The Purpose of Baptism

The practice of baptism has been rather contentious for many years for a variety of reasons; I have spent some time discussing baptism here, and have engaged in a debate about the necessity of baptism which can be accessed through this webpage.

I would like to focus here, however, on the matter of the purpose of baptism. Why are people to be baptized?

Over the centuries, people have come up with all kinds of reasons that one should be baptized. They include:

  • As a public profession of a previous inward event;
  • To become a part of a church;
  • To please one’s parents, spouse, or other family members;
  • Because God commanded it;
  • For the remission of sin.

As in all matters, we ought not trust in the wisdom of men, but examine the Scriptures to see what God has said about the matter. What do the Scriptures establish as the purpose of baptism?

And Peter said unto them, “Repent ye, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ unto the remission of your sins; and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” (Acts 2:38).

“And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on his name,” (Acts 22:16).

Or are ye ignorant that all we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him through baptism unto death: that like as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with him in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man was crucified with him, that the body of sin might be done away, that so we should no longer be in bondage to sin; for he that hath died is justified from sin,” (Romans 6:3-7).

in whom ye were also circumcised with a circumcision not made with hands, in the putting off of the body of the flesh, in the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with him in baptism, wherein ye were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead, (Colossians 2:11-12).

whose antitype doth now save you, even baptism, not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the appeal of a good conscience toward God, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, (1 Peter 3:21).

These are but a few of the many verses in the New Testament that speak of baptism; I have chosen these because they speak somewhat about the purpose of baptism.

Acts 2:38 presents for us the clearest, most succinct demonstration of the purpose of baptism: for the remission of sin. The rest of these passages reinforce that purpose: when Ananias charges Saul to be baptized, it is so that his sins may be washed away (Acts 22:16); likewise, when Paul speaks to the Romans about baptism, he describes it as a type of burial and resurrection wherein the “body of sin” is done away, so that we are “no longer in bondage to sin” (Romans 6:3-7). The burial of baptism is at least paralleled to the “circumcision of Christ”, the removal of the body of the flesh, a consistent metaphor for sin (cf. Romans 7, Galatians 5:19-21). Finally, as Peter speaks of how Noah was delivered from death by being in the ark on the water, the antitype– contrasting type– of baptism now saves us (1 Peter 3:20-21). Peter describes this baptism as not being a bath, so to speak, but “the appeal for a good conscience toward God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). All of these explanations of baptism point to its purpose as for the remission of sin, with no other explanation explicitly described. It ought also be mentioned that baptism is the point at which one has initially obeyed the Gospel and such a one can truly be called a Christian, since he has believed in the Lord, confessed Him, has determined to no longer walk in sin, and has secured the remission of previous sin, and now walks in newness of life (cf. Romans 6:3-7).

It is manifest, then, that baptism in the New Testament was not designed as a public profession for something that already occurred inwardly, or as an act to join a church, or to please some relation. It is true that baptism is also to be done to obey God (Romans 1:5, 1 Peter 1:22), as are all things done by faith, but such does not explain the significance and import of baptism. The explicit, established purpose of baptism in the New Testament is for the remission of sin.

Since the New Testament establishes that the purpose of baptism is for the remission of sin, and yet we see so many in the denominational world being baptized for all kinds of other purposes, it is very well asked: are the “baptisms” of such persons valid? Can there be a baptism for reasons other than remission of sin that will make a person a Christian and one of the saved?

To begin, let us return to Peter’s explanation of baptism in 1 Peter 3:21. He notes that baptism is not “the removal of dirt from the flesh,” but, “the appeal of a good conscience toward God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. This distinction is important because Peter establishes at least one case of what baptism in the New Testament is not: notably, it is not a bath. As 21st century Americans, we suffer from the fact that “baptism” has become a sacramentalized action set apart in a religious context. This has become a stumbling-block for many reasons, most notably that we have the idea posited that there can be many “modes” of baptism, like sprinkling or pouring, despite the fact that the Greek word from which we get the word baptism, baptizma, means “immersion.” If we substitute the real meaning for the transliteration, the statements become nonsensical: “sprinkling mode” of immersion, “pouring mode” of immersion. Immersion is immersion, and baptism demands that one gets fully wet (cf. Acts 8:36-39).

The sacramentalized use of baptism, moreover, further presents difficulties in that people look at any “baptism” as a religious event of great import. This is true no matter how the baptism is administered, or for whatever purpose. This sacramentalization, however, does not exist in the usage of the term in the New Testament. Baptizma, and its verb form baptizmo, are used often in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, to refer to various immersions, including Naaman the Syrian for his cleansing (2 Kings 5:14), even metaphorically as “overwhelming” (Isaiah 21:4). In the apocryphal works, not inspired but still useful for demonstrating how language is used, we find in the following verse the use of baptizo to refer to bathing:

So Holofernes commanded his guards not to hinder her. And she remained in the camp for three days, and went out each night to the valley of Bethulia, and bathed at the spring in the camp, (Judith 12:7).

By the time of the New Testament, then, baptizo could refer to any washing, be it for religious purposes or “common”, secular purposes. The word is not reserved for solemn religious occasions, and when we think about baptism, it is best for us to also consider it as “immersion”, and therefore can be for any number of purposes.

Now we can return to our question: can one be baptized for other purposes than remission of sin and still be considered a Christian, one obedient in the faith? We have seen that Peter demonstrates for us that baptism is not for the cleaning of dirt from the flesh, and that the Greek word is just a regular word to describe immersion. If one is to be immersed, and for that immersion to have any significance, it must be attached to some purpose, lest we consider ourselves “baptized” or “re-baptized” every time we immerse our bodies in water.

In truth, the explicit New Testament purpose of baptism explains why it must exist: for the remission of sin. It is not the fact that we are immersed in water that provides the benefit– the benefit is conferred because the act is being done in obedient faith for the purpose of remission of sin: that such is our appeal to God for cleansing, that we may put to death the man of sin and be raised to walk in newness of life. Baptism is the act of obedient faith that leads to remission of sin, and if we do not have that remission of sin, we are still separated from God, and liable to condemnation (Isaiah 59:1, Romans 6:23).

Since the result of New Testament baptism is not inherent in the act itself but in the motivation– the purpose– of the act, how can it be said that immersion for any other purpose can lead to the same result? Peter establishes clearly that immersion for the cleansing of the flesh does not save us (1 Peter 3:21). From that we can easily conclude that immersion for other reasons– as a public profession, to placate relatives, to join a church, etc.– also do not save us. They are nothing but baths, the process of getting wet, with no spiritual benefit since there is no appeal for it. Just because someone gets dunked– or sprinkled, or has water poured on them– and someone calls it “baptism” does not in the least mean that it is the type of baptism spoken of in the New Testament that leads to the forgiveness of sin.

What, then, shall we say in regards to these matters? The Scriptures are clear about the nature of the immersion that is consistently required: it is to be for the remission of sin. There is nothing inherent in the word “baptism” that necessitates any baptism to make one a Christian; in fact, Peter himself demonstrates that one can be “baptized” for a purpose that does not lead to salvation. If one is baptized for any other reason than as an appeal for the forgiveness of sin, they have just gotten wet for whatever purpose they sought. Furthermore, since they have not appealed to God for the remission of their sins through baptism, Scripture indicates that such persons have not yet received the remission of past sins, and therefore are still separated from their God and are not in the proper association with God. While such persons may refer to themselves as “Christian”, just as they refer to when they got wet as “baptism”, such does not necessitate that God recognizes them as such (Matthew 7:21-23).

I pray that you examine yourself and see if you are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5): if you were “baptized”, was it just a getting wet for some various purpose, or were you immersed in water for the remission of your sin, as the Scripture plainly states? Make sure that you have been immersed in water for the remission of your sin, lest you be found to be one of the lawless ones on the last day!

The Purpose of Baptism

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