Plain Truth Online

January-February 1999

Hank Hanegraaff


BAPTISM - Bringing Biblical Balance

by Hank Hanegraaff

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, often referred to as the Prince of Preachers, said that up until the time he was baptized, he was afraid to confess Christ. Thereafter, he lost all fear of man and never again hesitated to boldly profess his faith. He likened his baptism to "crossing the Rubicon or burning the boats. No retreat was possible after that, nor have I ever wanted to go back to the world from which I then came out." [footnote 1]

Christians may forever debate whether one should be dunked, dipped or dry-cleaned. However, one thing is indisputable: baptism symbolizes our entrance into a community of believers who are one in Christ. It is a sign and seal that our old life has been buried and we have been raised to newness of life through his resurrection power.

While the mode of baptism is not essential to salvation, the mandate of baptism is essential to obedience. Every Christian should understand and know what the Bible says about baptism. I have developed the acronym B-A-P-T-I-S-M to help you remember key issues surrounding this sacrament or ordinance.


The background of baptism can be traced to Old Testament times. In the first book of the Bible, eight people were saved from the great flood of God's judgment. Peter pointed out that the water of the flood "symbolizes baptism that now saves you"(1 Peter 3:21). [footnote 2] Old Testament prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel and David used water as an external symbol for internal cleansing (Isaiah 1:16; Ezekiel 36:25ff; Psalms 51:2).

John the Baptist was the final prophet of the old covenant. As John baptized Jesus in the Jordan, he was ushering in the messianic fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Behind the symbol of baptism is the substance -- the blood of Jesus Christ removing our sinfulness. As water cleanses the outer person from soil and sweat, so the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses the inner person from the stain of sin.

A-ACTS 2:38

The most critical mistake one can make with regard to baptism is to believe that it is necessary for salvation. Several aberrant movements teach that belief is not sufficient for salvation -- baptism is also required. To defend this deadly doctrine, they distort passages such as Acts 2:38, where those moved by Peter's message cried out, "What shall we do?"

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."

However, the book of Acts itself shows that baptism is the sign of conversion, not the means of conversion. Acts 10:47 describes believers who were indwelt by the Holy Spirit (and therefore saved -- see Romans 8:9) prior to being baptized.

Furthermore, the Bible as a whole clearly communicates that we are saved by faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).

When the jailer asked the apostle Paul, "What must I do to be saved?" Paul responded, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (Acts 16:30-31).

Although baptism is not the means by which we are saved, it is the means by which we are set apart. By it, we testify that we are no longer our own -- we are bought by Christ's blood and are brought into the community of faith.


Some groups prescribe a particular pattern for the baptism rite itself. One group teaches that unless you are baptized using the correct formula, which they prescribe, you are not truly saved. In their case the magic formula is "in the name of Jesus." In their theology, those who are baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not truly born again. [footnote 3]

In sharp distinction, Scripture does not point people to a prescription or to a magic mantra, but rather to the very person of Jesus Christ. To baptize converts "in the name" of Christ or "in the name" of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is to baptize them into the authority of God.

Similarly, when a police officer commands someone to "stop in the name of the law," the power is not in the phrase, but in the authority it signifies. When a physician provides someone who is sick with a prescription, their trust is not in the paper on which it is penned, but in the person who issued it. So it is with baptism. The power is not in a prescribed formula, but in the heavenly physician.


The thief on the cross provides perhaps the most potent proof that we are saved by faith or belief and not by baptism (or any other work). When this thief placed his faith in Christ on the cross, Jesus said to him, "today you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43). In his case there was neither the necessity nor the opportunity for baptism. [footnote 4] Baptism would have symbolized his entrance into a community of believers on earth. The cleansing power of Christ's blood to which baptism points, however, was sufficient to assure him of his entrance into a community of believers in eternity.

Paul made it clear that "rebirth and renewal" are not the result of "righteous things we had done," but rather "because of his mercy" (Titus 3:5). The "washing of rebirth" is not literal water baptism, but the cleansing of the Holy Spirit that "washes" away our sins by the blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5). Christ said, "Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned" (Mark 16:16). It is clear from the first part of his statement that baptism should follow belief. It is equally clear from the second part, however, that belief alone, not baptism, is required for salvation. Christ did not say, "Whoever believes and is not baptized will be condemned."


As we have seen, those who teach that baptism is necessary for salvation undermine an essential doctrine of the historic Christian faith. The same cannot be said regarding those who baptize babies as well as adult-convert believers. Here we would do well to remember the maxim: "In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity." While we may debate this issue vigorously, we must not divide over it. Many, including Roman Catholics, members of Reformed churches, Lutherans, Anglicans, Episcopalians and Eastern Orthodox believers, baptize infants as well as adult converts.

My father, who pastored in the Christian Reformed Church, baptized babies. I, on the other hand, believe baptism should be reserved for those old enough to have a biblical understanding of salvation, a conscious commitment to Christ and a knowledge of the significance of baptism. Neither one of us, however, doubted the other's salvation. As Bruce Milne puts it, "God has signally blessed and honored the ministry of his servants on both sides of this divide, whether paedobaptists [those who believe in infant baptism] like Luther and Wesley, or Baptists like Spurgeon and Billy Graham. One need but recall the mutual esteem between the Anglican John Newton and the Baptist William Carey to recognize the needlessness of bitter division over this issue." [footnote 5]

There is no biblical prohibition against infant baptism. However, there is no clear teaching or example supporting infant baptism either. On the contrary, where the Bible does speak clearly concerning baptism, it emphasizes the faith of those who are baptized. [footnote 6]


Not only are the subjects of baptism (babies or believers) debated, but the significance of baptism is debated as well. Doctrinal divergence runs the gamut from Quakers, who do not believe in physically baptizing followers, to Catholics, who believe in baptismal regeneration.

Many contemporary evangelical churches -- including Baptist, Pentecostal and Calvary Chapel -- opt for a symbolic rather than sacramental [footnote 7] view of baptism. In their view, being submerged is symbolic of dying to our old lives and being buried. Emerging up out of the waters of baptism is symbolic of being raised with Christ to newness of life (Romans 6:4-6).

While evangelicals debate secondary concepts surrounding baptism, there are essential teachings that must never be compromised.

First, baptism is not necessary for salvation, but it is necessary to obey the command of Christ (Matthew 28:19-20). Furthermore, while baptism does not save us, it does publicly set us apart as those who are part of the community of faith (Romans 6:5). Finally, a key passage concerning the significance of baptism is found in Romans 6:4-6. Here, Paul pointed out that we are buried with Christ "through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life." Thus baptism represents our saving union with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection.


The mode of baptism is often as hotly contested as the meaning of baptism.

In the early Christian church submersion or immersion was the primary mode. If water was scarce, pouring or splashing was permitted. In the early Middle Ages, however, sprinkling became the prevalent mode for baptism. [footnote 8]

Those who believe that we should be baptized by sprinkling rather than submersion maintain that baptism in Scripture is often portrayed as a cleansing or washing and therefore does not require submersion. They point to passages such as Ezekiel 36:25 [footnote 9] in the Old Testament and Hebrews 10:22 [footnote 10] in the New Testament.

Those who believe we must be submerged rather than sprinkled or splashed point to evidence that the Greek word for "to baptize" (baptizein) in classical usage means "to immerse." [footnote 11] They also appeal to passages such as Romans 6:4-6 and Colossians 2:12 "to express the symbolism of the sacrament." [footnote 12]

Being submerged represents being buried with Christ, and coming up indicates being resurrected as a new creation in Christ.

As believers we must never take baptism for granted. It is not only a responsibility, but a privilege. As Jesus' public ministry did not begin until after his baptism, so baptism is a necessary threshold each of us must cross into a life of fruitful service unto God. 


1. Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon at His Best, comp. Tom Carter (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), p. 20.

2. In verse 21, Peter makes it clear that the water used in baptism does not provide the means of salvation. Rather, God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone saves us. It is important to emphasize that "saved through" does not mean "saved by means of," just as Noah and his household were not saved by the flood but were preserved in the midst of it.

3. The doctrine of baptism in the name of Jesus only was the principal factor that led to the heresy that Jesus is not only the Son but the Father and the Holy Spirit as well. For them, "Jesus Only" is God.

4. Those who believe in baptismal regeneration frequently argue that the thief on the cross was still under the old covenant and therefore did not need to be baptized. If this were the case, Christ's words in John 5:24, "Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life" would have been irrelevant prior to his death and resurrection as well. The promise that God will save those who place their trust in Christ is a universal principle. Thus if a believer shares the gospel with an unbeliever while both of them are dying in the desert, the unbeliever will be born again despite the absence of water.

5. Bruce Milne, Know the Truth (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1982), p. 235.

6. The account in Acts 16 of Lydia's household (v. 15) and the household of the Philippian jailer (v. 31) being baptized does not necessarily imply that they had infants who were baptized.

7. Sacrament is the English equivalent of the Latin word. As defined by Augustine, a sacrament is a visible and outward act in which God works invisibly and supernaturally.

8. See Carl F. H. Henry, ed., Basic Christian Doctrines (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962), p. 257. The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), says, "It is conceded that immersion was the primary mode in the early church, but it is pointed out that other modes were permitted" (p. 118).

9. "I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols" (Ezek. 36:25).

10. "Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water" (Heb. 10:22).

11. Elwell, p. 118.

12. Ibid.

Hank Hanegraaff, radio's Bible Answer Man, is the author of recently released, The Face that Demonstrates the Farce of Evolution.


Return to Plain Truth Ministries Home Page