What Is Baptism and Why Do We Do It?

Baptism is one of the ordinances that Jesus instituted for the church. In the Great Commission, Jesus specifically asks the disciples to baptize new believers in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:18).

How does baptism work?

The word baptize is a transliteration of the Greek word βαπτίζω (baptizo) which comes from the word βάπτω (bapto). Bapto is literally associated with an item being dipped or submerged—for instance—when a garment’s color is changed by being dipped into dye. Traditionally, someone is baptized when they’re lowered into the water and brought back out of it.

You can see this clearly in Jesus’s baptism:

Then Jesus arrived from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him. But John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?” But Jesus answering said to him, “Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he permitted Him. After being baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove and lighting on Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”—Matthew 3:13–17

The text describes Jesus as coming out of the water. Immersion makes sense in light of the call for believers to see baptism as a way to publicly identify with the death and resurrection of Jesus.

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.—Romans 6:3–4

The act of baptism gives the participant and their witnesses a clear metaphor for the believer being lowered into the grave with Christ and then being raised to new life.

The fact that the word for baptism points to submersion and the imagery lends itself so well to being immersed has led to debates about the legitimacy of the practice of Catholics and other denominations for sprinkling with water instead of full immersion in baptism.

Is sprinkling biblical?

While the word bapto does mean to dip or submerge, the word baptizo is about the process and effect, and not necessarily the mode.

Biblical baptisms don’t simply focus on identification, but they also focus on purification. This is why Hebrews 9:10 talks about various βαπτισμοῖς (baptismois) or washings that were part of Old Testament rituals. The writer talks about these different rituals in verses 13, 19, and 21.

In every case, the process included the dipping of a baptismal instrument in blood or water and then using that instrument to sprinkle the item or person being purified. The baptism wasn’t the act of dipping the item into the solution, but the process of dipping and sprinkling according to God’s order.

As you can see in John’s gospel, the discussion about baptism was often centered around it being a rite of purification:

After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptized. John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptized—John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.

Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptizing, and all are going to him.”—John 3:22–26

As a practice that aligns with biblical examples of purification and isn’t strictly tied to identification, a fair argument can be made that sprinkling is a legitimate practice.

This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith, a Reformed confession of faith states, “dipping of the person into the water is not necessary; but baptism is rightly administered by pouring, or sprinkling water upon the person. (28.3)”

Arguments for and against baptizing infants

Another area of contention surrounding baptism has to do with the appropriate age to baptize someone. Should baptism focus on those who are old enough to make a profession of faith (credobaptism) or can infants of believing parents be baptized (pedobaptism)?

The discussion lies is particularly difficult because there isn’t a place in Scripture that explicitly commands or condemns the act of baptizing infants, so both sides of the argument are forced to rely on inferences based on what is explicitly said in Scripture.

Arguments for credobaptism (believer baptism)

The arguments for credobaptism include the fact that there’s no biblical evidence that infant baptism takes place in the Bible. In fact, there’s no evidence that infant baptism even took place in apostolic or post-apostolic times. The first examples of infants being baptized begin to appear in the second and third centuries—with many scholars arguing that it really doesn’t show up until late in the third century.

Adherents to adult baptism argue that the Bible uses baptism as an act that symbolizes a decision made to follow and serve Jesus, and symbolizes their identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus, it only makes sense that the person being baptized would need to be a believer.

For those standing against infant baptism, the act is not consistent with the nature of the church. Because the identity of the church is built upon those who have made a choice to identify with Christ’s work on the cross, baptizing infants blurs the lines for who is inside and outside of the kingdom of God.

Arguments for pedobaptism (infant baptism)

One argument for infant baptism lies in the continuity between the Old Testament act of circumcision and the New Testament act of baptism. It’s obviously not a continuity built upon the actual act (there’s obviously a big difference between the two), but rather in the relationship between the act and the covenant.

In the Old Testament, the act of circumcision was a sign of God’s covenant with Abraham. In the New Testament, the sign of God’s covenant becomes baptism. For the Israelite children, circumcision was a symbol of God’s promises to the child, long before they were old enough to commit to their side of the covenant.

This covenant was demanded by God to be given before the substance of the promise was received. Furthermore, circumcision was obviously not intended to be given to all infants indiscriminately but to those who are part of the covenant community. As Paul says, it wasn’t the act of circumcision that justified an Israelite, but that “real circumcision is a matter of the heart. (Rom. 2:29)”

In the same way, baptism doesn’t signify redemption. It’s also a sign of God’s promise to a child born into a covenant community or family. It’s a symbol of our cleansing, a symbol of our sanctification, a symbol of our regeneration, and a symbol of Holy Spirit baptism. Ultimately the act of baptism communicates the promises of God inherent in the fullness of redemption.

Bible Verses about Baptism

The baptism of Jesus

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”—Mark 1:9–11

The story of Jesus’s baptism is told in all of the gospels including: Matthew 3:13—17, Luke 3:21—22, and John 1:29-33.

Is baptism required for salvation?

The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned.—Mark 16:16

This is a passage often cited by those who believe that baptism is required for salvation. And while it’s easy to read this verse and come to that conclusion, it’s not entirely accurate.

There are plenty of passages like Romans 5:1, Ephesians 2:8, and Philippians 3:9 that communicate that our justification comes from our faith alone. And while I could truthfully say, “She who believes and reads her Bible will be saved,” it’s the believing that saves and not the Bible reading.

That’s why the very next verse says, “and these signs will accompany those who believe . . .” It’s the believing that regenerates.

Jesus commands baptism

Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”—Matthew 28:19–20

As mentioned earlier, Jesus commands that the disciples convert and baptize others. In fact, if one were to consider the way Jesus orders these commandments, it creates a strong argument for credobaptism.

  1. Make disciples
  2. Baptize them
  3. Instruct them

The first mass baptism

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added.—Acts 2:37–41

After the Spirit of God falls on the disciples that are present at Pentecost, Peter gives an impassioned sermon to those present. The result of this evangelistic message leads to the salvation and baptism of about 3,000 people.

Philip baptizes the eunuch

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning from this Scripture he preached Jesus to him. As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And he answered and said, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” And he ordered the chariot to stop; and they both went down into the water, Philip as well as the eunuch, and he baptized him.—Acts 8:35–38

Phillip is sent by the Spirit to witness to an Ethiopian eunuch, an official in the court of Candace, Ethiopia’s queen. The eunuch had come to Jerusalem to worship and when Philip finds him, he is sitting in his chariot reading Isaiah on his return trip.

Philip begins to explain Isaiah’s prophecy of Jesus to him, and the eunuch believes. Interestingly, it is actually the eunuch that requests to be baptized.

Note: The fact that they both went “down into the water” seems to be an indication that the eunuch was immersed.

A jailer and his family are baptized

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.—Acts 16:31–34

When Paul and Silas are jailed, God sent a huge earthquake that shook the foundation of the jail and opened all the prison doors. The jailer whose responsibility was keeping charge of the captives drew his sword to take his own life. Paul stops him, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!”

The jailer’s immediate response is to be saved. Paul explains that if his household believes, they will be saved. That very night the jailers entire family is baptized.

What baptism means to a believer

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. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin—Romans 6:3–6

This passage is really about the experience of being united to Christ. In Jesus’s death, we are set free from the power of sin and death. Through his resurrection from the dead, we are given new lives where we are no longer slaves to sin.

Behind the truth of this passage is the beautiful reality that baptism illustrates.

We’re baptized into one body

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.—1 Corinthians 12:13

In the same way that communion is a celebration of our shared life in Christ, we all enter into one, singular body of believers through baptism. There is no American, African, Jewish, or Mexican church. There is only the Church to which we all belong.

For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise.—Galatians 3:26–29

Does baptism save us?

For Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God, having been put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit; in which also He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.—1 Peter 3:18–22

This passage is another one used to argue that baptism is a requirement for salvation. Is Peter’s point here that there is something salvific in the rite of baptism?

When Peter uses the word “corresponding” here, what is it that he intends to liken baptism to? Obviously he is saying that baptism is like the Ark. We’re told that Noah built and entered the Ark through faith (Heb. 11:7). Noah and his family entered the Ark through faith, and it was their faith that saved them. In the same way, they enter into baptism through faith, and it is their faith that saves them.

Baptism’s beautiful symbol

The wonderful thing about baptism is that the symbol makes sense anywhere in the world. Anyone can understand the use of water as a symbol of the grave, and rising out of it into new life. It’s a beautiful illustration of our identification with Christ.

And all believers should make every effort to take part in this magnificent expression of their faith.

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Jayson D. Bradley
For the last 20+ years, Jayson's been a pastor, worship leader, and church planter. Now he writes about ministry and Christian engagement. When he isn't hanging out here or writing for Overthink Group, you can find him contributing to JaysonDBradley.com.

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