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Baptism is an initiatory rite that serves as a proclamation of God’s work in the life of the individual and the Church.

The word “baptism” comes from the Greek baptisma (which is related to the Greek verb baptizō); it refers to washing, dipping, or immersing something into water. Various ancient Near Eastern religions and the Old Testament contain references to ceremonial washing (e.g. Exod 29:4; 30:17–21; Lev 8:6; 14:18; 16:24; Num 19:19–21). In the New Testament, baptism begins with the ministry of John—especially his baptism of Jesus. In describing His baptism as necessary “to fulfill all righteousness,” Jesus likely considered the act as symbolizing the fulfillment of God’s plan and purpose for the world (Matt 3:15). Jesus’ baptism can also be understood as setting an example for His followers, even though His baptism had a different significance. Jesus’ baptism served as the public mark of His consecration to the Father (Matt 3:17). Jesus authorized the Christian practice of baptism by telling His followers to make it central to the ministry of making disciples (Matt 28:19).

The Significance of Baptism

As an act of proclamation, baptism signifies a person’s testimony to his or her union with Christ, especially through identification with His death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:3–7; Col 2:11–12). Baptism displays that, through the power of the indwelling Christ, those being baptized have died to their old selves and are now alive through Him and to Him.

Baptism also signifies the cleansing work of salvation, whereby God removes the stain and consequences of sin (Acts 22:16; Eph 5:26): It involves the “washing of regeneration” and the spiritual renewal enacted by the Holy Spirit in salvation (Titus 3:5; compare Acts 2:38, 10:44–48). Specifically, baptism signifies the cleansing of both justification and sanctification. In justification, God removes the record of sin from the believer’s account. In sanctification, God purifies believers, bringing them into conformity with the holiness of the Son, Jesus Christ (Rom 8:29).

Baptism also signifies the new birth (John 3:5, 6). Believers, who were previously “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1; compare Col 2:13), are now reborn through the life of God dwelling in them by the agency of the Spirit. As Christ’s sonship was declared in His baptism (Matt 3:17), Christian baptism declares that the person being baptized, too, is a child of God. The believer is adopted into God’s family by grace after believing in Christ (John 1:12–13; Rom 8:23; Eph 1:5). Rebirth brings about a new relationship with not only God, but with the family of God (Eph 3:15)—the Church. It is for this reason that baptism serves as the rite of initiation into the Church.

The Debate about What Baptism Accomplishes

While the Church has universally accepted baptism as the rite of Christian initiation, there has been significant disagreement regarding what baptism accomplishes, who may be considered candidates for baptism, and what is the proper mode of its practice.

There are three major positions regarding what baptism accomplishes. The first asserts that baptism not only proclaims God’s saving work but that it plays a role in bringing about salvation—making baptism necessary for salvation. The second believes that baptism, while not achieving salvation, is still a sign and seal of salvation: it proclaims and ensures both the candidate’s entry into the covenant community and God’s intent to fulfill the promises He has made. The third position asserts that, since God alone is responsible for salvation, baptism is nothing more than a testimony on the part of the person being baptized to the work that God has already accomplished.

These three positions reflect disagreement over how baptism functions within the dynamic process of conversion. For example, the references to baptism in Acts often emphasize three related facets of joining the Christian community—belief in Christ, water baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The issue is which facets are essential for salvation and which aspects are merely symbolic. If a person resists the command to be baptized, is their repentance genuine? In Acts 10:44–48, the gift of the Holy Spirit preceded water baptism for Gentile converts. The New Testament presents all three as part of the natural process of joining the Christian community. While the apostles could not fathom an unbaptized believer, spiritual regeneration would surely have been given greater importance than ceremonial cleansing. The value of inward belief over outward ritual action is repeatedly emphasized by the Old Testament prophets (Isa 1:11–17; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6–8) and by Jesus Himself (Matt 15:1–20).

The Debate about Who May Be Baptized

The second major issue regards the question of who may be baptized. The question hinges on whether baptism is viewed as a mark of personal faith or a mark of dedication to the Church. The former view would allow baptism for believers old enough to make a public confession of faith. The latter view would allow believing parents to present their small children to the Church for baptism as a symbol of their dedication to raise the child in the Church, with the goal of bringing them to future faith in Christ. The major arguments proposed for the baptism of believers’ children emphasize that God’s covenant with Abraham explicitly included his children, baptisms of whole families appear in Scripture (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Cor 1:16), and, from its earliest days, the Church has baptized children. The third position aligns with the belief that baptism, since it is a testimony to what has occurred, ought to be limited to those who have already experienced conversion. Proponents of this view argue that since the Church and Israel are not the same thing, baptism and circumcision are not the same thing. Additionally, there are no explicit biblical reports of children being baptized; also, the households baptized in the New Testament may have experienced conversion (1 Cor 16:15).

The Debate about the Mode of Baptism

The third significant issue regarding baptism has to do with the proper mode. The three major practices are sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. The arguments about mode generally focus on the meaning of the Greek word baptizō. The word generally carries the sense of plunging, dipping, or immersing something in water throughout ancient Greek literature, including the Bible. The New Testament occurrences of baptizō usually carry connotations of immersion based on context, but its meaning could be more ambiguous.

Bernie A. Van De Walle

Further Reading

Baptism CLBD

Baptism EDT2

Baptism DTIB

Baptism ST:IBD


About Faithlife Study Bible

Faithlife Study Bible (FSB) is your guide to the ancient world of the Old and New Testaments, with study notes and articles that draw from a wide range of academic research. FSB helps you learn how to think about interpretation methods and issues so that you can gain a deeper understanding of the text.


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