Introduction. As Erickson puts it, baptism is the “initiatory rite of the Church” (Erickson 1998, 1098). And as such a rite, there is much debate centered on baptism. How should it be done, and by who, to whom? What does it mean, theologically? Why baptize at all? Across the Church, there are those that hold that babies should be baptized, while others say it is for believers only, and some set an age when one can reasonable believe and be baptized. In some churches, baptism is done by sprinkling water over the head (aspersion), in others water is poured over the head and body (affusion), and still others dip or submerse the candidate into or completely under water (immersion). Priests or Bishops are the only ones authorized to baptize according to some church structures, while others say any believer in Jesus can baptize. Some argue that salvation comes through baptism, while others say is it a sign of a covenant relationship, while still others say it is a “token of salvation,” that is, an “outward symbol or indication of the inward change that has been effected in the believer” (Erickson 1998, 1105). While a fair treatment of these many questions is reasonable, for the sake of space, this post will only address the believer’s baptism, as “a symbol of beginning the Christian life (Grudem 1994, 970), and completed by immersion.

Baptism in the New Testament. All four Gospels record the baptism of Jesus by John the baptizer. It is likely that Jesus was baptized by immersion, given that he went in to and came out of the water. The word used in the text is baptizō, the meaning according to Grudem, to “plunge, dip, immerse” (Grudem 1994, 967). Grudem argues, “This is commonly recognized as the standard meaning of the term in ancient Greek literature both inside and outside of the Bible” (Grudem 1994, 967). And considering that Jesus was perfect, having never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), the baptism was not about cleansing or washing away of previous sins. Before Jesus ascended into heaven, he instructed his disciples to make more disciples and “baptize them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, ESV).

Throughout the Book of Acts, accounts of believers being baptized demonstrate that action, that is, baptism, followed belief. Acts 2:41 says, “those who received his word were baptized” (ESV). Acts 8:12 indicates that the people hearing Philip were baptized only when they believed. And there is evidence that these baptisms were by immersion, such as Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch “going down” and “coming up” out of the water (Acts 8:38-39).

But what is the meaning of the act itself? In Acts 22 Paul recounts his conversion story, which includes Ananias calling Paul to “be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name,” (Acts 22:16, ESV). However, Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12, paint a picture of the symbolism of dieing and being buried with Christ but then being resurrected to life with Christ. So is baptism the washing of sins or symbolic or both? On this matter, Grudem states, “But to say that washing away of sins is the only thing (or even the most essential thing) pictured in baptism does not faithfully represent New Testament teaching. Both washing and death and resurrection with Christ are symbolized in baptism, but Romans 6:1-11 and Colossians 2:11-12 place a clear emphasis on dying and rising with Christ” (Grudem 1994, 969).

Baptism today. While baptism itself is not a means of salvation, it is an act commanded by God and a beautiful public pronouncement of the new believer’s symbolic death and resurrection with Christ. It is also (generally) the initiatory rite into the Church. Baptism is about the candidate and his or her new life; therefore, Criswell says, “The baptismal service ought to be a beautiful and deeply spiritual occasion whether held in a creek, a river, a pond, or in a church baptistery” (Criswell 1980, 201). He further instructs, “Baptism is a death, a burial, and a resurrection. Remember to feel that, believe that, and the rite will come naturally to the administrator” (Criswell 1980, 204-205).

Because the ordinance does not belong to man, but to Christ’s Church, the administrator is not as important as the candidate. In fact, while the administrator should be a Christian believer, the baptism would not be invalidated should that administrator turn out to be an apostate (Criswell 1980, 200). For this same reason, local churches should not require a rebaptism of a believer as a means of membership into their local congregation.

Criswell, W.A. Criswell's Guidebook for Pastors. Nashville, Tenn: Broadman Press, 1980.

Erickson, Millard J. Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Book House, 1998.

Grudem, Wayne A. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

*Photo: Lance Cpl. Michael K. Kono, network administrator, Marine Wing Communications Squadron 38, Marine Air Control Group 38, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, and 19-year-old Sparks, Nev., native, is brought out of the waters during a baptism at Al Asad, Iraq, May 30. Chaplains representing two separate commands aboard the air base baptized five service members during the spiritual event. Photo by Sgt. J.L. Zimmer III. Cleared for Release