Christian Baptism What Is It? What Is It Not?

By Eugene P. Vedder, Jr

Christian baptism is an ordinance, or rite, unique to Christianity. There was no Christian baptism before the Church (the Assembly) began, which was on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and ten days after His bodily ascension into heaven. We find the account of this in Acts 2. On the morning of Pentecost, in answer to the promise of the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit was poured out upon His 120 followers, who were waiting as He had instructed them in the upper room. These 120 were filled with the Holy Spirit and baptized into one body by Him, and in this way the Church was formed. This was a unique one-time event referred to as the baptism of the Spirit, and every believer in the Lord Jesus comes into the good of it when he is saved. However, this is not water baptism, which we commonly refer to as baptism when we speak of being baptized.

A crowd of Jews and proselytes (converts to Judaism) from many nations gathered, drawn by this marvelous phenomenon. In response, Peter preached to them, explaining how this event was something the prophet Joel had spoken of long before. He went on to speak of how God had raised and exalted the Lord Jesus, whom they had rejected and crucified a few weeks earlier. In effect, God had reversed the decision they had made about Jesus.

Peter’s message cut members of this crowd to the heart, and they asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” He told them, “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” (vv.37-38 NKJV). Remember, weeks earlier a vast crowd of Jews urged on by their leaders had demanded that Jesus be crucified. These Jews who had come together now needed to repent of that behavior and take a public stand with God on the side of the Lord Jesus against that decision and the “perverse generation” who had made it. Three thousand individuals acted accordingly, repenting and being baptized. They thus publicly severed their former ties with what their nation did and took their stand with Jesus. On this wonderful day the Church grew from 120 individuals to 3,120.

Some years earlier many Jews who had been stirred by the preaching of John the Baptist had openly declared their repentance by being baptized – a symbolic washing and cleansing. This was not Christian baptism either, for Christianity did not exist before the death, resurrection, ascension and exaltation of the Lord Jesus. The doctrinal significance of Christian baptism is given to us in Romans 6:3-5. In baptism someone who has received the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is identified with Him and His death for us. Being immersed in the water (the scriptural way to perform baptism) is a going into “the likeness of His death.” In effect, the one baptized acknowledges that he, the sinner, deserved to die. In figure he puts himself in the place of death, where Christ actually went, thereby confessing his faith in Christ’s death for his sins. Coming up out of the water is a picture of resurrection, in which the one baptized symbolically says that he has become a new creation in Christ. His old life is past and he wants to walk in newness of life.

Baptism does not save a person. It does not wash away his sins or impart new life to him. Rather, it symbolizes that the person being baptized is identifying with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection. He wants to live a new life, pleasing to God. He wants now to live in newness of life – no longer as a slave to sin, but as one alive from the dead. According to 1 Peter 3:21, baptism is the answer of a good conscience toward God; it is not the removal of the filth of the flesh. Galatians 3:27 says that “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

In Scripture we invariably find that baptism follows salvation. Acts 18:8 clearly states that “many of the Corinthians hearing, believed and were baptized.” Before leaving them, the Lord Jesus in Mark 16:15-16 told His disciples to “go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.” In Matthew 28:18-20 this command of the Lord, who could say, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and in earth,” is given as a threefold command:

  1. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations”;
  2. “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”; and
  3. “Teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you.”

The Lord goes on to encourage His disciples – and us, too – by saying, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.”

We see in these verses that the Lord gives those who preach the gospel the responsibility for baptizing those who believe on Him through their preaching. In the New Testament we never find a long interval of time between when a person accepted Christ as Savior and Lord and when he was baptized. We’ve noted Peter’s command to the 3,000 who believed to repent and be baptized. Saul of Tarsus (later named Paul) similarly was told by Ananias to arise and be baptized (Acts 22:16). Like the 3,000 Jews at Pentecost, he had been publicly against the Lord Jesus, persecuting His Church. But now Saul was to openly switch sides, as it were. The Lord had already seen and recognized his faith, but his sin was to be dealt with publicly in baptism.

Peter in Acts 10:48 commanded that Cornelius and those with him should be baptized. He had just witnessed the Holy Spirit being poured out upon them as they sat and heard the preaching of the gospel – clear, God-given evidence that these Gentiles had believed the Word and thus had been saved. We do not read that Peter personally performed the baptism, but he insisted that it be done. Paul likewise did not usually baptize those who believed through his preaching, lest this would be misunderstood. Others of the team that accompanied him could doubtless show their fellowship in the gospel endeavor by carrying out the physical act of baptizing.

We have seen that the Lord wanted His own to teach those who were saved and baptized to observe all that He had commanded them. This should not be neglected. No long course of teaching is required before a person is baptized. Indeed, we see in the New Testament people baptized very quickly upon their salvation. We even see in Acts 8 in the case of Simon the sorcerer that this man was baptized upon what was later shown to have been merely an outward profession and not reality of heart.

Baptism should be the outward accompaniment of salvation. Numerous passages of Scripture show us that faith, not baptism, is the means by which one is saved. Ephesians 2:8-9 makes plain that faith is not of ourselves, not something we can take credit for, but it is given by God’s grace. Therefore we cannot boast of our faith. Sadly, baptism is an outward act that is many times applied erroneously or even deceptively.

Not a single clear case is given us in Scripture in which unsaved people were deliberately baptized. Yet this is often done today in many so-called “Christian” churches, usually because the significance of baptism is not properly understood. Many people view baptism as a means of salvation or as a way to become a member of a church rather than as a vital accompaniment to salvation. They think that the Lord meant baptism when He spoke of being born of water and of the Spirit. Water in the Bible is often used as a picture of the Word of God. This misinterpretation of Scripture would mix baptism, which is a human work, and the activity of the Spirit of God. This is absolutely wrong, for salvation is by faith in Christ rather than by works of righteousness which we have done.

There are numerous variations of the erroneous belief that baptism is a means of salvation. In many churches babies are baptized soon after they are born. These churches seek to make them Christians and thus assure them entry into heaven. The true gospel is hardly taught in a church that advocates such false teaching; nor can a child be saved by the faith of its parents or of any other “sponsor.” It is most important to acquaint children with the Lord Jesus, who wants to be their loving Savior, for salvation is not accomplished by a mechanical or physical process such as baptism. As long as a child does not have understanding to accept or to reject the Lord Jesus, should he die he is covered by the value of Christ’s glorious sacrificial work accomplished on Calvary. A child is a sinner by birth and this soon becomes evident in his actions. When he is able to understand – and we cannot set a definite age for when this is – that he is a sinner and that Christ died for him, then by all means bring the gospel before him in simplicity and clarity! The person who rejects God’s loving offer of salvation is lost, whether he has been baptized or not.

There are Christian parents who dedicate their children, wanting to put them “on Christian ground.” In doing this they publicly affirm that they intend to bring up their children for the Lord. There is no doubt that they mean well. Such parents often try thereby to draw parallels with circumcision in the Old Testament, basing their practice on passages of Scripture that refer to the baptism of households. A household in the biblical sense, however, is not the same as a family. God distinguishes between Abraham’s children and his household in Genesis 18:19. A household is a broader term in Scripture, for it included the slaves or servants. The references in Scripture to a household being baptized never indicate the ages of any children in the household or even that there were children in the household.

The jailor at Philippi in Acts 16 was converted after midnight and “rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.” Lydia’s household is referred to in verse 40 of that same chapter as “the brethren.” Paul exhorts the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 16:15-16 to submit to the household of Stephanas, for “they have devoted themselves to the ministry of the saints.” In 1 Corinthians 1:16, he mentions having personally baptized this household. Every indication in the New Testament of the baptism of a household indicates a one-time action. Romans 16:11 mentions a household of which not all the members were “in the Lord.” Nowhere do we find a record of an infant born to Christian parents after their own baptism being baptized by itself as a distinct event.

The words “Do you not know” in Romans 6:3 would also indicate that the person being baptized should have at least a basic understanding of what baptism signifies. God sees the heart of a person when that person believes, but man recognizes a person as a believer when that person is baptized. This is especially true of Muslims and Orthodox Jews, who often seem to know more about the meaning of baptism than many Christians do. When he professes to be saved, they still hold out hope for someone who leaves their religion to return, but they regard him as dead once he gets baptized.

Friend, if you have not trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior, please come to Him today! He loves you so much that He died for you on the cross at Calvary nearly 2,000 years ago. If you have put your trust in Him as Savior, have you confessed this publicly before the world in baptism? If not, why not? This is a step of obedience He expects you to take once you have received salvation by His grace. Baptism openly shows you to be on His side in a world that still rejects Him – “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” (Col. 2:12). May God bless you as you then seek to walk in newness of life!