The question is: Is Water Baptism a Commandment or Requirement…
or is it a Show of Faith or ‘Symbolic Gesture’?

This question came up between two friends of mine - one a Baptist, the other Pentecostal. For reference, this is a description of what the Baptist believe in regards to Water Baptism:

Baptism, commonly referred to as believer’s baptism among Baptists, is an ordinance that according to Baptist doctrine plays no role in salvation, being properly performed only after salvation, and is performed after a person professes Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. It is an outward expression that is symbolic of the inward cleansing or remission of their sins that has already taken place. It is also a public identification of that person with Christianity and with that particular local church. Most Baptist churches consider baptism by full immersion, subsequent to salvation, a criterion for membership. (source)

Does water baptism play a role in salvation… or not?

While they each felt very strong about their individual beliefs, I honestly wasnt sure which (if either) were correct. Being confused on the matter, I decided to study it for myself. Below are the Scriptures that reference water baptism in the bible…

The first mention of water baptism in the new testament is in Matthew chapter 3, with John the Baptist. He had a special calling from God to announce the Savior and prepare the way for Jesus. John’s story is told in all four gospels. His coming was predicted in Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 4:5. He is mentioned in Acts 1:5, 22; 10:37; 11:16; 13:24, 25; 18:25; 19:3,4.

In Matthew 3, John the Baptist says that we must ‘confess our sins’ and ’produce fruit in keeping with repentance’ along with water baptism (see study on bearing fruit). Obviously it is not the water of baptism that saves, but God’s grace accepted through faith in Jesus Christ. According to the scripture, we must believe, confess and repent as part of our water baptism.

John’s point to the Pharisees and Sadducees is important to note. What I take away from this is that water baptism is not just a ritual or a ’show’ but that it is a renewal, and that you must be prepared to repent from worldly ways and change your behavior. The people didnt entirely understand, so John the Baptist explained to them what was expected (Luke 3:10-14 NIV):

“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”
“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely - be content with your pay.”

John said this (v 14) because many of the soldiers were using their power to take advantage of the people.

Let me stop here and interject some personal comments — As I am studying this, I realize that the people had an open opportunity to get baptized. They were instructed on what to do (repent, change) and they were told specifically how they should change their lives. Next, the greatest teacher in history, Jesus Christ himself, walked with them and taught them everything that they needed to know… and answered all of their questions both by words and by perfect example.

By sharp contrast (and this is just a personal observation), many people are baptized today with a short instruction on the importance and meaning of water baptism, prayed with, baptized, and then sent back out into the world without much further (specific) instruction. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see churches everywhere set up groups for new Christians to study with and learn by following salvation and baptism? Like children, the church family should take responsibility for them as they grow and mature as Christians. < end personal observation ;-)>

The Great Commission

In the Great Commission (see study) Jesus gives his last words to the 11 disciples (Judas Iscariot had died by this time). This took place after His ressurection, and just before He ascended into heaven:

  • Matthew 28:18-20 (NIV): Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
     
  • Mark 16:15-16 (NIV): He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.

From these scriptures one could easily conclude that baptism is indeed a ‘commandment’ and that it plays a role in salvation. However, the most commonly used scripture to debate this conclusion is Jesus’ response to the criminal on the cross who died with him (Luke 23:43). The criminal had not been baptized, but was saved on that day just before he died on the cross: And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (KJV)

More Scriptures on Water Baptism:

  • Luke 7:29-30 (NIV): All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptized by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptized by John.

Those who were baptized had the ability to discern the truth. Those who were not, did not. This lends to the concept of ‘rebirth’ or being (spiritually) ‘born again’ as part of the water baptism experience. Also see 1 Corinthians 3:14 on spiritual discernment.

The water washes away your sins (which you repent from), and also represents your spiritual birth into the kingdom of God.
(see study on the kingdom of God)

In the book of John, chapter 3, Jesus is talking with Nicodemus (see study on Nicodemus) and says, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” (John 3:3 NIV)

In John 3:5-6, Jesus continues by saying “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.”
 

Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38-39 NIV)

Following Jesus’ return to heaven, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, there seems to be a significant change to baptism - specifically being baptized “in the name of Jesus” - and also the baptism of the Holy Spirit along with water baptism. More on that below…
 

There is an interesting story too, in Acts chapter 8, regarding water baptism. In this Scripture, we are told that Philip was lead by the Holy Spirit to go to an Ethiopian eunuch that was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood it (the prophecies of Isaiah) and the eunuch replied with, How can I - unless someone explains  it to me?’

In Acts 8:36, after Philip had told him the good news about Jesus, the eunuch sees water and gives orders to stop the chariot. He asked Philip to baptize him then and there…

“Then both Philip and the eunich went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.” Acts 8:38-39 NIV

This story is interesting to me because it doesnt sound as if the eunuch was being baptized as a ’show of faith’ or in order to be ‘identified as a Christian’. Instead, it sounds as if he chose to be baptized at the first opportunity - as he was hearing the good news and coming to understand it, and was then ready to accept salvation. (We see too how the Holy Spirit was at work in this instance of water baptism)
 

Cornelius and Salvation for the Gentiles…

In Acts, chapters 10 and 11, we hear the story of Cornelius - who was a Gentile. Cornelius was seeking God, but since the Good News had not been preached to Gentiles (yet) in that area, God sent Peter to share it with him. This is when Peter gets the revelation from God that the gospel is to be shared with everyone from that point forward, not just the Jews.

While Peter was speaking to them about the life, death and ressurection of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit came on them (they received the baptism of the Holy Ghost). The Jews, who had come with Peter on this trip to meet Cornelius, were surprised by this. In Acts 10:45-48 the bible says:

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. (NIV)

In this instance, the Gentiles received baptism in the Spirit first, and then were baptized by water. It could be said that water baptism was the Gentile’s identification and declaration as Christians. It can also be noted that Peter ‘ordered that they be baptized’. The King James Version (KJV) says that “he commanded them to be baptized”.

Throughout the book of Acts there are stories of preaching salvation, then baptizing, receiving the Holy Spirit, and next encouraging or staying with those that had come to believe in God. That seems important, as I mentioned above, for new Christians to have a time of continued teaching and fellowship.

John’s Baptism vs Being Baptized in the name of Jesus

When Paul arrived in Ephesus (Acts 19), he found some disciples there that were believers, but that did not have the Holy Ghost. In fact, they hadn’t even heard of such a thing…

So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”
“John’s baptism,” they replied.
Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied..Acts 19:3-6 NIV

In his letter to the Romans, Paul goes into more detail about being “baptized into Christ Jesus” and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. I would encourage you to read the beginning of Acts Chapter 19 and also to read Romans chapters 6, 7 and 8.
 

One Lord, one faith, one baptism…

In Ephesians chapter 4, Paul teaches and encourages “unity of the Spirit”. In verses 4-6 he says, “There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all through all and in all.” (NIV)

Does this mean a revision to water baptism since the death of John the Baptist, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that all baptism should now be done “in the name of Jesus”? Some believe that to be true, and believe it is the key to receiving baptism of the Holy Ghost as well.

My own personal conclusion to this study was that it is very important to be baptized, specifically “in the name of Jesus”, and to receive the Holy Spirt (or baptism of the Holy Ghost). According to the Scripture, this is what brings us into unity with the Body of Christ, and how we enter the kingdom of God.

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