In Matthew 28, we have the last recorded words of Jesus on earth: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (verses 18–20). Included in the Great Commission is a command to baptize disciples.
Baptism is important, but we have very little actual instruction about it in the New Testament. There is no “how-to” manual, and perhaps this is the reason there are many different views on baptism.
Regarding the mode of baptism, some churches sprinkle or pour water over the head, while others immerse the whole body in water. Some immerse three times, while others immerse only once; some immerse backward, and others forward, that is, face first.
Regarding the proper candidates for baptism, some churches practice believer’s baptism (credobaptism—from the word creed, which has to do with a statement of belief), while others baptize infants (pedobaptism or paedobaptism—from the Greek word paidia, which means “children”) who cannot possibly understand what is happening to them. In many churches, baptizing infants is a sign of the New Covenant and the faith of the parents, similar to circumcision in the Old Covenant. In the Roman Catholic Church, this baptism is believed to wash away original sin and allow the infant to start from a “neutral” place of innocence and grace.
Regarding the efficacy of baptism, some teach that it is an outward sign of an internal reality. For others, the ritual itself is efficacious for cleansing from sin. Some teach that baptism is a necessary act of obedience, without which a person cannot be saved, and others go so far as to teach baptism must be in name of Jesus only to be effective for salvation.
It would be best to simply follow the teaching of Scripture regarding baptism; however, most of those who hold any of the above positions believe that they are following Scripture. In reality, many beliefs about baptism are based on theological presuppositions and tradition, as are many beliefs on other issues.
This article will attempt to clarify some of the confusion.
Regarding the mode of baptism: the Greek word baptizo simply means “immerse.” The word was not a theological word in the first century but a common word used in daily conversation. When speaking of the dyeing of cloth, people would say it was “immersed” in the dye. The reason that the English versions transliterate the word as “baptize” instead of translating the word as “immerse” is that, by the time the Bible was being translated into English, various other modes of baptism were popular, and the translators did not want to ruffle feathers too much. That tradition has continued to this day. When the Bible commands baptism, immersion in water is the most natural understanding.
There is no passage in the New Testament that speaks of baptism that does not allow for or require immersion in water. One example is John 3:23: “Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized.” If sprinkling or pouring were in view, John’s baptism could have been done anywhere with a well or even the tiniest stream—“plenty of water” would not have been necessary. Another example is the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Philip explains the gospel to him and then, “as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36, 38). If sprinkling or pouring was all that was necessary, Philip could have done that while riding along in the chariot, using drinking water. There would have been no need to stop at a place that had water, and certainly no need to go “down into the water.”
Beyond immersion, the Bible does not say if immersion is forward, backward, or straight down. The most common understanding is single immersion, because triple immersion is never mentioned in Scripture. Those who immerse three times do it because baptism is in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—emphasizing the three Persons of the Trinity. There is nothing in the command to be baptized that would imply anything other than single immersion, and if triple immersion were the only proper method, we would expect that would have been clearly articulated. Furthermore, Matthew 28:19 (“baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”) uses the singular name, which emphasizes unity in the Trinity. In the end, triple immersion would seem to be an allowable, although not required, way to baptize.
Regarding the proper candidates for baptism: in the New Testament, we never get any indication that infants were baptized as a sign of the covenant or of their parents’ faith. When Peter preached on the day of Pentecost (Act 2), those who believed were baptized. Some will point out that the whole household of the Philippian jailer was baptized (Acts 16:33); however, we do not know that his household included infants. Furthermore, the passage indicates that faith was the driving factor: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31).
Certainly, the promise to the jailer was not that his whole household, including infants, would be saved on the basis of the jailer’s faith; rather, the promise of salvation by faith in Christ was for the jailer and anyone else in his household—anyone else in the whole world, for that matter—who would believe. The next verse says, “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (Acts 16:32). Here it is assumed that those in the house were old enough to hear, understand, and respond to the Word. “Then immediately he and all his household were baptized” (Acts 16:33). Did that include infants? “He was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household” (Acts 16:34). This last verse indicates that his whole household had come to faith, so either 1) his household did not include infants, or 2) the infants were not able to respond to the Word and were therefore not included in the count. (If a man says, “My whole family drives pickup trucks,” it goes without saying that he does not mean to include his 2-year-old.)
From Acts 16:31–34 it seems clear that the promise of salvation was for the whole household, the whole household heard the Word and believed, and the whole household was baptized. There is nothing in this passage that indicates, much less commands, infant baptism.
Evangelicals who practice infant baptism (pedobaptists) equate baptism in the New Testament with circumcision in the Old Testament. Every male child under the Old Covenant was circumcised because his parents wanted him to be included in the community and they wanted to be obedient to God. Evangelical pedobaptists want the same thing for their infant children, and they realize that their children will have to later accept Christ on their own. The baptism ceremony functions much the same as a “baby dedication” functions in churches that practice believer’s baptism (credobaptism).
Pedobaptists also point out that the New Testament was written for first-generation Christians, so it stands to reason that everyone who was baptized in the New Testament was a new believer. While this may be true, it is inconceivable that none of the people who came to faith in the early church had any children, yet there is no example of any children being baptized because their parents believed, there is no command for believing parents to have their children baptized, and there is no passage that explicitly links baptism to circumcision. Pedobaptism is a theological inference based on analogy.
Regarding the efficacy of baptism: the Bible does not teach and evangelicals do not believe that baptism brings about salvation or that it is required for salvation. The Roman Catholic view that infant baptism removes original sin and returns the child to a “neutral” state of grace is simply not found in Scripture but is based on church teaching that Roman Catholics believe has the same authority as Scripture. Others who believe that baptism is necessary for salvation point to a couple of verses that link baptism and salvation, such as Acts 2:38: “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.’” Peter clearly tells the crowd they need to be baptized; however, this is the only place where baptism seems to be commanded in a presentation of the gospel. It is possible to understand baptism here as simply a way to publicly proclaim their faith, as if Peter were telling them, “Repent and confess Christ publicly.” In the early church, baptism was the public confession of Christ. It was also the point when a believer was taken seriously and when persecution became a real possibility. A person who said he believed but refused to be baptized would not have been taken seriously either inside or outside the church.
Beyond that, most groups who teach baptismal regeneration also believe that baptism is simply the first step in a life of obedience that is necessary for salvation. So it is the obedience of the believer that ultimately secures salvation, not faith in Christ. To them, baptism is just one of many works that are necessary for salvation.
Some emphasize that baptism must be in the name of Jesus only. These groups usually hold to some form of modalism. Jesus commanded baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but in Acts sometimes people are baptized in the name of Jesus. This probably indicates that the specific formula used is not as important as the meaning. The one point of Trinitarian teaching that is most often attacked (both then and now) is the deity of Christ. In the New Testament, when one was baptized in the name of Christ, he affirmed the deity of Christ. Modalism and Jesus Only teaching are later developments and were not an issue in the New Testament. The fact that Jesus gave the Trinitarian formula in Matthew 28 seems to exclude the “Jesus only” position as the only proper formula.
In the final analysis, we believe that the most biblical way to baptize is the immersion of believers who have put their faith in Christ and who are being baptized as a public confession of their identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection. Those who make baptism or a particular mode of baptism essential for salvation are corrupting the gospel. Evangelicals who differ on the mode of baptism or the proper candidates for baptism may still agree on the essential points of the gospel, fellowship with each other, and even join in ministry while still maintaining their distinct practices within their own churches.