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What is the purpose of baptism?

purpose of baptism

There is no verse in the New Testament that specifically explains the purpose of baptism. Therefore, we must determine the purpose of baptism from a variety of passages as well as from the cultural background of the first century.

The Greek word for “baptize,” baptizó, literally means “to dip, immerse or submerge.” It could refer to what happens to a drowning person or a sinking ship (Beasley-Murray, G., “Baptism,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, Colin Brown, ed., Zondervan Pub., 1975). However, the ecclesiastical use of the word specifies a particular rite of the church. In many cases, the rite itself has become detached from the actual meaning of the word baptize.

In the Roman Catholic Church, babies are “baptized” (sprinkled with water, although in earlier times they were immersed) to “wash away” original sin. The baby, as he or she matures, will still have to deal with actual sins committed, but, according to Catholic dogma, original sin has been removed, allowing the individual a chance to eventually get to heaven.

In Reformed churches, babies are “baptized” (sprinkled with water) as a sign of the New Covenant. It is a symbol of the parents’ faith and their intent to raise their child in a Christian home. It is seen as the Old Testament counterpart to circumcision. In the Old Testament, when a baby was circumcised, he had no choice in the matter; the ritual was a sign that his parents wanted him to be included in the covenant people of Israel. Likewise, in Reformed theology, baptism is a sign that parents want the child included in the church.

Some churches see baptism as the first step of obedience and necessary for salvation. In these churches, baptism does not “save” the individual but simply initiates him or her into a life of following Christ and is necessary for final salvation. Viewed this way, baptism is not too different from the Roman Catholic concept. Other churches consider baptism as an act of obedience to Christ but not necessary for salvation.

Much of the baptism mentioned in the New Testament is the baptism of John the Baptist (“one who baptizes”). Baptism was not common in Judaism; however, Gentile converts to Judaism were indeed baptized. When John called Jews to repentance and baptism, he was calling on them to admit their sin, renounce their heritage as a means of acceptance before God, and repent. When people came to John for baptism, they were admitting that they were no better than Gentiles.

The purpose of John’s baptism helps explain why the religious leaders refused to participate. “Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father,” for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham’” (Matthew 3:5–9).

While the baptism of John is not the same as Christian baptism, it does provide the background for it. In the first century, when a person responded to Christ in faith and was baptized in the name of Jesus, that person was rejecting his own righteousness and religious heritage in favor of Jesus as the means of salvation. This would have been obvious to the first-century Jewish convert, but its significance is often lost on twenty-first-century cultural Christians. In the first century, baptism was the final step to identifying with Christ and the church and would thus open the individual to persecution. Until he was baptized, the individual may have simply been curious or even a supporter of the church in some way, but he was not considered truly Christian. Baptism was the event that marked an individual as absolutely committed to Christ.

Baptism is the rite that publicly identifies one as a follower of Christ—a Christian. It is included in Jesus’ final instruction to His disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). When people responded to the gospel, baptism was the public response and was usually immediate (see Acts 2:38–41; 8:12; 10:47–48).

Baptism in the New Testament symbolizes resurrection and washing. The symbol or rite does not accomplish new life or spiritual cleansing, but it is an outward illustration of the inward reality. When a person is placed under the water and then brought out again, it visibly represents dying to the old life and being resurrected with Christ. Also, it is a picture of washing, as this seems to have been the background of the Jewish baptism of Gentile converts. At the same time, baptism is the public rite of initiation into the church and a public confession of identification with Christ in death and resurrection (see Romans 6:3–4).

Based on the definition of baptizó, the resurrection symbolism, and the fact that every use of the word in the New Testament either allows for or implies immersion as the mode of baptism, we conclude that immersion, not sprinkling, is the most biblical mode of baptism. While sprinkling with water may be a symbol for washing, it is hardly a visible representation of resurrection. Since baptism represents a reality in the life of the one being baptized, only believers are proper candidates for baptism.

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This page last updated: March 14, 2024