Water baptism has been one of the most misunderstood issues in all of church history. In this examination, we will answer whether it is for today and if it is necessary for salvation. The reason for this brief evaluation (despite having already discussed it in “The Gospel of Jesus Christ”) is because Scripture brings this subject up in multiple areas, contexts, backgrounds, and circumstances. The word “baptism” also causes a lot of confusion and can have numerous meanings throughout the Bible in different places. For all of these reasons and more, this topic is tough to explain without covering a lot of arguments and misunderstandings. Indeed, our goal will not be to address every argument in support of this discontinued ritual because that is not required of anyone defending the biblical position. The truth never changes based on the newest (or oldest) and latest arguments that may cause some to doubt the reality. Likewise, no one is obligated to anticipate every argument against the truth. So we will aim to examine most passages that discuss our present subject irrespective of most of the opposing arguments that could be used for each one (to encounter some is inevitable). There is only one answer, and we are here to explain the truth of God’s Word, rightly studied, understood, and interpreted. And although this subject isn’t the easiest to discern, it is not as complicated as it may seem.
Having said everything above, we will stick with the Scriptures to be our sole and only guide in our quest to teach the truth here. And it is understood that this is a very touchy subject for many believers because most congregations have practiced water baptism for all but two thousand years. Many (perhaps the majority) scholars and theologians have agreed to continue it based on their understanding of Scripture. And it is because the majority agree that very few have taken any other view to the contrary. Standing up for the truth against an overwhelming majority takes a great deal of courage and determination to properly grasp what the Bible has to say on this subject. Considering we live in the lukewarm era of Laodicea, which does not value the truth as it should (Revelation 3:14-22), it is no surprise that today’s believers have not picked up on and corrected the errors of their past predecessors. But water baptism is far from the only issue most have gotten wrong for almost two thousand years. It is safe to say it is unnecessary to give examples here. Since most of church history is polluted with many errors, what makes so many people confident that water baptism is not among them? Suffice to say here now, this ritual is something the church should have stopped practicing long ago. And that is the goal of this written work: to show how and why Spirit baptism has replaced the water ritual that symbolized and anticipated it.
Water baptism is mentioned in many places throughout the gospels (which comprise a single period) and in some parts of Acts. So one has to track down each instance and consider the timing and circumstances of every single one. Many individual cases differ from one another (water baptism mentioned here but not there/ does the word “baptism” mean spirit or water, etc.) These are things that most have not considered because of their preconceived desires to want to see water in places where it does not belong (helping to explain why so many have gotten this wrong). Pro-water advocates force their agendas into Scripture because they fail to put all these things together. Simply citing specific passages without explaining them is no proper way to build doctrine.
I would also like to clarify that there is nothing wrong or sinful about water baptism in and of itself. It just isn’t something anyone has to do. These words are not written to bash the ritual or those who practice it. The goal is not to strike a divide between those who accept it and those who don’t. Instead, we aim to put the truth first to help those in Christ’s body. The point of teaching any truth on any matter is to help others advance spiritually in a way that will not trip them up by inflicting spiritual harm (water baptism has done enough damage). This concept is precisely what all believers (especially teachers) should strive to carry out. Iron sharpens iron (Proverbs 27:17).
Many passages and teachings in Scripture are not easy to understand with casual reading. It is for this reason that we have gifted teachers led by the Lord to undertake the task of uncovering the meaning of more difficult verses. There is no reason to affirm water baptism just because it is a difficult subject to pin down. But rest assured, the reader can look back on this examination and see the cohesiveness and consistency of Scripture on this very matter. Hopefully, this study will simplify the subject. I desire that those from the traditional viewpoint see the truth in all this by examining the issue of from a different perspective. Many subjects are hard at first, but all make sense later with time, patience, study, and prayer. Once all of that is complete, the advantage of hindsight will pay dividends. Whatever is difficult now becomes much easier (and makes more sense) later on. This truth applies to handling a variety of difficult topics in the Bible, not just the subject of our present discussion. The fact that the Bible does not come out and directly tell us, “this ritual isn’t for today,” should not give us any impression that it should have continued.
On the contrary, (like any other complex subject) it is a sign and a test of our faith to see how willing we really are to study all the clues the Bible DOES give us to solve the mystery. The indications are there; we must be willing to take them as they are. God wants us to be go-getters! He wants to see us persist in searching for answers despite how difficult the challenge may be. Can we only imagine how easy the Christian life would be if we hardly had to do anything? How could our faith grow if it never underwent testing?
15 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
I believe one of the reasons why many want to continue baptism is because their own beliefs and traditions have occupied their minds for far too long (thus, most Christians have been unwilling to let this ritual go). Many throughout the churches’ history have been programmed or preconditioned to believe in the necessity of water baptism, so they are unwilling to accept any other view (though every person is responsible for themselves and accountable to God). The reason? People and tradition have been dubbed more important than the truth. Therefore, supporters of this invalid ritual must find a way to defend it at all costs, even if the biblical evidence to the contrary negates their beliefs. On this particular point, the church has been pre-programmed by misinterpretation, church “fathers” (intellectually gifted men and scholars who have been put on the pedestal and have received more credit than they deserve), the reformers and tradition, not the Bible itself. This issue has become so bad that we could compare it to politics, where the politicians will do anything to push their political agendas. But the truth is never based on popularity or intellect. For this reason and the ones already mentioned, people continue to teach and practice water baptism, a ritual that has long been obsolete. With that, let’s now investigate to see why.
1. The Purpose of Water Baptism in Biblical Times
One of the biggest problems faced by those who argue for the continuation of water baptism is the lack of any command in Scripture to continue doing it (we will discuss Matthew 28:19 later). Additionally, so many throughout the “church age” have disagreed over sprinkling versus immersion (adult vs. infant baptism). By some people’s beliefs, if baptism had to occur in a specific way for salvation to happen, then all those who did it any differently were lost.
The Bible tells us (see passages below) the purpose of water baptism and who it was for. But those reasons only applied to the nation of Israel for a specific time now long gone. Nowhere in the new testament is water baptism commanded as something to continue till Christ’s return. Therefore, no verses give it any meaning or purpose other than the temporary ones it had during Christ’s time on earth. So the burden of proof is on those who claim any other intentions or objectives for this discontinued ritual. Any attempts to do so rest on unfounded claims found nowhere in the Bible.
Water baptism was a temporary ritual similar to the “washings” described under the Mosaic Law. But like circumcision, animal sacrifice, and all other shadows of the coming reality, it was never something to continue but would phase out not long after our Lord’s ascension. The New Testament nowhere commands believers to stop practicing the old covenant sabbath. Yet, we know that such observance was only for the nation of Israel under the old covenant. The Sabbath command changed from a one-day physical to a twenty-four seven spiritual rest. A believer keeps the “Sabbath” by walking in the Spirit at all times every single day of the week. Our modern Sabbath is a spiritual, not a physical rest (Galatians 5:16, 5:25). The physical foreshadowed the spiritual, just as how animal sacrifice did for Christ’s sacrifice and water baptism for spirit baptism. A common argument in support of water immersion is that there are many cases of it occurring throughout Acts, meaning that it must have been something the church was meant to carry on. But animal sacrifice and circumcision also continued during this period of Acts (hence Paul wrote Hebrews and Galatians).
16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
Therefore let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, 2 instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.
Water baptism was a ritual linked with the Mosaic Law meant to prepare (by symbolizing repentance) the nation of Israel for the coming Messiah and reveal Him to a Jewish nation of repentant believers. Israel was long in apostasy and was expected to repent once Christ came on the scene. So there was a large mix of believers and unbelievers. There were, no doubt, many Scribes and Pharisees whom John baptized that never believed and are most likely lost today. But there were those whom John refused for this very reason. Despite the deplorable condition of Israel, there was (however) a remnant of believers who received John’s baptism to demonstrate their acceptance of their coming Messiah (a baptism of repentance).
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
The purpose of preparing both believer and unbeliever for Christ’s entrance onto the scene remained the same. Many Israelites were supposed to be believers (the disciples most likely already were) ready to receive their King, who would come to die in their place. Apostate unbelievers, on the other hand, were expected to repent and put their trust in their coming Lord. The call was to turn away from their previous condition and return to God, a call to repentance.
31 I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel.”
2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”
The Gospels and Acts indicate that water baptism would be superseded by the new and coming reality of the Holy Spirit baptism. Thus, these passages show that John’s preparation ritual would phase out later.
The Bible tells us the purpose of water baptism and the new spiritual reality that would replace it after Christ’s ascension. John baptized with water for reasons already stated. However, Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit (beginning from the day of Pentecost and on), which the water of John’s ritual foreshadowed.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
Acts 1:4-9 demonstrates the Lord’s emphasis on the preeminence of spirit baptism over the temporary water ritual that came before it. The spiritual realities mattered, not the shadows of what was to come. The fact that Jesus said these words right before His ascension signifies the truth our Lord was emphasizing. Nowhere is water mentioned because that would disappear. If water baptism were necessary for salvation (and as something meant for today), why is it absent here? And if Christ emphasized Spirit baptism here, Matthew 28:19-20 (also right before our Lord’s ascension at the same time as Acts 1:4-9) must also have nothing to do with water. As we will see later on, the word baptism does not always involve or have anything to do with water. Likewise, the passage in Matthew does not even mention it.
4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
2. The purpose of Jesus’s baptism
All of the above may lead us to ask, “then why was Jesus baptized?” We have the passage below.
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Jesus did not set a pattern for the church to follow for water baptism. The passage says that He was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” True, this verse doesn’t tell us exactly what this means. The best interpretation was this was an act of obedience of the Son to the Father. But Jesus was perfect and had no need to repent from anything. John states clearly, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
The word “fulfill” is vital here. Jesus’s baptism was an act of obedience and submission to the Father that represented and symbolized His death, burial, and resurrection. Again, the physical foreshadowed the spiritual that was to come, as our Lord points out (a time after being baptized by John) when He says in Luke 12:49-50,” 49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! This “type” of baptism (the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ) was the one necessary “to fulfill all righteousness.” The water baptism that preceded it looked forward to these events that would fulfill everything.
The best interpretation is that the submerging into water represented Christ identifying Himself with the sins and sinners of the world. Our Lord did this by becoming God and man forever to die on the cross. Jesus’s spiritual death paid for all transgressions, past, resent, and future. His rising out of the water looked forward to His resurrection, which complimented and completed His physical and spiritual death. The descent of the Spirit was a further sign of authority from the Father that Jesus was the true Son of God to carry out all that He had to do. Therefore, the Father said, “This is my Son whom I love; with Him I am well pleased.” Likewise, the descending of the Spirit upon Him looked forward to the coming of the Spirit to believers beginning with the day of Pentecost. This reference is for the baptism of the Spirit.
3. The gospels
5 Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
The water in John 3:5-6 refers to a spiritual bath or cleansing that occurs within someone who has just believed in Christ. The water is the Word of God through the gospel message that regenerates the person who accepts it. This point is what Jesus meant in John 4:13-14 when He said that anyone who drank the water He would give would have eternal life. The water that Jesus gave was the gospel message or “good news” about Himself. Of course, one has to believe by accepting the gospel, which will bring about this spiritual birth. Only the Spirit can produce eternal life in someone, not actual water. John 1:12-13 demonstrates this.
13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
The water represents the truth of Jesus, who is the truth Himself. Other passages which support what we have written above are James 1:18, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, 1 Peter 1:3, 22-23, 1 Corinthians 10:4, and John 7:37-39. It is clear from these passages that “water” does not always refer to baptism. And it is also clear from the context what Jesus meant when He said “That which is born of the flesh is flesh.” He was not saying that a combination of water and spiritual baptism were necessary for salvation. Some argue that the phrase “born of the flesh” refers to one person physically dipping another into water— hence, born of the flesh. But this is easily refuted by the context in verse four when Nicodemus states, “Surely he (a man) cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus (in response to Nicodemus) was contrasting a physical birth (a child born from a woman) to the spiritual rebirth all who believe in Christ experience.
19 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, 20 teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
There is only one imperative command in the passage above: to go and make disciples. The apostles (and we are to do this today) were to accomplish this task by sharing the gospel message, which would result in the baptism of the Holy Spirit for those who accepted the good news of Jesus Christ. That is the meaning of the phrase, “baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Unfortunately, most English translations have misinterpreted the correct word “into” for the incorrect “in.” The Greek in the original text has eis, which means into the three persons of the Trinity. Of course, no human being can spirit baptize another individual. So this is not an act that any mere man can accomplish. However, neither can water baptism place a person into Christ, as no passages suggest that it had any miraculous power. A prime example of this is in Acts 10:44-48. Notice how the Holy Spirit comes upon these people before Peter even suggests they be baptized with water.
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.
John the Baptist already said why he water baptized, which had nothing to do with salvation. Nor does he anywhere state that it was meant to last (he was to reveal the coming Messiah to Israel, and event long past). Contrary to popular belief, there is no more than one type of water baptism. Some wish to make a distinction by saying there was John’s water baptism on the one hand and that there is Christian water baptism on the other. But the Scripture nowhere hints at this. Matthew 3:11 and Acts 1:5 distinguish John’s as physical water for preparation, revealing, and repentance, and Jesus’s as spiritual for salvation. This distinction is the only one the Bible makes.
The only way to make disciples is to share the gospel. Once a person believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Spirit baptizes them into the three person’s of the Trinity. So this passage means that we baptize others indirectly by sharing the gospel message that would result in the only baptism that matters (the Holy Spirit).
Another passage often associated with Matthew 28:19-20 above is Mark 16:16, a verse that I believe is not in the original manuscripts. Most scholars have agreed that this passage isn’t in the Bible, so we have no reason to discuss it (that is a matter of simple textual criticism).
Finally, and before we move on, nowhere does the Bible say that water baptism became the new covenant sign or replacement for circumcision. That is a claim that has no biblical basis. Jesus’s blood and the coming of the Spirit were the sign(s) of the New Covenant. Circumcision was a sign that one followed God during the Old Testament. Today, the Holy Spirit is the new sign and indication that we belong to God. It is what marks us out as belonging to Christ (Romans 8:9). For more information, please see The Gospel of Jesus Christ - Water Baptism.
Acts is a transitional and historical book that tells us of many events that occurred during the adjustment period from the old covenant to the new. Therefore, there should be no surprise that this book contains practices not for the modern church. Are there things mentioned in Acts that should have continued? There most certainly are. Communion is one of these practices we see. As far as the context is concerned, this is the only ritual authorized for believers to continue doing until the Lord’s return (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). And, of course, the gospel is also present in Acts as well (Acts 16:31). So there are valid teachings and practices contained in Luke’s writing of the formation of the church. But some invalid things were still understandably present during the apostle’s time. Animal sacrifice, temple worship, water baptism, circumcision, and Sabbath observance continued for a short period into the new covenant even though these things should have no longer continued. We have the book of Hebrews for a reason. No passages tell us that we no longer need to observe the traditional Jewish Sabbath. Does that mean it is for today? We have already discussed that. The apostle Paul circumcised Timothy in Acts 16:1-3. So we could reason that we should do it in our modern times. But just because the apostles or others did this or that does not mean they were setting an example for everyone to follow. Such was the case with water baptism throughout this historical book of transition.
One of the biggest reasons so many wish to continue water baptizing is because the majority take all the actual (and possible) instances of water baptism throughout Acts and use those as indications for its continuation. But the apostles did not know everything from the day of Pentecost on. Therefore, it would be necessary for them to “climb the learning ladder” to unlearn all that which wasn’t meant to last. And this explains why so many were water baptized.
38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Not everything Peter and the other apostles encouraged and practiced in the early going was spirit-led actions. John 14:26 reads, “But when He, the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” The word “guiding” is critical to catch in this verse because learning the truth (taught by the Spirit in this case) is not an overnight process wherein the recipient comprehends everything in one shot. Instead, the Spirit would guide the apostles into all the truth, a prolonged and continuous process that would take time.
A few examples of the apostles showing their need for learning (other than their participation in the water baptism ritual) are Acts 10:9-16,34-36. Indeed, the Spirit would guide Peter and the others into all truth. But this does not mean they understood everything immediately and got it right from the get-go. Our two passages are examples after Acts 2:38, showing us that Peter still had much to learn. We cannot expect him or any other disciple to have known everything overnight. That is an unrealistic outlook on spiritual growth, a process that takes time and, often, at least a few failures. We all know the old saying, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Not everything the apostles did is things for us to do. And not everything they did was right or justified, as Galatians 2:11-13 shows. Should we mimic Peter’s hypocritical behavior that Paul had to push back against? Absolutely not! And how could he or anyone else have understood everything when he (Peter) didn’t even understand the new dietary liberties that came with the new covenant? Peter did not even realize the gospel was for all men until the Spirit prompted him to go to Cornelius’s household!
In Acts 2:38, Peter is speaking to a Jewish audience who were familiar with the baptism of John. As an apostle, he had the authority to give this speech to his Jewish brethren. But these words are not a continuous requirement for the church because Peter is speaking to these Jews specifically. The grammar in verse thirty-eight indicates that this was water baptism because the phrase “be baptized” is in the third person imperative. This tells us that Peter is not commanding his recipients to receive the ritual, but exhorting and encouraging them to do so as an option. On the other hand, the phrase “repent” is in the second person imperative, which is a direct command and not an exhortation. The Spirit baptizes all one believe in Christ immediately. That is to say, these believers were placed into union with Christ immediately upon faith. So since Spirit baptism is not an option but an automatic process, this baptism had to be water.
So why did Peter encourage all these people to be water baptized? Like Paul and other apostles (believers), Peter still had a lot of learning to do because of the transition from the old to the new covenant. We must remember that water baptism was a Jewish ritual meant to reveal the Messiah to Israel. It was a baptism of repentance to prepare the nation for her coming King. It was still fresh in the minds of Peter and his audience, so they did not yet understand that this ritual would no longer be necessary. Learning the truth would take time.
Despite this, there were potentially good reasons for Peter having these believers water baptized. So although he would later learn that it was obsolete, it probably helped familiarize his listeners with the Christ that John had been pointing to through his preaching and water ritual. So it may be impossible to say whether it was wrong for him and the other apostles to baptize. It was practical for stated reasons in the early stage but would have no additional benefits. And as time went on, those familiar with John’s baptism would shrink in number as the years went on. The only reason Gentiles were water baptized was because it was customary for Jews (water baptism was a Jewish ritual) to do so (we recall Paul having timothy circumcised for the sake of the other Jews in Acts 16:3). But the apostles would eventually advance in their learning with the Spirit guiding them into all proper practice and approach. They would finally learn to stop baptizing people with water later on.
It is these reasons that also help to explain other (both actual and possible) instances of water baptism in Acts, such as Acts 8:12, 8:26-39, 9:18, 10:47-48, 16:15, 18:8. There is no reason to examine any of them here in this brief study for reasons already explained.
As a brief side discussion, the believers in Acts 8:15-16 were Spirit baptized into Jesus Christ. They were also (no doubt) water baptized as well (although that wasn’t what was important). The Greek text has eis (into) to onoma. However, these individuals had not yet received the gift of the Spirit (which is why verse sixteen says they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). The permanent indwelling is the gift itself. So these believers never had the Spirit within them at all. For this reason, the apostles laid hands on these Samaritans to mediate the gift of the Spirit. During the early days of the church, it wasn’t uncommon for some to believe (they were saved immediately) and only be baptized “by” the Spirit, not “with.” This “by” placed them into union with Christ but did not always bring about the indwelling of the Spirit in the early days of the church (Acts 8:16 is a prime example). This only occurred during the apostle’s time to help establish and confirm their authority. But Paul writes later in Romans 8:9 that anyone who does not have the Spirit of God does not belong to Him. This means that it eventually became unnecessary for the apostles to mediate the gift of the Spirit by laying on hands. From that point forward, all who believed received the indwelling of the Holy Spirit immediately upon faith in Christ.
Today, all believers are baptized by the Holy Spirit and receive His indwelling presence immediately upon belief (1 John 3:24, 4:13). We are baptized “by” (the mode) and “with” (the result which is permanent indwelling) the Spirit. In other words, this is a simultaneous event. But during the early period in Acts, both did not always occur at once (hence the apostles laid their hands on believers to establish their authority in order to mediate the indwelling gift of the Spirit—the “with” part).
15 When they arrived, they prayed for the new believers there that they might receive the Holy Spirit, 16 because the Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.
24 The one who keeps God’s commands lives in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us.
13 This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.
To resume our working through the rest of the New Testament, the Bible tells us what water baptism was for in John 1:31 and Luke 3:1-6 (and elsewhere). The purpose was to prepare the nation of Israel for Christ and reveal Him. This preparation involved repentance or a change of mind willing to believe in Christ Jesus. Paul mentions this very fact in Acts 19:4 when he states “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” Nowhere does the Bible give any other reasons for water baptism other than the ones already given. Nowhere does the Bible teach two types of water baptism (John’s baptism vs. Christian baptism). A typical passage to support this false notion is Acts 19:5. But the context refutes the interpretation that water was involved in this particular instance.
While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples 2 and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” 3 So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?” “John’s baptism,” they replied. 4 Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” 5 On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.
Notice how Paul asks if they have received the Spirit. These believers answered no because they had only received John’s water baptism, not the baptism of the Holy Spirit promised to come (Matthew 3:11 and Acts 11:16). Additionally, they didn’t even know of the Spirit until Paul told them so. Paul then placed his hands on them (right after they had heard his words), and they were baptized “into” the name of Jesus Christ (the Greek here is eis into). Again, only the Spirit can place a person into Christ, not water. This was a spiritual baptism mediated by the hands of the apostle Paul.
These disciples were already believers who had believed in Jesus. Paul’s words, “ Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed,” indicate that he had become acquainted with these men well enough to know that they had accepted Christ as their Savior. Most likely, they communicated this to him because there would have been no other way for Paul to know. The Bible (for obvious reasons) does not tell us everything that was said. However, not everyone who believed received the Holy Spirit immediately, which explains why, on occasion, the apostles had to mediate it by the laying on of hands which is what Paul does here. There is no indication that water was present. Why would these disciples need to be re-baptized with water?
Today, there is only one baptism: the Spirit’s. And this occurs immediately upon belief in Jesus Christ (as it did shortly into or after the transition in Acts Romans 8:9). Those who believed without receiving the Spirit were still saved. But Romans 8:9 explains why the Holy Spirit eventually came upon those who believed immediately. There would no longer be any need for the laying of hands (an act done by the Apostles to help confirm or establish their authority).
4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.
9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.
5. The Epistles and Other New Testament Books
It is necessary to point out that some who believe in the continuation of water baptism don’t see it as a “work” required for salvation but an act of obedience. They see this scenario as similar to Abraham’s case (and all of Israel’s) regarding circumcision. However, I see no justification anywhere in the Epistles (let alone the whole New Testament) to continue practicing this ritual. True, Abraham’s compliance to circumcise himself and his family was an act of obedience that demonstrated his faith. We could well ask, “what if he had refused it?” There are no hypotheticals, so that isn’t something we must concern ourselves over. But the issue with our current topic is whether or not the Bible commands us to “dip” people today. There don’t appear to be any indications for this, especially after all the events in Acts.
The book of Acts contains many practices and rituals that were only for a limited amount of time due to the transitory historical nature of the book (Acts never mentions any commands for any of these rituals to continue). Likewise, from Romans and on, the Epistles prescribe no such things. These writings (and the other books not written by Paul therein) teach valid church doctrine. However, not everything in Acts was for this purpose. This writing by Luke is a great mixture of limited and proper practices. Those who point to the Epistles and the rest of the New Testament books after Acts as showing the need for water baptism have nothing to go by in support of their arguments. We must reason that if this physical ritual is of great importance (and even necessary for salvation), it would be taught and supported in at least some of Paul’s and the rest of the New Testament author’s writings. But no such teachings exist, and that is for a reason.
It would be total legalism to say that anyway who refuses water baptism cannot be accepted into the body of Christ. Not only is this ritual not for today, but it was for the Jewish nation in particular as circumcision was (the former has not replaced the latter).
The issue has always been, “how does one get saved.” The answer is by faith through grace alone in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-9). True faith always produces something to show for it so that some obedience will exist in the believer’s life. If there is nothing, that is not true, genuine saving faith. Said person never believed (claims genuine faith but has none) or committed apostasy. The issue is true faith which produces versus false faith (unbelief which produces nothing). This fact is precisely what James 2:14 means when it says, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them?” How many people in the church today claim to be Christians but have never truly believed in Jesus? It is not enough to believe in the existence of God as the demons do. That is not saving faith. And if that is not true faith, then there will be no good works (Ephesians 2:10). And if there are no good works, then that is because the Spirit of God does not indwell said person (Romans 8:9). No individual, no matter how morally good, can produce anything truly acceptable in God’s sight without His Spirit.
To continue, If genuine faith (which naturally has something to show for it) is all that is required, water baptism must not be necessary to enter God’s kingdom. I would ask any who claim that those who refuse water baptism can’t receive salvation to consider the passage below. Mind you, this is for argument’s sake that assumes this ritual is still presently valid (it obviously isn’t).
25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 So then, if those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.
Water baptism, like circumcision, was a Jewish ritual that looked forward to the first advent of Christ. But that time has come and gone, so both practices were meant to disappear. Only misguided Jews and Gentiles would have continued it after the apostle John’s death. It would not be a great surprise considering circumcision, traditional Sabbath observance, and animal sacrifice took a while to end. Even today, many Jews and even some Gentiles (the Seventh Day Adventists) continue to hold to the traditional Sabbath. But the Bible always trumps tradition. Both rituals looked forward to Christ’s death. Likewise, it was Jesus’s death on the cross (His blood) and the coming of the Holy Spirit that became not only the sign of the New Covenant, but the fulfillment of everything that looked forward to it. For this reason, we partake in communion today to always remember and proclaim (1 Corinthians 11:26) this sign and enablement of our precious salvation.
28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.
Again, the word (baptism) does not always have to involve water and usually doesn’t (our two example passages below show this). Some baptisms are dry (spiritual) or wet. Or they refer to becoming identified with someone (that is usually the case). It depends on the context and what the author is trying to convey. But John’s ritual (we’ve already discussed its purpose) was not for this reason. However, Jesus’s water baptism was unique. It symbolized Him identifying Himself with our sins to pay for them on the cross. Christ had to become part man (He is the God man or Son of man) and identify with sinful humanity if He was going to die for the world. The water looked ahead to our Lord’s baptism of the cross, which fulfilled all He came to do and accomplish. That is what Jesus meant when He said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.”
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. 2 They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
Apropos to the above, water is not what Romans 6:4 and Galatians 3:27 mean when they use the word “baptism.” Those baptisms are spiritual. Galatians 2:20 reads, “I have been crucified with Christ.” All those who believe in Jesus spiritually participate in His death by becoming identified with Him. Believers have crucified their sins through faith in Christ (Galatians 5:24, Romans 6:6). We were not physically nailed to a cross with Jesus. Thus, the baptism here is not a literal water immersion. We were not “water baptized into Christ” because only the Spirit can place anyone into the Trinity.
3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in newness of life.
26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.
Titus 3:5 shows us that the Spirit is the agent of the “washing” that occurs in our spiritual rebirth. That is why it says “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Likewise, Ephesians 4:4-6 confirms this as well when it says there is only one baptism. The only baptism this could be is the One the Holy Spirit performs on all those who believe in Jesus Christ (see 1 Corinthians 12:13 below). Notice how in 1 Corinthians 12:13, there is no mention of water baptism. So if the physical ritual works alongside the spiritual rebirth we undergo in order to save us, then it would have been mentioned in that verse. But since there is no water involved in salvation, this verse doesn’t mention it (something it would have to do if it was part of the process).
5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
Colossians 2:11-12 has the same meaning regarding the word “baptism” as all our passages above. Believers were circumcised with a circumcision “not performed by human hands.” Likewise, Christ baptizes believers with a baptism not performed with human hands. This can only be the baptism of the Spirit.
11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
1 Corinthians 1:10-17
1 Corinthians 1:10-17 has caused many readers great confusion because of how the text reads. We will examine it below.
10 I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
In our passage above, there were disputes over which person to follow. Verses thirteen and fifteen have the Greek word “eis” or “into” in English. So it “seems” that Paul is saying that water baptism could place a person into Christ. But that isn’t the case. Water baptism cannot accomplish anything. 1 Corinthians 12:13 says, “13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”
The Spirit baptized any person who believed into Jesus Christ. No one was ever baptized into another human being through a mere “hands-on” ritual. John 6:63 rightly states “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life.”
Paul is being sarcastic when he says “were you baptized into the name of Paul?” He is not saying water baptism could place a person into Christ. Instead, he used the ritual as a sarcastic example to show how mistaken the Corinthian’s behavior was. This ritual Paul occasionally carried out had no power to save just as it never placed the recipients into the apostle himself. He used these examples to show that divisions should be non-existent because they all follow and serve the same Lord and Master. It was Christ who saved them, so they should all understand that they all follow the Lord as a unified body.
Sarcasm is also present when Paul says “I thank God I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius so that none of you could say you were baptized into my name.” And with this he says he did not come to baptize but to preach the gospel which would result in the only baptism that truly mattered; the baptism of the Spirit. Only the Spirit can place a person into Christ. And if water were necessary for salvation, then it would appear Paul was irresponsible for not making sure he went back and double-checked to see if he baptized anyone else. The key sentence to catch here is, “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.” So if it was critical for salvation, what about those who may have been overlooked?
1 Peter 3:21
Finally, in our survey of New Testament passages is 1 Peter 3:21.
21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,
To understand this verse correctly, we must consider the context that precedes it.
18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, 19 in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, 20 because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.
It was by the Spirit’s power that Christ proclaimed His victory to the imprisoned angels (while temporarily in Abraham’s bosom) that sinned in Genesis chapter six. The Spirit also empowered Christ’s resurrection. Noah and His family were “baptized” into the ark that saved them through the flood and from the wicked Nephilim which had polluted the earth. It was the ark, not the water, that saved Noah and his family from drowning. So Peter used the entrance of Noah and his family into the ark to symbolize the baptism of the Holy Spirit (vs 21). He also used the Spirit’s empowerment of Christ to symbolize the Spirit’s empowerment to save all who believe in Him. So what we have here is the “mode” (the Spirit’s power) and the “means” (the Spirit’s baptizing of believers into Christ). Christ was resurrected by the Spirit’s power, just as believers are resurrected with Christ through the power of the same Spirit. Peter links verses eighteen and nineteen to verse twenty-one to form this analogy. The key phrase in verse eighteen is “being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.” Just as how Christ was “made alive with the Spirit”, so believers are made alive by Him through Spirit baptism. It was by this Spirit that empowered Christ to do all He did that saves and empowers the believer to live a righteous life. That is the baptism that saves us (Spirit baptism).
Potential converts don’t have a clean conscience before God because they realize (through conviction—as in, “they were cut to the heart” in Acts 2:37) their need for a Savior. The only way to clear this disturbed and convicted conscience is to call upon the name of the Lord through faith in Christ. This will result in a dry “Spirit baptism” that will bring peace with God (Romans 5:1). The resurrection of Christ made all of this possible. Water baptism cannot save anyone. Instead, the Spirit enters us “into” Christ, just as how Noah entered “into” the ark (not the water).
It is legalism to tell people they must receive water baptism when the Bible never sanctions it. Since it is not for today, there is no need to continue practicing this ritual that has long been obsolete. Of course, there will always be doubters and those with arguments against the correct biblical position. But truth never changes and always remains the same. If the Bible commands us to keep doing something, we should do it. But nowhere does Scripture tell us that this Jewish ritual should have continued.
It is dangerous and very detrimental to faith to believe that water baptism is necessary for salvation. It is also incorrect to think it must be dispensed for any other reason, even if those who carry it on don’t believe it is required to be saved. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be immersed in water as long as no one believes that they or anyone else has to do it. Using an outward act to demonstrate one’s inner reality is okay. But that doesn’t make it necessary just because some wish to take that option. Forcing it becomes manipulative and cult-like. This behavior is how many people want to guilt others into doing something to become part of their group. Or the typical threat to those who do not comply is “you better do this, or else!” You can fill in the blank and say, “or else you cannot be accepted into the body of Christ because of disobedience.” Or the accusation may simply be that said person is disobeying, and they leave it at that. Either way, neither of these statements is true.
The goal of this study was not to bash this ritual. Indeed, it had its purpose during Jesus’s time. Therefore, it was legitimate before Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. But that period has come and is long gone. Thus, the meaning and purpose (we have already discussed them earlier) associated with it have also disappeared.
For more information on this subject, I encourage the reader to visit The Gospel of Jesus Christ - Water Baptism (as well as the resources below).