Modern Confusion on Baptism
The Apostle Paul made an inspired prediction in 2 Thessalonians 2:3: “…that Day [the Judgment Day] will not come unless the falling away comes first…” He promised the Church would see an apostasy, a day when many among the Church would reject the teaching of Christ in favor of their own religious inventions. This isn’t the only time Paul promises this kind of collapse among Christians. He told Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; 4 and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables.”
Not only does Paul predict that there would be a falling away, he also explains when. Again in 2 Thessalonians 2:7: “For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work…” In other words, it was already happening. The ideas and innovations, the people and processes that would ultimately pervert the Church were already at work among the churches in the first century.
What changed? Where did the Church go astray? Among many things, the Church grew to grossly misunderstand baptism. From the very beginning the Church and greater Christian community has been torn between very different doctrines on baptism. This confusion was apparent in the first century and it’s still apparent today. There are as many ideas on baptism in the world as there are churches in the world.
What’s all the confusion about?
SYMBOLISM IN BAPTISM
More and more the religious world would have us to believe that baptism in water doesn’t actually do anything it just represents something that’s already been done. Many people believe that baptism is “an outward sign of an inward change”. Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and much of the protestant world takes this position that salvation comes first and baptism can come later as a demonstration of the redemption you’ve already received. People are taught to believe that baptism only symbolizes their salvation and nothing more. You may be surprised to know the Bible never teaches this.
Baptism is a symbol, but it’s not only a symbol. Romans 6 explains that baptism, immersion in water, symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, but also how by baptism we participate in the same spiritual process. Romans 6:3-6: “do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin.”
Like the body of Jesus died on cross, our body of sin dies in water. Like Christ was buried in the tomb, our bodies are fully submerged in a watery grave. And like Jesus came forth from the tomb with renewed life, we emerge out of the waters of baptism freed from sin. In this sense there’s really no symbolism at all. He explains that if we were baptized into Jesus were literally baptized into his death (he says just that in verse 3). By baptism he says were untied with Christ. We die with him, we are buried with him, and by his resurrection we are raised from the waters without sin.
So is baptism just a symbol? Is it just an outward sign of an inward change? Not according to the Bible. Baptism is actually the means by which we make the change. This is why he says “baptism into Christ”. If we are in Christ already before baptism this phrase makes no sense at all. Why would he suggest being baptized into Christ if we’re already in him? That’s like announcing that you’re going to church when you’re already here.
MECHANISM OF BAPTISM
This article uses the word baptism and the phrase immersion in water as though they are one in the same. I do believe they are one in the same but not everyone does.
A growing number of people believe that baptism in the Bible doesn’t even involve water at all. Of course they acknowledge this isn’t always the case – Jesus and John went down into the water – but the idea is that most of the time that the Bible talks about baptism it’s referring to an invisible spiritual process by which God immerses us with the Spirit and cleanses us from our sins.
There are obvious reasons people take this position. The direct relationship between baptism and our salvation blatant and abundant throughout the Bible. The Bible does teach that baptism is for salvation… The Apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 3:21, “There is also an antitype which now saves us – baptism…” Jesus says in Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved…” People that don’t want to believe that baptism in water is necessary for salvation have to believe that passages like this refer to some other kind of baptism. Their conclusion then is that baptisms in these scriptures refer to a spiritual baptism in which God applies his grace apart from any visible action of our own. The second reason some people resist the idea that a baptism in water is necessary for salvation is that they also reject the idea that works have a role in our redemption. This relatively modern innovation suggests that baptism isn’t something you do it’s something that’s done to you. The Bible teaches it’s both.
Even during the early years of the apostasy when all of this confusion about baptism was being born, no one believed this. The ancient writers in the apostate church didn’t agree on much but they unanimously taught that baptism is an essential step in the plan of salvation and secondly that baptism involves real water. Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus, and Origen all agreed that baptism was a literal application of water through which we are saved.
More important than the historical evidence is the biblical evidence. Salvation is not something we can achieve on our own; it’s by God’s grace we are saved. However, this doesn’t mean we have nothing to do. People often teach that salvation is unconditional but no one actually believes that. You may not believe that you have to baptized, but do you believe that you have to believe? Of course you do, everyone understands that. Don’t forget, though, anything you have to do is a condition. Baptism is no different.
Baptism is a real, physical process using real water and has spiritual consequences. In Acts 8:36 when the Ethiopian eunuch decides he’s ready to accept Jesus, do you remember what he says, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” In Ephesians 5 when the Apostle Paul is explaining how a man ought to love his wife he mentions that we are cleansed by washing of water. Ephesians 5:25-26: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, 26 that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word…” This washing of water, baptism, is the tool God uses to cleanse us from our sins. By the Word of God we are saved and it’s by baptism that we submit to that Word. The Apostle Peter even goes so far as to that we are saved through water… 1 Peter 3:20-12: “…the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21 There is also an antitype which now saves us–baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” Like the waters of the flood lifted up Noah and his family and saved them from the wicked world, so the waters of baptism separate us from our sins. He even clarifies that although baptism saves us, it’s not a regular bath, it’s not the removal of bodily dirt, it’s not a physical cleansing, it’s a spiritual cleansing, “the answer of a good conscience towards God.”
EFFECTS OF BAPTISM
The world has all kinds of ideas about how you can be saved. The most popular process projected right now is what many people call the “Sinner’s Prayer”. This is a prayer that supposedly you can say to be saved. You just talk to God, acknowledge your sins, accept his grace, and accept Jesus as your savior, all through this prayer.
Although prayer is important, just saying a prayer will not save you. There’s no such thing as the sinner’s prayer in the Bible. In fact we have one good example of how prayer alone cannot save you. When Paul saw Jesus on the road to Damascus he absolutely believed, but was he saved? Not yet. The Bible says he prayed for the next three days. Then was he saved? Not according to the Bible. By the time Paul gets to Ananias he’s seen the savior, he’s prayed to God, but still he’s not saved. What’s left to do? Acts 22:16 Ananias says to Paul: “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” If ever the prayer of a sinner could save anyone it would have saved Paul, but it didn’t save him and it won’t save you. You must be baptized. Here’s why…
Baptism is for our salvation.
- Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.”
- 1 Peter 3:21: “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism…”
By baptism we receive Christ.
- Romans 6:3: “Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?”
- Galatians 3:27: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
Through baptism our sins are forgiven.
- Acts 22:16, Ananias said to Paul, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins…”
- Colossians 2:11-12: “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ,12 buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
Acts 2:38 says several things that are accomplished by baptism. Peter has preached to the Jews about Jesus. They were pricked in their hearts. They realized they killed the savior. Acts 2:37: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” And Peter said to them in verse 38, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” Baptism is that last step when our sins are forgiven and, he says, we receive the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what Jesus was talking about in John 3:5 when he says we must be born again. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” When we are cleansed by the waters of baptism we are renewed by the indwelling of the Spirit.
Have you been washed by the blood Jesus through baptism in his name? Thank God for his promise of salvation to those who obey!
I am a member of the Riverside Road Church of Christ in Ozark, MO, where I share the responsibility of teaching and preaching with several other men. In my secular work, I am a professor at Cox College in Springfield, MO, in the department of radiologic sciences and imaging.