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Theology > Church > Ordinances of the Church > Principles Related to Baptism


Recipient of Baptism

In order to be baptized one must repent, believe, receive the Word, and receive the Holy Spirit; these are not chronological events but are various descriptions of what it means to turn from self and turn to the Savior, that is, to reject personal works and accept His person and work. Note the accounts in Acts which speak plainly on this point:

those who gladly receive his word were baptized (Acts 2:41);

but when they believed Philip . . . both men and women were baptized (Acts 8:12);

what hinders me from being baptized . . . if you believe with all your heart, you may . . . I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God . . . both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him (Acts 8:36-38);

can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit . . . and he commanded them to be baptized (Acts 10:47-48);

the Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul . . . she and her household were baptized (Acts 16:14-15);

they said “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved” . . . immediately he and all his family were baptized (Acts 16:31-33).

Just as baptism marked the beginning of the earthly ministry of Christ, so baptism marks the beginning of the life of the believer. It is simply a declaration of one’s identification with Christ, as Christ’s baptism was a symbol of His identification with man.

A discussion of the recipients of baptism cannot avoid the issue of infant baptism; the issue is not infants and/or adults, but the issue is non-believers vs. believers (see the above verses). And an infant is simply not a believer, the infant has confessed no sin and has not repented.

Support for infant baptism usually resides in one or two points: one, baptism is necessary for salvation because in the doing of it grace is conveyed; and two, baptism is necessary because it replaces circumcision as the new covenant replaces the old covenant.

In response to the first argument for infant baptism—it is necessary for salvation—the argument of its supporters is as follows: Infant baptism is predicated on the fact that baptism is necessary for salvation, that regeneration occurs at the point of baptism, and that baptism removes original sin; additionally, infants do not require faith since the faith of the Church is sufficient replacement for the infant’s inability. In opposition to this contention it must be affirmed that there is no vestige of support for infant baptism in the New Testament, and the idea that regeneration occurs at baptism simply cannot be Scripturally defended.

In response to the second argument—the relationship of circumcision and baptism—the following point is crucial: Circumcision and baptism are not united in the teaching and examples of the New Testament. In the mind of those who endorse the baptism of infants circumcision in the Old Testament is justification for infant baptism: infants were circumcised, so infants should be baptized. But did baptism replace circumcision? In the following passage (Rom. 4:11; Gal. 3:27; Col. 2:11-12) it seems that circumcision anticipates baptism in the sense of the new life that is imparted to the believer while the old life is cut away. If circumcision, as the proponents affirm, anticipates baptism completely then perhaps only male infants should be baptized.

Some Protestants argue for infant baptism based upon the covenant concept, therefore, infants of believing parents should be baptized. This argument is threefold: one, it is based upon the practice of circumcision in the Old Testament; two, the fact that baptism parallels circumcision; and three, the reference to the baptism of households in the New Testament. But counter points are as follows: one, circumcision was only for males; two, circumcision was required regardless of the spiritual state, even required of servants who were bought and then brought into the nation from the outside nations; three, in the New Testament the emphasis is on the Church, which is inward and spiritual, not a covenant community that is outward and national; four, baptism symbolizes identification with Christ and entrance into the Church; five, the argument from the word “household” is not definitive; six, baptism does not accomplish anything—by communicating grace—but symbolizes the believer’s identification and commitment; and seven, baptism should not be made symbolic of a hypothetical salvation for the infant, which is an incorrect application of baptism—baptism is a sign of what has happened not what may happen.

Mode of Baptism

Baptism is the administration of water to the believer. How is this done? What is the mode of baptism? Historically, there are two methods: immersion and affusion (some form of pouring); but there is no uniformity regarding the mode of baptism.

Immersion – Eastern Orthodox, Baptist, Congregationalists, and most Independents

Affusion (Pouring) – Lutheran

Aspersion (Sprinkling) – Presbyterian, Methodist

Note: Roman Catholics accept any of the above three as valid, while admitting that immersion is the most ancient form, but generally practice affusion.

Support for immersion:

One, the meaning of the word (baptizō); while respecting those who strongly differ, no convincing argument can be made in support of the word inside or outside of Scripture meaning anything but immersion; the word means “to dip,” “plunge,” “sink,” or “immerse.”

Two, immersion is consistent with reported incidents in the New Testament; Jesus “came up out of the water” (Mk. 1:10); John chose a place to baptize “because there was much water there” (Jo. 3:23); and when he was baptized, the eunuch “went down into the water” and then “came up out of the water” (Acts 8:38-39).

Three, immersion is consistent with the symbolism of baptism which is the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.

Four, the wording of Scripture regarding our identification with Christ in baptism; “we were buried with Him through baptism, that just as Christ was raised from the dead . . .” (Rom. 6:3) and we “were buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised with Him through faith” (Col. 2:12).

Five, for those who understand baptism in terms of washing and cleansing, immersion is a more appropriate picture as opposed to mere sprinkling or pouring.

NOTE: “But whether the person being baptized should be wholly immersed, and whether thrice or once, whether he should only be sprinkled with poured water—these details are of no importance, but ought to be optional to churches according to the diversity of countries. Yet the word “baptize” means to immerse, and it is clear that the rite of immersion was observed in the ancient church” (Calvin, Institutes, IV, 15, 19).

Should baptism involve a single immersion or three immersions, one pouring (affusion) or pouring three times on the head, or perhaps some form of sprinkling (aspersion)?

A three-fold act was indicative of the Trinity; this form was mention by both the Didache and Tertullian.

“Baptize . . . in living [running] water. But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water and if thou are not able in cold, then warm. But if thou has neither, then pour water of the heard thrice in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit” (Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers, 232; in the Didache).

“When we are going to enter the water, but a little before, in the presence of the congregation and under the hand of the president, we solemnly profess that we disown the devil, and his pomp, and his angels. Here upon we are thrice immersed, making a somewhat ampler pledge than the Lord has appointed in the gospel. Then we are taken up . . .” (Tertullian, ANF, III, 94).

Administrator of Baptism

Any believer can baptize another believer. This position is predicated on the priesthood of the believer (I Pet. 2:4-10), and no Scripture limits the ability to baptize to the ordained clergy. The Ethiopian eunuch was baptized in the desert by a deacon with no formal approval by a church or period of waiting. In the early Church baptism immediately followed an affirmation of faith.

Purpose or Meaning of Baptism

Various interpretations that have been presented:

One, baptismal regeneration – baptism is essential for salvation; baptism effects new life, spiritual life; therefore, in baptism a transformation takes place; the act confers grace ex opera operato, the sacrament works in and of itself, through the doing of it—the Roman position, with the required faith being supplied by the Church or the one representing the infant; the Lutheran position stresses the necessity of faith though they recognize the problem involved.

Two, remove guilt of original sin – baptism is essential for salvation; this point stresses the need for and justification of infant baptism.

Three, testimony of the believer’s identification with Christ – baptism marks the believer’s entrance into the Christian life; an outward symbol of an inward change; it is a means of affirming one’s faith in Christ; the act is an act of obedience with no saving benefit or special spiritual blessing; baptism is understood to be believer’s baptism; baptism following belief is the pattern in the New Testament (Matt. 28:19; Acts 2:37-41; 8:12; 18:8; 19:1-7); baptism is a means of profession, and profession is a necessary aspect of salvation; the profession does not save, but one cannot be saved and not profess.

Four, testimony of the death and resurrection of Christ –  the act of baptism, especially immersion, vividly reflects His death, burial, and resurrection.

Five, a sign and seal of the Covenant – view of most Reformed and Presbyterian; in the words of Charles Hodge: “God, on his part, promises to grant the benefits signified in baptism to all adults who receive that sacrament in the exercise of faith, and to all infants who when they arrive at maturity, remain faithful to the vows made in their name when they were baptized” (ST, 3, 82); thus, for adults the issue is absolute, but for infants the issue is conditional; baptism, therefore, initiates salvation and is a sign of salvation; in this thinking, baptism replaces circumcision; but it seems that in the New Testament physical circumcision was replaced by spiritual circumcision—the substance replaced the shadow.

Note: Is the message in baptism that of the death and resurrection of Christ, or that of purification; or could it be both?


Jo. 3:5 – “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God”; point is the meaning of “born of water”; does it refer to baptism or cleansing? Roman view is baptism; alternate interpretation is cleansing in light of Ezek. 36:25-27; Eph. 5:26; Tit. 3:5; the emphasis is on the work of the Spirit not an ordinance of the Church.

Rom. 6:1-11 – two options: one, the passage teaches that the believer is actually united to Christ in the act of baptism; two, the passage teaches the believer’s identification with Christ but does not teach a literal union.

Col. 2:11-12 – baptism and circumcision are not equated; circumcision is symbolic of the act of God whereby the individual is changed, while baptism in its symbolism denotes identification with Christ, the One who is the foundation for the change.

Tit. 3:5 – a stretch to make this apply to the act of baptism.

I Pet. 3:21 – does not teach the necessity of baptism for salvation but the necessity of salvation for a clear conscience before God; in other words, obedience produces a sense of well-being before God.

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