Is water baptism essential for salvation? God wants 21st-century Christians to understand the effects of baptism in providing a clean start to a new life.
Jennifer stood waiting at the steps of the pool, giving her friends and family time to gather around in order to witness her baptism. She had been thinking and praying about this commitment to God for quite some time. And she had gone through a series of counselings with her pastor that helped her understand and further convicted her about the step she was taking.
Jennifer felt good about her decision and was confident that it was the right course of action. It was just about time for her to step into the water and formally make her covenant relationship with God.
Is baptism necessary today?
But was it really necessary for Jennifer to undergo this ancient practice that originated in type under the Old Covenant (Hebrews 9:10)? Must Christians be baptized today to have a clean start?
According to some groups, including Christian Scientists, Quakers, the Salvation Army and Unitarians, the answers to these questions are both “No.”
Those who do not practice baptism vary in their explanations as to why they do not, but in general, they consider baptism to be an outdated ritual that is no longer necessary under the New Covenant. Reasons given often include:
- What one experiences in his or her heart is what is most important.
- External actions to reflect one’s inner thoughts are superfluous.
- The scriptures on baptism are ambiguous.
- People can live holy lives without being baptized.
So are the Scriptures really that vague? Is there any value to being baptized? What are the effects of baptism? Instead of relying on human opinions and reasoning, let’s see what the biblical record shows.
Christ’s example and instruction on baptism
A quick review of Christ’s actions just before the beginning of His ministry is insightful as a lesson for us today. As we will soon see, Jesus taught that baptism was very important.
When John the Baptist began preaching in the wilderness of Judea, people from “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:5-6). Though Jesus had no sins to confess, He asked John to baptize Him (verse 13).
Baptism is far more than a symbolic exercise.
After being baptized, the Spirit of God descended upon Jesus and a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (verse 17).
Why did God the Father make this statement after Jesus was baptized? And, of special concern to us, will the Father be pleased if we are baptized? It seems obvious that He thinks baptism is important!
Scriptures such as 1 Peter 2:21 and 1 John 2:6 show that Christians are to follow the example of Jesus Christ. We are to walk as He walked, do as He did. We are indeed to be baptized as He was. When we follow Christ’s example, God the Father is, no doubt, pleased with us as well.
Jesus’ teaching on baptism was not limited to His personal example. During His earthly ministry, He had His disciples baptize those who believed (John 3:22). It is also insightful to note that Christ’s disciples baptized more people than John the Baptist (John 4:1-2).
After His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples and gave them instructions on how they were to take His message to the world.
Note that His instructions, which are sometimes referred to as the commission of the Church, include baptizing those who respond: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19, emphasis added throughout).
Jesus also pointedly stated, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16). Christ’s teaching on the importance and effects of baptism is quite clear!
Since Jesus clearly taught baptism, let’s now consider what we learn by following His instruction.
Effects of baptism: what we learn and receive from baptism
Repentance. When people in Peter’s audience on the Day of Pentecost in A.D. 31 asked the apostle what they should do, he told them to “repent, and let every one of you be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Repentance, which is the initial step toward baptism, means changing our way of life because of a change in our thinking. It means that in hindsight, we realize that the way we had been living was not in accordance with God’s good and beneficial laws.
The process of repentance—which we are led to by God (Romans 2:4)—helps us understand the seriousness of sin. It is marked by a strong desire on our part to be forgiven of our sins, to stop sinning and to change our sinful nature (Jeremiah 17:9). It includes the recognition of the value of Christ’s sacrifice—His blood that covers our sins (Ephesians 1:7).
To learn more about this important subject, see the articles in the section “Repentance.”
Death, burial and resurrection. After one repents of his or her sins, the next step is to be baptized—which means being immersed in water. This act symbolizes three important concepts.
Next, after someone dies, he is generally buried. Baptism pictures the burial of the old man with all of his sins, which earn one the death penalty. This reminds us to put away the old way of life completely. As Paul explained, “We were buried with Him through baptism into death” (Romans 6:4).
The third concept symbolized by baptism is resurrection. Coming up from under the water after being baptized represents our resurrection to a new life in Christ. As Paul further noted, “If we have been united together in the likeness of His [Christ’s] death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection” (verse 5).
Baptism helps impress these three important concepts within our minds. This physical act helps us realize the spiritual significance of baptism.
For further study, see the article “What Do the Symbols of Baptism Mean?”
Forgiveness of sins. Baptism is far more than a symbolic exercise. Indeed, there are two very significant beneficial effects of baptism in addition to the spiritual understanding we gain from obeying Christ’s command to be baptized.
Through baptism we accept the sacrifice of Christ, which washes our sins away and gives us a clean start. The first is the forgiveness of our sins. Indeed, this is one of the key reasons for being baptized. As Peter said, “Let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Through baptism we accept the sacrifice of Christ, which washes our sins away (Acts 22:16) and gives us a clean start.
Receiving the Holy Spirit. A second important effect of baptism is the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit. Again, Peter’s teaching was: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Baptism, accompanied by the laying on of hands (Acts 19:6), is the way God has established for us to receive this precious gift.
Romans 8 documents several important benefits that come to us because we have God’s Holy Spirit.
First, this power from God allows us to set aside ungodly activities and live “according to the Spirit” (verse 4). When we allow this Spirit to lead us, we are called the “children of God” (verse 16).
Furthermore, having God’s Holy Spirit is our guarantee of eternal life (verses 11, 13, 23).
To learn more about this baptismal promise, see the articles in the LifeHopeandTruth.com section “Holy Spirit.”
Action required: should you be baptized?
Following the biblical instruction to be baptized underscores an important biblical principle: What we do is very important to God. The true, timeless religion of the Bible calls for physical action—not just knowledge and understanding. As Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
The author of Psalm 111 made this insightful observation: “A good understanding have all those who do His commandments” (verse 10). Echoing this principle and the teaching of Jesus, James emphasized that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). The actions we take before and during baptism set the stage for continued obedience to God afterwards.
After everyone had gathered around, Jennifer was baptized by being completely immersed in the pool. She entered into a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior. She had hands laid on her with a prayer for the receiving of the Holy Spirit, and she has been given a clean start and has begun her spiritual journey toward eternal life as a child of God in His Kingdom.
Looking back on her decision, she says it is the best one she has ever made. The decision to respond to God’s calling to be baptized was a good one for Jennifer. It can be the same for you!
The Teaching of the Apostles About Baptism
Only a few days after receiving the commission to make disciples of all the nations and baptize them, Jesus’ disciples gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost—one of God’s annual festivals (Acts 2:1). It was there on this holy day that the Holy Spirit was poured out on the believers (verses 2-4). Jesus had told His disciples that He would send this special power that proceeds from the Father to them after He left them (John 15:26; 16:7).
Empowered by this special gift from God, Peter—the disciple who had previously denied Christ three times—now publicly explained that Jesus Christ was responsible for sendiing the Holy Spirit that day (Acts 2:14-33). Peter also advised those who were listening to repent “and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (verse 38). Peter didn’t present baptism as simply an option.
The approximately 3,000 people who were baptized following Peter’s preaching also received the Holy Spirit that day (verse 41). As Christ’s apostles preached the gospel of the Kingdom and the Church grew, baptism was the common practice and expectation of those who responded (Acts 8:12, 36, 38; 16:15, 33; 18:8; 19:5; 22:16). When Paul was called by God, he responded by being baptized (Acts 9:18).
Jesus’ disciples taught others as they had been taught by Christ. And this teaching included baptism. When we respond to God, we, too, need to be baptized!