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The Purpose of Baptism PDF Print E-mail

*This paper in .doc format may be found here.

The Purpose of Baptism

By Joshua Nielsen 

Baptism is an important subject in the Christian church for many reasons. Some reasons of mere tradition and others of reasons rooted in the Biblical purpose for baptism. Here we will explore what the purpose of baptism is according to what the Bible says. Shortly before Jesus’ ministry began a man named John, the son of Zechariah, began preaching in the wilderness saying, “Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand(Matthew 3:2). John was Jesus’ forerunner, a voice in the wilderness crying “Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight(Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4).
            John was there to set straight those crooked ways of the people of Israel during that day, and for those who repented he baptized them in water by complete bodily immersion reminiscent of Old Testament ritual washings which physically symbolized purity or casting off of filth or sinfulness, which the Priests were required to do before they could minister to God in the Tabernacle/Temple. Because of John’s common baptisms which he preformed he was called “John the Baptizer” or “John the Baptist”. John however realized that what he was doing was temporal and that his ministry was only in preparation for someone greater than him who would bring a greater baptism.
            When John’s disciples began to protest to John that Jesus was drawing a greater crowd than he was, and that Jesus’ disciples were now baptizing also, John said, “You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ’, but, ‘I have been sent ahead of him’…He must increase, but I must decrease(John 3:28, 30). At the peak of John’s ministry people had come from all over Judea just to listen to him, and many where wondering if he was the Christ, but John confessed before them, “As for me, I baptize you with water; but one is coming who is mightier than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire(Luke 3:16 – emphasis mine). Jesus was to bring a greater baptism – that of the Holy Spirit who would bring about the new creation in those who believe in Jesus and seal them for the day of redemption. No one can be saved without the regenerating (spiritually rebirthing) work of the Holy Spirit.
            Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit(John 3:5-8 – emphasis mine). It is clear that no one can be saved and enter into God’s glorious kingdom if they are not born of the Spirit, and this is the true baptism that Jesus was to bring (the Baptism of the Spirit) – in contrast to John’s baptism which did not save but was only preparatory. This is why Jesus said that though John the Baptist was the greatest among those born of women, that the least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than him (because they would be born of the Spirit – Matthew 11:11).
            Some though may make the objection that Jesus said, “unless one is born of water and the Spirit” (vs. 5 – emphasis mine) and assume that this refers to water baptism when in fact it does not. Physical water, first of all, does not birth anything nor even in the OT did the water have magical properties which rendered a person clean. It was only effectual by God’s gracious ordinances of water cleansing, for the purpose of providing a temporary spiritual cleansing on behalf of humans who sought to correct their wayward ways, by ordaining an external observance for them to perform (devoid of meaning in and of itself – for even pagans practiced the same rituals), even though they fell short of the glory of God and his perfect standard. More in focus though should be the immediate context and import of Jesus’ words to what he refers to in the passage. Take note that Jesus was talking to Nicodemus who was a teacher of Israel (being well-versed in the Scripture) and Jesus had expected him to know to what he referred, which means that what He was referring to was clearly given in the OT, though Nicodemus was confused at how someone could truly be reborn (missing the intended reference of “water”), because he knew that the ritual water purification rites were repetitive, temporal, and provisional.
            Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Are you the Teacher of Israel and do not know these things(John 3:10)? Jesus was referring to the common usage of water to symbolize moral and spiritual purity and cleansing in the OT. This is the same usage as Paul gave when writing his epistle to the Ephesians when he testified that, “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word(Ephesians 5:26 –emphasis mine). The word (the Gospel) is what brings about our salvation as the Holy Spirit brings it to fruition by convicting the person of its truthfulness and need for a savior and then rebirthing the person who conforms to the truth of that word, the Gospel, and believes/has faith in it. Romans 10:17 says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” Our faith is brought about by the word opening up our spiritual ears as the Holy Spirit convicts us and makes it grow to fruition in our hearts - which is the soil for the word to grow in – as Jesus made clear in his many parables about sowing seed (the seed representing the word). And the word, once rooted in our heart, washes and purifies us as with water – cleansing us and rebirthing us by the work of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 5:26).
            How the Holy Spirit accomplishes this exactly is a wonderful and amazing mystery, as the Bible says using the analogy of the growing seed: “and he [the seed sower] goes to bed at night and gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows-- how, he himself does not know (Mark 4:27 –emphasis mine). The Holy Spirit in a sense is the water that makes the plant seed (the word) grow, and it purifies us. The Spirit was also directly connected by Jesus himself to living (eternal) water (meaning that the Holy Spirit purifies us and gives us eternal life) in John 7:38-39 which says, “‘He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those believing would receive.” Now almost always when a book in the NT refers to the “Scripture” it refers to the established Scripture of the day which was the OT only, and it is abundantly clear from the context that Jesus was referring to an OT teaching. It was most likely a composite reference to the end times promise of the eschatological rivers of living water foreseen in Ezekiel 47:1-9 and Zechariah 13:1. But most importantly this brings us back to the fact that Jesus expected Nicodemus to know to what he was referring, meaning it was an OT teaching, and - as we have seen here - the water spoken of was both moral and spiritual in nature, causing the cleansing and spiritual rebirth by the work of the Holy Spirit and the word of God (the Gospel) working in people’s hearts and minds for salvation.
            It should be clear by the end of this article that water baptism does not save a person, nor is it necessarily required, though it still yet plays an important role which was wisely ordained by God for a good purpose. Now, let us move on from John the Baptist and Jesus and see what the other books of the NT reveal about baptism, and what the true saving baptism is.
            Pentecost was one of the most important events of the early Church that ever occurred, for it initiated the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in God’s people, and an equally important subsequent event occurred also for the Gentiles. Jesus before he ascended to Heaven told the disciples in Acts 1:4 to “wait for the Promise of the Father”. Luckily for us we know both of the earlier promise which was given before and the fulfillment which happened after for they are both recorded. In Luke 24:49 had Jesus said to the Disciples, “Behold I send the Promise of My Father upon you; but tarry in the city of Jerusalem until you are endued with power from on high.” The “Promise” Jesus referred to was the promise of the Holy Spirit which he told them of in John 15:26 (the “Helper” and “Spirit of truth”), and that He was to bring them power (Greek: dunamis) from on high. Any of God’s gifts including his grace to all believers are consistently portrayed in the NT as empowering (“dunamis”) and it is clear that the indwelling Holy Spirit conveys that power to us, the power by which we must live day by day as Christians.
            Immediately after Jesus told them to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit he said to them, “for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now(Acts 1:5 – emphasis mine). Notice the contrast given - just as John the Baptist had made. For this baptism was the true mighty, saving, empowering, flesh-killing, and life-giving baptism which regenerates the inward person (the Baptism of the Spirit), not a mere baptism in water. On Pentecost, a couple days later, the Holy Spirit descended as promised and, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance(Acts 2:4). This fulfilled the promised baptism in the Holy Spirit and the accompanying power (dunamis) that the Spirit demonstrated but a sample of in them (“as [he] gave them utterance”) in the form of tongues. This is the true transforming baptism: the Baptism of the Spirit.
            Paul affirms that this is the true saving baptism by which we were crucified (died) with Christ by the Holy Spirit, saying, “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free – and have all been made to drink into one Spirit(1 Corinthians 12:13 – emphasis mine) and “Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life(Romans 6:3-4 – emphasis mine). This is a spiritual baptism: the Baptism of the Spirit, in which the Holy Spirit baptizes us into Christ, in whom we died to our flesh (having crucified it – Galatians 5:24), and were recreated in Him and given eternal life by the Holy Spirit. It is not water baptism which does this. Paul, with this obvious sense of baptism in his mind (that of the Baptism of the Spirit), said, “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 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 and through all and in all(Ephesians 4:3-6 – emphasis mine). Paul is only speaking about spiritual realities here and attests to the very fact that there is indeed only one baptism, and that is the baptism that all (1 Corinthians 12:13) those who believe must have: the Baptism of the Spirit.
            Water baptism is nothing without the Baptism of the Spirit, for it only symbolizes it by allowing the saved person to make a public profession “in the name of Jesus” and demonstration (symbolized by immersion in water – which represents the spiritual, cleansing water we learned about above) by an outward enaction of immersion in water (water baptism) before other witnesses. This physical element is important for it is a public confession and representative demonstration before people of God’s salvation in your life, and as Romans 10:9 says, “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
            Some people may actually only be saved at that moment of confession immediately preceding their immersion but it happens at that moment and not while or because of their immersion in the water. It is also possible that someone was fully regenerated and saved by God prior to their water baptism and had already made confession of Jesus, but then sometime later they became water baptized - as can be seen in the Scripture (and will be covered below). But water baptism is not necessary for salvation, nor can it be an essential element to one’s continued favor with God, their sanctification, or the work of God’s grace in their heart by the Holy Spirit - for this would limit God’s power and grace to a physical, external rite and undermine the whole premise of God’s saving work – “not of him who wills, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy(Romans 9:16) – a work of God’s grace not man’s works “lest any man should boast(Ephesians 2:9).
            The Corinthians actually had this wrong idea about baptism and were boasting contentiously against one another each claiming to be baptized into an Apostle’s name (1 Corinthians 1:14) and Paul said in counter-argument, “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius…For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel(1 Corinthians 1:13-14, 17 – emphasis mine).  Paul was actually glad he had only baptized a few because water baptism was not the important thing, and he even said Christ did not call him to baptize (now if water baptism was essential then Paul most certainly would have been more active concerning it), however Christ had instead called him to preach the Gospel (the word which brings about the Baptism of the Spirit). The Gospel is the word of truth by which we have faith in God, which invites the Spirit to make his dwelling in us (John 14:23), and - recalling what we read earlier, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ(Romans 10:17).
            Peter also affirms that baptism is not about the water but about the moral and spiritual pledge toward God (which can incidentally take place without the water), “There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Not the water, which only removes filth and dirt from our flesh, but rather the baptism by which we may make a pledge of good conscience to God: the Baptism of the Spirit.
            Now, we’ll look at some final considerations in the book of Acts before I bring this to a conclusion. Another testament recorded in the Bible that water baptism does not save is the Gentile’s own “Pentecost” which began at Cornelius’ house as is recorded in Acts 10. Peter after being given a vision by God was commanded to go down from his roof where he saw the vision and meet three men who were looking for him, and it turned out that they were sent by a man named Cornelius who was a Gentile. Cornelius had also been given a vision by the Lord and was subsequently commanded to seek out Simon Peter and listen to everything he had to tell him. So Peter preached the Gospel to him and all who were listening and the Holy Spirit fell on them while he preached. The account records, “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also(Acts 10:44-45 – emphasis mine). This was a clear indication that they had been saved by hearing the Gospel on the spot. Peter then made the statement, in realization that God had granted the Gentiles salvation, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did(vs. 48 – emphasis mine). They were saved at that point and manifested the fruit of it immediately, and Peter said then that they could be permitted (not refused) to be baptized because they had every right to do so, for they were outwardly demonstrating evidence of their salvation: the power (dunamis) of the Holy Spirit falling on them. Water baptism was more of an accessory that came afterward, while the Baptism of the Spirit happened immediately. For water baptism is only an outward sign of the inward reality. When Peter later explained what happened to his fellow Jews the Bible says, “‘Therefore if God gave to them the gift as He gave us also after believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?’ When they heard this, they quieted down and glorified God, saying, ‘Well then, God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life(Acts 11:17-18 – emphasis mine). No one could refuse them the public witness of water baptism, for they were truly saved, as the Jews then agreed on (and for them it was big deal – salvation ever since Abraham had only been given to the Jews; this was big news! The Gentiles had now been grafted into God’s people!).
            Secondly, there is another account in Acts which records the same details but in the opposite order but still clearly demonstrates that water baptism and salvation (which is affected by the Holy Spirit’s work in us) are not intrinsically connected. The Samaritans who were a mongrel race of half-Jew, half-Gentile ethnicity had received the good news, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and been water baptized, but they didn’t at that time receive the Holy Spirit. Now it must of course be noted that it is important to remember that Acts was a transitional period and it will not always happen the same as it did then but for the sake of the public Apostolic approval necessary at that time for the body of believers the Holy Spirit was not granted to the Samaritans until Peter and John came to lay hands on them – though this odd occurrence shows by way of division that water baptism and receiving the Holy Spirit for salvation are two separate things. It says in Acts chapter 8, “Now when the Apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus(Acts 8:14-16 – emphasis mine). They had only simply been baptized in water in the name of Jesus without receiving the promised work of the Holy Spirit which brings about salvation. Water baptism is not effective of itself to bring about salvation, it is solely a gracious work of the Spirit.
            One last demonstration from Acts, which is quite telling and important, should be sufficient. In Acts chapter 19 we read that Paul has traveled to Ephesus and met some disciples there. Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (Acts 19:2) And they said to him, ‘No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ [wow!] And he [Paul] said ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ And they said, ‘Into John’s baptism. Paul said, ‘John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:3-5). What an encounter! These men had rightfully believed in John’s preaching, and were acquainted with John’s water baptism, but had apparently never been brought up to speed about Jesus who fulfilled the things John spoke about and who was the Messiah (they weren’t the only ones though - Apollos also was an extremely strong believer but was only acquainted with John’s baptism [Acts 18:24-28]). Paul asks something vitally important here: “Into what then were you baptized?” In other words, if you didn’t receive the Holy Spirit then you were not baptized into the believer’s baptism (belief in Jesus), they only had believed in the unrevealed shadow prophesied by John the Baptist and had not come to know of Jesus’ work on the cross. Now, once Paul instructed them according to the Gospel of Jesus Christ he did actually then baptize them in water in Jesus’ name, but his whole focus was on them receiving the Holy Spirit, for merely dunking them a second time in water (they were first baptized by John) would be no different were it not for an inward spiritual change. And that change would take place by hearing the Gospel (faith comes by hearing) and believing in Jesus after which they would receive the Baptism of the Spirit. This would be, though, one of those incidents where they were saved immediately preceding their water baptism – but as I pointed out above, it is done in that moment of belief not during or because of their physical immersion. They had already been immersed once to no effect, only true belief in Jesus and baptism into the Holy Spirit could bring them salvation according to Christ’s sacrifice.
            Bringing this to a conclusion I would like to relate one last story which occurred for someone I know personally. This should help us see in what way water baptism can be important and what role it has by providing an occasion for confession. Now, however, this man I know has never been water baptized ever since he was saved, but God’s evidence of a radical change in his life was very evident. He stopped drinking, smoking, cussing and was cleaning his act up by God’s power working in him and soon after his conversion God prompted him to do something which was quite daunting – God told him to profess his faith openly to the men at his work place. He was scared all day because he knew what he had to do, but in the end he decided that you cannot have a fear of man if you are to stand up for God, and at lunch time that day he publicly declared that Jesus was his Savior and that he had changed the way he was living, to live for Jesus, not caring whether they laughed at him or not.
             After that a tremendous peace came over him and a changed heart, and he said that was when he really felt the filling of the Holy Spirit in him. God never thereafter prompted him to be water baptized – for it was not necessary. It also happens that he was water sprinkled as a baby and had been taught growing up that that was what water baptism was, but as he matured in faith he realized that was not the biblical model for water baptism, and that believer's baptism (immersion with confession of faith in Jesus) is rather the correct model for water baptism. But he had already been a follower of Jesus for a while before that doctrine became clearer to him, and the evidences of the new life in the Spirit were already apparent in him by that time. Now if for some reason God wanted him to be water baptized after that point he says he would have done it, but there was no conviction from God to do so after he had openly confessed Jesus to those men, only that inward peace and testimony of the Holy Spirit. He belonged to Christ evidenced by the Spirit living in him (Romans 8:9, 16)
            The reason it was not necessary for him to be water baptized is because he did the very thing that water baptism was intended to do, only in a much more difficult and bold manner: to provide an occasion for public declaration and action to demonstrate one submitting their life to Jesus Christ. Water baptism is important in that it provides a convenient, and importantly symbolic (of the inward washing of the water with the word by the Holy Spirit), occasion to profess one’s faith – and mostly in the presence of fellow believers. What this man did however was far more difficult and laudable, for he openly professed Jesus before unbelievers. And we know God keeps his promises, so when Jesus says, “Everyone therefore who shall confess Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven(Mathew 10:32) we know that He will be faithful to carry it out. He did not say “Everyone therefore who shall be water baptized and confess Me before men…” for this would limit God’s grace to a legalistic observance of a work of man. God honors our profession of faith, which is what water baptism was originally intended for, as a public declaration and demonstration outwardly of the change inside of us. But it is not necessary to be baptized in water to make that confession and declaration. Water baptism is simply this: an outward expression of the inward reality – and that reality is that the Holy Spirit baptized us into one body, through the death of Christ, and raised us anew. If that man I spoke of above went now, after all these years, to be water baptized out of some compulsion to please the tradition or doctrine of men, and not because of any conviction of God it would not only serve no purpose since the water does nothing in itself (the washing of dirt from the body is all) but it would also demonstrate a lack of faith in God on his part by naively assuming that in some wise we may limit God’s grace by not being plunged into water – this is nothing but legalism. “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now made perfect by the flesh(Galatians 3:3)? Being baptized after the plain fact that he had been saved for all these years would be an effort to be made perfect in the flesh by foolishly thinking to make up for what might seem “lacking” in the Spirit. This is doubt and what Paul calls “falling from grace” (Galatians 5:4). But rather it was evident to him immediately that the Spirit was in him and that he had received salvation from God, because of that peace that he felt after confessing Jesus openly before men, for “the Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are the children of God(Romans 8:16).
            Now it is true that sometimes water baptism was so associated with the act of the person’s repentance that they seem to be one, such as when Peter said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit " (Acts 2:38), but this is because baptism provided the necessary element of confession which one needs to be saved – though it must be realized that baptism is not the only method of publicly confessing Jesus. It can be made plain and simple with your mouth before one or more witnesses. The Ethiopian Eunuch whom Philip preached to as they traveled along the road stopped on the side of the road to be baptized with probably no one but Philip and the chariot driver around, and he was saved then and there. And it must be realized that the same Peter who said that admonition above, is the same Peter who also saw Cornelius and the other Gentiles who were present receive the Spirit first, being granted repentance (Acts 10:48, 11:18), and then realized this and said that he could not justly deny them the public testimony of water baptism, though they were publicly making testimony of the power of the Holy Spirit right then, immediately, on the spot and were “speaking with tongues and exalting God(Acts 10:46). Peter then knew that he could not deny them water baptism as a public testimony that the Gentiles too had been granted salvation. And this is the same Peter who acknowledged that baptism was not about the washing of filth from the flesh but for a pledge of good conscience before God (1 Peter 3:21).
          So let this understanding of God’s true baptism, the Baptism of the Spirit - which he affects in our heart, bring us joy and liberate us at the realization that all who have believed in God and confessed with their mouth their allegiance to Jesus Christ have received the Holy Spirit, being baptized into Christ, and are rightful heirs of salvation, having the intrinsic power (dunamis) of the Holy Spirit available to them as grace to walk in day to day. This is the same clothing power from on high promised on Pentecost, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, which every believer has received, and by which we have access to the power (dunamis) which the epistles say every believer must walk in for sanctification. And God’s grace, which all who have believed receive, is that very agent of God’s power in our weakness for salvation (2 Corinthians 12:9).
            Let us always pay attention to the spirit and reason behind God’s ordinances rather than enacting legalistic observances according to the exact letter of some single account or occurrence in the Bible, for “[God] also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life(2 Corinthians 3:6) May God’s light shine in you and may his Holy Spirit fill you as he sanctifies you with God’s amazing power. Amen.





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