Baptism has certainly been a subject of controversy over the centuries. Different traditions exercise different forms with different understandings. Yet the Bible should be presenting one message about baptism, and it should be possible for us to arrive at understanding.
With that goal in view, the following is an inductive study of baptism in the New Testament and exhaustive as far as the occurrence of baptism terms are concerned. Though not everything will be said that could be said, whatever conclusions that are drawn will be drawn from the data available. Anyone who wishes to draw conclusions not based on biblical data may do so, but that person should not claim that his conclusions are biblical and therefore the will of God.
It will come as a surprise to some that water baptism is not the only baptism mentioned in the New Testament. In fact, there are four categories of baptism besides water baptism, and there are three kinds of water baptism. I will list them and include all the passages in which they appear.
Fire Baptism--a figure of judgment: Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16
Suffering Baptism--a figure of death: Mark 10:38-39 and Luke 12:50
Spirit Baptism--a placement into the Body of Christ, the universal Church (always in Greek written baptized "in" though not consistently translated in English)
One strange feature of the whole discussion which has not helped our understanding is that the word as it appears in our translations has never been translated from the Greek. Instead, it has been transliterated. Its sound in English is virtually like its sound in Greek. Related to this is the fact that dictionaries sometimes give an 'ecclesiastical' definition growing out of usage by churches throughout the centuries. Such a definition cannot be decisive in our understanding of baptism. Rather, we must know how the term was used at the time it was written in the Bible. Only that usage counts in determining true significance.
The word means to "dip" or "plunge" with the result in appropriate circumstances of being soaked, drenched, or drowned. The term was used for washing oneself, i.e. bathing. It was used of ships that sank. It was used for dyeing objects. It was used figuratively for being "over head and ears in debt." It was also used for being immersed or overwhelmed in cares, grief, etc. (See A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell and Scott, or any Greek dictionary.)
Pagans were baptized into the Mysteries for moral purification signifying death; this was likely an immersion. Jews, perhaps sometime later than the New Testament, required immersion for proselytes after they had received circumcision. Tertullian, at the end of the second century, testified that the Christian church practiced trine immersion (immersing three times). Present Greek Orthodox church usage is trine immersion. The usage of 'baptizo,' the Greek term, everywhere indicates that it means only "to immerse." (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939)
Some indications of usage in the church have come down to us, though the issue would likely not be widely discussed unless a controversy made the subject prominent. Immersion was practiced in the second century church with trine pouring being sanctioned in extreme circumstances. By the end of the second century a catechism existed; during that time some inferred infant baptism from dubious passages and practiced it.
Cyprian of Novation made the first recorded instance of pouring about A. D. 250, but he counseled immersion after the person recovered from the illness. It was not until after Constantine in the fourth century that infant baptism was generally practiced. Single immersion was condemned by the Apostolic Canons, but in 633 it was sanctioned by the Council of Toledo.
From the first until the twelfth centuries, evidence indicates that trine immersion and trine affusion (pouring) were practiced. In the thirteenth century aspersion (sprinkling) was allowed for the sick and infirm in exceptional cases and considered supported by Old Testament passages (See references to sprinkling in Leviticus.); it was sanctioned by the Council of Colgne in A. D. 1280.
Early writings indicate immersion, and early drawings indicate affusion standing in water. (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1939)
The grammar of biblical usage itself provides evidence. For example, consider the statement from Luke 3:16, "I baptize you in water." Translations may vary, but that is the simplest, most straightforward way to translate the statement. Now, you cannot translate the statement properly unless you use the meaning 'immerse.' If it is aspersion, one would have to say, "I sprinkle water upon you;' you cannot say, "I sprinkle you in water." If it is affusion, one would have to say, "I pour water over you;' you cannot say "I pour you in water." If it is immersion, one would have to say, "I immerse you in water," and that is what the Greek says. You must play havoc with the prepositional phrase "in water" and the verb's object "you" in order to make the baptism be something other than immersion. Grammatically it cannot be done.
The mode of baptism practiced does relate to what is understood about the meaning of baptism. For example, some years ago I perused the book, Anabaptist Baptism by Rollin Stely Armour (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1966) because of my own background and experience. In a group which practices pouring, or affusion, the following symbolic meanings were given: it is a symbol of regeneration, of covenant, and of recognition. The first is subjective relating to the Holy Spirit's work in a person, the second also subjective relating to a desire or promise to live a holy life as one of the kingdom community and elect, and the third alone objective relating to the elect community's recognition of the Holy Spirit's work and gifts in a man.
Of interest here is that the mode of pouring is made to suggest that baptism portrays the work of the Holy Spirit in His coming upon a person, an anointing. That appears reasonable on the surface, but where in the Bible is that understanding communicated?
An examination of relevant New Testament passages points to a crystal clear conclusion on this point. They all focus on Jesus Christ, not on the Holy Spirit. Consider the following.
Matthew 28:19 speaks of a relationship with the triune God; Acts 2:38 of forgiveness of sins accomplished by the death of Jesus Christ; 10:48 of identification with Jesus Christ; 19:5 of relationship with Jesus Christ; 22:16 of washing away sins, again by the work of Jesus Christ and not that of the Holy Spirit; and Romans 6:3-7 of identification with Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
Immersion portrays vividly the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. That is the work that purchased eternal salvation for the believer. All references to baptism practiced by the Christian Church in the New Testament are positional in that they relate to justification on the basis of Christ's finished work outside of us. Baptism makes no testimony concerning the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
Unfortunately, English translations of 1 Corinthians 12:13 have often misled sincere Christians into thinking that relating baptism to the Holy Spirit is intended or at least allowed. It begins, "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body" (NASB). But in that passage, the original Greek grammar suggests that Jesus is the baptizer and the Spirit serves as the medium in which a believer is baptized (in water baptism, the water is the medium). Technically, it could be translated in consistency with other baptism statements: "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body." Who does the baptizing is not stated, but the reference is to passages such as Luke 3:16 where the baptizing work of Jesus Christ is promised. Since all believers are baptized in this one medium--the Spirit, they comprise one body, the Church.
Baptism was meant to be a testimony to those who watch that here is a person who has identified with Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Positionally, when Christ died, I died; when He was buried, I was buried; when He rose from the dead, I rose from the dead. He now lives a resurrected, glorified life, and Romans 6 calls me also to live a new life in view of that position. Baptism focuses on Jesus Christ, and only immersion is a faithful symbol of that connection.
It has long been a curiosity to me that some who declare water baptism to be a means of grace (various designations are used by different traditions with generally the same effect) explain it as a replacement for circumcision. Consider the following comparisons.
The two are positively comparable in that circumcision was a sign of faith-righteousness (Genesis 17:11 and Romans 4:11), and baptism is a symbol of faith-righteousness (Acts 2:41 and Colossians 2:12).
The two are dissimilar in that in circumcision the recognition was Abraham's (Genesis 17:11 and Romans 4:11), and in baptism the recognition is every believer's (Romans 6:4-5).
The two are dissimilar in that in circumcision the presence of the sign indicates physical descent from Abraham or being in the environment of those descendants (Genesis 17:10-14), and in baptism the performance of the symbol indicates personal response to the gospel of Christ, regardless of human relationships (Acts 2:41).
The two are dissimilar in that in circumcision the usual performance occurred eight days after birth, later in isolated circumstances (Genesis 17:12), and in baptism the usual performance occurs at or after the point of trusting Christ (Acts 2:41).
The two are dissimilar in that in circumcision the sign was reserved for males only (Genesis 17:10), and in baptism the symbol is for males and females alike (Acts 8:12).
The two are similar in that in circumcision the sign serves as a reminder (Genesis 17:11), and in baptism the symbol serves as a testimony (Romans 6:4-5).
The two are similar in that in circumcision the fulfilment is spiritual, the removal of the old tendency to sin (Colossians 2:11), and in baptism the fulfilment is also spiritual, death to sin and resurrection to life (Romans 6:4-11 and Colossians 2:12).
The two are positively comparable in that one distortion of circumcision is that the sign produces righteousness in the subject, and one distortion of baptism is that the symbol produces or at least aids in obtaining righteousness.
The two are positively comparable in that another distortion of circumcision is that the seal is worthless, and another distortion of baptism is that the symbol is unnecessary.
It should be obvious that it is no honor to baptism to be viewed as the replacement for circumcision. In fact, the two are quite different. They are quite similar, however, when people try to make either what they were never intended to be.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast." Some who claim to believe God's Word, including the above passage, yet see baptism as a necessity for salvation. One critical point involves the meaning of "work."
What is a "work"? Let me suggest that a work, biblically speaking as affecting salvation, is a human activity with the intended result of one's own right standing before God. Water baptism is a human activity. As such it is rejected by Ephesians 2:8-9 as being a necessity for salvation.
Some argue that John 6:29 treats faith as a work, thus undermining a total ban on works for salvation. "Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent'" (NASB). But even here, believing is a work contrary to the usual biblical significance of works because it concentrates on divine activity done apart from ourselves but on our behalf.
Some argue that Galatians 5:6 treats faith as a work with a result similar to the above. "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love." These faith-works are the result of being declared right with God rather than activities seeking results of their own: the faith, which content includes the work of Christ for us, is the motive for activity done to benefit others.
Water baptism cannot be construed as divine activity done apart from ourselves but on our behalf; it must be classified with the Galatians 5:6 faith-works. It must be viewed as a work done to obtain justification if it is not viewed as a result of justification, in which case it is viewed similarly to the way in which many Jews viewed circumcision. Galatians 5:6 and Romans 4:9-12 clarify that circumcision has no contribution toward gaining justification.
Water baptism viewed as a necessity is actually a work done to obtain justification. This places it in opposition to the grace of God. This is a perversion of the gospel according to Galatians 1:6-9. The same can be applied to the view of the Lord's Supper, or any other religious activity, as a necessity for eternal salvation.
Lest this lead us to other extremes, let me hasten to add that water baptism is commanded, even in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20. Therefore it should be performed, not as a means to salvation but as an act of obedience to our Lord. And in that act of obedience it portrays and therefore is a testimony of the baptized person's identification or association with Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
Since baptism cannot be required for salvation, neither can a certain mode be required. Certainly, baptism should be accepted only as the testimony of a believer and not a means to salvation. Immersion, as was shown above, is the mode intended by Scriptural language and symbolic meaning, but grace does not depend upon it.
The question appropriately arises: Who should be baptized? This question is not insignificant, because the answer one gives speaks volumes concerning one's view of salvation.
The Great Commission in Matthew 18:19 indicates that those who have become disciples should be baptized ("Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit," [NASB]).
Acts 2:41, 8:12, and 18:8 all testify to baptism being administered after individuals have come to faith in Christ ("So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls. ...But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. ...And Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.").
This is consistent with the understanding that baptism is a testimony given by one who has come to faith in Christ. This new believer is testifying concerning his identification with Jesus Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
To baptize infants or anyone before the individual has personally, voluntarily trusted in Jesus Christ frequently is done because baptism is accorded some saving efficacy. As we have noted above, baptism has no saving efficacy. And there is no example biblically that people received genuine Christian Church baptism before coming to faith in Christ.
In view of baptism following believing, the act should be performed reasonably soon after coming to faith regardless of age. How soon is nowhere dictated. But until the individual has been baptized, he has not given the God appointed testimony faith and therefore has no reason to expect others to recognize him as belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ.
It is a subtle and distressing reality that in evangelical circles baptism has often been despised or at least confused. One's salvation status has been recognized upon praying a prayer instead of upon being baptized. Though we think we might understand how this abuse has originated, it is still an abuse and must be corrected. The prayer is fine and recommended, but the prayer is not the God-appointed testimony of salvation.
Baptism is an act of obedience and a privilege in that it proclaims to those who observe that another person has become a recipient of God's saving grace in Christ, has received a new life centered in Christ, and is now desirous of living under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. It is neither a means to salvation, nor a ceremony to be treated as insignificant. It is rather to be performed with the rich meaning God has intended for it to have.
If you have questions about the subject of baptism, you may contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.