There is little doubt that the Bible commands Christians to baptize. Yet exactly who should be baptized and under what circumstances is a matter of no little debate. As we progress through this series about things we as Christians often take for granted, we need to ask: What’s the purpose of baptism?
It is important to note that to this point in the series, we have been covering topics for which there is substantial agreement among the majority of Protestants. However, as we turn to issues such as baptism, the Lord’s supper, and the Lord’s day, we come to topics over which there is significant disagreement among Protestants. It is crucial to understand, though, that these are second-order issues. Although they create boundaries between denominations and local congregations, those who disagree on these issues can still recognize one another as true believers in Jesus Christ. I approach this as a baptist who seeks to be consistent with my convictions while also charitable toward those who hold other perspectives.
Three Views on Baptism
Among those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, there are three main views on baptism that I consider unbiblical.
Baptism as means of salvation. This view is also called “baptismal regeneration,” and it is the belief (held in various ways by different denominations) that baptism is the means or a means of salvation. Roman Catholics are the most staunch adherents to it, as their catechism states: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit … and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: ‘Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.’ This sacrament is also called ‘the washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,’ for it signifies and actually brings about the birth of water and the Spirit without which no one ‘can enter the kingdom of God.’” Because of this conviction, Catholics deny justification by grace alone through faith alone.
Lutherans also hold to a variation of baptismal regeneration, though they claim that it does not contradict their view of justification by grace alone through faith. Lutheran scholar Robert Kolb writes, “Baptism fulfills what God promised to his Old Testament people. It gives salvation, that is, new life in Christ, to those ‘who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.’” Although baptism “saves,” according to Lutheran theology, “baptism is God’s action, an action of his Word.” Kolb writes in summary, “Baptism saves. It does not do so as mere water or as the cause of salvation, which lies in Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. Baptism saves as one instrument God has used from the creation of the universe on, namely, his Word.”
Baptism as unnecessary or irrelevant. On the opposite side, those who reject baptismal regeneration are often tempted to place far too little emphasis on the ordinance. Because they are convinced that baptism cannot cause salvation or add to it, they deem it unnecessary for new believers in Jesus. Though there is no individual Christian or denomination that would actually claim to hold this view, those who fail to teach new believers to be baptized hold it tacitly.
Baptism as entrance into the covenant people. This view is held by Presbyterians and other Reformed denominations that practice infant baptism. Richard L. Pratt Jr. describes the view in this way: “Reformed theology views baptism as a mysterious encounter with God that takes place through a rite involving physical elements and special ceremony. Through this encounter, God graciously distributes blessings to those who participate by faith and also judgment to those who participate without faith.” They hold that baptism is efficacious, rather than merely symbolic. “In the Reformed view, baptism is efficacious; divine grace is ‘really … conferred, by the Holy Ghost’ through baptism. Even so … this bestowal is mysterious because it is ordered entirely by the freely determined eternal counsel of God.” They believe that baptism is to the church what circumcision was to Israel. Thus, baptism, like circumcision, serves as an entrance into the covenant community, but those in the covenant community must express faith in God and repentance—just as God required his people to circumcise their hearts. Believing that the new covenant promise is applied to families, just as it was to Israel, they baptize infants. Sinclair Ferguson explains, “The children of believers receive the same promise as their parents and are therefore to be baptized.”
The Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration must be rejected outright. It teaches that God’s salvation and grace are conferred through baptism, so that “through Baptism we are free from sin and reborn as sons of God.” This is a rejection of the New Testament emphasis that, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9) and, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). The Lutheran view also lacks scriptural support. Supporters of this view claim that it is the Word of God at work in baptism which saves, but infants cannot hear and receive the Word proclaimed. Thomas J. Nettles says, “We can point to no instance of salvation apart from the word heard. … Passages that deal with divine sovereignty in salvation tie the intended salvation to the word, read or heard, and purposefully embraced.”
We must also reject the view that baptism is unnecessary or irrelevant. Though the act of baptism does not save us from our sins, it is still necessary and mandated by God. Nettles insists, “Baptism was not optional. Its significance as a testimony to salvation in Jesus’ name, and the command issued by the Lord himself, made it the natural and most precisely expressive concomitant to saving faith. One cannot be received, therefore, into church membership without this kind of baptism.”
Finally, the view that baptism is an entrance into the covenant people also falls short, according to my assessment. And I say this acknowledging the many godly friends and family members who hold to it! I believe it draws too strict a parallel between Old Testament circumcision and New Testament baptism. As Bruce A. Ware explains, “The parallel between circumcision and baptism in the new covenant is not between physical circumcision and infant baptism; rather, the parallel is between spiritual circumcision of the heart and baptism, which signifies regeneration, faith and union with Christ.” Infant baptism may even give false assurance and add confusion about who is a member of God’s family. As Ware says,
If baptism rightly understood signifies the reality and not merely the promise of union with Christ through faith, then the practice of infant baptism communicates something deeply flawed. Since by nature infants cannot have come to understand or embrace the reality of their own sin, or the gracious redemptive work done in Christ, or the necessity of faith apart from works to receive God’s free gift of eternal life … they simply cannot be those for whom the reality of union with Christ is true. Baptism, which signifies the reality of such union with Christ, must only be performed—yet it truly must be performed—on those who have personally acknowledged their own sin and confessed personal faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.
What the Bible Says about Baptism
As a Reformed Baptist, I am convinced baptism is a symbol of Christ’s saving work for the one being baptized. Nettles provides this helpful definition: “Baptism is the immersion in water of a believer in Jesus Christ performed once as the initiation of such a believer into a community of believers, the church.” The strongest support for this view is a plain reading of the narrative passages of Scripture. Every single account of baptism in Scripture is applied to someone who has heard the message of the gospel and professed faith before being baptized. As Nettles points out, “The only ones who receive baptism are those who hear the gospel and believe. We can point to no person who, when he or she received baptism, was not fully instructed in the gospel material concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.” Because baptism follows regeneration and faith, it is a symbol of what Christ has already done in the life of the believer. Ware says, “The sign of baptism, it appears from all of the evidence that the New Testament affords us, is designed by God as a sign of the reality of union with Christ by faith experienced in the life of the one who has believed in Christ alone for salvation.”
We are justified by faith — not by baptism. And yet, those who are justified by faith are commanded to proclaim their salvation by being baptized. In baptism we obey the great and final commission given by our Lord: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).
This article was prepared with assistance from Joey Schwartz.