There are many people who are finding it difficult, and truly impossible, to harmonize the various positions that are being advocated concerning baptism. It is confusing indeed, and it is not the Lord’s will that people be divided and distressed (cf. John 17:20-22; 1 Corinthians 1:10).
Before I reflect on some New Testament passages about baptism, let me ask you to consider this question. How can we arrive at the truth concerning this important teaching of the Bible?
The Truth Is Important
Paul wrote that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Similarly, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
The truth is something that is critical with regards to our salvation — as these passages indicate.
But how can we determine what is the truth regarding any religious matter? There is only one objective way to “know the truth.” The Lord Jesus affirmed that God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). Since God’s word is truth, genuine faith is derived from God’s Word (Romans 10:17). I might believe or practice something with sincerity, but sincerity does not determine “the truth.” Paul sincerely persecuted Christians in his early life, didn’t he? But he was wrong (Acts 23:1).
In the pursuit of truth, I have found it helpful to apply the following question that Jesus asked on one occasion: “John’s baptism — where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or from men?” (Matthew 21:25).
Any religious question can be viewed in that light, for a belief or practice is either from heaven or from men — it is either given by God, or it is a human innovation.
Now concerning baptism — how are we going to know the truth of the matter? The only way to determine the truth is by allowing the Bible to be our only guide.
I realize that this can be difficult, and it can also be a lengthy process. Like Saul of Tarsus, we can find ourselves reared in an environment, surrounded by good and honest people; that fact alone makes it difficult to question what we have always assumed to be true. It is with courage that one must approach the Word of God in order to understand the truth objectively — without the hindrances of presuppositions or emotions.
Let me ask you to consider something. What if someone argued that no form of baptism is required; that as long as one accepted Jesus, he would be saved. This person could contend that his father was the godliest man he knew, and he was never baptized at all. It would be unacceptable for him, then, to believe that baptism in any form, for any reason, is necessary.
But we could also consider another individual. This person believes in God, but does not believe in Jesus Christ. She is, however, a good person. She may argue that as long as one lives a moral life, and believes in God, it doesn’t really matter what a person believes about Jesus Christ. She may be a good person, but she finds it difficult to believe that Jesus came “back to life and flew to heaven” (as a person actually said to me). This individual may say that her sister, now deceased, was the most loving and giving person she ever knew. Surely she is in heaven, if anyone is. She lived a noble life in contrast to many “Christians.” This sincere lady finds it unacceptable to believe that her sister is not in heaven just because she did not believe in Jesus.
What determines the truth? Is the truth different for each of us? Do we reason from our experiences? Is truth simply what we want it to be, or do we learn the truth and conform our thinking to it? The latter is the position of Scripture.
If the Bible is going to be our guide, then there are three things about baptism that we must consider.
The first thing we must consider is the question as to how baptism is to be performed. Are sprinkling, pouring, and immersion all biblical forms of baptism?
The New Testament explains how baptism was performed during the early days of the church, under the authority of the apostles — who were guided into all the truth by the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 10:16; John 16:13).
In two places, the New Testament explicitly says that baptism is a burial (see Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).
Additionally, the New Testament word “baptism” or “baptize” means “to immerse.” Evaluate this quotation from John Calvin’s work, Institutes. As you will see, he was not biased towards immersion, but he wrote:
“Whether the person baptized is to be wholly immersed ... or whether he is only to be sprinkled with water, is not of the least consequence: churches should be at liberty to adopt either, according to the diversity of climates, although it is evident that the term baptize means to immerse, and that this was the form used by the primitive Church” (524; emphasis added).
Calvin acknowledged that the term means immersion. The question is one of attitude towards the Bible. Are we going to do what the Bible says, in the way it says it, or are we free to innovate whenever we choose? The apostle Paul said that we must not go beyond what is written (1 Corinthians 4:6 — ASV).
Since baptism is a burial, and since it literally means immersion, New Testament examples of baptism were performed by immersion (see Acts 8:38). If you and I are baptized according “to the form used by the primitive Church,” would there be any doubt as to the validity of our baptism — at least with reference as to how it was accomplished?
The second point about New Testament baptism relates to the subjects to be baptized, as noted in the reader’s question.
We have experiences that raise questions in our minds. Some individuals who have been immersed are accepted into fellowship because they have been immersed, yet their lives are characterized by habitual sin. This is, and should be, disturbing.
Let me make two points concerning this. First, we must be vigilant in our study of the Word of God, for our emotions and experiences do not determine the truth of a matter — God’s Word is the standard. An insincere, or impenitent person, who is immersed, is no more an argument against immersion — or for sprinkling — any more than an immoral Christian (as in 1 Corinthians 5) is evidence against the deity of Christ. Our conformity, or lack of it, to the will of God says a lot about ourselves but does not change the nature of truth.
Second, there are coordinate truths concerning salvation that are as essential as baptism. For instance, one must repent of sins in order to be saved (Acts 2:38; 17:30; Luke 13:3,5). Immersion alone is powerless to save; one must have a serious desire to turn away from sin in order to truly obey the gospel.
Let me give you a real-life example. A man once decided to be baptized. He was baptized by immersion. When he came up out of the water, he looked at his wife and said, “I hope you are satisfied!”
He was immersed according to New Testament teaching. But who would consider this a scriptural baptism? He was not sincere. Immersion alone does nothing. This illustrates the truth that is taught in the New Testament. Repentance is also necessary for salvation.
Additionally, immersion must be preceded by belief. Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16). The believer confesses his faith in the Son of God as Lord and Savior (see Romans 10:9-10; 1 Timothy 6:12). So, there are several factors that must be taken into consideration. The gospel is obeyed through immersion, but immersion alone is not gospel obedience.
These truths will help us understand this second major point that we are considering: What about the people who are baptized? Who is a proper candidate for baptism?
One must believe (cf. John 8:24). Therefore, he must have the ability to believe and understand the gospel. A person must repent to be a proper subject for baptism. This means a person must have the moral cognition to have committed personal sin. Having recognized one’s sinful state, he or she must be willing and able to repent. Only a believer, who is penitent, is a proper subject for baptism.
The third principle about New Testament baptism is this: baptism has a biblical purpose. It is to obtain the remission of sins. Peter said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Likewise, he wrote that baptism now saves you (1 Peter 3:21). He immediately qualified this truth by saying that baptism is not the putting away of the filth of the flesh. There is no scrubbing off of sins — no physical cleansing. There is no inherent power in the water. It is the “appeal to God for a clean conscience by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
According to the teaching of the New Testament, a penitent believer is saved by the grace of God when he or she has the remission of sins. People have the remission of sins when they are buried with Christ, saved by his blood, having been united with him in his death by baptism (Romans 6:3-4).
Here then are three necessary elements of New Testament baptism:
a. the immersion
b. of a penitent believer
c. for the purpose of obtaining the forgiveness of sins by the grace of God.
Before I conclude, let me bring your attention to an interesting case. Paul met some men in Ephesus who had been baptized. They had been immersed. They had been immersed for the forgiveness of sins; they had been baptized with the baptism of John, which was for the remission of sins (Acts 19:3; cf. Luke 3:3). But they had not realized that the church of Christ had been established, the Holy Spirit having been sent and given. Although they formerly had been immersed for the forgiveness of sins, they were baptized again with the proper knowledge of the truth.
There are so many confusing things being taught on baptism today. I encourage you to read and study the Bible, letting it be your sole guide for what you believe and what you practice (see John 8:32).