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The Doctrine of Water Baptism:
A Biblical Approach as Interpreted by a Baptist

The doctrine of baptism is not well understood by some, and abused by others. Indeed, true believers want to fully understand this doctrine both to be able to walk as closely to our Lord and Saviour as possible, and to be in the position of being able to teach or disciple new believers concerning the same. What is baptism? How, and when does one receive it once they understand it? Furthermore, why should one be baptized? The purpose of this section, therefore, is to offer the answers to these questions.

Baptism Defined

The word 'baptize' is a transliteration of the Greek term 'baptizo.' In the New Testament, "all Greek words used of baptism come from this term." (Dr. S. Derickson) It means whelmed or covered wholly with fluid. It is used in Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38 as a purification of the Pharisees; they dipped their utensils. "To most theologians, dipping into water is hard to change into 'pour upon' or 'sprinkle'." (Dr. S. Derickson) The Bible seems to teach immersion (dip) into water as the mode of baptism. For instance, in John 3:23, John the Baptist was baptizing people where there was much water; there is no need for MUCH water if sprinkling or pouring is all that is necessary.

Baptism symbolizes ones identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. That is to say, in baptism, the believer is buried and raised in likeness of Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12, 13); the fact that this is symbolic, and not regeneration, will be explained later. Immersion in water is the only mode that fits this type. That is, only through immersion are we 'buried with Him in baptism' and 'planted in the likeness of His death.'

Mode of Baptism

Since baptism means to immerse or dip, and since the believers required much water to baptize (John 1:28; Acts 8:38, 39), immersion seems to be the biblical mode of baptism. Also, this mode is the only one that properly depicts our 'death' and 'resurrection' in the likeness of Christ's death, burial, and resurrection. Furthermore, early church writings point to immersion as the preferred mode of baptism.

The most ancient ecclesiastical manual that we have, The Didache or Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, written probably during the first half of the second century (re-discovered during the 17th century), strongly advocates immersion. Although, pouring was permitted under certain circumstances such as sickness or the lack of much water. The translation by Philip Schaff, a Presbyterian, says this, "Now concerning baptism, baptize thus; having first taught all these things, baptize you into the name of the Father and the name of the Son and the Holy Ghost in living water!"

The writings of the early church fathers point to immersion as the mode of baptism. Concerning this, Dr. A.T. Robertson says, "If evidence is taken from written text, ancient canon, or early church fathers, studied alone, the natural conclusion would be that immersion was the almost universal form of administering baptism." In addition, it seems to be the universal agreement of scholars that 'baptizo' never means anything but immersion and that immersion was the only mode of baptism practiced in the New Testament.

The forms of baptism known as pouring and sprinkling began to emerge in the second century largely as a result of a false doctrine known as baptismal regeneration which was taught by some Christians. These believers gave to baptism an emphasis and meaning not justified by New Testament doctrine and practice (Dr. W. Piper, 1989).

Reason for Baptism

The two primary reasons for baptism are that Christ was baptized (He is the believer's example), and He commanded that all believers do the same; Christ began His ministry by submitting to water baptism (Matthew 3:13-15), and closed it by commanding His disciples to 'Teach and baptize all nations' (Matthew 28:19). Since we are commanded to be baptized, it is not an option, but a must. Therefore, it must not be ignored as being irrelevant.

As discussed earlier, baptism is symbolic; it is a public confession of that which has already transpired in our hearts (Acts 8:37). What has transpired in a believer's heart? The answer is that he has become saved/born again/regenerated. A believer is saved by the grace of God through faith (Ephesians 2:8). Saving faith, however, has godly repentance (Luke 13:3; Acts 17:30; 2 Peter 3:9). Paul wrote that we must have repentance toward God, and faith toward the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21); both faith and repentance are integral to forgiveness and salvation. Furthermore, saving faith causes one to receive Christ (John 1:12) and His word (1 Peter 1:22, 23). If one confesses with his mouth the Lord Jesus, and believes in his heart that God has raised Him, he will be saved (Romans 10:9, 10). When one receives Christ, one is in Christ (it is the Holy Spirit that baptizes an individual into Christ - 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:3- NOT the act of baptism), and is said to have been identified with Him in His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5; Col. 2:12, 13). In other words, by believing (having faith), one has crucified the old man (Romans 6:6), and has risen to become a new creature in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Baptism by immersion, then, is gladly undertaken by the new babe in Christ to show forth this fact to fellow believers.

Baptism is at once both a duty and a privilege, and to give it saving value is to destroy its symbolic nature. When something is added, the picture is lost.

Those who teach and practice the erroneous doctrine of baptismal regeneration (the teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation) make use of some Bible verses/passages that they claim are 'proof texts'. Once such instance is John 3:3-5. In this verse, Jesus says to Nicodemus, "Except a man be born of water, and of the Spirit, etc." Adherents to the doctrine of baptismal regeneration interpret 'born of water' as 'water baptism'. This is easily refuted by the fact that Christ is clearly speaking of both a natural and a spiritual birth; in verse 4, Nicodemus asks about returning to his mother's womb, and in verse 6, Jesus speaks of a fleshly and spiritual birth. Furthermore, the phrase 'born of water' could not refer to water baptism because the commandment concerning Christian baptism did not apply until after Pentecost.

Another verse which is very popular among baptismal regenerationalists is Acts 2:38 which says, "Repent and be baptized...in the name of Jesus, FOR the remission of sins..." They believe that this verse clearly shows that baptism is required for the forgiveness of sins (and therefore salvation). "The Greek word for 'FOR' is 'eis', which means 'into'. However, the second meaning of 'on the basis of' can be used. Luke 11:32, says, "They repented at 'eis' the preaching of Jonah". In this case, 'into' does not make sense, and is better translated 'on the basis of'. Therefore, Acts 2:38 could be translated "On the basis of your repentance and remission of sins be baptized, etc."" (Dr. Piper, Great Doctrines of the Bible, 1989) To insist on the use of 'FOR' is to make the remission of sins the result of a work on our part. This is in contrast to clear biblical teaching (Ephesians 2:8, 9; Titus 3:5, 6).

It is wrong to build a doctrine based on a questionable or disputed translation. This can result in a teaching which is diametrically opposed to scripture as a whole. We should always interpret difficult passages in light of ones that are clear. For example, the Bible clearly says that baptism follows belief; Acts 8:12 says, "When they believed, they were baptized; Acts 8:37 says, "If you believe, you may be baptized."; and both Acts 2:21 & Romans 10:13 say, "Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved."

Administration of Baptism
Water baptism can be administered by any born-again believer; although it is usually a pastor, any believer can conduct a baptismal service on behalf of the one who seeks to be baptized.

The one seeking to be baptized (candidate), however, must be a believer; he or she must have already repented of their sins and received Christ as their Lord and Saviour. In addition, the candidate for baptism must understand the symbolic nature of the act of baptism. The candidate's understanding of the doctrine of baptism can be achieved by either a short presentation by the one doing the baptizing (baptizer), or by a formal baptismal class conducted prior to the baptismal service.

After considering the above, the only requirement left is water. The service can be conducted wherever there is enough water to immerse the candidate. Most churches have baptismal tanks for this purpose; however, a river or other small body of water (waist deep) will work fine.

The water-baptism service is as follows:

Both the candidate for baptism and the baptizer enter the water, and stand side by side.
The candidate may give his/her testimony.
The baptizer will ask the candidate, "Have you received Christ as your Lord and Saviour?"
The candidate will respond by saying, "Yes, I have received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour".
The baptizer will place his/her hands behind the candidate; one is placed on the candidate's lower back, and the other is placed on the back of the candidate's neck.
The candidate will cross his arms in front of his body, and pinch his nose.
The baptizer will say, "I, therefore, baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost".
The candidate will gently fall backwards, while the baptizer supports the candidate's weight with his hands.
The baptizer will allow the candidate to be immersed in the water for a second, and then will quickly bring the candidate up from the water with his hands.
Praise God!

A third person (assistant) may be needed to assist the baptizer in raising the candidate from the water. The assistant should enter the water with both the candidate, and the baptizer at the beginning of the service. When the baptizer places his hands behind the candidate, the assistant should do so as well.

It is necessary, sometimes, to conduct a baptism for one who cannot be immersed. For instance, a pastor may be called upon to baptize one who is either sick, or bedridden. In such a case, the baptizer should ask the same questions asked in the immersion baptism; however, the immersion is substituted with pouring or sprinkling. The baptizer pours or sprinkles a small amount of water on the candidate's forehead.

It is important to remember that the candidate for water baptism must be a believer (Acts 8:36-38). Some denominations will conduct a baptism for one who is not conscious. As explained earlier, baptism is symbolic, and it has no saving value. It must be performed only at the request of one who has been saved, and who wants to obey their Lord and Saviour's command to be baptized.

Water baptism for infants is not biblical, and it should never be performed. An infant cannot receive Christ, and has no comprehension of the meaning of the symbolic nature of baptism. The Bible is clear that both infants, and children are innocent (Matthew 19:13-15) until the age of accountability; they are under God's protection until they can make an informed decision about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Although they cannot be baptized, they can be prayed over for the purpose of dedicating them to the Lord.


It has been shown that, since Christ has commanded the act of baptism, a believer should be baptized as soon as they can so that they can be obedient to the Lord. Since baptism is a symbol of the inward reality of conversion, the believer's salvation is by no means in jeopardy if they do not get baptized, but his faith may be in question. That is, a true believer would want to be obedient to the Lord out of love for Him. Also, the correct mode of baptism is that of immersion in water; this form fully depicts the believer's identification with Christ in the likeness of His death, burial, and resurrection. Finally, we have seen the steps in the administration of water baptism.

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