Without doubt, whenever the idea of "baptism" comes up, most people immediately think of water. Depending on denomination, some may think of dunking and others of sprinkling, but nonetheless, the main thought is water. This is interesting, since the Bible speaks of many different baptisms. So when the Bible mentions baptism, what should we think of?
Baptism and Salvation
Many people believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, and often they will point to verses such as Mk. 16:6, Jn. 3:5, Ac. 2:38, and 1 Pet. 3:21 to prove this. These verses all do speak of baptism, but of which baptism do they speak? The word "baptism" is used in several ways in the New Testament, referring to being immersed in water (Mt. 3:6, Mt. 3:16, Mk. 1:9, Lk. 3:21, Jn. 1:26, Ac. 10:47, et. al.), receiving/being baptized with (in/by) the Holy Spirit (Mt. 3:11, Mk. 1:8, Lk. 3:16, Jn. 1:33, Ac. 1:5, Ac. 11:16, 1 Cor. 12:13), fire/judgement (Mt. 3:11, Lk. 3:16), death (Mt. 20:22-23, Mk. 10:38-39, Lk. 12:50), and baptism "into Moses" (1 Cor. 10:2), among other things (this is not intended as an exhaustive list). So to which of these do Mk. 16:6, Jn. 3:5, Ac. 2:38, and 1 Pet. 3:21 refer?
In Mt. 3:11, Mk. 1:8, and Lk. 3:16 (as well as in John 1), John the Baptist makes it clear that he merely baptizes with water as a sign of repentance, but that one who comes after him is more important, and that that one who comes will give a more important baptism, baptizing with the Holy Spirit: "I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire" (Mt. 3:11). There is a clear distinction made between John's baptism and Jesus' baptism, not only here, but in many other passages where baptism by water is referred to as "John's baptism" or "the baptism of John," and is often contrasted with baptism with (by, in) the Holy Spirit (cf. Mt. 21:25, Mk. 11:30, Lk. 7:29, Lk. 20:4, Ac. 1:5, Ac. 11:16).
As a matter of fact, when Jesus came to John to be baptized, John said to Jesus, "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?" (Mt. 3:14). Since John told us only three verses earlier (Mt. 3:11) of the difference between his baptism and Jesus' baptism, John must be speaking of needing to be baptized with the Holy Spirit by Jesus, not being immersed in water.
This point is emphasized in Acts chapters 10 and 11 by Peter. First, when Peter goes to Cornelius' house, he preaches to those present and says, "To Him [Christ] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins," (Ac. 10:43) and as they heard, they believed and "the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 10:44:45). It is after this conversion experience (baptism with the Holy Spirit) that Peter says they should be baptized with water (Ac. 10:47-48). Peter recounts the incidents as such when he reports the events to those "of the circumcision" in Jerusalem:
And the Spirit bade me go with them, nothing doubting. Moreover these six brethren accompanied me, and we entered into the man's house: And he shewed us how he had seen an angel in his house, which stood and said unto him, Send men to Joppa, and call for Simon, whose surname is Peter; Who shall tell thee words, whereby thou and all thy house shall be saved. And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?
There are several important points to note in this passage. First, God said to Cornelius that Peter would bring "words, whereby [Cornelius] and all [his] house" would be saved. Peter, when he came, preached that "to [Christ] give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins" (Ac. 10:43); so the "words" Peter brought for Cornelius and his house to be saved were of faith in Christ for salvation, not baptism. Second, when the Holy Spirit falls on those hearing his words, Peter remebers the words of Jesus from Acts 1:5, that John baptized with water, "but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost," again showing the primacy of the baptism with the Holy Spirit over water baptism. Peter recognized this as their conversion, and as the same gift that all others "who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ" received. And again, notice that this gift is received through faith (they "believed"), not through water baptism which came after.
Paul also emphasizes the difference between "John's baptism" and Jesus' baptism in Acts:
And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Notice that these disciples had only received "John's baptism," and that Paul corrects this by telling them that John baptized unto repentance, but that they should believe in Christ - they had not yet received salvation or the Holy Spirit. Then they believed, and in verse 6, received the Holy Spirit. This event is very similar to what the apostles Peter and John encountered in Samaria in Acts chapter 8 as well.
Paul clarifies this distinction in 1 Cor. 12:13, where he tells us, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." This is critical, as it is clear Paul is speaking of the salvation experience, and the baptism that brings this about. It is speaking of being made a part of the body of Christ, being "baptized into one body" (cf. Gal. 3:27), and this is clearly not water baptism, but receiving the Holy Spirit.
At this point, we have John the Baptist, Peter, John, Paul, and Jesus all in agreement that baptism with the Holy Spirit is not only more important than water baptism, but it is the event that places the believer into the body of Christ. So baptism is necessary for salvation, but that baptism that is necessary is not related to water, but receiving the Holy Spirit.
With so many arguments in favor of baptism with the Holy Spirit over water baptism, many would argue "then why is water baptism mentioned so often?" or "what is the importance then of water baptism?" There are many verses that would be brought up to try to assert that water baptism is necessary, so it is important to discuss the role of water baptism in the believer's life, and to deal with the verses that seem to imply that it is necessary for salvation.
Many times over in the New Testament, believers are exhorted to be baptized with water, are baptized with water, and the disciples are told to baptize with water others who become disciples (Mt. 28:19, Ac. 2:38, Ac. 2:41, Ac. 8:12, Ac. 8:36-38, Ac. 9:18, Ac. 10:47-48, Ac. 16:15, Ac. 16:33, 1 Cor. 1:14-16, et. al.). At the very least, all believers should be baptized in water because it is commanded of God. But water baptism goes beyond just a commandment. As seen with John's baptism, it is a sign of repentance, or turning to God. For the believer, it is an outward sign of an inward change. Let us look at this from the perspective of the New Testament.
In Colossians, Paul writes "In [Christ] also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:11-12). We find several things in this passage. We find that water baptism is symbolic of being buried and raised with Christ (this is also seen in Rom. 6:4). We also find that believers are "circumcised" with a circumcision that is "made without hands;" and this circumcision is referred to as "the circumcision of Christ." Paul speaks elsewhere of this same circumcision, one that is not in the flesh: "For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God" (Rom. 2:28-29). Circumcision, as described in the verses preceding these two, was an outward sign. As Paul continues this exposition, he clarifies using Abraham as an example:
for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised.
So we see that Abraham was justified before receiving "the sign of circumcision." Circumcision was an outward sign of the justification Abraham had already received, of the faith that he already had. So the true circumcision (as seen in Rom 2:29) was not one wrought with human hands, but was an inward change, a change of heart. The circumcision that is "in the flesh" is symbolic of that change that had taken place within the person and of entering into a covenant with God. God verifies this in Gen. 17:11 - "And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you." So circumcision is a sign of entering into a covenant with God. Likewise, water baptism is an outward sign of an inward change. It is the outward circumcision of the New Testament. It is a symbolic act, showing that the person being baptized has entered into a covenant with God, the new covenant, wrought through the blood of Christ (Mt. 26:28, Mk. 14:24, Lk. 22:20, Heb. 8:6-7, Heb. 9:14, Heb. 12:24).
What about the verses that seem to imply that water baptism is required for salvation?
As has already been shown, the baptism that is required for salvation is baptism with the Holy Spirit. So the verses that seem to imply that water baptism is required for salvation must either not imply that water baptism is required, or they must actually be referring to baptism with the Holy Spirit. We will look at four such passages.
Mark 16:16 states that "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Since Jesus does not specify, we must ask, "too which baptism is Jesus referring?" There are no hints from the context, so we must take a look at the rest of what Scripture says regarding baptism to be able to determine which baptism Jesus is speaking of (this is similar to Mt. 20:22-23 and Lk. 12:50, where Jesus mentions baptism without specifying which baptism, and is speaking of His yet future crucifixion). Since we have seen that it is baptism with the Holy Spirit and not water baptism that saves, we must conclude that Jesus is here referring to baptism with the Holy Spirit.
Next, John 3:5 is often misunderstood to mean that one must be baptized with water in order to enter the kingdom of God: "Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." It would be easy to understand the verse in this way apart from its context; however, verse 6 clarifies the meaning of Jesus' statement in John 3:5 - "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (Jn. 3:6). The two verses together form a parallelism. Being "born of water" in verse 5 is paralleled with being "born of the flesh" in verse 6, as being born of the Spirit is seen in both verses. Looking at the two side-by side may help to see this:
|John 3:5||John 3:6|
|Except a man be||That which is|
|born of water||born of the flesh is flesh|
|and||and that which is|
|of the Spirit||born of the Spirit is spirit|
|he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.||.|
(John 3:5,6 - italics mine)
As can be seen from this side-by-side comparison, the idea of being"born of water" in verse 5 is speaking of being "born of flesh," as verse 6 states.
Acts 2:38 is one of the most often appealed to verses to assert that water baptism is necessary for salvation: "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Peter tells people that they should repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins. But what did he mean? Considering what we have seen of what Peter said in Acts 10:43, that "through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins," to believe that Peter meant that one needed to be baptized with water in order to receive remission of sins would be to make Peter contradict himself. Adam Clarke's commentary gives a good explanation that harmonizes with what has already here been discussed regarding water baptism:
Verse 38. Peter said unto them, Repent] metanohsate; Humble yourselves before God, and deeply deplore the sins you have committed; pray earnestly for mercy, and deprecate the displeasure of incensed justice. For a definition of repentance, see Clarke on Mt 3:2.
One of the foremost authorities on Greek, A.T. Robertson makes similar comments:
And be baptized every one of you] Take on you the public profession of the religion of Christ, by being baptized in his name; and thus acknowledge yourselves to be his disciples and servants.
For the remission of sins] eis ajesin amartiwn, In reference to the remission or removal of sins: baptism pointing out the purifying influences of the Holy Spirit; and it is in reference to that purification that it is administered, and should in consideration never be separated from it. For baptism itself purifies not the conscience; it only points out the grace by which this is to be done.
Ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.] If ye faithfully use the sign, ye shall get the substance. Receive the baptism, in reference to the removal of sins, and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost, by whose agency alone the efficacy of the blood of the covenant is applied, and by whose refining power the heart is purified. It was by being baptized in the name of Christ that men took upon themselves the profession of Christianity; and it was in consequence of this that the disciples of Christ were called CHRISTIANS.
Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible (found at www.godrules.net)
Repent ye (metanohsate). First aorist (ingressive) active imperative. Change your mind and your life. Turn right about and do it now. You crucified this Jesus. Now crown him in your hearts as Lord and Christ. This first. And be baptized every one of you (kai baptisqhtw ekastos umwn). Rather, "And let each one of you be baptized." Change of number from plural to singular and of person from second to third. This change marks a break in the thought here that the English translation does not preserve. The first thing to do is make a radical and complete change of heart and life. Then let each one be baptized after this change has taken place, and the act of baptism be performed "in the name of Jesus Christ" (en tw onomati Ihsou Xristou). In accordance with the command of Jesus in #Mt 28:19 (eis to onoma)...
Thus it is easy to see that Peter here exhorts his listeners to be baptized in response to their repentance, as a sign and result of their repentance. He tells them to be baptized in response to the remission of sins they receive, not in order to receive the remission of sins. This interpretation fits perfectly with Peter's words and actions in Acts 10:43-48 and Acts 11:12-17
Unto the remission of your sins (eis afesin twn hamartiwn umwn). This phrase is the subject of endless controversy as men look at it from the standpoint of sacramental or of evangelical theology. In themselves the words can express aim or purpose for that use of eis does exist as in I Cor. 2:7 eis doxan hmwn (for our glory). But then another usage exists which is just as good Greek as the use of eis for aim of purpose. It is seen in Matt. 10:41 in three examples eis onomo profhtou, dikaiou, maqhotou where it cannot be purpose or aim, but rather the basis or ground, on the basis of the name of the prophet, righteous man, disciple, because one is, etc. It is seen again in Matt. 12:41 about the preaching of Jonah (eis to khrugma Iwna). They repented because of (or at) the preaching of Jonah. The illustrations of both usages are numerous in the N.T. and the Koine generally (Robertson, Grammar, p. 592). One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not. My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the New Testament taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission. So I understand peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received.
Robertson, A.T., Robertson's Word Pictures in the New Testament, Volume III, The Acts of the Apostles, Broadman Press, 1930: p. 34-36 (italics in original - transliterated Greek appeared in the original but has been restored to actual Greek text here)
Lastly, 1 Pet. 3:20-21 states, "Which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water. The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ." The Greek word translated "by" in the phrase "saved by water" (1 Pet. 3:20), is the word di. While this word can rightly be translated "by" (as it is in the KJV), it is more often, and better in this case, translated "through." For we know that Noah and his family were not saved "by" the water, but "through" it. The water was sent upon the earth to destroy all life, so Noah and his family were actually saved despite the water, not by it. The next verse then, cannot be saying that we are saved "by" baptism in water, because if Noah in the ark was a figure of our baptism, then we would have to say that we are saved despite the water of baptism. And that is clear from verse 21 itself, as it points out that we are saved, "not by the putting away of the filth of the flesh." Since water baptism is a form of washing, a ritual cleansing, this statement makes it clear that it is not the water baptism that saves. The rest of the verse clarifies in saying that salvation comes from "the answer of a good conscience toward God." This speaks of the inner change that comes through faith. The inner change saves, the water baptism symbolizes the inner change.
As can be seen, when understood in the light of the rest of Scripture, verses that appear to teach that water baptism is necessary for salvation actually teach otherwise.
It should be abundantly clear now that there is a baptism that is required for salvation, and that baptism is baptism with the Holy Spirit. Water baptism, though not required for salvation, is extremely important in the life of the believer, as it is through water baptism that we bind ourselves to the new covenant that God made with us through the blood of Christ, and through which we openly associate ourselves with, and symbolize our burial and resurrection with Him. So if you have faith in Christ, you have received the baptism with the Holy Spirit. And if so, then be baptized in water to proclaim that faith.