is really quite simple.

Peter was saying that, just as Noah was saved from the evil of his day by the water of the flood, Christians are saved in the water of baptism (because of Jesus' suffering and death in order to "bring you to God").

When Peter wrote, "not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God", he wasn't discounting or contradicting his previous statement about the significance of water immersion in salvation.

Rather, he is saying that the power of baptism isn't in the water itself, but in GOD's recognition of the believer's desire to cleanse their conscience of guilt and sin.

So, according to Peter's statements, does water baptism save us? Yes.

Is it the water itself that saves us? No.

Paul's writings on the purpose of baptism

Paul mentions baptism considerably more than Peter, including Scripture's most detailed explanation of baptism's purpose in Romans 6.

Romans 6

If we look at the progression of Paul's letter to the Romans, he begins in chapter 1 by explaining the guilt of the Gentiles, then shows how the Jews are equally guilty in chapters 2 and 3.

He then shows, in chapter 4, how Abraham was justified by faith and not by works.

In chapter 5, Paul shows how sin and death came through Adam, and salvation and grace came in the form of the free gift of Jesus.

Then, in chapter 6, Paul explains baptism's role in salvation and grace.

It is essential to remember that Paul was writing to Christians who were already baptized.

1 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.

Paul clearly states that the biblical purpose of Christian water baptism is to be immersed into Jesus' death.

When the believer submits to baptism, they are imitating Jesus.

As Jesus' physically dead body was lowered into the grave, the believer's spiritually dead body is lowered into the water (see also Eph. 2:1-5).

And, just as Jesus' physical body was raised from the grave with new life, the believer is raised up cleansed of their sins, being given a new life. It is this very transformative process that Paul speaks of in his letter to the Galatians, when he says:

20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
(Gal. 2:20 NIV)

The "new life" Paul refers to in verse 4 is the very same new birth that Jesus spoke of in John 3:1-8 ("of the water and the Spirit").

Paul would refer to this again in his letter to Titus:

4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
(Titus 3:4-7 NIV)

Similarly, Paul told the Corinthians:

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.
(2 Cor. 5:17 NKJV)

5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.

Note Paul's conditional "if" in these verses.

He explains that this representative death of the "body ruled by sin" which occurs in baptism is necessary in order for us to be set free from sin.

8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. 13 Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. 14 For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.

IF a believer is baptized in water for the purpose of dying with Jesus (i.e., having their sins washed away), they have the promise of living with Jesus.

This person (now a Christian or disciple) should no longer "walk according to the flesh," but according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:1), because they are now under grace.

But again, that tiny word "if" has tremendous significance.

The obvious implication is that those who have not died with Jesus in water baptism do not have the promise of living with Him, regardless of the sincerity of their professed "belief."

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.

By dying to sin in obedient faith through water baptism, the new Christian is now a slave to righteousness. 

It is for this reason—because we have been set free from sin—that the Christian is expected and called to live a holy life (see verse 1).

For Jesus did not simply come to forgive our sins, but to transform our behavior, minds and character.

19 I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21 What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
(Rom. 6:1-23 NIV)

Water baptism as a result of our being convicted by the gospel of our guilty, condemned status before GOD, is what unlocks our opportunity to live a holy life.

This does not mean sinless perfection, but refers to the manner of our walk with GOD (see Rom. 8:1).

This leads us to eternal life.

In addition to the Scriptures above, Paul wrote about water baptism in other places, including the following:

1 Corinthians 1

In 1 Cor. 1:12-17, as Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for their divisions, he mentioned baptism several times.

The Corinthians had apparently begun labeling themselves after the one who taught them the gospel or baptized them into Jesus.

Paul mentions being thankful that he only baptized a few of them so that people weren't claiming they were "of Paul" as they were saying of others.

Some point to verse 17 as evidence that water baptism wasn't practiced by all believers, but this wasn't what Paul was saying.

He was simply saying that his role that Jesus gave him was to preach the message, leaving others to do the majority of the baptizing. 

1 Corinthians 6

In 1 Cor. 6:11, Paul referred to the Corinthian Christians as having been "washed," "sanctified," and "justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God."

1 Corinthians 10

In 1 Cor. 10:1-22, Paul mentioned that the ancient Israelites were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

Paul was drawing a comparison between the modern day Corinthians and the ancient Israelites who were led by Moses.

Paul was saying:

Israel was immersed in water just as you were. As a result of faithfully passing through the water, Israel was saved by GOD just as you were. Israel ate and drank from Christ just as you have. But Israel sinned and displeased GOD, so He scattered their bodies in the wilderness! So don't be like Israel, Corinthians.

N.T. Wright does a fabulous job explaining Paul's purpose regarding water baptism in Romans 6 and 1 Corinthians 10 in this video.

1 Corinthians 12

In 1 Cor. 12:13 NASB, Paul wrote:

"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit."

1 Corinthians 15

In 1 Cor. 15:29, Paul mentions that some people were baptized for the dead. He does not expound upon his mention of this practice, nor explain its purpose or spiritual merit, if anything.

Galatians 3

In Gal. 3, Paul wrote:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
(Gal. 3:26-27 NIV)

Again, by implication, those who have not been baptized into Jesus have not clothed themselves with Him.

Ephesians 4

In Eph. 4:1-6, Paul mentions "one baptism" in the list of "one"'s by which unity is maintained.

The implication is that, if we fail to hold to any of these "one"'s—including water baptism—we can't maintain a spirit of unity and bond of peace.

Colossians 2

In Paul's letter to the Colossians, he wrote:

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14 having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross.
(Col. 2:9-14 NIV)

Here, Paul again made the same point he made in Romans 6: that baptism is the representative death of the sinner and the resurrection of the new man, just as GOD raised Jesus from the grave.

The Hebrew letter's statements on baptism

In Heb. 6:2, the writer refers to "the doctrine of baptisms" as being one of the "elementary principles" of Christ.

Heb. 9:10 mentions various "baptisms" which were performed by the priests when the first tabernacle was standing.

Lastly, a reference to water baptism is made in Heb. 10:22:

19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, 21 and having a High Priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
(Heb. 10:19-22 NIV)

Conclusion

In light of all of this evidence from Scripture, I conclude the following:

  • Water baptism is discussed at length in the New Testament.

  • Water baptism was consistently practiced by the early church.

  • Jesus commanded water baptism as the means of accepting GOD's free gift of salvation.

  • Scripture clearly states that water baptism is the point at which salvation, forgiveness of sins, spiritual death of the old man of sin, cleansing, washing, and new birth/life occur for the believer.

  • False teachers have been very effective at convincing many people that they are saved when they haven't yet fully obeyed (by submitting to water baptism). This is, in my opinion, the greatest tragedy since Eden. Far too many people misunderstand that, when the Bible speaks of "belief," it assumes both intellectual assent plus an obedient response that is based on that very assent.

  • Those who are GOD's chosen people will obey the message, regardless of what they've always believed, or dead loved ones who believed differently, or any other consequences.

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Read Part 9 here:

Continue to part 9: "Is Baptism a Public Demonstration?"

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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