Baptism: Ritual or Requirement?

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Does baptism matter? Have you been sprinkled, splashed, poured on or immersed? Can you have the Holy Spirit without water baptism? Is baptism valid without true repentance? People have all sorts of different ideas about baptism, but what does your Bible say?


Have you ever wondered whether baptism is really important for true Christians? Have you ever questioned whether your baptism is really valid, or whether those performing the baptism had the proper "credentials" in God's sight? Were you baptized correctly, and did you truly repent before your baptism? What is the relationship between repentance and baptism? If you have had questions like these, you are not alone. Thankfully, God clearly answers these questions in His inspired word, the Holy Bible.

For centuries, many professing Christians have been sprinkled with water at baptism. How did this custom arise? Is it biblical? At first, sprinkling was used only for those deemed too sick for immersion, but it has since become commonplace (Latourette, K.S. (1999), A History of Christianity (pp. 195, 529, 715). Peabody, MA: Prince Press).

St. Augustine, writing in the late fourth and early fifth centuries ad, is credited with popularizing infant baptism. He believed that children were born with "original sin" and needed baptism as soon as possible after birth to cleanse them of this sin. Martin Luther built on Augustine's teaching by asserting that baptism changed, cleansed and renewed the infant by faith.

Infant baptism ultimately became popular because of the false notion that if an infant died before being baptized, it would be condemned to hellfire (To learn more about God's plan for infants and others who die without having the opportunity to hear and accept the true Gospel, write for our free booklet, Is This the Only Day of Salvation?). The idea is that if parents do not have their infants baptized, they are in effect withholding an infant's right to the grace of becoming a child of God (Catholic Catechism, Pt. 2, Ch. 2, Section 1, Article 1, "Baptism").

But infant baptism requires no repentance—nor any commitment of faith! As we will see, baptism must follow true repentance. And repentance requires people to be mature enough to recognize their need to repent, as well as to understand "how" to repent.

God's View of Baptism

What does the Holy Bible say about baptism? The Apostle Peter commanded, "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). This command teaches two things: First, baptism is essential for all Christians. Note that Peter did not say, "Repent if you want to," or, "It would be nice if some of you would decide to get baptized." He commanded them to "repent and be baptized." Second, there is a process surrounding baptism—repentance and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Savior, followed by baptism, after which a true minister of Jesus Christ lays hands on the baptized individual for God to impart His Holy Spirit.

The word "repentance" originates from the Greek word metanoeo, meaning: to "think differently about," to "heartily amend with abhorrence to past sins" Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Abington Press: Nashville). Repentance literally means to turn around and go the other way. It requires the ability to analyze one's self critically in the light of the Bible, make a conscious decision to change, and actively begin living God's Way. Baptism requires the actions of a mature adult—children and even many teenagers do not yet have the mental capacity or life experience to understand and make this deep spiritual commitment.

Sprinkling or Immersing?

God inspired John to baptize where there was much water: "Now John [the Baptizer] also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized" (John 3:23). Additionally, "When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water…" (Matthew 3:16). Christ plainly stood in the river, not on the shore. Think clearly about this! If baptism required only a small amount of water for sprinkling, Christ would not have stood in the water, and "much water" would not be needed for His baptism. John easily could have used a bucket or water pouch. The Greek word for baptize, used in both Matthew's and John's accounts, is baptizo, which means to immerse, submerge, or put under the water. Note that God did not inspire the use of Greek words meaning "to sprinkle" or "to pour."

Baptism symbolizes the burial of the old sinful self in a watery grave. Rising out of the water represents our resurrection as a new person who will live in newness of life—a life where sin will no longer rule (Romans 6:3–6). God actually refers to repentant Christians as a "new creation" in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). And Paul refers to baptism as the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5). A Christian's baptism pictures Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:1–6). The old sinful person "dies" and is buried in the watery grave, sins are washed away, and the person emerges as a changed and new person. The action and symbolism of baptism are extremely important to God.

Why Must Christians Be Baptized?

Why must a true Christian be baptized? Why is just "giving your heart to the Lord" insufficient for salvation? There are several reasons.

The first and foremost reason is that God commanded baptism and gave the example to do it. One of Christ's final commands to His apostles was, "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, 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" (Matthew 28:19–20). Jesus Christ, the very Son of God, commanded His apostles to make disciples of all nations and baptize them. We read earlier about Peter's command to the multitude: "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts 2:38). Christ also chose to be baptized in the Jordan River according to His Father's will, as an example for us (Matthew 3:13–15).

A second reason for baptism is that we need baptism because we need God's forgiveness. We read, "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). Additionally, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). We all sin and are worthy of death—"the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). Because we sin, we need God's forgiveness and release from the death penalty that hangs over us. But what is sin? Sin is lawlessness (1 John 3:4). Before baptism, we must deeply realize our need to turn away from our previous rejection of God's law in our lives.

Christ shed His blood so that we can be forgiven after we repent of our sins. But, without physical baptism, our sins cannot be "washed away." Notice Peter did not say, "just give your heart to the Lord, that your sins may be forgiven." He said, "Repent and be baptized" (Acts 2:38). Today there is confusion about the concept of giving one's life to the Lord. For many, once Christ is acknowledged as Savior, and a "love" for Him is professed, there are supposedly no other actions necessary to enter into God's Kingdom. However, truly "giving one's heart to the Lord" entails complete submission of a person's own will to God, followed by a willingness to live a life completely "in line" with God's will and His rules. To have our sins "washed away" requires the God-commanded actions of heartfelt repentance from sin and the burial of the old sinful self through water baptism, as well as accepting Christ as our personal Savior and truly surrendering our mind and will to God.

A third reason Christians need baptism is because at baptism we commit to God's way of life. We can never "earn" salvation. Yet God expects a true Christian to commit to and live a life that reflects the way Jesus Christ lived (Ephesians 4:1). We must "bear fruits worthy of repentance…" (Luke 3:8), acting according to God's expectation for us. Baptism marks a point in time from which we go forward as a new person. The Apostle Paul wrote, "I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:14). He also demonstrated his forward motion toward the King-dom of God—his goal. This forward movement began at Paul's baptism and did not stop until his death. So, too, our baptism marks a physical starting point, a place in time when we fully commit to living God's way of life, a point from which to measure our spiritual progress.

Jesus Christ clearly expressed what He and the Father expect from us, "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. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" (Matthew 7:21–23). Christ does want us to love and accept Him as our Savior, and He also expects us to obey and do things God's way, if we really love Him.

Through baptism, we symbolically bury our old, selfish self in a watery grave and come up in "newness of life" (Romans 6:1–6). This action demonstrates our commitment to living God's way of life, physically, mentally and spiritually. Repenting of our sins, we promise God that we will "turn" from sin and live our life His way, according to His will. This ongoing process of repentance involves our striving—with God's help—to cease from sin. No longer will we purposefully break the Ten Commandments. We will joyously observe the seventh-day Sabbath and the annual Holy Days of Leviticus 23, and we will strive to obey God in every way (for more

on the vital spiritual topic of repentance, please request our free reprint article, "The Missing 'R' Word: Repentance!"). These actions demonstrate our baptismal commitment to God.

A fourth reason Christians need baptism is that without it we cannot ultimately enter the Kingdom of God. The Bible is very clear that, unless we are baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God. God inspired John to write: "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God" (John 3:5). And He inspired Mark to write, "He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). In order to be eventually saved and enter God's Kingdom, we must first believe and be baptized. Without the initial steps of belief, repentance and baptism, being saved and entering God's Kingdom one day is impossible. The Bible is very clear about this!

A fifth reason Christians need baptism is to prepare to receive the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. Some Bible students misunderstand the example of Cornelius and his household, who received the Holy Spirit before water baptism (Acts 10:44–46). On Pentecost in 31ad, the Apostle Peter had proclaimed to the Jews their need for repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38). About ten years later, in the household of Cornelius, God used Peter to preach the first such sermon to the Gentiles! And in response to Peter's inspired preaching, the Holy Spirit came down upon Cornelius and his family, much as it had come upon the Apostles at the first Pentecost—confirming that the Gospel was now to be preached to Gentile and Jew alike (Acts 10:28)!

But does the example of Cornelius in any way disprove the need for water baptism? Not at all! Notice Peter's words after the Holy Spirit fell upon these Gentile converts. "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (vv. 47–48). That is how important water baptism truly is! In fact, as Cornelius' example demonstrates, those who say they have the Holy Spirit but would reject water baptism do not, in fact, have the Holy Spirit!

Years after the baptism of Cornelius and his household, God's true ministers continued to baptize new converts, and God continued to give the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of those ministers' hands. Indeed, Scripture calls the "laying on of hands" one of the "elementary principles of Christ (Hebrews 6:1–2)! The Apostles Peter and John laid hands on those Samaritans who had repented and been baptized, "and they received the Holy Spirit" (Acts 8:17). The Bible makes plain what many do not understand—that God uses the laying on of hands, by His true servants, to impart His Holy Spirit to those who have truly repented.

It is important to remember that baptism and subsequent receiving of the Holy Spirit (Cornelius and his family's case, in the reverse order, was uniquely arranged to demonstrate God's purpose) are given to Christians in preparation for a glorious destiny. The Apostle Paul stated, "Now He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who also has given us the Spirit as a guarantee" (2 Corinthians 5:5). The word "guarantee" means "down payment" or "earnest." God's Holy Spirit, given at baptism upon the laying-on of a minister's hands, is a precursor or down payment for something much greater to come—entrance into the spiritual family of God at the return of Christ (For more information on this subject, see our free booklet Your Ultimate Destiny)! No one can enter God's Kingdom and His spiritual family unless God's Holy Spirit is first given. And the Holy Spirit can only come following true repentance and baptism.

So, centuries after Cornelius, how can we in our day be sure that hands are laid on us by a true servant of God? What does Scripture say? That ordinance will be performed by a male (1 Corinthians 14:35; 1 Timothy 2:12). He will be an ordained minister of Jesus Christ, or will be acting under the direct supervision of such a minister (Acts 8:14–19; 19:6; 2 Timothy 1:6). He will teach, and strive to live by, "every word of God" (Luke 4:4)—including the observance of God's weekly and annual Sabbaths and the Ten Commandments. He will be deeply surrendered to God (1 Timothy 3:1–7; 4:12–16; Romans 6:1–6). And he will clearly understand and actively teach the "plan of God" to those God calls (Mark 16:15).

The exciting truth is that after repentance, baptism and receiving God's Holy Spirit, we have the down payment of God's Spirit within us—we have truly begun to walk the road of overcoming that ultimately leads to the Kingdom of God! "He who overcomes shall inherit all things and I will be his God and he shall be My son" (Revelation 21:7). The word "son" here also means "child." So, those who overcome shall inherit all things and be called God's children!

What did the Apostle John mean when he wrote that Christians will "inherit all things"? Look around this natural world. Look up at the stars in the heavens. Look at the mountains, the seas, the trees and the rivers. Everything that was made belongs to our great Creator God. And, when we inherit all things as His children, all this will be ours too! This is the plan of our great and loving Father in Heaven and His Son, Jesus Christ.

The End of the Matter

God inspired the Holy Bible so we can learn more about Him and His expectations for us. The Bible clearly defines the doctrines that God's true Church should believe and practice. God does not allow us to choose which aspects of His truth we want to keep. He does not say "Thou shall keep only what is convenient for you, for I understand how difficult it is." God expects us to do His will and live according to His "every word" (Luke 4:4). And He promises to reward us for that obedience.

God clearly commands repentance and baptism, in order to receive the gift of His Holy Spirit—if we want to be part of His Kingdom one day. Without true repentance and proper baptism, sins and their penalty cannot be washed away. We should "give our heart to the Lord Jesus Christ" and commit to living according to His teachings. But living as He taught requires truly repenting and being properly baptized by immersion in water. Jesus Christ Himself set the example. Repentance and baptism are the starting point on the road to the Kingdom of God. They mark a change in our life that will positively affect even our friends and family, and will ultimately allow us to enter into God's Kingdom at the return of Christ. God does require baptism for true Christians! For more information on this vital topic, request our free booklet, Christian Baptism: Its Real Meaning.

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