The Significance of Water Baptism
By Lance Mosher
Jesus Christ lived approximately 33 years on earth. He was born of a virgin (Matt. 1:23), lived a sinless life (1 Pet. 2:22), and was crucified for the sins of the world (1 Pet. 2:24). He came preaching repentance and the nearness of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4:17). After three, labor-full years of ministry, He left His disciples with one last commandment: “Go into all the world, and preach the gospel to all creation” (Mark 16:15).
“Preach the gospel” is the last commandment with which our Lord left. The gospel must be pretty important! What is the gospel? Most of us have heard the word “gospel” before, whether attributed to Jesus or the first four books of the New Testament. So, what is the gospel of Christ?
The Greek word for gospel, εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion), and the English word “gospel” simply mean “good news.” So, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news of Jesus Christ. This is what Christians are to preach and teach. What’s so good about it?
Our separation from God because of our sins is the bad news. The good news of Jesus Christ is that He came to be a mediator, or a bridge, between mankind and God (1 Tim. 2:5). Since we are trapped on the “island” of sin with no ability to save ourselves, how do we get to the “land” of salvation? We must go through the bridge (Jesus). Jesus claims, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Of course, all of Jesus' life entails the gospel- from His virgin birth, to His sinless life, horrible death, predicted burial, glorious resurrection, spectacular ascension, and lordly reign at the right hand of God. However, there is a specific span of the timeline of Christ that can, by itself, be labeled, "the gospel." In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul gives us a simple glimpse of the gospel. He says, “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you… that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:1-4). So, in its basic form, the gospel is the fact that Jesus died, was buried, and was resurrected from the dead.
Here's the crux of the matter: The apostle Paul also says, that when Jesus comes back, He will be “dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thess. 1:8-9). To avoid this eternal destruction, we must know God and obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
What does this have to do with baptism? The highlight of the gospel is the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a historical event. How do we obey the gospel? We must go through what Jesus went through. We must die, be buried, and be raised as well. But we thank God that we don’t have to fulfill the gospel physically. God gave us an easier way to obey the gospel than by being literally crucified- that is the entire point of Jesus' crucifixion.
Look for the death, burial, and resurrection in this passage: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). This is how we obey the gospel! We must crucify our old sinful lives, “knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin” (Rom. 6:6). Just like with any dead body, we, being dead to self and sin, must be buried in the water of baptism (Rom. 6:4). And coming out of the water, we are raised to walk as new Christians (“newness of life”) (Rom. 6:4). If we do not do this, do we have a chance at being resurrected on the Day of Judgment? No, we don’t. “For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection" (Rom. 6:5). The word if signifies a condition. If we obey the gospel, we can have hope of eternal life! If we do not, we will be those who receive retribution and eternal destruction because we have not obeyed the gospel (2 Thess. 1:8-9).
Some might say, “Well that’s not what my preacher [or mom, dad, church, friend, etc.] says!” Honestly, I’m not interested in what others teach. I’m interested in what the Bible teaches! I am aware that others teach that all you have to do is say a prayer, and you will be saved. Some say all you have to do is believe, and you will be saved. Most of those people would still say that baptism is important because it’s found in the Bible, but they would also say it is not necessary for salvation. Let’s forget what others teach for a moment. Let’s only look at what the Bible says.
Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). How is one born again? Nicodemus had the same question. He asked Jesus, “‘How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born, can he?’ Jesus answered, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God’” (John 3:4-5). Jesus says it is impossible to enter the kingdom of God unless you are born of water and the Spirit! The newly baptized soul is described as someone walking in "newness of life" in Romans 6:4. Clearly, being born again of water is a reference to water baptism. Being born of the Spirit is a reference to being pierced to the heart by the word of God, which is the “sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17), and repenting of sins.
Do you remember the first sermon preached after Jesus ascended into heaven? It is found in the second chapter of Acts. Thousands of Jews had come to Jerusalem to observe the day of Pentecost. Peter preached a wonderful sermon! He preached the pure gospel of Christ. Peter’s Jewish audience was originally unconvinced that Jesus was the Son of God, yet, he preached to them in a way that convinced them (Acts 2:22-36). His last convincing words were, “…this Jesus whom you crucified.” When they realized they had sinned against God and the Son of God, they knew they needed to do something to get their sins removed. After they were “pierced to the heart,” they asked, “[W]hat shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). We then read, “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:38). In order to receive the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, one must repent and be baptized!
Is there something special or miraculous about the water of baptism? No! We can get the water anywhere- a pool, a lake, a river, or a baptistery. It doesn’t mater, just as long as it is deep enough to immerse a person completely (Rom. 6:4, Col. 2:12). The power is in God and His promises! It’s just like the blind man was healed in John 9. Jesus came upon a blind man, and He spat on the ground, made clay out of the dirt and spittle, wiped the mixture on the blind man’s eyes, and then told him to wash in the pool of Siloam. The blind man did this, and came back seeing (John 9:1-7)! Was there something special about the spit, clay, or water that healed this man? No! It was the power of Jesus and the result of the man’s obedience to Christ’s commandment. Did the fruit that Adam and Eve ate make them unholy? No, it was their disobedience and the fulfillment of God's promise when they disobeyed (Gen. 2:16-17). Do the waters of baptism make someone holy? No, it is the obedience and the fulfillment of God's promise when we obey (1 Pet. 3:21).
We must obey what Jesus says (John 14:15). What does Jesus say? “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
By being baptized, we are not earning our salvation. There is nothing that we can ever do to earn our salvation (Eph. 2:8). Salvation is a gift from God (Rom. 6:23). Generally, when a gift is given, it is given when someone has not earned it; however, just like all gifts, we have the choice to accept the gift or reject it (Heb. 2:3). How do we accept it? We obey the commandments of God, trusting in His unfailing promise that states, “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).
So, is baptism necessary for salvation? According to God’s word, yes it is. It is a commandment from God, and Christ is “the source of salvation” to “all those that obey Him” (Heb. 5:9). Almost everyone knows and teaches that repentance is required to gain God’s salvation (Luke 13:3, 5). Although repentance is not explicitly listed in every instruction on how to gain eternal life (e.g. John 3:16), we rarely hear someone say, “Repentance is not required to receive forgiveness of sins.” However, many claim that baptism is not required to receive forgiveness. The book of Acts is sometimes referred to as “the conversion book.” We see at least 9 cases of conversions to Christ (people entering into a saving relationship with Christ). If one examines every conversion story in the book of Acts, he or she will soon learn that baptism is part of the conversion to Christ every time, yet this is the act people want to leave out. Notice them in the table at the bottom of the page.
There are many blessings found in Christ (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:3; 2 Tim. 2:1; and others). Among those blessings are salvation (2 Tim. 2:10), the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14), and eternal life (Rom. 6:23). Since these blessings are found in Christ, we obviously cannot receive them outside of Christ. How do we get into Christ? We are “baptized into Christ” (Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27). If we can only receive salvation and forgiveness in Christ, and the only way to get into Christ is to be “baptized into Christ,” we cannot receive salvation or forgiveness without being baptized into Christ.
Someone might ask, “What about the thief on the cross? He wasn’t baptized!” Remember that Jesus and the thief were living under the old covenant. The new covenant was not initiated until Jesus died. At Jesus’ death, the temple veil tore in two (Matt. 27:51). This ended the Jewish era, and initiated the Christian era (Read Heb. 9:15-17 and “The Two Covenants” for more details). The Jewish (old) covenant did not teach baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The Christian (new) covenant does (Acts 2:38), and Jesus never preached baptism until after His resurrection (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:16). As the thief on the cross died under the old covenant, he was not bound by Christian teachings.
As some advocate that prayer is the way we receive initial forgiveness, pay attention to the conversion of Saul (who was also known as Paul; Acts 13:9). The conversion story is told three different times in the book of Acts. First, it was told by the narrator (Luke) (Acts 9), and then later twice by the apostle himself (Acts 22 and 26). Let’s put the details of them together. Although Acts 9 tells us about Saul’s conversion, we don’t know all of what was said and done. After all, we have 3 whole days summed up in one verse (Acts 9:9). After his conversion, as Paul was preaching to the Jews who thought Jesus was a blasphemer, Paul wanted to convince them why he was so zealous for Christ. The best way was to explain his past and tell the story of his conversion: Acts 22:1-16. This is the same story as Acts 9, but it fills in a few gaps of information. After Paul had seen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3-5), Paul fasted and prayed for three days (Acts 9:9-11). Notice, he was praying for three days. If prayer is what a sinner needs in order to have his or her sins initially washed away, the conversion of Saul certainly would have been finished after three days of prayer! But instead, God sends Ananias to Saul to tell him what to do (Acts 9:10-18). After Ananias came to Saul, what did Saul do? “[A]nd he got up and was baptized.” Why was he baptized? What is it that Ananias said to him? We need to go back to the conversion story in Acts 22 to find out. Ananias said, “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). He told Saul to be baptized in order to have his sins washed away. Even after three days of prayer, Saul's sins were not washed away. Obviously, prayer is not the way to receive initial salvation. Baptism is. After baptism, one must pray and continue to repent in order to stay in that relationship with God (1 Thess. 5:17; Acts 8:22), but that is not how one gets into Christ and receives forgiveness in the beginning.
Did I write all of this to simply prove a point? Absolutely not! I wrote this in order to preach the gospel. The gospel involves being made in the likeness of Christ in our own death to sin, burial in baptism, and resurrection to a newness of life (Rom. 6:3-6). As sin separates us from God, we cannot be with God as long as our life of sin is still alive. We must crucify our sinful lives (Rom. 6:6) and clothe ourselves with Christ (Gal. 3:27). How else can God look at us? If we have sin on us, He cannot (Isa. 59:2). If we are clothed in Christ, He can.
So, what does God accomplish in our lives through our obedience to Him in baptism? We are forgiven at the point of baptism (Acts 2:38). Baptism washes away our sins (Acts 22:16). Baptism puts us into Christ (Rom. 6:3-4). We are born again through baptism and repentance (John 3:3-5). Baptism saves us (1 Pet. 3:21). We are clothed with Christ at baptism (Gal. 3:27). All of these blessings are possible only through the blessings and power of God!
Have you been baptized for the forgiveness of your sins? Some people are baptized to “join a church.” Some are baptized because they think it is the next step after salvation. Scripture teaches that God only accepts one baptism (Eph. 4:5). What if you are “baptized” with a baptism not described in Scripture? However you are baptized, if you are not baptized knowing that your sins have not yet been forgiven, and the only way to receive forgiveness is to be biblically baptized, then you are baptized with a different baptism as described in the Bible. What if that is the case for you? You must be baptized biblically! In Acts 19, Paul is reasoning with a group of people who were baptized with John’s baptism instead of the baptism that Jesus authorizes. Yes, they had been “baptized,” but not with the “one baptism” (Eph. 4:5). What did they do in response to learning this? “When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:3-5). God shows no partiality to people (Acts 10:34-35; Rom. 2:11). What He requires of one person to be saved, He requires of all. What He required then, He requires now. If you have not obeyed the commandments of the one baptism to receive forgiveness, you must answer God one question: “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16)!
Except where noted, Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation