Some say, "I was sprinkled with water as a baby, so I don't need to do anything more to be saved." Others say, "I was saved when I was baptized by immersion as an adult." What is baptism? Does it really cleanse people from their sins, as some denominations and sects of Christendom claim? To find the answers to these questions we must not look to men and their traditions, but to the Bible, the Word of God.
What is Baptism? The word "baptism" is not an English word. It is simply the English form of the Greek word baptizo. This word means "to dip completely, to immerse, to submerge." Baptizo was a term used to describe what happens when a crippled ship fills up with water and sinks to the bottom of the sea, or the dying of a garment. The act of "baptism," or more correctly "immersion," was first practiced in the New Testament by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1-6). People came to him at the Jordan River to be lowered into the water and raised again.
What is Baptism Meant to Signify? The ritual immersion which John performed on the people who came to him was a symbol of repentance and obedience to God. Later, the apostle Paul explained that this baptism was to prepare the people to receive Christ when He came. Paul said, "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" (Acts 19:4). Those willing to be baptized by John would also be willing to believe in Jesus' message. But those who rejected John's baptism would reject Jesus as well (Luke 7:29-30).
After the Lord Jesus had died and risen again, He commanded His followers to continue baptizing (Matt. 28:19). Now, however, baptism had taken on a newer, deeper meaning. Before it had been a symbol of readiness to forsake worldly ways and to do God's will; now it had become a symbol of the work of salvation that the Lord Jesus had done by dying on the cross. Paul said that those who were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ were "baptized into His death" (Rom. 6:3). By going down into the water, the person being baptized would identify himself with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Col. 2:12).
What About the Other Kinds of Baptism Mentioned in the Bible? The Bible speaks of other "baptisms," particularly the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16, Acts 1:5), but unlike the baptism of immersion which John and the apostles performed, this Holy Spirit "baptism" was not a physical action or ritual performed by men, but a spiritual act which God would perform for all who would believe (Acts 2:38). The only baptism which was entrusted to men to perform was the act of physical immersion in water, representing repentance and identification with Christ on the part of the one being baptized. Anyone, therefore, who claims to baptize people with the Holy Spirit through pouring or to cleanse people from sin by sprinkling is acting contrary to Scripture.
The question of who is an acceptable candidate for baptism, and whether baptism is essential to salvation, will be answered in a following question.
Does baptism save people from their sins? Part 2
Earlier, we looked at the definition of baptism, how baptism began and what it was meant to signify or symbolize, and at the various kinds of baptism mentioned in Scripture. But we have still not addressed the fundamental part of the question asked above. If a person is sprinkled with water as a baby or immersed as an adult, does that mean that they are saved? Can a person be saved without being baptized, or is baptism the only way we can be sure of salvation? Let's see what the Bible has to say.
Can Babies be Baptized? If we look through the New Testament at all the instances where people were baptized, we will not find even one example of baptism being performed on a baby or a child too young to understand what baptism means. The people who were baptized by John came to him because they had heard him preaching and urging them to be baptized as an act of repentance. These men and women confessed their sins and made a conscious decision to be baptized (Mt. 3:5-6, Mk. 1:4-5). Some of them may have been teenagers or even children, but they were certainly old enough to understand that they were sinners and needed to repent. The same applies to those whom the apostles baptized in the name of Christ. The people who were baptized in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost were baptized because they had heard, understood, and accepted Peter's preaching about Christ (Acts 2:37-41). No one can decide for another person whether they should be baptized; the person being baptized must have made his own decision to do so. The Philippian jailer's whole family was baptized with him (Acts 16:33), but only after they had heard the word of the Lord spoken to them (Acts 16:32) and had come to believe (Acts 16:34).
Does Baptism Take Away Sin? The reason people baptize babies and little children is because they think that this will save them from their sins. Even some people who are baptized as adults believe that the baptism will make them right with God. They point to verses in the Bible which seem to say that baptism is necessary for salvation, such as Acts 2:38 and 22:16. But we must not forget that these verses also mention that a person must "repent" and "call ... on the name of the Lord." Is it the person's repentance and belief or is it the act of being baptized with water which brings about salvation? If it is the baptism, then we would expect to find many verses which speak of baptism as saving a person but which do not speak about repentance and faith. But in fact, we find the very opposite. There are no verses which tell us that baptism by itself is enough to save a person, but there are many verses which tell us that repentance and faith are enough (Jn. 3:16-18, Rom. 10:9-10, Acts 16:31, Eph. 2:8-9). Mark 16:16 says, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." It does not say that he who is not baptized will go to hell, but "he that believeth not."
The Bible commands that those who have believed should be baptized to publicly demonstrate their commitment to Christ and identification with Him. It does not anticipate that anyone who has truly believed would refuse to be baptized. But at the same time, it certainly does not teach that baptism is what saves people from their sins. Only faith in the Lord Jesus Christ can do that. R. J. Bohner