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Christian Baptism

What the Bible says about baptism

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In the days of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) baptism was performed by totally immersing the convert, in water -- typically in a stream, river or lake. Baptism of a new Christian was a major watershed in their life. It was normally permitted only after a religious conversion, followed by a lengthy period of study. It was regenerative in that the baptized person's sins were believed to have been erased during the ritual.

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Is baptism regenerative and does it result in an indwelling of the Holy Spirit?

Many biblical passages from the King James Version of the Bible seem to imply that a baptism ritual has the regenerative power to wash away sins, and cause an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Consider:

bulletActs 22:16: " And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
bullet1 Corinthians 12:13: "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit."
bulletActs 2:38: "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Peter appears to promise that repentance followed by a baptism erases all of a person's sin. Further, the baptism directly triggers an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This verse creates many difficulties:
bulletMost conservative Protestants believe that it is repentance followed by a decision to trust Jesus as Lord and Savior which erases sins and causes an indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is independent of salvation; it is only done as a sign of a person's previous "born again" experience. But the trusting step does not appear in this verse; the baptism ritual appears instead.
bulletRoman Catholics believe in and practice infant baptism. But Peter's statement appears to require repentance as the first step. Repentance is beyond the intellectual capacities of newborns.

In other passages, Peter records incidences of salvation without mentioning baptism. Baptisms might have occurred in these cases, but not described:
bulletActs 9:35: "And all that dwelt at Lydda and Saron saw him, and turned to the Lord."
bulletActs 13:48: "And when the Gentiles heard this, they were glad, and glorified the word of the Lord: and as many as were ordained to eternal life believed."

In other cases, the author of Luke/Acts mentions baptism that did not result in the reception of the Holy Spirit. The latter came at a later time, when Peter, Paul, or John had laid hands upon the believers:
bulletActs 8:14-17 "Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.)  Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
bulletActs 19:4-7: "Then said Paul, 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. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.  And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied." 

In another case, the believers were indwelt with the Holy Spirit before being baptized. In fact the salvation experience was used to justify the baptism:
bulletActs 10:44-48: "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God. Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.

bullet1 Peter 3:21: " The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:" This is a difficult verse to understand. The Living Bible paraphrases it as: "(That, by the way, is what baptism pictures for us: In baptism we show that we have been saved from death and doom by the resurrection of Christ; not because our bodies are washed clean by the water, but because in being baptized we are turning to God and asking him to cleanse our hearts from sin.)"
bulletTitus 3:5: "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost." The "washing of regeneration" here appears to refer to baptism.

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In whose name were baptisms done?

bulletMost baptisms appear to have been done in the name of Jesus only:
bulletActs 8:15-16: "Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost. (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.)"
bulletActs 10:48: And he [Peter] commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.
bulletActs 19:4-5: "Then said Paul, 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. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus."
bulletOthers were done in the name of the Trinity:
bulletMatthew 28:19: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost."

The current practice of most denominations invert what is seen in the Bible: most follow the author of the Gospel of Matthew and baptize in the name of the Trinity; only a few faith groups follow the author of Luke/Acts and baptize in the name of Jesus only.

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At what age were people baptized?

All of the individuals whose baptisms were directly described in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were youth or adults; they were well past the age of accountability when they could make responsible decisions for themselves. However, there were three passages that indicated that an entire household was baptized together. The household may well have included children. However, there is no direct reference to a child baptism in the Christian Scriptures:

bulletActs 16:14-15: "And a certain woman named Lydia, a seller of purple, of the city of Thyatira, which worshipped God, heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. And when she was baptized, and her household, she besought us, saying, If ye have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come into my house, and abide there. And she constrained us." Theologian William Baird interprets this passage: "Her conversion involves the baptism of her relatives and slaves, since the decision of the master is valid for the whole household." 1 Thus, her family and any slaves that she owned would not have made personal decisions to be baptized; only Lydia herself would have decided for all of them.
bulletActs 16:31-33: " And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway."
bullet1 Corinthians 1:16-17: " And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect."

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Did Jesus baptize people directly?

The Bible is ambiguous on this point:

bulletJohn 3:22: " After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized."
bulletJohn 4:1-2: " When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, (Though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,...)"

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Is baptism necessary for salvation?

The Bible appears to be hopelessly ambiguous on this point.

There are some passages in the Christian Scriptures which seem to imply that a person must be baptized in order to reach Heaven:

bulletMark 16:15-16: "And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." This verse implies that person who believes and is baptized will attain Heaven. A person who does not believe in the Gospel will be sent to Hell. The verse is ambiguous about the fate of a person who believes but is not subsequently baptized. 
bulletJohn 3:5: " Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." This verse clearly states that one must be "born of water" in order to attain Heaven after death. Some theologians have interpreted this phrase as referring to water baptism; others interpret "water" as referring to the Word of God, as in Ephesians 5:26: "That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word."

However, there are dozens of passages in the Christian Scriptures which discuss salvation without requiring or even mentioning baptism.

Some Christian faith groups teach that baptism is one requirement for salvation. Some of these believe that the baptism has to be performed within their denomination, or by one of their clergy, or in a certain way in order that a person can be saved. A few faith groups believe that over 99.9% of the human race will go to Hell after death because they were not properly baptized.

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Miscellaneous verses:

bulletActs 2:41: "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls."
bulletActs 8:12-13: "But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also: and when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done."
bulletActs 8:36-38: "And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And he commanded the chariot to stand still: and they went down both into the water, both Philip and the eunuch; and he baptized him."
bulletActs 18:8: "And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized."
bulletGalatians 3:26-28: "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
bulletHebrews 6:1-3: "Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do, if God permit."

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Resolving conflicts:

Many passages in the Christian Scriptures which mention baptism appear to be in conflict with each other. Many verses appear to be in inconsistent with the practices of some modern-day denominations. For example:

bulletOne verse in the Gospel of John says that Jesus baptized converts; another says that he did not. 
bulletRoman Catholicism and many mainline and liberal Protestant faith groups attempt to baptize every infant, while only adult baptisms are specifically described in the Scriptures. 
bulletConservative Protestants teach that the born-again experience and indwelling of the Holy Spirit occurs before one decides to be baptized. Yet a number of biblical passages appear to imply that the indwelling and salvation experience are a direct result of the ritual. 

Theologians have successfully resolved all of these apparent conflicts:

bulletLiberal theologians believe that each author in the Christian Scriptures reflected in his/her writing the beliefs and practices of their own faith group within the emerging Christian movement. Since different groups had different practices and beliefs, one would naturally expect internal conflicts among biblical passages written by different authors.
bulletConservative Protestant theologians start with the belief that the Bible is inerrant. They recognize many apparent conflicts in the Bible, but believe that most can be resolved with careful analysis. For example, a casual examination of John 3:5 implies that water baptism is necessary before a person can attain Heaven. This would conflict with conservative Protestant belief that a baptism ritual plays no role in saving a person. But by reinterpreting the word "water" as referring to the Word of God, the problem is solved. 

Some Biblical passages cannot be harmonized. Conservative Protestants believe that they could be made to agree with each other, except that we currently lack the knowledge of how to do it.

Normally, conflicting passages can be harmonized by interpreting one verse literally and one or more symbolically. Unfortunately, not every faith group harmonizes passages in the same way. Thus they end up with different beliefs and practices.

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  1. William Baird, "The Acts of the Apostles," in "The Interpreter's one volume commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, (1991), Page 750
  2. M.P. Jewett, "The mode and subjects of baptism," at: http://www.mun.ca/rels/restmov/texts/believers/ 

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Copyright © 2000 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2000-MAR-21
Latest update: 2008-MAR-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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