There are many different views on the meaning of baptism, so let's take a look at what the Bible has to say on the subject. We know that in Acts 2:38 that Peter tells the people to be baptized for the remission of sins. One observation I would make about this verse is that it follows the question, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” So, Peter’s answer is repent and get baptized—because that is what we can do. Remission of sins and the gift of Holy Spirit come from God; we can’t get these things ourselves. One position holds that being baptized “for the remission of sins” means to be baptized with the purpose of remission of sins. “With the purpose of” is certainly one way in which the preposition “for” can be used—but not the only way. However, if you look up “for” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, there are 10 different definitions for this word. For instance, “for” can also mean “in place of” or “representing” or “because of.” We can easily see examples of this. If I read the Bible for more wisdom, that means I am reading so that I get more wisdom. On the other hand, let’s say you want to stand up for truth in a society that increasingly rejects God. In this case, you would not be standing up to get truth, but rather you would be standing up to signify the truth that you have from God. We can also notice this distinction in the Scriptures.
And it came to pass, when he was in a certain city, behold a man full of leprosy: who seeing Jesus fell on his face, and besought him, saying, Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. And he put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean. And immediately the leprosy departed from him. And he charged him to tell no man: but go, and shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing, according as Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.
After healing the man, Jesus told him to go to the priest and make an offering for his cleansing. Was the cleansing a result of the offering? Clearly not, because the man was cleansed by Jesus before he made the offering. Rather, the offering was in response to his cleansing, to signify his cleansing. In like manner, consider the possibility that baptism for the remission of sins means baptism to signify the remission of sins. Similarly, we can think about 1 Corinthians 11. Verse 15 says that a woman’s hair is “given her for a covering.” Many people read this and think that this verse is telling them that the hair is the only covering. However, based on my understanding of the head covering, it is evident from the context of the chapter that this is not the way “for” is being used in this case. Instead, it might be more accurate to explain this verse in the sense of a woman’s hair being given her because of a covering, or representing a covering. As I mentioned, context is the key, whether studying the Bible or any other type of writing.
I think different viewpoints on baptism are in part due to a different understanding of when the new birth takes place. Under the perspective that your sins are forgiven through water baptism, it would follow that we are born again through water baptism. I, on the other hand, would hold that the new birth and the washing of our sins occurs prior to water baptism. To consider what the Bible says about the new birth, we of course need to look at the third chapter of John. In verse 5, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Being born of water refers to baptism, right? Well, not necessarily. Many times in the Scriptures, the Word of God is referred to as cleansing or life-giving water. Here are a few examples.
Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.
Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. Ephesians 5:25-27
Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever.
1 Peter 1:23
1 Peter 1:23
In this last verse, Peter clearly tells us that our new birth is accomplished by the word of God. We cannot be regenerated through water, because water is corruptible. Therefore, the water from John 3:5 must be incorruptible water—the word of God. In 1 Corinthians 6:11, we learn that we who were formerly unrighteous have been washed, sanctified, and justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (emphasis added).
What if, even though the actual cleansing is accomplished by the word of God, it can only take place during water baptism? Let’s consider what we know. Peter said in Acts 2:39 that the promise he just mentioned in the previous verse, which includes the gift of the Holy Spirit, was for everyone that the Lord would call. In Romans 8:9, Paul informs us that any person who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to Christ. It is obvious from this verse (among others) that all believers are filled with the Spirit. Conversely, if any person who has not been filled with the Spirit does not belong to Christ, then this person has not been washed of their sins or born again. So we need to ask, are there any occasions when receiving the Holy Spirit clearly occurs separately from water baptism? In Acts 8, when Phillip preached to the residents of Samaria about the kingdom of God, the people responded “with one accord” and were baptized.
Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
If the Samaritans were born again through water baptism, why didn’t they receive the Spirit until the apostles laid hands on them? We can see something similar in Paul’s conversion. The Lord told Ananias to put his hands on Saul for the recovery of his sight. When Ananias came to where Saul was staying, he put his hands on Saul and told him that he had been sent so that Saul would get his sight back and so that Saul would be filled with the Holy Spirit. After these things had taken place, only then was Saul baptized (Acts 9:10-18).
Also, let's talk about the conversion of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. As Peter preached, “through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins,” the Holy Spirit fell on his listeners. In response, Peter remarked to the Jewish believers that had accompanied him that these Gentiles should be baptized, since these Gentiles had received the Spirit just as they, the Jews, had. Is Peter referring to the events in Acts 2, when he and the other apostles were baptized with the Holy Spirit? Well, his companions in this case are not his fellow apostles, but believers from Joppa who had decided to go with him. What happened to the apostles in Acts 2 is described as both being filled with the Spirit and as the baptism of the Spirit. The possibility has been suggested that these are two different occurrences, instead of the same thing being described in different ways, and also that Acts 2 and 10 are the only occasions that definitively show the baptism of the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, then baptism of the Holy Spirit doesn’t apply to the believers who went with Peter. Yet, Peter said that Cornelius and his companions had received the Holy Spirit in the same way as both Peter himself and the brethren from Joppa had received. As soon as there was clear evidence that the Gentiles had received the Spirit, then it was time for them to get baptized.
Next, let’s look at Romans 6. In this passage, Paul explains that “we are buried with him by baptism into death.” This may seem like a silly question, but here it is: when was Christ buried? Obviously, after He was dead. Jesus was crucified, He died, and then He was buried in the tomb. You don’t bury someone who hasn’t died yet. There are several Bible verses that show that we also have to be crucified and die to sin, such as Galatians 5:24. Furthermore, Paul tells us that, “if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin” (Romans 8:10). Death does not happen during the burial but rather precedes it. If baptism is a burial, then it must happen after we are dead to sin.
It is clear that the New Testament teaches that we are washed from our sins by the blood of Jesus, but I gather some believers would differ on how this blood is applied. I presume that those Christians that believe in forgiveness of sins through baptism would hold that washing in the blood of Jesus happens when we are baptized in water. Let’s consider a few Bible passages that talk about the cleansing power of Jesus’s blood. In 1 John 1:7, the cleansing blood is associated with walking in the light and fellowship with other believers. Two verses later, the apostle explains that forgiveness and cleansing are results of the confession of sins. Other verses that describe how the blood of Jesus makes us right with God include Ephesians 2:13, Hebrews 10:19, 1 Peter 1:2, and Revelation 1:5. I don’t doubt that you could point out many more such verses. Many different aspects of our faith are associated with the blood of Jesus in these verses, but can anyone show me which ones demonstrate that washing in the blood takes place during water baptism?
To find a passage that does in fact talk about baptism, one place we can go to is 1 Corinthians 10. Here, Paul lets us know the Israelites “were all baptized unto Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” This occurrence from the Old Testament is an example for us (verse 11), so let’s see what we can learn from it. In the book of Exodus, when did the children of Israel apply the blood? Did it happen while they were passing though the baptism in the Red Sea? No, they applied the blood to their doorposts in anticipation of the Passover, before they left Egypt. The Passover sacrifice of the Israelites was a perfect lamb, which is a type of our Passover sacrifice, Christ (1 Corinthians 5:7). First was the death of the lamb, then the application of the blood, followed by the baptism in the sea.
Are there other types of baptism in the Old Testament? Baptism is associated with the Great Flood in 1 Peter 3. Verse 21 indicates that baptism saves us. Is this proof that we are forgiven of our sins through baptism in water? Well, perhaps not. One of the key words here is “figure.” Noah and his family being saved by water is a “like figure” as being saved by baptism. A figure of a concept is not the same as the concept itself. Peter clarifies what he is talking about in the rest of verse. Salvation is “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh” (which is what literal water does), “but the answer of a good conscience toward God.” Does a person who is still in their sins have a good conscience toward God? The good conscience comes first, from which follows baptism as the answer. Water baptism, a physical washing, is a symbol of our salvation, a spiritual washing. There are other Biblical examples of a spiritual truth being testified to via a physical event. When we keep the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the grape juice are symbols; they are not literally the body and blood of Christ, as some would believe.
There is one final point I want to consider. For the sake of argument, let’s say that all of my above points are wrong and that I am misunderstanding the Bible on this topic. Then we have to ask, does having a wrong understanding of baptism prevent someone from being saved? To put it another way, is the essence of Christianity having correct theology? I’m not denying that theology is important—but then, so is how we live. The Scriptures mention many things that will keep people out of the kingdom. During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said you can judge a tree by its fruit (Matthew 7:16-20) and that the people who practice iniquity will not enter the kingdom (7:21-23). In Matthew 25, Jesus describes the Judgment where He will separate the sheep from the goats. Is the separation based on sheep=baptized for the remission of sins and goats=not baptized for the remission of sins? According to Jesus (and His perspective is the only one that matters), the sheep inherit the kingdom because the fruits of their lives demonstrate their love for the Lord, while the fruits (or lack thereof) of the goats show otherwise. Before His ascension, Jesus said (Mark 16:16), “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Jesus did not say, “He that is baptized for the wrong reason shall be damned.” The Lord tells us that condemnation is a result of unbelief, not the result of an incorrect view of baptism. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul indicates that “the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God,” and then he proceeds to make a list of who he is referring to when he mentions “the unrighteous.” Once again, the kingdom is barred to people whose lives show that they are not following Christ—not to people who have the wrong belief about baptism. We have another depiction of the Judgment in Revelation 20:12, where we see the dead judged according to their works, not according to their doctrinal beliefs. These examples (and I could list more) illustrate why I believe the essence of Christianity is discipleship, not theology.Jesus also said that we will be judged in the same way that we judge. Does this mean we don’t use discernment? Does this mean we overlook sin in people’s lives? Of course not! We are clearly instructed to admonish anyone who calls himself a brother but is engaged in sin. I want to indicate clearly that nothing I have said is meant to imply that I doubt the salvation of any Christian who believes that sins are forgiven during baptism. I believe that two Christians can have a doctrinal disagreement and still be brothers. However, considering the consequences of wrong judgment, it behooves us to be very careful how and why we condemn any individuals who, while being flawed, do not have obvious sin in their lives and have expressed their desire to conform their lives to the example of Jesus.