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What Does the Bible Say about Baptism?

Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of Renew.org and Discipleship.org, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.

What does the Bible say about baptism? In this article, we give 10 points summarizing what the Bible teaches about baptism.


Baptism is an important topic in Scripture. Those who follow traditions created after the New Testament was written or follow religious institutions built by human beings will have diverse, confusing beliefs. Instead, let the Word of God guide you. What Scripture says about baptism can be clearly summarized in ten points.

Please note what is primary in what follows: God saves us by his mercy and compassion in Jesus. No human work or action, even baptism, is the ground or basis of our right standing with God. The only ground in salvation is the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

1. The purpose of baptism is to express saving faith in Jesus and his gospel.

We are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). Scripture teaches us that we express this saving faith in Jesus through baptism. In Colossians 2:12-13, Paul tells the Christians in Colossae that they were “buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God who raised him from the dead.…He forgave us all our sins.”

2. Baptism is to becoming a Christian what the wedding ceremony is to becoming married.

Is baptism the first step of obedience? Is it merely an outward sign of an inward reality? There are actually no Scriptures that teach these concepts. Instead, Scripture presents baptism as a covenant-making moment. As in a wedding ceremony we express commitments to God and each other, in baptism we commit ourselves to Jesus, calling on his name, and God commits to us that he will wash our sins away. As Paul was told in Acts 22:16, “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”


“Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”


The normative point of salvation for Christians in the early church was baptism. Even here it is not the ritual itself or the water that saves, but the commitment that one makes to Jesus as Lord. Salvation is a relationship. Baptism in Christianity, just as a wedding in marriage, is simply the way of entering into that relationship.[1]

3. Baptism expresses repentance from sinful lifestyles.

Faith is like a coin with two sides. One side is the commitment to trust and follow Jesus, and the other side is to turn away from sinful lifestyles. As Paul said in Scripture, “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:21).

Romans 6:4 makes this point clear when it describes baptism as the moment we were spiritually raised “from the dead through the glory of the Father,” so “we too may live a new life.”

4. Baptism was the normative time when sins were forgiven in the Bible.

The early Christians created a faith statement in 381 C.E./A.D. called the Nicene Creed which summarized their beliefs. In light of common traditions and teachings on baptism, it can be surprising to read, for it describes the early Christian consensus that baptism (as an expression of faith) was for the remission of sins. It states,

I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.[2]

These early Christians were simply restating Acts 2:38. In Acts 2, when people wondered how to respond to Jesus on the day of Pentecost, they asked the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do? Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, 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).


“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”


Please notice an important expression we use in this point: normative time. Scripture shows us that baptism is the normative time people expressed faith and received the forgiveness of sins. We use the word normative because God looks at the heart and can make exceptions (e.g., Acts 15:8-9).

5. Baptism in water is connected to baptism in the Spirit.

The indwelling Holy Spirit is the mark of God, sealing and confirming true believers (Romans 8:9). Ephesians 1:13 states it this way: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”

This is why Holy Spirit baptism—receiving the indwelling Holy Spirit—typically happened in water baptism (see 1 Corinthians 12:13). Notice how God inspired Paul to put water baptism and Spirit baptism together in 1 Corinthians 6:11: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”


“You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”


Again, we note that the normative way in Scripture was for water baptism to be the time of Spirit baptism (receiving the gift of the Spirit), but this was not the only or exclusive way. God looks at the heart, and this is why we see him giving the Spirit to Cornelius and his family before their water baptism (Acts 10:46-47).

Today many people place their faith in Jesus without submitting to baptism, and this is a result of poor teaching. I believe God, who looks at the heart, often gives these people the Spirit because he is kind and merciful. But it is God’s best for us to uphold his teaching on the normative role of water baptism. We should encourage a person to be baptized as soon as he or she understand what God says.

6. Baptism creates a new identity.

According to Scripture, baptism marks a great change in one’s identity. People are literally placed “into Christ.” In Galatians 3:26-29, the apostle Paul describes the change this way:

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

What this means is that baptism is a covenant-making-moment with God where we not only place our faith in Jesus, we also clothe ourselves with the identity of Jesus and commit to follow Jesus as his disciples. We put on our new identity which is in Christ. Baptism is the pledge to put on Christ and become more and more like him.

In baptism, we become disciples. A disciple follows Jesus, is changed by Jesus, and joins the mission of Jesus.

After baptism, Jesus Christ is how we are identified and the focus of how we will live.

7. Baptism is the starting line, not the finish line.

Since baptism inaugurates us into the life of being a disciple, it is important that we see baptism not as an end, but as a beginning.

Too many people see baptism as the finish line, where we “get saved.” Baptism is much more: it is an initiation into a new kingdom life with Jesus (as a disciple). The apostle Peter taught, “Baptism now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus” (1 Pet. 3:21, 22). The pledge of a good conscience is faith expressed in baptism to turn from sin, receive forgiveness, and live a new life. We pledge a good conscience toward God because, as we come up out of our baptism, we are now committed to living for him.

We enter into his kingdom, to live here and now as disciples. And we enter into his kingdom, to live then and there—in heaven—with God forever, enjoying his eternal promises.

8. Baptism is immersion in water.

Baptizo is the Greek word for baptism used in the New Testament and it means immersion. (That’s its actual translation, even though people transliterated it and made it into the English word “baptism.”) Whenever a person was baptized in the New Testament, it was a reenactment of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Romans 6:3-4 describes it well:

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

Even without knowledge of the Greek meaning of the word, the fact that it’s a reenactment of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection shows us that the practice of baptism is by immersion.

9. Baptism is for those with repentant faith and is thus not for infants.

The Scriptures we have looked at so far make it clear that baptism is for those who can personally repent of their sins, believe in Jesus as the remedy for their sins, and commit themselves to trust and follow Jesus. Here are four additional facts.

  • Only those who could repent and believe in Jesus were baptized in the Bible.
  • We see no examples of infants being baptized in Scripture. We do see household baptisms in the New Testament (Acts 10:24-27; 11:14; Acts 16:15), but the expression “households” does not necessarily include infants, especially in light of the prerequisites for baptism already mentioned. The household conversion of Cornelius, for example, is explicitly described as his “relatives and close friends” in Acts 10:24.
  • The first recorded baptism of a small child comes about 125 years after the New Testament was completed (90 C.E./A.D.). Writing in the early 200s, the church father Tertullian hears about the practice and writes against it. In history, it wasn’t until the time of the early 400s that infant baptism became a common practice. Its basis is human traditions, not the New Testament.

10. Baptism is on the bubble between essential and important teachings.

In Scripture, there are essential teachings, which are essential to your eternal destiny and standing with God. There are also important teachings, which are important for your ongoing faithfulness to God and for living as God intended.

We believe that baptism is in between essential and important teachings. It all depends on the person.

Let me explain.

Normatively, baptism was the time in Scripture where human faith met with God’s grace. It was a covenant-making moment. It was tied in with the “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21) and “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38; John 3:5). If we follow what Scripture teaches, baptism will be tied to our salvation. So, there is a sense in which it is essential in that baptism connects us with the essential elements of our faith. Again, baptism as the covenant-making moment is what we should teach as normative.


“Baptism as the covenant-making moment is what we should teach as normative.”


But in Scripture as well as in personal experience, we find that there are circumstances where God makes exceptions (e.g., Acts 11:15-18; 15:8-9). He gives the Holy Spirit to people who are not taught about baptism or they are taught incorrectly about baptism. Again, the indwelling Holy Spirit is the mark of salvation in Scripture (Romans 8:9). In history and personal experience, there are people who surrendered themselves to Jesus yet have not experienced a truly biblical baptism.

Yet they testify that the Holy Spirit is within them, because the Holy Spirit testifies to them as described in Romans 8:15-17: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). Their fervent affection for Jesus Christ and their walking God’s Spirit seems to confirm that they have the Spirit. In such cases, we acknowledge that God is sovereign, and he looks at the heart. Such people seem to have the Spirit and salvation.

But baptism is still a very important teaching in such cases.

Cornelius received the Holy Spirit before baptism, and yet the apostle Peter insisted that he be baptized in water like the others (Acts 10:46-48). In fact, Scripture tells us that “he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”

We should uphold this normative standard today.


“Even Jesus was baptized.”


Even Jesus was baptized. Scripture teaches that he did it when he had no sin, because, as he put it, “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

Perhaps, if every other reason fails, our motivation to get baptized is simply to follow the example of King Jesus. We are baptized to uphold God’s ways and be obedient in everything.

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Want more information? – This article is a short version of a longer book in an eBook format that you can download for free by clicking here.

Have practical questions? Perhaps about the practical issues of a baptism: what to wear, what will be said at the baptism, who will baptize you? If so, click on the shorter article called “How People Make the Commitment to Jesus in Baptism” from Renew.org.


[1] Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1996).

[2] Nicaeno-Constantinoplotan Creed of A. D. 381 in The Creeds of Christendom, 3 Volumes, edited by Philip Schaff (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1996).