There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Christ Jesus. [1 Peter 3:21]*
It seems there are two extremes when answering the question posed in the title.
On the one hand, there are those who place baptism as an optional expression of faith. Most who place their tents in this camp would be more nuanced, claiming that it is not necessary for salvation—but it is necessary for church membership. This is the camp where most churches in the Baptist tradition plant their flags, along with churches in the Wesleyan-Holiness-Pentecostal traditions.
On the other hand, we find those who assert that unless one has been baptized, one has not been truly regenerated, is not saved, and will not escape eternal condemnation. The strange bedfellows who set up their tents in this camp and plant their flags are just as diverse as the first camp: many from the churches of Christ/Christian churches which sprang from the Stone-Campbell movement of the early nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic church, churches within the so-called “Apostolic Faith” movement [AKA “One-ness” or “Jesus only” pentecostals], Lutherans, Episcopalians, and sects within the Eastern Orthodox traditions.
Within both camps, one will find arguments that unless one has been baptized according to a specific ritual, reciting certain words, and administered by one holding ecclesiastical authority, one has not been truly baptized. In the latter camp, they would also hold that such persons, not having been correctly baptized, have not been truly regenerated.
It is my belief that neither of these extremes presents a fully developed theology of baptism based on all Scripture teaches.
The place to start in developing a theology of baptism is to look at all the Scriptures pertaining to baptism and attempt to adduce how they connect.
This is important because each flag that has been planted has been planted on a Scripture which is dear to that tradition—usually to the exclusion of other passages which disprove the exclusivity of that particular flag. Or the tradition will plant its particular flag as the starting and ending points of all discussion and not even develop a fuller understanding of all that Scripture may say on the matter.
Some traditions plant their flag on the mode of baptism. Within this battleground, some argue for the mode of sprinkling, in which a few drops of water are placed on the head of the person being “baptized,” while others argue for affusion [the highbrow term for pouring a small amount of water on the recipient], others may argue for no physical mode at all, claiming that “true” baptism is merely the spiritual “encounter” one has, and still others will argue for immersion. Finally, there are a few who would assert that any method is valid as long as the recipient has true faith.
I need to say before I proceed that I raise this point, not to plant a flag, but rather a surveyor’s marker, not to say beyond this point I will not proceed, but to try to map out as much as possible everything Scripture has to say on the subject.
It must be noted that baptism is a command—not an option. Don’t believe me? Look at Matthew 28:19-20—the Great Commission. Jesus commanded His apostles to make disciples. How are those disciples marked? They are not marked by going forward during an “invitation” at the end of religious meeting, nor are they marked by reciting a so-called “sinner’s prayer.” Disciples are marked by being baptized according to the Great Commission. If those who present the Gospel are commanded to baptize those who desire to follow Christ, then it logically follows that those who truly desire to follow Christ are commanded to be baptized.
This logical connection is clearly demonstrated on the day of Pentecost. Those being convicted by the Holy Spirit asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” [Acts 2:37] What was the apostolic response? Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the Name of Jesus for the remission of sins….” [Acts 2:38]
It is noteworthy that the mood of the verb “be baptized” is not optative, meaning that being baptized is merely a suggestion, the fulfillment of which is solely at the discretion of the hearer. Nor is the mood of the verb subjunctive, meaning that the speaker is hopeful the hearer will heed his suggestion. No, the mood is imperative. It is a command to be followed without qualification or hesitation. It should also be noted that the verb is in the singular, not the plural. So, although Peter was speaking to a large assembly of people, the command is for each individual to repent and be baptized.
Having established that baptism is a command, not merely a suggestion or an option on the part of believers, what is it’s mode?
To understand the mode, we must look at the word itself. The word “baptism” is not an English word, it did not come from into the English language from Anglo-Saxon or from the French. Both the noun “baptism” and the verb “baptize” came into the English language as transliterations [words carried over from a source language into a receptor language without being translated] of the Greek words BĂP-tēs-mă [the noun] and băp-TĒD-zō [the verb]. Why was this done? When the Bible began to be translated into English during the mid-sixteenth century, the words were transliterated rather than translated in order to avoid giving credence to the claims of the Anabaptists. This practice was continued by the men who translated the Geneva Bible, the men who translated the KJV, and every translation to the current time.
The fact of the matter is that whenever one reads a dictionary of Bible words, the basic and original meaning of baptism/baptize is to fully immerse or submerge the subject.† It has never been used in any Greek document dating back to Bible times to refer to merely sprinkling a few drops of water on a subject, or pouring a cup of water over the head of the subject. Those who argue for sprinkling or pouring as “valid forms” of baptism in fulfillment of Christ’s commands cannot use any Scripture to support their argument—only man-made traditions.
The second issue is the question of who is the proper subject for baptism. Interestingly, those who argue for unscriptural modes such as sprinkling or affusion, also argue for that infants are to legitimate subjects for their version of “baptism.”
Their reasoning is based on three fallacies. The first fallacy is that they equate baptism with circumcision; claiming that baptism is to the New Covenant what circumcision was to the Abrahamic covenant. I state this is a fallacy because nowhere in the New Testament can there be found any passage linking baptism with circumcision. Corollary to this heresy, it should also be noted that this who have adopted this fallacy with regard to baptism have also adopted the heresy of replacement theology.
Another indication as to why it is a fallacy to equate baptism with circumcision is that under the Abrahamic covenant, the only subjects for circumcision were males who were at least eight days old and were either in the direct lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or who were proselytes. Baptism, on the other hand, is for all who identify as followers of Christ—both male and female.
This also points to the second fallacy with regards to those who advocate for sprinkling or affusion as proper modes of baptism—that because baptism establishes a covenant relationship between the subject and God, infants are therefore to be considered as proper subjects for baptism. Again, they base their reasoning on a flawed application of Scripture. They can only find two passages Scripture as justification for their position. The first passage is Matthew 19:13-15. The problem with their interpretation and application of this passage is that nowhere does it mention or even hint at baptism.
The second passage they use is Acts 16:33, which states that the Philippian jailer and his family were baptized immediately following Paul’s presentation of the Gospel. They claim that this has to also refer to infants. The problem with their interpretation and application is that it is based on an assumption from silence and not the text itself. In other words, they read their theological tradition into the text and claim that theological tradition justifies their interpretation rather than letting the text speak for itself. In technical terms, the practice is called eisegesis—reading into the text a meaning which is not found within the text itself.
When one reads the Scriptures dealing with baptism carefully and according to the plain meanings of the words, one finds that in order for baptism to be valid, the subject being baptized must be a believer.
The first evidence that baptism is for believers and not for infants is an inference drawn from Matthew 28:19-20, the “Great Commission.” In this passage, believers is commanded to make disciples from all nations. It also states that disciples are to be marked by baptizing them. The verb “make disciples” is in the imperative mood. The verb forms for “baptize” and “teach” are participles, making them an appositional construct to the main verb “make disciples.” In other words, the participles describe the process by which disciples are made—first by baptizing them and then instructing them in sound doctrine and practice.
The problem with any view which suggests that baptism is anything other than the immersion of professed believers is that those who promote such teachings aren’t really fulfilling the Great Commission in a manner which is obedient to the word of God.
The second evidence that the proper candidates and subjects for baptism are people who have come to conscious belief in Christ as Lord, is found in Acts 2:38. In this passage, baptism is yoked with repentance. Both verbs for “repent” and “be baptized” are in the imperative mood in the Greek—meaning that both are requirements for one’s testimony to being a recipient of God’s saving grace to be considered as valid.
The command to repent clearly indicates the hearer must be consciously able to understand what repentance means in order to obey. An infant clearly has no conscious ability to comprehend the meaning of the word repentance—let alone obey the command—so one can clearly draw a legitimate inference that baptism is not intended for infants.
This is a good place to end for now. We have looked at the design of baptism as to its necessity, the design as to its mode by immersion, and the design of who may be baptized. In the next part, we shall examine the design of baptism for when and where it should be administered, the design of who may administer baptism, and the purpose and effects of baptism.
* Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
† See The Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible, New King James Version (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2015), pp. 2338-2339. See also Stephen D. Renn, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2005), pp. 88-90.