Let me start off by saying that I think that the church universal has taken a blessing from God and made it a point of division. Baptism is a gift given by God to humanity and somehow we have made it a curse. We have made baptism a burden. In contrast, this is the attitude the early church had towards baptism:
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (Acts 8:36)
Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” (Acts 10:47)
There was no debate in the first century on if or how a person had to be baptized. That was foreign to their thinking. That would be like a kid coming up to their parents and asking if they had to eat ice cream. In this discussion, I want to try to keep the proper perspective of baptism in view. Baptism is a beautiful thing. It’s not something that God bludgeoned humanity with but gifted humanity with.
How cool is it that God allows us the opportunity to do something that Jesus did? In baptism, I can physically follow Jesus. I get to physically do something that Jesus did over two thousand years ago.
My goal in this whole discussion is the same as that of Priscilla and Aquila with Apollos:
18:24 Now a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, arrived in Ephesus. He was an eloquent speaker, well-versed in the scriptures. 18:25 He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and with great enthusiasm he spoke and taught accurately the facts about Jesus, although he knew only the baptism of John. 18:26 He began to speak out fearlessly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the way of God to him more accurately. 18:27 When Apollos wanted to cross over to Achaia, the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him. When he arrived, he assisted greatly those who had believed by grace, 18:28 for he refuted the Jews vigorously in public debate, demonstrating from the scriptures that the Christ was Jesus. (Acts 18:24-28)
Apollos already followed Jesus. He even preached boldly about Jesus, but he knew only John’s baptism. Priscilla and Aquila explain the way of God more accurately. Apollos accepts their instruction and continues to preach the word of God more accurately. That’s the way I want to discuss baptism. If you have not been immersed in the name of Jesus Christ, I come to you like Priscilla and Aquila came to Apollos. I make no judgment about your religious dedication. I do not question if you have been following or proclaiming Jesus. Instead, I come with more accurate instruction concerning the way of God. My prayer is that you will respond like Apollos, you will accept God’s word, be immersed, and continue to vigorously demonstrate to the world from Scripture that Jesus is the Christ.
THREE ASPECTS OF BAPTISM
The debate on baptism centers on three basic aspects of baptism:
1) What method is used,
2) Who we baptize,
3) The purpose of baptism.
The method of baptism is really the easiest of the three aspects to demonstrate. Identification of the method starts with the word “baptism.” The word “baptism” or baptize” is not an inherently religious word. It is a transliteration (Translation is when we transfer the meaning of a word from one language to another. Transliteration is when we simply transfer the sounds of a word from one langue to another) of the Greek word βαπτίζω (baptízō). It is used all over ancient Greek writings in contexts that have nothing to do with religious ritual. It means simply “to immerse”. This is an excerpt from the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament that gives various uses of the Greek words for baptism in ancient literature other than the Bible:
βάπτω, “to dip in or under” (trans.): Hom. Od., 9, 392; Aesch. Prom., 863: ἐν σφαγαῖσι βάψασα ξίφος; “to dye,” used in Josephus only in this sense, Bell., 4, 563; Ant., 3, 102; βάμμα, “dyed material,” Ant., 3, 129; P. Par., 52, 10; 53, 5 (163/2 b.c.): βαπτά, “dyed or coloured clothes.”
The intens. [βαπτίζω occurs in the sense of “to immerse” (trans.) from the time of Hippocrates, in Plato and esp. in later writers, a. strictly, act. βαπτίζειν τὸ σκάφος, “to sink the ship,” Jos. Bell., 3, 368, ὁ κλύδων (τὰς ναῦς) ἐβάπτιζεν, Bell., 3, 423; pass. “to sink”: ἐν ὕλῃ (in the mud), Plot. Enn., I, 8, 13 (I, p. 112, 6, Volkmann; → 532), “to suffer shipwreck,” “to drown,” “to perish”: Jos. Bell., 3, 525; Epict. Gnom. Stob. Fr. 47, p. 489, Schenkl; ἀβάπτιστος ναῦς, schol. in Luc. Jup. Trag., 47, p. 83, Rabe)
I know most of it looks like a mess, but if you read the English parts than you can see that the word baptism is used in the context of dyeing clothes, ship wrecks, drowning, etcetera. You can look at any basic Greek dictionary and find out that βαπτίζω simply means “to immerse”.
You need not be a Greek scholar to see that the early church immersed. Just start by investigating where baptisms took place in the Bible. They took place around major bodies of water. We find this point particularly clear in John 3, where we find both Jesus and John the Baptist baptizing in the same area:
3:22 After this, Jesus and his disciples came into Judean territory, and there he spent time with them and was baptizing 3:23 John was also baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming to him and being baptized. (John 3:22-23).
The description of the Ethiopian Eunuch’s baptism in Acts leaves little question to the method of baptism used by the early church:
8:36 Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water! What is to stop me from being baptized?” 8:38 So he ordered the chariot to stop, and both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 8:39 Now when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him anymore, but went on his way rejoicing. (Acts 8:36-39)
Of interesting note, no recognized Christian denomination (except for Quakers who have no form of baptism at all) disputes the validity of immersion as a method of baptism. In other words, no denomination that sprinkles or pours argues that immersion is an incorrect way to be baptized. You can get immersed in the Catholic Church, Methodist Church, or any other church. They may question why you would want to. They may have a problem with who administers baptism or in which church you get immersed. But they do not have a problem with immersion as a method of baptism. Most recognize that immersion is the earliest method of baptism used in the church.
Who We Baptize
“Who we baptize” and the “purpose of baptism” are tied together. Let’s begin with the first recorded baptisms after Jesus’s resurrection. Peter preaches the Gospel to people in Jerusalem at Pentecost and this was their reaction:
2:37 Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:37-38)
This is the normative place of baptism. People in response to the Gospel choose to act in repentance. Baptism, in part, is a public act of repentance. Baptism is not thrust upon a person. A person chooses baptism. Without having the choice, what benefit does baptism have on the recipient? We baptize those old enough to make the choice to repent and follow Jesus. Peter makes the necessity of choice clear in his description of the purpose of baptism:
In the ark a few, that is eight souls, were delivered through water. 3:21 And this prefigured baptism, which now saves you—not the washing off of physical dirt but the pledge of a good conscience to God—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 3:22 who went into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels and authorities and powers subject to him. (1 Peter 3:20b-22)
How can an infant pledge a good conscience to God? We baptize only those who choose baptism and are able to pledge a good conscience to God. Anything short of this renders baptism meaningless for the one baptized. It would be like somebody giving my wife flowers on my behalf without my knowledge or my consent. The gesture has no meaning concerning my commitment or love to my wife because I had nothing to do with the act. Infant baptism is meaningful to the parents. It’s a great gesture. It symbolizes the parent’s commitment to raise their child in the knowledge of God. That is a wonderful commitment to make. But infant baptism cannot represent the child’s commitment to God, because the child had no choice in the matter. The infant had no ability to pledge a good conscience to God.
While there are multitudes of examples in Acts and the Gospels of people choosing to be baptized, there are no examples of infant baptism in scripture. Scholars who argue for the presence of infant baptism in Scripture, argue from the silence of Scripture. In other words, such a scholar might look at the account of the conversion of Lydia and notice that it says:
The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. (Acts 16:14b-15a)
That scholar assumes that since the passage does not specify that there were no infants among Lydia’s household that infants must have been included. That seems like a stretch. I encourage you to get a good concordance (there are many on the internet or I would be more than happy to provide you with one) and look up every place that “baptism” or “baptize” appears in scripture. Such an exercise will take you between thirty minutes and an hour. It will become abundantly clear that in the early church individuals chose to submit to baptism. Infant baptism does not represent that choice.
The Purpose of Baptism
We already discussed some scriptures concerning the purpose of baptism in the previous section. Baptism is a pledge of a good conscience to God. Baptism when joined with belief, repentance, and confession comes with a promise:
2:37 Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?”[Belief] 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent,[Repentance] and each one of you be baptized [Baptism] in the name of Jesus Christ [Confession] for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. [Promise] 2:39 For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” (Acts 2:37-39)
The promise is of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. To make clear that this promise was not just for those present at Pentecost, Peter explicitly tells us that this promise is for future generations (your children) and for people everywhere (all who are far away). In short this promise is for “as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.”
Paul speaks about baptism as the place where we participate in Christ’s death and resurrection:
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. (Romans 6:1-4)
For Paul, baptism is where we die to sin and are raised into a new life.
Baptism is an act of public repentance. Repentance simply means “to turn around” or “to change one’s mind”. Baptism is the act where we turn away from our sinful life towards a life of following Jesus. Baptism is an act of public confession. It is where we confess to the world that Jesus is Lord. It’s where we seize upon Jesus’s promise:
8 “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. (Luke 12:8)
Baptism is where we participate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is where we die to sin and are raised to new life. Baptism is the pledge of a good conscience to God. It is where we seize upon the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Why wouldn’t you be immersed? Instead, who can stand in your way?
Can God save a person without immersion? Of course He can. He is the creator of heaven and earth. He is no math equation. He can save whoever he pleases. As God said to Moses:
I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Exodus 33:19b)
But if we see in scripture that Jesus was immersed (Matthew 3:13-17, Mark 1:3-8, Luke 3:2-7), Jesus commands immersion (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16), and the early church immersed (Acts 2:38) and we still ask, “Do I have to be immersed in order to be saved?” Then we really ask, “Can I be disobedient and be saved?”
One final note, you may read this and still remain confident that you have received the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins even though you have not been immersed. Who am I to argue with you? Do I dispense the Holy Spirit or forgive sins? Of course not. But there was one who by all outside appearances did not need to be immersed, yet was anyway:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”(Matthew 3:13-17)
Jesus needed neither the forgiveness of sins nor the gift of the Holy Spirit. He had no sin and he was already fully man and fully God. The one baptizing him, John the Baptist, recognized that though Jesus came to him for baptism, John needed baptism more than Jesus. Still, Jesus was immersed. We know that it was immersion because the event occurred at the Jordan River and verse 16 says specifically that Jesus “went up out of the water”. Jesus’ only explanation to John for his insistence in being baptized was to “fulfill all righteousness”. In other words, Jesus did it because it was the right thing to do. Apparently Jesus’s submission to baptism pleased God the Father because He says as much in verse 17. If Jesus, who needed neither the forgiveness of sins nor the gift of the Holy Spirit submitted to immersion, what about you?