The Baptism Question

One of the fundamental questions many today ask of baptism is this: Does it do anything? Or, is it effective for salvation?

Where are you on the baptism questions? What are your clear and fixed points? Are you at the Sacramental end or the Symbolic end of this discussion? Is it possible to construct a theology of baptism solely on the NT or does the Tradition somehow enter into the discussion to create questions that the NT does not quite answer?

There is a spectrum, beginning with the high sacramental view of the Roman Catholic Church found in the Catechism (you can scroll up and down to find the numbers):

1213 Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua),4 and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: “Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word.”5

Then the Catechism continues with the “necessity” question:


1257 The Lord himself affirms that Baptism is necessary for salvation.60 He also commands his disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations and to baptize them.61 Baptism is necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been proclaimed and who have had the possibility of asking for this sacrament.62 The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are “reborn of water and the Spirit.” God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.

1258 The Church has always held the firm conviction that those who suffer death for the sake of the faith without having received Baptism are baptized by their death for and with Christ. This Baptism of blood, like the desire for Baptism, brings about the fruits of Baptism without being a sacrament.

1259 For catechumens who die before their Baptism, their explicit desire to receive it, together with repentance for their sins, and charity, assures them the salvation that they were not able to receive through the sacrament.

1260 “Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery.”63 Every man who is ignorant of the Gospel of Christ and of his Church, but seeks the truth and does the will of God in accordance with his understanding of it, can be saved. It may be supposed that such persons would have desired Baptism explicitly if they had known its necessity.

1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,”64 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Symbolic view: Baptism is commanded (say, Matthew 28:16-20), but it is neither sacramental nor necessary. It does not save. Christ saves; Christ saves by faith. Baptism is a symbolic expression of faith, a symbolic participation in the death and resurrection of Christ.

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  • Josh Mueller

    I believe that both baptism and communion were given by God to us, for our sake, taking into account our need for physical evidence that we are accepted. The act itself does not change anything in God’s perception of the invidual. From God’s point of view, we’ve never been rejected – in baptism we either take a conscious step into the reality of eternal grace (coming to baptism as a personal choice of older children and adults) or we bring infants in the assurance that the kingdom of God is such as these.

    Once we realize that the only obstacle to coming to God is in us (a mindset that perceives itself as “out”) and not in God, the point of “real” or “symbolic” becomes moot.

  • hmmmmm can I fence sit on this one? 🙂

    I am in two minds. There is clearly something more than just symbolism here, there is a real and effective work of the Holy Spirit in the sacraments, but I do not believe that baptism is effective unto salvation. It is part of God’s sanctifying of us, but not the justification of our sin, that would be a theology of religious work.

    @Josh Mueller – I really think you are mistaken on the rejection by God. If we were never rejected then what is the point of Christ coming and dying?

    Surely he comes to free us from the wrath of God? The bible is clear that 1) sin separates us from God (Rom 3:23, Rom 6:23) and that 2) Jesus comes to pay for that sin on our behalf, that payment being counted to our righteousness by our faith, that is itself a gift. (Heb 2:9, 1 John 4:10, Rom 6:10)

  • Robin

    I think is simultaneously (1) Necessary – as an outward profession of faith that is required for the sake of obedience (2) Symbolic – since the act of the baptism changes nothing in the heart of the believer or in regards to their standing with God and (3) Sacramental – since declaring yourself to be dead to sin and raised with Christ provides for fresh remembrances of the grace of God just like the Lord’s supper.

    On the “necessary” point I view it much like evangelism…it doesn’t make you a Christian, but if you live a life fundamentally opposed to obeying Matthew 28:18-20 that might be evidence that you are not walking with the Lord.

  • Is there such a thing as an unbaptized Christian in the New Testament?

    If not, why would this be a difficult question?

  • garver

    Since I’m a Presbyterian, I’ll just repeat what Charles Hodge writes on the question of baptism in his commentary on Ephesians, which represents the center of the Reformed tradition on these matters, in conformity with how that comes to expression in our Confessions and Catechisms:

    “How then is it true that baptism washes away sin, unites us to Christ, and secures salvation? The answer again is, that this is true of baptism in the same sense that it is true of the word. God is pleased to connect the benefits of redemption with the believing reception of the truth. And he is pleased to connect these same benefits with the believing reception of baptism. That is, as the Spirit works with and by the truth, so he works with and by baptism, in communicating the blessings of the covenant of grace. Therefore, as we are said to be saved by the word, with equal propriety we are said to be saved by baptism…The benefits of redemption, the remission of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and the merits of the Redeemer, are not conveyed to the soul once for all. They are reconveyed and reappropriated on every new act of faith, and on every new believing reception of the sacraments.”

  • Jesus is the model of the Christian life. He was sinless and yet he was baptized. But when He was baptized, significant events happened: the Holy Spirit descended upon Him and remained; and the Father declared Him to the world, (visible and invisible worlds) and declared His favor over Him. While Jesus wasn’t “born again” at baptism, He was declared to be God’s Son and His public life/ministry began. It’s my belief that the same things happen at our baptism. And these things are very important to our spiritual formation, of course.

  • From a Disciples perspective, we are immersionists (Alexander Campbell took seriously the meaning of the word baptizo) and follow Acts 2:38 in affirming that baptism comes after profession of faith. Using the Common English Bible, in response to question what one needs to be saved: “Change your hearts and lives. Each of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. They you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Now, I’m not a biblical literalist, but you can’t get much clearer than that.

    Then in Romans 6 we find the symbolism of being united with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection.

    I find these passages perhaps not presecriptive, but words of guidance.

    I’m including a link to a sermon I preached on the place of sacraments in the Disciples tradition.

  • I just don’t see how we can read the most detailed discussion of baptism in the NT that’s in Romans 6 and say then that baptism is nothing more than symbol…that there is nothing about us that God is changing. According to Paul, baptism is the means by which we are crucified with Christ and raised with the resurrected Christ; all by the power of God (so baptism is not our work but God’s work in us) who raised Christ from death. Why must that be mere symbol? If God has been literally at work in other mysterious, miraculous, and unseen ways and events (most notably, the cross of Jesus) then why not in baptism?

    I also must point out that there is much language in contemporary evangelicalism about Christ coming “into our hearts” (a phrase found nowhere, to my knowledge, in scripture). The picture of baptism in Romans 6 is not of Christ coming into us but of us being baptized into Christ. Perhaps that difference is not that big of a deal… Or perhaps that difference in location – us raised into Christ rather than Christ in us – is very fundamental the issue of discipleship that Paul is addressing whereby the baptized believer is assumed to dead to sin and alive to Christ.

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  • Watchman

    Baptism is not a means to salvation but a result of salvation. Baptism is the publicly symbolic demonstration and proclamation of one’s new faith in Jesus Christ. And, I believe the New Testament, starting with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River gives us all that we need to know about baptism. I differ greatly with some Reformed traditions and the Roman Catholic church on the issue of paedo-baptism. Infants cannot be baptized unto salvation or into any specific church. It is only when someone realizes their new faith that they be baptized, and infants cannot do this.

  • While I don’t have time to reason out a full-fledged argument (nor would that even be appropriate), I think the New Testatament witness is clear that something profound happens in baptism, and it is more than mere symbolism. One who is baptized is clothed with Christ, it affords access into the holy community, it affords forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.38). Through baptism we follow Jesus through death and resurrection into new life and new creation (Romans 6), and baptism plays a role in salvation according to 1 Peter 3(v21).

  • Daniel

    K. Rec@ #8, the idea of “Christ coming into your heart” might be tied to Col 1:27 “Christ in you, the hope of glory” and/or Rev 3:20.

  • MatthewS

    It seems to me that the early church did not think about salvation unaccompanied by baptism. I think baptism was a routine and expected response and was linked closely to salvation in their minds. But this does not mean they saw baptism as either pre-requisite or co-requisite with salvation. This explains why some passages speak of salvation and baptism together while others speak of salvation apart from baptism.

    Also, it is possible for the metaphor of baptism to refer to something more than or other than only water baptism, giving the word itself a non-rigid meaning.

  • I believe we are saved by grace through faith. I think baptism is a matter of faith. In Hebrews 11 we see great people of faith. They all did some action that showed their faith. Their actions did not save them, God did, but without their action would God have saved / delivered them?

    Heb 11:30 It was by faith that the people of Israel marched around Jericho for seven days, and the walls came crashing down. Did the children of Israel marching around the walls cause them to fall down? Of course not God made the walls for down. But if they didn’t respond in faith and obey God and march around the walls would they have fallen down? I don’t think they would.

    I believe God through his grace saves us. But he asked us to be baptized. Us getting wet does not save us, God does. But will God save us if we don’t act on our faith and obey him. I don’t think so.

    I think Everett Ferguson’s “Baptism in the Early Church” is a great resource on this subject.

  • Taylor G

    Great topic. It’s interesting to me how the reformed crowd talks a lot about grace, yet they deny all the graces of the church. Rather, they place all the emphasis on our ability to believe and repent. It’s ironic to me that Catholics are the ones then, who end up blamed for having a works oriented theology.

  • Watchman

    Very well said, Taylor G.

  • @ Brent (#2)

    The point would be that atonement (just like in Genesis 3:21) would be for us, not for God. And the cross would be the ultimate demonstration how far His love and grace really goes. Even in Hebrews, you’ll find that atonement is for the clearing of OUR conscience.

  • Rick

    Taylor G-

    “It’s interesting to me how the reformed crowd talks a lot about grace, yet they deny all the graces of the church. Rather, they place all the emphasis on our ability to believe and repent.”

    Are belief and repentance works?

    Also, do not the “reformed crowd” believe belief and repentance are due to God’s action, not our’s?

  • Baptism is God’s work, not ours which is why the language of Romans 6 is in the passive voice. So, though I am not part of the Reformed tradition, neither they’re position nor the one I am taking is a works oriented salvation because baptism is the work of God.

    Also… Daniel @#8… fair enough but I’ve never heard those passages being employed to defend the language of the sinner’s prayer.

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  • DRT

    Rusty and Taylor in #13 & #14 say much of my thoughts.

    To add, people and God are not mechanisms. Spiritual experience and ritual can be an incredibly powerful force in some people’s lives. The placebo effect gives a good indication of how this can happen in a more objective situation. For other people it will not be effective in salvation.

    When you put a ring on your spouse’s finger during a marriage ceremony are you then magically wed?

    The rebel on the cross next to Jesus is a clear indication that we do not need baptism to be saved.

    I expect that for some people it is required, for others it is not.

  • garver

    On belief and repentance, from a Reformed perspective, these are as much gifts of grace as anything.

    The difference between the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments is a relative difference with respect to faith. On the Reformed understanding, the Spirit ordinarily grants the gift of saving faith with and by the ministry of the word, while the Spirit increases and strengthens saving faith both with and by the word and with and by the administration of the sacraments.

    But in both the word and the sacraments the other benefits of redemption – the remission of sin, the gift of the Spirit, sanctification, etc. – are offered and received by faith, even as the Spirit strengthens and increases that same faith.

  • garver

    On the necessity of baptism the Reformed tradition has held it be a necessity of precept rather than an absolute necessity. (The rebel on the cross example, by the way, seems odd since he died prior to Pentecost and thus prior to the establishment of baptism as marking out the church.)

    At any rate, Calvin writes in his “Antidote to the Council of Trent” (1547):

    “We, too, acknowledge that the use of Baptism is necessary–that no one may omit it from either neglect or contempt. In this way we by no means make it free (optional). And not only do we strictly bind the faithful to the observance of it, but we also maintain that it is the ordinary instrument of God in washing and renewing us; in short, in communicating to us salvation. The only exception we make is, that the hand of God must not be tied down to the instrument. He may of himself accomplish salvation. For when an opportunity for Baptism is wanting, the promise of God alone is amply sufficient.”

    Francis Turretin later writes in his Institutes (c. 1680):

    “Baptism is indeed necessary according to the divine institution as an external means of salvation (by which God is efficacious in its legitimate use), so that he who despises it is guilty of a heinous crime and incurs eternal punishment. But we believe it is not so absolutely necessary that he who is deprived of it by no fault of his own is to be forthwith excluded from the kingdom of heaven and that salvation cannot be obtained without it.”

  • Jistin

    I think before we ask whether baptism is necessary for salvation, we must attempt to define salvation.

    Is it being forgiven of sin? Is it going to heaven when we die? Or is it bigger than both of those things ie, becoming a new creation.

    Maybe this makes me a heretic, but I tend to understand salvation and justification separately. We are baptized to accept that we’ve been forgiven (justification) and as a political witness that we are surrendering our allegiance to a messiah that calls us to suffering and death in the name of loving all humankind, even our enemies.

    So to ask if a ritual is required to be made right with God I think is the wrong question. The question is if we really believe that God has reconciled himself with the world, and that we are called to be reconciled with others even if we lose our lives, why not make that statement in baptism?

  • @ Josh

    I agree there is a component that is for our cleansing hence the whole physical aspect of washing by baptism. John tells us that Jesus cleans us AND forgives us of all unrighteousness. I’d argue that the cleansing is very much what we need because of guilt and self-condemnation and the forgiveness is what re-grafts us back into God as God’s issues of our blood-guilt are erased by Jesus work on the cross. Jesus death was not JUST an example of or a demonstration of God’s love, it is the means by which God makes us right with himself – sin is much more serious an issue than us feeling bad about our sin and Jesus dying to make us feel better.

    My concern is that you seem to be saying that there is actually nothing wrong with us or our relationship with God. You seem to be saying that the issue is an incorrect view of self and that baptism is there to help us out of that.

    If that is what you are saying then biblically there are central aspects of Jesus death and resurrection that you are underplaying or ignoring.

    Baptism is there to show that we are clean – not just for our sake, but clean to God!

  • Taylor G

    @ Rick #17 – Smarter, more coherent people than I have tried and failed to explain how God’s grace works with our free will.

    I can say this however, I’ve been in sacramental churches and I’ve been in low church evangelical (symbolic) churches. Practically speaking the low churches tend to emphasize much more the human side of the mystery whereas the high churches tend to do the opposite.

  • @Brent
    I never said that sin is just a matter of “feeling bad” about what we’ve done. So, I agree. It’s much more serious than that. But God making us right with Himself is an act of change within US (OUR enmity) not something that had to be overcome in Himself.

    But lets get back to baptism. If God already reconciled the world with Himself (2 Corinthians 5) then baptism is nothing but an act of personal appropriation of what is already true, wouldn’t you agree?

  • The problem with questions like this one is that on both sides people will quote their favorite Scriptures at one another with no headway being made. Scripture talks about baptism, period. It is always in connection with salvation, whatever that means. The early church performed baptism and always with water (sometimes pouring, sometimes immersion). The argument that baptism can mean something other than water seems improper; since the tradition of the church includes water with baptism; since we have the word baptism because King James was not immersed and the translators did not want to offend him it seems clear that baptism means becoming covered in water.
    I personally have a sacramental view of both the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, but am aware that God is bigger than his own promises and that there is mystery in what happens in the sacraments. I think every Christian should submit to baptism, it is the example we are given in the New Testament and Church tradition (big C, little t).

  • dopderbeck

    Interesting — in my small group Bible study we just had this conversation while studying Acts 19. It seems clear to me in Acts 19:1-7 that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is directly connected to baptism into Christ. I don’t know what “camp” this puts me into, but on the basis of the Biblical witness and the Tradition, I’ve come to think that “low church evangelical” / Baptist / Anabaptist views of baptism are profoundly wrong.

  • Gloria


    Do you think baptism — in and of itself — does something? What do you think happens? In my view, the Sacramental view contends the act itself does something — dispensing grace.

    On Acts 19, one might say “correlation” is not “causation”. So is the connection one of causation or correlation?

  • EricW

    8. K. Rex Butts wrote:

    I also must point out that there is much language in contemporary evangelicalism about Christ coming “into our hearts” (a phrase found nowhere, to my knowledge, in scripture).

    Well, there is Ephesians 3:17 (though this may be more about already-believers than a person’s initial salvation).

  • Kenton

    We discussed baptism in our last emergent cohort, and I raised the question: is baptism the new circumcision? Circumcision was a barrier in Paul’s day to discipleship, so he abolished it and replaced it with baptism. In our day, baptism has become a barrier to discipleship. (My example was a man in my church from India whose baptism was received an act of defiance to his parents. He struggled over this for years.)

    So I’m struggling with what would Paul to us today, and leaning to the possibility that perhaps we shouldn’t make baptism a barrier just like the earliest Christians were not to make circumcision a barrier. So I guess I would be past the symbolic end of the spectrum.

  • Jeremy

    I tend to be less worried about whether it’s necessary and more concerned with whether the person in question is willing to do it. In my experience, refusal or avoidance tends to indicate something is going on that you may need to come alongside them about. Caveat: Refusing membership baptisms makes perfect sense to me. Once is enough, in my opinion.

    That said, I think something happens; symbolic AND sacrament. If I understand it correctly, baptism pre-Jesus was part of the induction into Israel. We are “grafted in”, which I think is symbolically represented by baptism. I also think the Holy Spirit does something during baptism that’s important. On the other hand, I don’t think you’re going to hell if you die in a car accident before you get the chance to get water up your nose.

  • dopderbeck

    Gloria (#28) — still working this through myself. I think in Acts 19 there is both correlation and causation — and I think this is exactly why this event is enscripturated. Acts is largely about the establishment of the Church and Acts 19 demonstrates that the indwelling and gifts of the Holy Spirit are connected to being baptized in the name of Christ into the Church. (Studying Acts has also been part of my rethinking of ecclesiology…) I think I’d say that Baptism, like the other sacraments, has an ontological as well as symbolic function. Personally, I’m big into the idea of sacramental, participatory ontology these days.

  • craig cottongim

    Short & simple: what else other than baptism joins us to Jesus’ saving action at the Cross? Baptism alone holds that position.

  • Has anyone read the new book “Transforming Conversion: Rethinking the Language and Contours of Christian Initiation” by Gordon T. Smith? He is a Canadian Evangelical presenting a more sacramental view of believer’s baptism as well as demonstrating what is wrong with the symbolic view, sinner’s prayer and so on. The book is very much worth the read, especially for those within the broad Evangelical landscape.

    Grace and Peace,

    K. Rex Butts

  • Josh Mueller

    #craig (#33)

    How about the inner work of enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and consequently the act of faith that takes hold of the gift of reconciliation? If saving action is about a relational change, ritual still is deeply meaningful and more than just an option, but to see it as prerequisite to be included in salvation goes way beyond the biblical mandate. And the criminal crucified next to Jesus will not be the only unbaptized person in the countless number of the redeemed before God’s throne.

  • EricW @ #29… I understand Eph 3.20 to be an expression of God the Father’s work in us through the Spirit. I do believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within the believer but that is different from incorporating a language of “asking Jesus to come into our hearts” when scripture (Rom 6) says it’s not Jesus Christ coming into our hearts but us being baptized “into Christ”.

  • Billy

    Daniel @ #11,

    In defense of K. Rex’s point, it should be noted that the “you” in the verse you cite (Col. 1:27) is plural. It is not Christ within the individual believer that is the hope of glory. Rather, it is Christ present within the community of faith that is the hope of glory, at least according to that particular verse. The individual is always incorporated into Christ. Christ is always within the community. This is an important distinction and a great corrective to our narcissistic tendencies.

    Also, Jesus’ invitation to the Laodicean church is a long reach for the notion of inviting Jesus into “my” heart, though the two are certainly associated, thanks to the (mis)appropriation of generations of preaching. Still very flimsy Scriptural support, and there’s not much, if any, support from tradition prior to the aforementioned preaching of the last two or three hundred years for that matter. Once again, it is hard not to see in this notion a narcissistic understanding of salvation and faith.

    Which brings us to the question of baptism. I would begin by asking where the focus is in the act of baptism? Is it the individual person being baptized, or is the Christ into whom he or she is being baptized? How we answer that is not unrelated to the narcissism mentioned above. If the focus is on me, then it makes sense to say nothing tangible happens, that this is only a symbol of a decision I have made personally, myself … me … I. If, however, the focus is on Christ, then it is easy to argue something happens. God is doing something, though we may not fully perceive it. From a Christocentric perspective, the act of baptism is a recognition God is up to something in this person’s life, that this person is precious to God (without regard to whether or not the person recognizes or accepts God’s action on his or her behalf … this is why folks who do and don’t practice infant baptism talk right past each other: the act means something completely different to the two different perspectives. For one it marks this person as “saved” because of a decision he or she made (yes, Taylor #14, looks a bit like a work to me); for the other it proclaims God has already accomplished this person’s salvation, and we are going to do everything we can to get that through to him or her, so he or she can accept this glorious gift of grace … i.e., this person is “being saved”).

    Does this imply God is not up to work in the life of the unbaptized? I guess this is that necessity question. Is God a contingent being? Must he wait until I or my child is baptized before he can work in our lives? Of course not. Must efficacious-ness be the sole justification for everything we do? Are we so enslaved to pragmatic concerns? Is there nothing to be said for simple obedience?

    Why do we baptize? Because Jesus said so.

    How does it work? Because Jesus said so.

    What happens when we baptize? Because Jesus said so.

    The rest is just commentary.

  • Billy

    EricW @ #29 – Good pickup on the Eph 3:20. Still, it must be noted the “you” there is again plural and the focus is on the community, not the individual.

  • @Josh Mueller #35

    What you are talking about is the continuing spiritual maturation that the Spirit indeed does, but this is only for believers. Becoming a believer, in Craig’s view, is connection to the Cross, the only thing that connects us to the Cross is baptism. Scripture is clear that baptism and the Cross go hand-in-hand.

  • EricW

    @36. & @38.:

    I referenced Ephesians 3:17, not Ephesians 3:20.

    And I would think one would expect the author to use the plural since the letter was written to a group of people. In fact, Ephesians is full of plural verbs and pronouns, but I don’t think that means that the recipients of the letter aren’t expected to individually do anything the author uses a plural for.

    E.g.: The author says, “…by grace you (plural) are/have been saved,” but I suspect he expected each member of the church to have had some kind of personal, individual salvation, and not just be “saved” by default because they were in the group. So even if the focus is on the community in 3:17, his desire that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith would, I think, be something he would want each individual to see as their desire for themselves, too, and not just that Christ would dwell in some kind of amorphous collective heart.

  • Josh Mueller

    @David (#39)
    No, what I’m talking about is the intitial “aha” moment that the Spirit facilitates. Baptism to me is an outward way of demonstrating the content of the truth we are able to capture by God’s grace and enlightenment.

  • James

    I come down with the view of Paul of Colossians, that baptism isn’t the *how* (how is by grace through faith), but the *when* (Col. 2:11-12).

    Baptism is first and foremost an act of faith and reception, and not a work of merit. That’s usually where people start talking past each other, though, unfortunately.

  • EricW

    It’s water.

    Just water.

  • EricW

    And a wedding ring is gold.

    Just gold.

    (Or silver, or platinum, or whatever it’s made of.)

  • Would it make sense that when people ask the question, “What should I do to be saved?” that we point them to where that same question is asked of the apostles in scripture and they give the answer inspired by God’s Spirit that they are to repent and be baptizeed? How on earth do we think we can come up with a better response than that when asked the same question with things like the sinners prayer?

    I agree Christ saves. I agree faith is HUGE. I also believe that God, Christ, and the apostles have made it very, very clear that baptism is to be a part of what we practice as we evangelize the world. It is not a work. It is a submissive act of trust and obedience. God does the work, not us and not the one being (passive) baptized.

  • DRT

    In Catholic grade school we were taught that we could (and should) baptize those that are not baptized in the case of an emergency (as opposed to a priest doing it). That way they would be cleansed of original sin and be able to enter heaven. This must have been in 3rd grade or so, and I have carried with myself to this day a detailed plan of finding someone dying, and I then would find a stream, cup my hand to get some water, kneel over the person, pour it on their head and say “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” and just at that moment they smile and peacefully die. The whole scene is vivid in my child’s mind (which is still in me), the unfortunate laying on green grass, trees and butterflies, a small babbling brook……

  • EricW

    How much of baptism is a cultural/religious 1st-century Jewish thing? What would our modern-day American equivalent be, were there to be such a thing?

  • Josh Mueller

    It’s exactly the thinking behind these “emergency procedures” that made me question the image of God that is behind it. I mean – seriously, God is accepting the baptized child that happened to have the priest/pastor/parent arrive in time to administer the sacrament but the less fortunate unbaptized child goes to hell? Give me a break!

  • Josh,

    I would hope we are talking about believers baptism here as seen in scripture and not infant baptism that is arbitrarily done to someone without them even knowing or caring. Where is that in the Bible?

  • I’ve never known an infant to be baptized “arbitrarily.”

  • Don

    Baptism is a means to acknowledge the mystery of salvation in a world that shuns mystery for ordinance and memory only.

  • davey

    I think we have been saved to be full human beings, which I think would mean particular rituals (including particular ‘sacraments’, so called) in themselves are nothing at all. So, I think Jesus didn’t particularly command people to be baptised (or practice the Lord’s supper), but freed us to make and remake whatever we decide is appropriate for us.

  • Linda

    If you truly believe that faith ALONE in Christ ALONE justifies a person before God FOREVER, then I do not see how water baptism can actually make, help or keep you justified before God.

  • Craig Cottongim

    #35 Josh: The thief was still under the Law, since the Resurrection of Jesus hadn’t happened yet, plus, he was “crucified with” Christ. Sounds like Rom 6. Acts 2:38 clears up your question about the Holy Spirit too, since the baptismal act is when we receive the Spirit.

  • @Josh Mueller #41

    Ok, but still, how do we receive that grace? According to a sacramental view of baptism it is given in baptism. According to a symbolic view we don’t. While I don’t find tradition revelatory, I still have a hard time arguing that, even though the church up until some time in the second/third century had been practicing almost solely believer baptism for salvation (i.e. receiving God’s grace) and that the main reason infant baptism began was due to the understanding of original sin that would later be marshaled by Augustine, they were practicing baptism for salvation (even the paedo-baptists were doing that).

    @EricW #43 and #44

    If it is just water, then why do it at all? If it is only symbolism and doesn’t actually do anything why do it all? My mother no longer wears her wedding ring because it is only symbolic so why not forsake baptism too? Then again, with what would we replace it? Or better yet, without it, how can we have any kind of assurance of salvation?

  • Tim

    I don’t have much of an interest in commenting on the baptism issue, but I do have to say I absolutely love the Catholic Church’s inclusivism on this issue.

    The modern Catholic Church absolutely refuses to force God into some tyranical/evil box, and then label that box “good” (because God by definition is good). This is one of my main hang-ups with the Fundamentalist communities. They depict God in certain aspects as love and goodness (and I would agree with such characterizations), and then in others try to justify why such a good God would commit heinous acts of genocide (and no, not all of the genocide victims mentioned in the OT were depicted as being irredeemably wicked), include mass slaughter of babies and children, sending people to hell with only a slim chance of converting, and what not.

    Like I said, I like that the Catholic Church doesn’t try to bend over backwards explaining why evil is good, but rather they refuse to ascribe evil to God in the first place. Good on them.

  • @Linda #53

    And what if you don’t?

  • Tim

    …should have been “sending people to hell who in life had only a slim chance of converting (due to being within another religious tradition, perhaps in a largely non-Christian country, for instance).”

  • @ Linda #53

    You’re making a big assumption about the meaning of faith…one that is certainly open to challenge by the biblical witness.

    Also, just for the record, the phrase “faith alone” is never found in scripture. I’m not pointing that out because I believe we are justified by faith +… or faith and… But I do believe it is possible to affirm the claim that we are saved by grace through faith while upholding baptism as part of the normative means by which God initiates us into that salvation. But my understanding of biblical faith includes obedience (i.e., “the obedience of faith”; Rom 1.5; 16.26) and I believe baptism is a command in which we, in obedience, submit ourselves to God and allow God to crucify us and raise us into Christ.

    How can we live if we have not died?

    Grace and Peace,


  • Josh Mueller

    @Matt (#49)
    I see no age limit in Scripture as far as belonging in the kingdom of God is concerned. Infant baptism is actually a beautiful illustration that we’re accepted without having to fulfill any conditions from our end first. Even faith is just a stepping into what is already true (God’s wide open arms). And while infants cannot intellectually grasp the finer points of the gospel, it really makes no difference – we’re saved through Christ nontheless. And I would argue that in relational terms bith an infant and a mentally challenged person can still receive and appreciate love which is at the core of the gospel.

    @Craig (#54)
    I don’t share your dispensational theology. Abraham was justified by faith without works, and so are we.

    @David (#55)
    How do you receive grace fom any person who is willing to forgive you? I suggest you say “Thank You” and accept it.

  • Josh Mueller

    And I do apologize for all the typos!

  • EricW

    Or better yet, without it, how can we have any kind of assurance of salvation?

    Romans 8:15-17 and Galatians 4:6-7 seem to do just fine.

  • Mark

    This thread must have been placed here to demonstrate yet again the abysmal level that conversation has reached in so-called Christian circles. Eph. 4:5 speaks of “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” So why are there so many irreconcilable views of baptism? Where is the Lord honored in this argument? Replies range from veiled pejoratives to outright condemnations of other views. Why is there more than one view? Does God speak in one way or in conflicting ways? Also why aren’t the believers in this conversation/argument trying to work toward peace and harmony (Matt. 5:9)? It wouldn’t be right to assume that all in the “conversation” are believers, but at least the believers could distinguish themselves by encouraging others to come to know the Savior in whose name we are to be baptized. The world watches an open conversation like this. They need to be told, through conversations like this, which touch at the core of Christian life, that knowing Jesus personally is greater than anything else in life.

  • DRT

    Thanks EricW@62

    I feel that people need to realize that the true nature and essence of God cannot be captured by our words. All attempts at codification are at best an approximation to reality. The whole point of Jesus is that the rules are not God.

  • garver

    From my perspective, baptism is important for salvation precisely because salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The question is where does God draw near to us by grace in Christ? Where does faith look to find Christ? Where has Christ promised to be found?

    It seems to me that the scriptures indicate that baptism – together with the proclaimed word, the fellowship of believers, and the Lord’s Supper – is one of the places where God is present by his grace, where Christ offers himself to us, and where he is found by faith.

  • FWIW: While it is true that God’s kingdom is of a spiritual nature and entrance into it can only be by spiritual rebirth, water baptism is not completely removed from the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3, for example. It is not entirely wrong to read John 3 in light of Christian baptism. John may be employing some type of anachronism in projecting Christian baptism upon his readers. Regardless, “if baptism is associated in the readers’ minds with entrance into the Christian faith, and therefore with new birth, then they are being told in the strongest terms that it is the new birth itself that is essential, not the rite” (Carson, John, p 196). Or as F. F. Bruce states, “it is a pity when reaction against the notion of baptismal regeneration by an opus operatum leads to the complete overlooking of the baptismal allusion in these words of Jesus” (Bruce, John, p 85). Therefore, water baptism may be the objective signification of a subjective response of faith in Jesus, but is not the means of salvation.

  • James

    It ceased to be “merely x” (water, culture, tradition, Jewish custom, etc) the second it was commanded by our Lord. His word can turn water to wine and death to life, and a ritual in the water to…

  • Fish

    If baptism is part of the means of salvation, why do some churches allow, encourage or even force people to be baptized multiple times? That implies the first one wasn’t good enough for God.

    God should have published a procedures document spelling it all out. Step 1, Step 2, etc.

  • Rick in TX

    Josh #49 – if your objection to the baptism of the infant children of believers is that you do not see an explicit example of such in scripture, then I would conclude that you worship among a community of believers in which holy communion is not offered to women, but only to males? For the comparison is identical. No where are we explicitly told that women were present at the last supper, nor are we told elsewhere “Hey fellas, be sure to include the ladies when you share this meal”. But we do include women in the meal, do we not?

  • EricW

    “Food fight!”

    Er,… I mean: “Water fight!”

    There’s nothing like discussing “baptism” to divide Christians and get them to arguing or debating. 🙂

    (Except maybe women in ministry and homosexuality and evolution/Genesis 1.)

    IMHO, I think one’s statements about baptism, including my own, should include an IMO or IMHO. Because from all the discussions I’ve seen over the years regarding this, as well as all the books I’ve read and all the churches I’ve been a member of (both sacramental and non-sacramental), ISTM that everyone can and does justify their own view or practice or non-view or non-practice vis-a-vis an opposing viewpoint or practice by appealing to Scripture, history, church tradition, a catechism, etc.

  • I don’t really want to get into a discussion that looks like it’s just about over anyway, but I thought it important to point out that there are faith traditions within Christianity that don’t practice baptism at all. My own (the Salvation Army) and Quakerism come to mind.

  • @Cameron #71

    You are right, there are some traditions do not practice baptism at all, but you have to ask why. Why doesn’t your church practice baptism at all?

    @Rick in TX #69 I’d say Acts 2.47 is pretty good indication (if you assume, as I do, that breaking bread together included the Lord’s Supper) that both genders had communion. Also, what do you do with a 2nd century follower of Christ recommending not baptizing infants?

    @Josh Mueller #60
    That does not explain how you receive something. When someone gives me a gift, they hand it to me, put it into my hands. How does God hand us grace?

    @EricW #62
    Those passages explain assurance to those already saved, also those already baptized. But if there is no baptism, can those same passages be applied. That being said, I believe in a God who is bigger than his promises. My point, however, is that without baptism there is nothing tangible tying you to salvation. Saying you believe could be likened to saying you’re married, but saying so does not make it so, only getting married (having someone marry you) makes you married. Is it not possible that baptism works similarly?

  • Josh Mueller

    @Rick (# 69)

    I did not write comment #49 nor do I agree with it (see my response to Matt Dabbs in # 60!

    @David (# 72)

    I have no idea what makes you think that such things like love, grace or forgiveness could be likened to material objects that are handed over. If you meant it metaphorically, I’ve already answered the question. We are enlightened by Word and Spirit and gladly accept it because enlightenment and inner conviction cause us to KNOW it’s true. If that’s not a sufficient answer, I’d ask you HOW exactly do you receive your wife’s love (if you’re married) or love from any other person? Why should it be different with God?

    I’ll reiterate one more time what I hinted at in #1:

    God was FOR us before He made the world. He was FOR us before Christ died on the cross. He was FOR us before a single drop of water touched our skin or any words of Baptism in the name of the Triune God were spoken. THIS is what matters, “Pro nobis”! Everything else is mere decoration.

  • @Josh Mueller #73


    My wife still tells me she loves and acts in ways that shows she loves, but the initial way was by marrying me. That was how we committed ourselves to each other and through marriage and consummation something mystical happened and we became one flesh. Is baptism any different? We receive God’s grace through a similar act that weds us to him.

    As for your second paragraph, I don’t disagree that God loved us before creation, before Incarnation, before crucifixion, before resurrection but he did all those things to show us his love and we have to accept his love. The way we accept his love is through baptism. Otherwise, what is the point of baptism? Or the Lord’s Supper for that matter? If they don’t actually do anything, why do them? I’m not saying we have to have full understanding of what they do, but an understanding that they do something more than simply get us wet and whet our appetites.

  • EricW

    @74. David Mosley:

    The Lord’s Supper is a zikkaron by which we remember and proclaim Jesus’ death to the Father, that He may remember us in that Day on the basis of the covenant effected by Jesus’ death for us who believe in Him.

    (But that’s not the topic of this thread.)

  • Josh Mueller


    All I’m trying to say is that the “ceremonial part”, if you will, is only a formalization of the actual inner reality of something that cannot be described in terms of “substance” and especially not in terms of a legal context. That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with vows,rings, flowers, prayers etc., to use the wedding analogy. But the actual commitment is not found in any of these elements. As a matter of fact, I can have all of them in place and still be utterly distant from the one I’m marrying – not even the sexual consummation will make any difference here.

    My emphasis is therefore: it’s the relationship that ultimately matters. And from God’s end everything is already in place to make this relationship work. It’s now simply a question of realizing it and making use of all the extra help He’s giving us along the way to understand its depth, remember its totality and unchanging character etc. These are all helps FOR US, not something God needs to see in place before it’s “a done deal” or “actually real and ours”.

  • EricW, I disagree, but we can have that discussion at another time.


    I’m not saying that a relationship is not needed. I’m also not saying that God is required to do anything but what he promises to do (and then only under the given conditions of the promise).

    Think of it this way, you say you can still remain distant from the one you are marrying, but this is also true of the sinner’s prayer and the altar call (as well as baptism), but that does not change the fact that under the correct conditions, prior to the marriage “ceremony” you are NOT married, period, no matter how you feel about the other person. After the marriage ceremony, however, you are married you have fundamentally changed due to the ceremony, it changed you. For me, and my understanding of Scriptures and the early church fathers, baptism is the same. Before baptism you are one thing, afterward through faith in Jesus, you are something else.

  • Josh Mueller

    That’s fine, David. And for me, all that matters is that I know that I am loved, period. Nothing we do can add or substract from this love that opens up the goodness of God’s kingdom to our minds and in the conscious living of reciprocated love.

    And from my understanding of Scripture, the actual “wedding” in a full sense doesn’t take place until Christ comes back for His bride.

  • Josh,

    You are loved. God loves us all, but you have to accept that love. You have to accept forgiveness and Scripture has given us a way to do this. Love and grace are not equal. If they were, then we would all be saved from birth because God loves us all.

    Also, I am talking about human marriage as being similar to baptism, not the marriage of Christ to his Church, but the individual wedding themselves to Christ, clothing themselves with him and his grace and forgiveness. The only way to do this with assurance is through baptism. God is bigger than baptism, true, but we are not.

  • Josh Mueller


    I already said earlier (#60):

    “How do you receive grace fom any person who is willing to forgive you? I suggest you say “Thank You” and accept it.”

    Why you need a ceremonial act for this acceptance to be valid or to be happening at all, completely escapes me.

    Even what you describe as being “personally wedded to Christ” needs nothing beside the acceptance in the act of faith (Ephesians 1:13f.). A faith which by the way is a gift as well. I agree that baptism was given purposely for our assurance but to say that without baptism we are NOT united with Christ would completely contradict the love and grace we are accepting. It would be a gift withheld until an individual proves some kind of worthiness by going through the act. If you’re loved you’re loved, period. If you’re accepted, you’re accepted, period. That doesn’t mean celebrating it, immersing ourselves into it with body, soul and spirit and publicly proclaiming it is unnecessary or a waste of time. It is commanded by the one who called us and loved us and that alone is reason enough to do it.

  • David, I’ve been thinking how I can best illustrate how God’s acceptance and the act of baptism belong together but are still not identical.

    Consider Luke 15:22-24. The Prodigal is already accepted. The Father has loved him all along, even when he left him and treated him as if he’s dead. The Father not only runs toward him but also embraces him in the unclean state of coming directly from the pigs. All of this is unthinkable in the common Jewish understanding of the time. The son has come home, it is all that matters. He’s being embraced as he is, the rehearsed speech is meaningless as far as the Father’s disposition towards his son is concerned.

    But the Father insists on a ring, clean clothes and a party. They are all part of the new life he wants the son to enjoy and a confirmation of the Father’s heart that is already expressed in the embrace.

    Nowhere is even a hint that the ring or the clothes need to be put on first before the acceptance is complete or that the Father is waiting for this to happen before he’s fully willing to accept his son as a true son again. He’s never stopped being His son actually. But now he’s able to enjoy it and to willfully embrace it instead of seeking fulfillment and validation elsewhere. The ring and the clean clothes are reminders of the Father for his son that all of this is true. It doesn’t become true in handing it over but it demonstrates and confirms it. That’s what I believe Paul means when he says that we’re baptized INTO the death of His Son. It’s a reality that is already there. The outward immersion is a confirmation of the inward reality that was previously understood and grasped only by faith. It’s a way of “tasting and seeing” that the Lord is good.

  • Josh,

    I don’t think I can accept the story of the prodigal son as an example of how we receive grace. The point of all three parables in that section of Luke are a defense for why Jesus would spending so much time with “sinners” and the “unclean.” Do not forget that in the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22, the one who is not wearing wedding clothes is not allowed into the feast. He accepted the initial invitation, but was not appropriately dressed. Perhaps, then again perhaps not, this is a subtle reference to baptism.

    In the Matthew passage, Jesus says that “The Kingdom of heaven may be compared to this.” This does not appear in Luke 15. In fact, as I said, it appears that Luke 15 is a defense of Jesus’ ministry while Matthew 22 is an explanation of who can come to the kingdom of heaven (those who accept the invitation and are wearing the right clothes).

  • Josh Mueller


    I was looking for an illustration how God accepts sinners. I wasn’t trying to claim that Luke 15 talks about baptism at all. As far as Matthew 22 is concerned, I have made an attempt to understand the “clothing” question here:

  • Grant Nockolds

    Hi all,

    I’ve been reading a lot of the comments here and particularly from Josh and Dave and I have to tell you two that your both missing the truth of the gospel of salvation.

    The baptism that Jesus and Paul and Peter say saves you is not water baptism, but the baptism by the Holy Spirit.

    Read and understand the simple truth of this verse:

    1Cr 12:13 “FOR BY ONE SPIRIT, we were all baptized into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free–and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.”

    The conditions for salvation are repentance and believing on Jesus Christ as Lord.

    Believing is a doing word and requires an action of one’s faith. Namely to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding but in all your ways acknowledge Jesus as Lord of your life and He shall direct your paths.


    You may not see it…but one cannot truly believe – by this standard of faith – without first repenting of their own life, will and choices that were contrary to the will, word and ways of God. This is the life we have lived in the flesh and this is what we must repent of… ourselves… OUR FLESH LIFE!!

    Surrendering one’s life to the Lord Jesus Christ first requires genuine, heartfelt repentance from a contrite and humble heart of one’s life and choices while lived in the “flesh”. These are one’s sins, the “sins of the flesh”. Through repentance you turn from self rule to the rule or dominion of Christ. This is the yeilding or submitting to the reign of Christ in your life that is required to genuinely and sincerely confess Jesus as Lord.

    With repentance from a genuinely contrite and humble heart the Lord is able to forgive you your sins through baptizing you by his Holy Spirit into Jesus’ death and burial. (Rom 6:3-7)

    This baptism by the Holy Spirit brings about the death of your flesh, through being baptized into Christ’s death. (Rom 6:3-7) This frees you, your soul, from the law of sin and death, which your soul was bound to through birth in the flesh, as described in Romans 7:1-6 and allows the your soul and the Lord’s soul to be wed and become one spirit as described by Paul as the mystery of the Church (Eph 5:31-32)

    This is the ressurection to new life that is only brought about by the indwelling of the Son through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This Holy Spirit baptism renews your mind through the presence of Jesus Christ, the Word of God who is the Law of God in your soul and is the infilling or fullness of the Spirit that is spoken of in scripture.

    This is how those baptized by Jesus Christ Spirit come under grace, for the laws of God are now placed in their heart and written on their minds through becoming one with Jesus Christ, the Word of God. (Jer 31:33, Heb 8:10 and Heb 10:16)

    For he who has the Son has life, he who does not have the Son does not have life. (1John 5:12)

    1Cr 12:13: “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free–and have all been made to drink into one Spirit”

    Grace and peace to you all. Amen.