Paul asks us to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” for “there is…one baptism” (Ephesians 4:3-5). Part of the reason Jesus gave the church baptism was to unify us. Unfortunately, it seems to cause more division and conflict among Christians than unity and peace.
The church has always wrestled with questions like Who should be baptized? How much understanding is required for baptism? What is the proper mode of baptism? What exactly happens during baptism? How you answer these questions often aligns you with one denomination, while setting you against another.
One major dispute is infant baptism. For most of its history, the church has baptized infants. This practice is continued today by Roman Catholicism and many Christian denominations (although for different reasons). Other denominations practice believer’s baptism. In other words, someone is baptized upon their personal confession of faith in Jesus.
The Christian Churches resolve this dispute by practicing believer’s baptism. They fully immerse adults who make their own confession of faith in Christ. Thus, they retain the biblical mode of baptism. While this is commendable, they discredit themselves by pushing the meaning of baptism too far.
Setting up an Idol
Christian Churches insist baptism is necessary for salvation. They uphold it as the moment in which a person is saved. No matter what a Christian is doing, they are regarded as unsaved unless they are baptized. They also set it as a standard by which to judge right doctrine. No matter what a church is teaching, their stance on baptism is all that matters.
Does the Bible emphasize baptism to this extent? It presents baptism as an important part of conversion. But it never isolates baptism from the rest of conversion. Nor does it make baptism a matter of salvation in and of itself. We must be careful not to emphasize baptism more than the Bible does. We should give baptism its full biblical importance, but nothing more.
Breaking down an Idol
Many Christians appeal to the book of Acts when defending baptism. They argue that Luke consistently presents baptism as an essential element of conversion. This is true. Luke records how people are baptized as part of their response to the gospel. At times, he even attributes certain benefits of salvation to baptism (2:38)!
Yet Luke’s accounts of conversion are historical, not theological. He is simply telling us how people were saved. He is not writing a dissertation on baptism, faith, or any other part of conversion. His stories of salvation are compressed. The rest of the New Testament decompresses the experience of conversion, exploring the meaning of each component.
Considering the entire New Testament yields some conclusions about baptism. First, baptism is secondary to the new birth. Jesus says, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again…No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:3, 5).
Jesus is not saying you must be baptized in order to be saved. Rather, based on the context of the Old Testament (Isaiah 3:15, 44:3; Ezekiel 36:25-27) and the rest of His conversation with Nicodemus, it is clear He means we must be regenerated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Second, baptism is secondary to faith. The New Testament says we appropriate the benefits of salvation through faith. Baptism is neither the means nor moment of salvation; rather, we are saved through faith the moment we believe.
Jesus promises, “Whoever believes in [me] shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Paul declares, “If you…believe in your heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified” (Romans 10:9-10). Earlier in Romans he emphasizes, “Righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (3:22; cf. 3:25-26).
We receive eternal life, salvation, justification, and righteousness through belief/faith. It is also through belief/faith that we receive the Holy Spirit. Paul asks, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:1). He answers, “By faith we…receive the promise of the Spirit” (3:14). To another church he says, “Having believed, you were marked in Christ with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13).
Our sins are forgiven through/by belief as well. Peter declares to Cornelius’ household, “All the prophets testify about Jesus that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through His name” (Acts 10:43).
Third, baptism is secondary to the gospel. Paul says to a quarreling church, “I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you…For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:14, 17). He declares elsewhere, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16).
He does not say baptism is the power of God for salvation, but the gospel. That’s why his mission wasn’t to baptize but to preach the gospel to as many as possible.
Fourth, baptism is secondary to the Holy Spirit. Those who insist baptism is necessary for salvation also make it our source of assurance – the proof that we are saved. But the Bible says the Holy Spirit is our assurance. John says, “This is how we know that God lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us” (1 John 3:24). Paul confirms this: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16; cf. 8:9).
Baptism is no guarantee of salvation. Paul warns, “Our forefathers…were all baptized into Moses…Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert” (1 Corinthians 10:1, 2, 5). The Israelites were “baptized” when they passed through the Red Sea. Yet God was displeased with them and struck most of them dead.
Demolishing the Dunking Booth
Baptism must be restored to its biblical place. When we give it more importance than Scripture does, we make it an idol. We must ask if our emphasis on baptism is equal to the Bible’s. If it exceeds the Bible’s, we have developed an unhealthy preoccupation. Sadly, some Christian churches are nothing more than baptism cults.
These churches treat baptism as a divine dunking booth. If you’ve been to a carnival, you know how a dunking booth works. When someone hits the target, the seat drops and the person in the booth falls into the water. Churches fixated on baptism think it encapsulates the entire conversion process. When someone “hits the target” by stating their confession, they are “dropped” into the baptismal waters and thereby saved.
To say someone is saved by baptism is as ridiculous as saying they are saved by a dunking booth. God’s saving activity is not limited to baptism. He is already at work beforehand, giving us new birth and producing faith and repentance in our hearts. And He is at work afterward, bearing spiritual fruit and prompting good deeds in His name.
Baptism certainly has a part in this process. Just as Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Romans 4:11), so we received the sign of baptism, a seal of the righteousness we had by faith while we were still unbaptized. Baptism is a sign, nothing more. God does not bestow any blessings on us at baptism that He has not already bestowed on us through faith.
We must not take a mechanical view of baptism. When we remove the need for God’s saving activity in our lives before and after we are baptized, we make baptism as an idol. And idols must be destroyed.
Christians make an idol of “free will.” They also make an idol of how we express our choice for God in baptism. Finally, they make an idol of how we convince others to make that choice. Subscribe to receive the last post in this series: Breaking the Idol of Human Effort!