What Is Baptism?
One of the hotly debated topics in religion in our age is baptism. The question as to what baptism is then becomes relevant. I believe that all controversies concerning its practice, as well as hard feelings that develop as a result of disagreements over it, would ease away if people consulted the Bible.
The term “baptism” refers to the action of baptizing. Most dictionaries define it as “a religious ceremony performed by sprinkling, pouring, or immersing in water.” Dictionaries thus define the word because that’s the way it is used in society today. Dictionaries usually define words as they are used in society at a particular time. But when the New Testament was being written in the 1st century, the writers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, Peter, and others) used the Greek language. The reason was that most people in the world spoke and read common Greek then. So the New Testament writers, when discussing the concept of baptism, used the word “baptizo,” which is translated “to baptize” and means “to dip repeatedly, to immerge, to submerge” according the Greek-English Lexicon by Thayer. That’s the word which the ancient Greek would use to describe dishes being plunged under water when doing the washing up. The idea is that the item being washed is wholly covered with water. The Greek action word corresponding to “baptizo” is “baptisma,” and is translated “baptism” in English. Different words, however, are used in the New Testament for “to sprinkle” and “to pour.” For “to sprinkle,” “rhantizo” is used (Vine’s Expository Dictionary, p.597) and “ballo” or “katacheo” for “to pour” (ibid, p.479).
So we learn that baptism is done with water. But there has to be abundant water. John 3:23 says that there was “much water” at the place where John the Baptist was baptising. This detail of “much water” is significant, because it means that there has to be enough water in order for the proper candidate for baptism to be immersed, that is completely covered with water. The candidate for baptism has to be immersed in water for baptism to be scriptural. With sprinkling, you don’t have much water. With pouring, you don’t have immersion. Now consider the descriptive account of baptism in one instance: Acts 8:37-39. It concerns the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. Verse 36 says that Philip and the eunuch “came unto a certain water,” that is a stream of water (most likely a river) “and he baptized him” (v. 38).
There are a few lessons to learn from the case of baptism aforementioned:
1. The eunuch was taught. Baptism requires teaching (Matthew 28:19; John 6:45).
2. The eunuch heard the gospel preached by Philip. Baptism demands hearing (Acts 2:37; Romans 10:17).
3. The eunuch believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God. He had the faculty of believing. Not only did he demonstrate capacity to exercise faith in Christ, but he also willingly confessed his faith (cf. Romans 10:9-10), which is something an infant is incapable of. Therefore little babies are not subjects of baptism. Baptism requires faith (Mark 16:16).
4. The eunuch wasn’t told about the sins of his forefathers. Some may argue from the assumption that sin is transferrable and conclude that children inherit the sins of their parents, and therefore need to be baptised. But the Bible teaches the opposite. Ezekiel 18:20 says, “the son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son.” Nowhere in the Bible is made mention of infants being baptised. Instead, we read in Acts 8:12 of “both men and women” being baptised, the implication of which statement is that only responsible individuals can submit to baptism.
Remission of sin
Baptism is a burial, because with it sinners die to sin. Paul said, “How shall we, that are dead to sin live any longer therein? ... so many of us as were baptised into Jesus Christ were baptised into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death” (Romans 6:2-4; cf. Colossians 2:12). Why baptise? The Bible unequivocally teaches that baptism is performed in order for sinners to have their sins remitted of God upon repenting (Acts 2:38; Luke 13:3). Remission of sin is the result of God pronouncing a penitent believer “justified,” that is pardoned (Romans 8:30-33). Salvation, however, does not take place immediately after one has heard the gospel message and believed as some would have us believe. It rather comes after baptism (Mark 16:16). Jesus said, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.” Note, the connective word “and” ties the act of faith and that of baptism together, making them both equally essential to salvation.
Baptism is an act of obedience to Christ, whom God has given “all power” (or authority) in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). It’s the manifestation of our faith in Him. It’s the expression of our response to His command to be baptised in order to receive salvation from God.