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Why do churches baptize people?

Water Baptism has long been an important aspect of the Christian faith, practiced by virtually every church and denomination in some variation. Many evangelical churches consider it an ordinance — one of two given to the church, the other being the Lord's Supper.

According to the Bible, water baptism is not optional for the Christian. It is Christ's command for all those who place their faith in Christ as their Savior and Lord. To the church Jesus said, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:19-20). The matter of baptism was considered so important that even Jesus, himself, was baptized to provide an example for His followers. He said that He allowed himself to be baptized in order "to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:15). The Apostle Peter also stated that when persons repent of their sins, they are "to be baptized" (Acts 2:38).

The act of being baptized in water, in and by itself, does not wash away sins (1 Pet. 3:21), as is evidenced by the conversion of the thief on the cross (crucified along with Jesus), who had no chance to be baptized (Luke 23:43). Salvation is not based on works, but on a relationship of faith with Christ (Eph. 2:8-9). Water baptism, however, is intended to symbolize the spiritual union (baptism) with Christ which "does" save us (Gal. 3:27), and is the outward expression of an inward experience... "a commitment to a right relationship with God, in which we are forgiven of our sins and have a conscience of fellowship with Him."

When performed as an act of obedience based upon faith in Christ (Acts 2:38), water baptism augments our faith (James 2:17), and serves as a testimony of our repentance and spiritual union with Christ. As the scripture states... "this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also--not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God." (1 Pet. 3:21 NIV). Every person who accepts Jesus as his or her Savior should obey the Lord's command and be baptized in water at the earliest opportunity.

While the ceremonial submersion of a person in water may have seemed strange to the gentiles and foreigners of the first century, water baptism's symbolism was not new to the early Jewish converts to Christianity. The rite of water baptism was already a well established procedure, performed upon those gentiles who wished to convert to Judaism. These converts, referred to as Proselyte Jews, would also be circumcised and were required to keep all other Jewish laws and observances. According to the Jewish Talmud, their baptism was symbolic of a cleansing of the past and starting over with a new life — in fact they would even be given new names.

Besides this significance, the rite of proselyte baptism may have also appeared similar to the ceremonial washing of the dead. Before burial, corpses were submerged in water and washed prior to the application of burial spices and ointments. In a visit to Israel some years ago, I viewed ancient, rock hewn troughs which archaeologists claimed were used for this purpose — which closely resemble today's baptismal tanks used in many Christian churches. Consequently, to the Jew, the rite of water baptism likely resembled the washing of a dead person for burial — that is until the person arose out of the water very much alive.

The combined symbolism of these well-known traditions, helped the New Testament people understand the meaning behind the Christian water baptism. It represented death and cleansing from the old life of sin, and a resurrection of new life in Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul wrote, "...buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead" (Col. 2:12).

Keep in mind that Water Baptism was intended to be an open, public confession of our faith in Christ (1 Pet 3:21, Col. 2:12). From the earliest days, it was usually performed in some large body of water, which was generally scarce and always a popular, public place. The Jordan River, for instance, was the main tributary through Israel from the Sea of Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the south, and was the main source of water for drinking, washing, or religious purposes. Consequently, people were always found near the river, gathering to socialize, to catch fish or to replenish their daily water supply. Therefore, water baptism performed in an open body of water, such as in the river, became a very public event, openly signifying one's conversion to Christianity before the curious spectators. This corresponds with Jesus' teaching, that a public confession of faith in Him is a necessary part of following him — it is not satisfactory to merely be His "secret Agent." He said, "...whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32-33).

While the method of water baptism has sometimes been a matter of different opinion by various churches and denominations, the New Testament teaches that water baptism was performed only by immersion. The Greek word "BAPTIZO" means "to whelm, to dip, to plunge under, or to submerge." The scriptural expressions such as "much water" (John 3:23), "down both into the water" (Acts 8:38), and "coming up out of the water" (Mark 1:10) provide proof that Bible baptism was by immersion. The Greek words which are translated "to pour," or "to sprinkle" are never found in connection with baptism.

In years past, some church denominations adopted a tradition of baptizing converts by sprinkling. Church history suggests that this tradition began when some converts were sick or bedfast and unable to undergo the physical involvement of water baptism, or when a body of water was unavailable or frozen. In an effort to obey the Lord's command, ministers would bring vessels of water and drench or sprinkle water on the convert. Later in years, for the sake of convenience, this method began to replace immersion in some Christian circles.

Remember that the printing press did not exist in those days, and copies of the scriptures were not abundant. The common people generally only knew what they heard about the Bible or what was passed down to them by the church hierarchy. Consequently, without the availability of doctrinal criticism, errors were more easily transferred into accepted church traditions.

Infant baptism was also a tradition that began without scriptural foundation, as there were no babies baptized in the New Testament. Apparently this tradition began later with the sincere attempt to secure the salvation of children. But the Bible shows that baptism is only to follow repentance, and a child does not qualify for baptism until he matures enough to "repent" of his sins and make Jesus his Savior and Lord. Since Jesus said that children are the very example of the Kingdom of Heaven (Mark 10:14), it seems apparent that God holds children in a state of innocence, without sin to their charge, until they mature to an age of accountability where they recognize right from wrong. In other words, a child that dies in infancy would go to Heaven. This was the apparent view of David when his infant child died. He remarked that the child would not return to him, but he would (someday) go to be with him (2 Sam. 12:22-23).

Another distinction held between some Christian groups has been the verbal "formula" or the wording of the baptism. Jesus stated clearly for his followers to baptize believers "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28:19). But Peter later said to be baptized "in the name of Jesus" (Acts 2:38). On the basis of this latter passage, one particular denomination contends that persons cannot be saved unless they are baptized in Jesus' name "only." This is refuted by most orthodox Christian churches, who generally baptize according to the Lord's stated terminology, "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

Some churches, in an effort to satisfy both scriptures, baptize using the verbal formula which Jesus described in Matthew, and combine this with Peter's emphasis on the name of Jesus in Acts. Thus, when the minister baptizes, he says, "I baptize you in the name of God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Ghost."

This article is from the book, What People Ask About the Church, authored and copyrighted © by Dr. Dale A. Robbins, 1990-2015, and is a publication of Victorious Publications, Grass Valley, CA - Nashville, TN. Unless otherwise stated, all scripture references were taken from The New King James Bible, © Thomas Nelson Inc., 1982. You may download this article for personal use as long as you retain credit to the author. Obtain permission before reproducing copies for any reason, by filling out our simple use permission form. Many of our writings are also available as free pdf tri-fold pamphlets, which can be downloaded for reproduction from our Online Catalog. For media reproduction rights, or to obtain quantities of this title in other formats, email us. A newer revised version of this book is available from Amazon. If you have appreciated these online materials, help us reach the world with the Gospel by considering a monthly or one-time tax-deductable donation.