What is Baptism?

Last week we began looking at the church by defining the local church in 100 words or less. If you missed that post, you can check it out here. Part of that definition included “the observance of the ordinances,” namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They are called ordinances because they are acts commanded or ordained by Jesus Himself. In Matthew 28:19-20 Jesus said,

19 “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit20 teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

In Luke 22:19 He told His disciples,

“This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.”

Over the next two weeks we are going to take a closer look at each of these two ordinances of the church, beginning today with baptism. For my last doctoral seminar I was asked to explain the ordinance of baptism in a single page (double-spaced). The following is what I submitted:

As both observed and commanded by our Lord, baptism involves the immersion of a believer underneath a body of water as an outward sign of their forgiveness and salvation. Baptism is an ordinance of the church because of its inclusion in the Great Commission given by Jesus. As such, baptism should take place under the guidance of a pastor/elder/overseer while the congregation is gathered together.

Likened to the Old Covenant practice of circumcision, baptism is an initiatory rite for Christians. Infants, children, or any others who have not personally repented of their sins and confessed Jesus as Lord should not receive baptism. Baptism does not effect or guarantee entry into the New Covenant people of God—only faith does. Baptism follows faith, serving as one’s public confession of faith.

This salvation is signified in the baptismal waters, which do not cleanse sin but represent the cleansing that has already taken place because of faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Baptism is also a way by which a believer identifies with Christ in His death and resurrection. The picture painted in baptism is of a person who has died to sin being buried under the water and then being raised, just as Christ was, to live a new life fully committed to Him. This can only be symbolized by the full immersion of an individual.

The New Testament, and especially the book of Acts, maintains a close connection between repentance, salvation, baptism, and the receiving of the Holy Spirit. While baptism does not save a person, new believers should seek baptism soon after their conversion. Pastors and church members should encourage new believers to be baptized.

What would you add to or take away from this explanation of baptism? How would you explain this ordinance in one page or less? Thanks in advance for sharing your thoughts!


Published by Travis Flanagan

I am a believer, husband, and father who loves serving the Lord and the local church. I am currently an associate pastor of youth/discipleship and a pastoral research assistant for two pastors. Educationally, I have a BA and an MA in Biblical and Theological Studies from Criswell College. I am currently pursuing a PhD in Theology from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. My research interests include the early church and Greco-Roman voluntary associations (and especially the relationship between the two!).

20 thoughts on “What is Baptism?

  1. “Likened to the Old Covenant practice of circumcision, baptism is an initiatory rite for Christians. Circumcision was practiced on male infants, who survived for eight days, and male converts to Judaism. Finding an equivalency in baptism to circumcision leads to covenant theology which, as far as I know, is not a Baptist belief.
    Otherwise I think you have done a very good job with the topic.


    1. I am with you completely. I am by no means a covenant theologian, and I appreciate your concern. I had in mind Colossians 2:11-12 where Paul juxtaposes circumcision and baptism. Really the only connection I am making between the two is the concept of an initiatory rite. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. My scriptural understanding and personal experience with baptism informs me that it (baptism) is one of the steps of salvation. It is not more or less important than faith, repentance and confession.It is a commandment by our Lord. It shows a willingness and subjection to the Lord’s will.
    When I was immersed in the baptism of our Lord I felt His cleansing power and it was like a current of electricity, but it did not hurt. It was definitely cleansing because I felt, if only for a brief moment, completely pure. And I believe that this is the point of entry of the Holy Spirit.
    This is my personal experience with baptism.


  3. These exercises don’t leave much wiggle room and I don’t miss them. I think you have very done well.
    There is also an external function of Baptism as a witness. Think even of John the Baptist, when someone submitted to Baptism is spoke volumes to those who watched it.
    My 2 cents worth would be to possibly to add,
    “Baptism is a proclamation of the gospel an encouragement to the Church and a witness to the world”.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I met a lady from the Salvation Army and she adamant that baptism by water is something Jesus did not command. She says Jesus said baptism by the Holy Spirit and go baptise in the name of the father, son and Holy Spirit. In fact , this is apparently a core belief within the Salvation Army. Any thoughts? Is either or acceptable or does the bible make it clear the baptism is by water?


  5. I can’t think of anything else to add, right off the top of my head. I think you’ve done an excellent job (again) of summarizing well another theological topic! I seriously doubt that I could do any better within a single page, double-spaced paper! It took me 25 pages to write a MDiv-level paper on Soteriology and The Ordinances! I had to narrow my focus down to how water baptism and Communion represent salvation (& thus it’s important how these are practiced) because I had so much info on the ordinances but a limit of 25 pages

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This is very true. Even though some Christians think differently on baptism, but this is eves evidently the low of the Lord, every Christian is called to make it as to fullfil God’s commandement.


  7. Baptism is a symbol of salvation, not a means of salvation.
    Baptism is an act of obedience to Jesus Christ who commanded it in the great commission. (Matt. 28:19-20). There is no automatic blessing imparted through the act of baptism, apart from faith. But, saying that baptism is a symbol does not mean that there are no spiritual benefits obtained from doing it. God often does bless obedience.
    Only believers in Jesus Christ should be baptized as a confession of faith.


  8. Hi, beautiful page.
    Your explanation of the baptism is spot on, particularly in that its an outward demonstration of faith as well as it’s symbolic reflection of Christ’s death and resurrection.

    Your definition is complete, if I had to add anything I would tie in that it’s a shadow of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. They were leaving behind a life of bondage to come into freedom. The same symbol persists when they cross the Jordan river. Before proceeding to claim their inheritance, they paused to reiterate the statutes of God.
    Hope this helps and edifies, bless you.


  9. The one comment I would add is that Jesus said unless a man be born again (of the water – baptism, and the Holy Spirit) no one can enter the Kingdom of God. Many churches downplay the necessity of being born again or pit this scripture (John 3:1-7) against Romans 10:9 when they are complementary.


      1. John 3:1–7 (BEC): Being a patient teacher, our Lord picked up on Nicodemus’ words and further explained the new birth. To be “born of water” is to be born physically (“enter a second time into his mother’s womb”) but to be born again means to be born of the Spirit. Just as there are two parents for physical birth, so there are two “parents” for spiritual birth: the Spirit of God (John 3:5) John 3:1–7 (BEC): and the Word of God (James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23–25). The Spirit of God takes the Word of God and, when the sinner believes, imparts the life of God.
        John 3:1–7 (BEC): Jesus was not teaching that the new birth comes through water baptism. In the New Testament, baptism is connected with death, not birth; and no amount of physical water can effect a spiritual change in a person.
        John 3:1–7 (BEC): The emphasis in John 3:14–21 is on believing, because salvation comes through faith (Eph. 2:8–9). So, yes, we must be born again to be be saved, but that does not mean baptism.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Hello Jeanine. Other scriptures I share with people regarding the importance of baptism are:

        Mark 16:16 KJV “He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be condemned.”

        1 Peter 3:21 NLT “So he went and preached to the spirits in prison— those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood. And that water is a picture of baptism, which now saves you, not by removing dirt from your body, but as a response to God from a clean conscience. It is effective because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

        Matthew 28:18-20 KJV “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”

        Being baptized in water without believing is meaningless. However, some churches teach that baptism is not important or necessary as a sign of faith, and they teach scripture in a way that seems to be combative (they fight against each other). My point is to show that they are complementary.


  10. Hello Victoria,
    Re:1 Peter 3:21, Mark 16:16, Mathew 28:18-20

    What Peter is referring to in 1 Peter 3:21 is what baptism represents, which is what saves us (an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ). Peter is simply connecting baptism with belief. It is not the getting-wet part that saves but is the “appeal to God for a clean conscience” which is signified by baptism, that saves us. The appeal to God always comes first. First belief and repentance, then we are baptized to publicly identify ourselves with Christ.
    Water baptism is the outward testimony of the believer’s inward faith. The person is saved the moment he places his faith in the Lord Jesus. Water baptism is the visible testimony to his faith and the salvation he was given in answer to that faith. Peter is careful to inform his readers that he is not teaching baptismal regeneration, namely, that a person who submits to baptism is thereby regenerated, for he says, ‘not the putting away of the filth of the flesh.’ Baptism, Peter explains, does not wash away the filth of the flesh, either in a literal sense as a bath for the body, nor in a metaphorical sense as a cleansing for the soul.
    The baptism that Peter says saves us is the one that is preceded by faith in the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ that justifies the unrighteous sinner (Romans 3:25-26; 4:5). Baptism is the outward sign of what God has done “by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

    Mark 16:16 effectively states that you must believe to be saved, which I agree. It does not state that those that don’t get baptised will be condemned, only those that don’t believe will be condemned.

    1—The Bible is clear that we are saved by faith alone. Abraham was saved by faith, and we are saved by faith (Romans 4:1-25; Galatians 3:6-22).

    2—Throughout the Bible people have been saved without being baptized. 

    Every believer in the Old Testament (e.g., Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon) was saved but not baptized. The thief on the cross was saved but not baptized. Cornelius was saved before he was baptized (Acts 10:44-46).

    3—Baptism is a testimony of our faith and a public declaration that we believe in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures tell us that we have eternal life the moment we believe (John 5:24), and belief always comes before being baptized. Baptism does not save us any more than walking an aisle or saying a prayer saves us. We are saved when we believe.

    4—The Bible never says that if one is not baptized then he is not saved.

    5—If baptism were required for salvation, then no one could be saved without another party being present. Someone must be there to baptize a person before he can be saved. This effectively limits who can be saved and when he can be saved. The consequences of this doctrine, when carried to a logical conclusion, are devastating. For example, a soldier who believes on the battlefield but is killed before he can be baptized would go to hell.

    6—Throughout the Bible we see that at the point of faith a believer possesses all the promises and blessings of salvation (John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; 20:31; Acts 10:43; 13:39; 16:31). When one believes, he has eternal life, does not come under judgment, and has passed from death into life (John 5:24)—all before he or she is baptized.

    The Bible is clear that there is no saving virtue or merit in the act of baptism itself. Jesus is our only Savior (see John 3:16; Acts 4:12; 2 Corinthians 3:11; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

    I am not saying that baptism is unimportant. Baptism is a command under the great commission of Mathew 28:18-20. However, that does not state that baptism is requirement for salvation.
    Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments”. Baptism is important, because it is a public declaration that we have accepted Jesus.
    Salvation comes only through Jesus (Romans 3:25; 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:20; Hebrews 9:22; Revelation 1:5;). However, those whom Jesus Christ has saved will gladly follow Him in the important next step of baptism.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know it has been a long while since this article and comment was written however if there is no purpose in Baptism then there wouldn’t be a reason to do it. Yes faith does save us. It’s also by faith that we follow what God says. Saying that we are saved by faith only is like saying that we believe in a God, and that saves us. However it’s by faith that we follow his will. Mark 16:16 has a conditional statement, the AND is important. If I said I wanted salt and pepper and it will be seasoned but I only get salt and no pepper then it isn’t seasoned well.


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