Is baptism required for salvation? What is the truth about the practice of water baptism, and is it more than simply a “rite of passage” to become a Christian, regardless of age or understanding?
Have you ever wondered whether baptism is really important for true Christians? Have you ever questioned whether you were baptized correctly? Thankfully, God clearly answers these questions in His inspired word, the Holy Bible.
For centuries, many—perhaps most—professing Christians have been sprinkled with water at baptism. How did this custom arise? Is it biblical? According to Professor K.S. Latourette’s A History of Christianity, while sprinkling was at first used only for those deemed too sick for immersion, it has since become commonplace.
Augustine of Hippo, who wrote 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 therefore needed to be cleansed by baptism as soon as possible. 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 an infant who died before being baptized would be condemned. To learn about God’s true plan for infants and others who die without having the opportunity to hear and accept the true Gospel, request our free publication Is This the Only Day of Salvation?, or read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org.
The problem with infant baptism is that it requires no repentance or commitment! 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.
What does the 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).
Peter’s words here teach two things: First, baptism is essential for all Christians. Note that Peter did not say, “Repent if you want to; it would be nice if some of you decided 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 metanoeó, meaning to “change one’s mind or purpose” and to “change the inner man” (“3340. metanoeó,” BibleHub.com). Repentance literally means to turn around and go the other way. It requires the ability to analyze oneself critically in the light of the Bible, make a conscious decision to change, and actively begin living according to God’s commands. Baptism requires the actions of an adult—even most teenagers do not yet have the mental capacity or life experience to understand and make this deep spiritual commitment.
God inspired John the Baptizer to baptize where there was plenty of water: “Now John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there” (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. If baptism required only enough water for sprinkling, Christ would not have stood in the water, and “much water” would not have been needed for His baptism—John easily could have used a bucket or water pouch. The Greek word designating baptism in the Bible is baptizo, which means to 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 one’s 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 baptized person emerges changed and new. The action and symbolism of baptism are extremely important to God.
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” (Matthew 28:19). 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 (Acts 2:38). Christ Himself was baptized by immersion according to His Father’s will, as an example for us (Matthew 3:13–15).
We need baptism because we need God’s forgiveness. We read that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “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 “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Because we sin, we need God’s forgiveness and release from the death penalty. 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.” Peter did not say to just “give your heart to the Lord.” He said to repent and be baptized (Acts 2:38). Today, there is confusion about the concept of giving one’s life to God. Many think that, once Christ is acknowledged as Savior and a “love” for Him is professed, no other actions are necessary to enter 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 according to God’s rules. To have our sins “washed away” requires the actions God commanded—heartfelt repentance from sin and burying 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.
At baptism, we also 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 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 Kingdom of God. This movement began at Paul’s baptism and did not stop until his death. So, too, our baptism marks a starting point, a place where 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” (Matthew 7:21). Christ does want us to love and accept Him as our Savior—and He also expects us to obey God’s law if we really love Him (John 14:15).
Through baptism, we symbolically bury our old self 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 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. These actions demonstrate our baptismal commitment to 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. Jesus said, “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). He also said, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). In order to eventually enter God’s Kingdom, we must first believe, repent, be baptized, and receive God’s Holy Spirit. Without these initial steps, entering God’s Kingdom is impossible. The Bible is very clear about this.
Even in the unique and exceptional case of Cornelius, God shows us the vital need for baptism. Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit before baptism (Acts 10:44–46). But 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 baptism is. As Cornelius’ example demonstrates, those who say they have the Holy Spirit but reject water baptism do not, in fact, have the Holy Spirit!
The exciting truth is that after repentance, baptism, and receiving God’s Holy Spirit, 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). 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 at the stars, 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. To take our part in that plan, God requires baptism of true Christians! For more information on this vital topic, request our free booklet Christian Baptism: Its Real Meaning, or read it online at TomorrowsWorld.org.