Meaning of Baptism

But Baptists believe that baptism pictures actual, accomplished salvation. The person being baptized is outwardly confessing that God has brought him to genuine saving faith in Jesus Christ. Note five things:

A. Baptism is a symbol of salvation, not the means of salvation.

The act of baptism does not save anyone. It never has; it never will. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that salvation is by grace through faith alone (Eph. 2:8-9). Both Romans and Galatians, in large part, deal with the theme that we are justified (declared righteous by God) through faith in Jesus Christ, not by any ritual or good works (see Gal. 3:7-9; Titus 3:4-7).

Those who argue that baptism confers salvation usually camp on Acts 2:38, where Peter says, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; . . .” If this were the only verse in the Bible which dealt with this subject, we might conclude that baptism confers forgiveness of sins. But there are many other verses that say nothing of baptism as a requirement for forgiveness.

For example, in the next chapter (Acts 3:19), Peter exhorts his hearers, “Therefore repent and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” He does not mention baptism. In Acts 10:43, he tells the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house, “Of Him [Christ] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Again he makes no mention of baptism as a requirement for forgiveness.

So how do we explain Acts 2:38? (See my sermon, “How to Receive God’s Forgiveness,” 11/12/00, for more detail.) We have to harmonize it with the many Scriptures that clearly teach that salvation comes through faith alone. I think that we must understand Acts 2:38 in light of the close connection in the minds of the apostles between belief and baptism. The idea of an unbaptized Christian is foreign to the New Testament. Saving faith is obedient faith. But, Scripture is clear that baptism always follows the faith which saves. So Peter added baptism as the naturally understood consequence of believing. But it is not baptism, but repentance and faith, which bring forgiveness. Baptism is the outward sign of inward belief. It is a symbol of salvation, not the means of it.

Here are a few verses that show that baptism always follows saving faith. There is not a single example of baptism preceding faith:

Acts 2:41: “So then, those who had received his word were baptized ….”

Acts 8:12: “But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike.”

Acts 10:44, 46b-48a: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.… Then Peter answered, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’ And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Acts 16:30-34: [The Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas], “‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household.” These verses are often used to support infant baptism. But it does not say that Paul baptized any infants. Rather, it implies that since Paul proclaimed the gospel to the whole household, they all believed and were baptized.

Acts 18:8: “Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, believed in the Lord with all his household, and many of the Corinthians when they heard were believing and being baptized.”

Never once does the New Testament report, “They were baptized and later believed,” or, “They baptized their infants, who later believed.” In every instance, it was believers who were baptized as a confession of their new faith in Jesus Christ.

B. Baptism is a symbol of cleansing from sin, not the means of cleansing from sin.

No ritual, even in the Old Testament, confers forgiveness of sins apart from the faith and repentance of the one doing the ritual (Ps. 51:16-18). The water of baptism pictures cleansing from sin. But immersing someone in water cannot cleanse the heart. Only the blood of Christ, applied to a person’s heart through faith, can do that. When Peter was explaining to the Jerusalem Council how God saved the Gentiles through believing the gospel (Acts 15:7), he added (Acts 15:9), “He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith.” As we saw from Acts, they believed and then they were baptized. The water pictures the cleansing from sin that took place the moment they believed in Christ.

C. Baptism is a symbol of our total identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

“Baptism” is a transliteration of the Greek word, baptisma, and some related words which mean to dip or immerse. Even John Calvin, who believed in sprinkling infants, said (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill [Westminster Press], 4:15:19], “Yet the word ‘baptize’ means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church.” Since the object dipped or immersed became totally identified with the substance in which it was dipped, the idea of identification is central to the meaning of the words. Water baptism by immersion symbolizes the fact that when we believed, we were totally identified with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

In Romans 6:3-4, Paul states, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” At the instant we believed, we were placed “in Christ.” Our old life ended and a new life, lived unto God in the resurrection power of Christ, began. Water baptism pictures this change.

D. Baptism is a symbol of our identification with the church.

Paul states (1 Cor. 12:13), “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” The primary reference here, as in Romans 6, is to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, when He places a believer into Christ at the moment of salvation. But we not only are placed into Christ; we also become members of His body, the church. Water baptism symbolizes our identification with the church which took place spiritually when we believed.

In the act of baptism, a believer publicly identifies himself with other Christians. He’s saying, “Now I’m one of them.” In our culture, since Christian baptism is fairly common, this isn’t a big deal. But in countries where Christians are persecuted, baptism separates the true believers from the superficial. I once heard Stuart Briscoe tell of sitting in a hut in Pakistan with several believing men as they discussed the probability that they would be martyred if they went ahead with baptism. Would you be baptized if it meant that you would be cut off from your family and targeted for death? While we’re not yet there in our country, baptism should hold that level of commitment for those who are baptized.

E. Therefore, baptism should be restricted to believers.

Since baptism symbolizes our salvation, cleansing from sin, identification with Jesus Christ, and identification with His church, it must be restricted to those who give a credible testimony that they have trusted in Christ for salvation. To administer baptism to infants is confusing at best and detrimental at worst. While I love Calvin’s Institutes for his exposition and application of Scripture in so many areas, when you get to his section on baptism, he abandons both Scripture and logic and argues emotionally. In my opinion, while he did so much to counter his Roman Catholic upbringing, he couldn’t separate himself emotionally from the Catholic practice of infant baptism. Here are just a few quotes that show how confusing his view is. He states (4:15:3),

But we must realize that at whatever time we are baptized, we are once for all washed and purged for our whole life. Therefore, as often as we fall away, we ought to recall the memory of our baptism and fortify our mind with it, that we may always be sure and confident of the forgiveness of sins.

Thus if we were baptized as infants, Calvin seems to be saying that we were washed and purged of our sins at that time. How we are supposed to recall the memory of it is beyond me! Later (4:15:5), he says that “those who receive baptism with right faith truly feel the effective working of Christ’s death in the mortification of their flesh, together with the working of his resurrection in the vivification of the Spirit.” How can an infant “receive baptism with right faith” and feel the effective working of God?

Later (4:15:14), after explaining the meaning of the symbolism of baptism (on which I largely agree with him), he says, “These things, I say, he performs for our soul within as truly and surely as we see our body outwardly cleansed, submerged, and surrounded with water.” That sure sounds like believer’s baptism by immersion, not infant baptism by sprinkling!

But beyond being confusing, I argue that infant baptism is potentially detrimental. If a person mistakenly assumes, when he grows up (as many brought up under this teaching do assume), that because he was baptized as an infant, he is saved and is a member of Christ’s church, then he is sadly deceived. There is no grace imparted in the physical act of baptism, apart from the faith of the one being baptized. To count upon one’s infant baptism as the ground upon which one will stand before God is to trust in a false hope. Only personal faith in the crucified and risen Savior will avail in that day.

So, why do sincere, godly believers argue for infant baptism? I have an entire sermon where I give the arguments for it and why we do not practice it (“Why We Do Not Baptize Infants,” 9/8/96). Here I must be brief. The main support for infant baptism is the correlation between circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New Testament. Colossians 2:11-12 states, “And in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”

While there are some obvious parallels between circumcision and baptism, there are also many differences. The sign of circumcision was administered to the male, physical descendants of Abraham under the old covenant. But there is no command or example in the New Testament of administering baptism to the physical descendants of Christians, male or female. If baptism is the fulfillment of circumcision, then just as circumcision was administered to the physical descendants of Abraham in the age of type, so baptism ought to be administered to the spiritual descendants of Abraham in the age of fulfillment, namely, to believers, who are the true seed of Abraham (Rom. 4:16; 9:8; Gal. 3:7). In refuting the Judaizers, Paul never hints that circumcision had been replaced by baptism. And Jesus made it clear that the sign of the New Covenant is the Lord’s Supper, not baptism (1 Cor. 11:25).

Also, in Colossians 2 Paul is talking about believer’s baptism. Infant baptism could not have removed “the body of the flesh.” He specifically states that baptism pictures being raised up from spiritual death through faith in the working of God. The parallel between baptism and circumcision concerns the picture of dying to the old life so that we can live holy lives in Christ. Paul is taking the spiritual meaning of circumcision and applying it spiritually to believers, not physically to the baptism of believers’ children. Baptism is for those who have undergone circumcision of the heart through saving faith, not for infants who cannot believe.

It is also argued that the household baptisms in the New Testament support infant baptism. For example, Peter states (Acts 2:39), “For the promise is for you and your children.” But the verse continues, “and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” Three verses later specifically states (Acts 2:41), “Those who received his word were baptized,” not, “those who received his word and all their infants were baptized.” The support for infant baptism is so scant that, although I’ve read their arguments, I can’t find any biblical support for it.

Thus baptism is an outward symbol and confession of an inward reality, namely, saving faith in Jesus Christ. Also,

1.Baptism is an act of obedience to Jesus Christ

a. Baptism is an act of obedience to Jesus Christ who commanded it.

There is no automatic blessing imparted through the mere act of baptism, apart from faith. But, saying that baptism is a symbol does not mean that there are no spiritual benefits obtained from doing it. God always blesses obedience. In the Great Commission Jesus commanded (Matt. 28:19-20), “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” If a person has truly believed in Christ, obedience to His commands will follow (James 2:14-26; Eph. 2:8-10).

b. Thus, every believer in Jesus Christ should be baptized.

But this raises three questions: (1) How long after one has believed should he wait to be baptized? In the New Testament, baptism seems to have taken place as soon as possible after the person believed. It was one of the first evidences of saving faith. Walking the aisle or raising your hand to confess your faith in Christ publicly was unknown. In our day of “easy-believism” and superficial faith, it makes sense to see some evidence of genuine conversion before baptism. But it should not be put off for years.

(2) How old should believing children be before they are baptized?

It depends on the maturity of the child. He (or she) should understand the gospel and give some observable evidence of being truly born again. While full understanding of the meaning of baptism is not necessary (what adult can say that he fully understands it?), a child should have some comprehension of the meaning and significance of baptism. Parents should not push the child, but rather let it be his decision in response to his understanding of the matter, based on the biblical teaching of his parents and the church.

(3) Should a person who was baptized as an infant or before he truly believed be re-baptized?

There is no indication in the Bible that anyone who had believed in Christ and had been baptized was re-baptized after a lapse of faith or when the person came to a deeper understanding of salvation. The way of restoration for a person who has fallen away from the Lord is confession of sin (1 John 1:9).

However, there is an instance of re-baptism in the New Testament. In Acts 19:1-5, Paul encountered some men who had been baptized by John the Baptist. But they had not heard about the Holy Spirit or Jesus. When Paul told them about Christ, they believed and were re-baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (v. 5). This suggests that a person who was baptized before he came to personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (whether as an infant or older) should be re-baptized as a confession of faith in Christ. What if he isn’t sure whether he was truly born again at the time? If as far as he knew then, he was born again and was being baptized to confess his faith in Christ, then he should not be re-baptized. We all grow in our understanding of what saving faith means.


If you’ve trusted Christ as Savior but have not confessed your faith publicly through baptism, I urge you to be baptized as soon as possible! If you’ve never trusted in Christ as Savior, do not think that because you were baptized or that if you will get baptized, it will get you into heaven. Eternal life is the free gift that God offers based upon Christ’s death for your sins. You can only receive it by faith in Jesus Christ. Then to confess your faith in obedience to Christ’s command, be baptized!

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