“What is baptism?”

This is in response to an adult convert to Christianity who wrote to ask about the history and significance of the Christian sacrament of baptism.

Baptism is an outward act that symbolizes the inward phenomenon of coming to and accepting Jesus Christ as real, as God incarnate, as the sacrificial means by which those who believe in him can be forever reconciled to God.

Baptism comes up in the New Testament quite a bit, and always at a critical time in the lives of those participating in it.

People who are newly saved are usually deeply moved to in some profound manner physically express that glorious transformation in their lives, to do something that shows and captures what’s happened to them. Among its other significant meanings, baptism very often serves that wonderful purpose in the lives of those who are born again.

In essence, the symbolism of baptism is that, just as Christ died and was buried, so the baptized person is submerged (whether physically or symbolically) under water. Each is enveloped by the most earthly of elements; thus is the mortality of each emphasized.

And just as Christ rose again from beneath the earth, so the baptized person rises again from beneath the water.

Under the water is the believer’s old, dead, heavy, suffocating life. Out of the water, cleansed by the blood of Christ, is the believer’s new, fresh, purposeful life.

Like anything in the Bible that is plainly foundational to the Christian faith, over the course of 2,000 years baptism has been considered and practiced in light of a great variety of understandings and traditions. Today different schools of Christian belief hold varying ideas about who should and shouldn’t be baptized–and when, and how. Some hold that only adults should be baptized; others believe in infant baptism. Some think you should get baptized as soon as you are saved; others that the act, being but an outward sign of sanctification, can be postponed. Some believe that the recently saved should wait to get baptized until he or she has sufficiently “grown in Christ.” Many churches won’t allow a person to belong to that church unless they are first baptized in that church.

And then there’s the whole “dunk or sprinkle?” split on the physical act of baptism itself. Some Christian denominations practice whole-body immersion; some find a light sprinkling or touch of water to the head symbolically sufficient.

It’s a fair guess that all these sorts of distinctions mean a good deal more to man than they do to God. If you are wondering whether or not you personally should get baptized, I would recommend first finding the church that’s right for you (see myHow to Find the Right Church for You), and then following whatever they do in that regard.

No matter when or how you get baptized, know that you’re in the best possible company. For Jesus himself began his ministry on earth by receiving a baptism from (whom else?) John the Baptist.

Read it and weep (with joy):

I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Matthew 3:11

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Matthew 3:13-17

You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached — how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him. Acts 10:37-38

… and this water symbolizes baptism that 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 Christ, … 1 Peter 3:21

For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 1 Corinthians 12:13

And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name. Acts 22:16


(It’s funny: as I was writing the above, I thought of an email I got in yesterday, which in part read, “Are you really even a Christian? You don’t seem very Christian to me!!!” Maybe that person will read this post, and today I’ll get another email from him or her, saying, “Okay, so you might be KIND of a Christian!!!”)

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  • Jeff Brady

    Hi John,

    Good post, as usual. There’s also an additional historical perspective to baptism as well. It was used by the Jews (and other ancient religions) for ceremonial cleansing. If somebody had touched a dead body, eaten bad food, or violated many of the other Levitical and Deuteronomical restrictions then they had to be cermeonially cleansed before they could enter the Tabernacle or the Temple to worship God. Baptism is how they did this. Depending on the setting and availability or lack of water (it didn’t have nearly the theological debate we give it today) they would either be completely immersed or sprinkled. (In many cases they were also completely naked to show they had nothing to hide from God as they were getting cleansed)

    (In fact…though the interwebz has failed me and I couldn’t find it… one of the oldest archaeological images of Jesus’ baptism show him being sprinkled)

    So this is something that the dirty, lapsed followers of God would do. Imagine the Jews anger when John the Baptist is calling out all those “good” people to come to the river to be cleansed just like the dirty sinners. I can imagine the look on the pharisees’ faces! Especially when John even calls them a brood of vipers! And yet this unknown, untested rabbi walks down to the river, perhaps right past where the pharisees are standing with their arms crossed, in order to be baptized when John gives him honor and glory by attempting to refuse this guy from Nazareth. Their faces must have been priceless as they unwittingly witnessed a little bit of the Kingdom here on Earth.

    And that is what paved the way for Christian baptism leading to the understanding we have today.

    It’s not just death and resurrection. It is a sign of surrender. Despite the fact that I think I’m a good person, I’m still acknowledging the fact that I’m a dirty sinner and need to be ceremonially cleansed before my God in order show Him fear, reverence, and my attempt to pursue a Godly lifestyle. Baptism is a memorial, but it is so much more! I praise God for this beautiful sacrament showing that I have been (will be) resurrected from the death of this life into the next, and also that I am willing to sacrifice myself before my God.

    Great post.

  • Wow! What a great “comment”! Fantastic, Jeff. Thank you so much for taking this time.

  • Jeff Brady

    Thanks. 🙂 I’m a bit of a history buff/nerd, so I love this sort of thing. You’d actually be surprised how much my teens (I’m a youth pastor) love some of this stuff, too!

  • Thank you for this post, John. It is something I’ve been thinking about since I came back to God last year.

    I was baptized Catholic when I was a few months old, but now I have chosen to be part of the Episcopalian tradition. In my situation, I’m told that I would not be baptized again into the Episcopalian church, since I’ve already been baptized. In my mind, it wasn’t a choice, and it certainly wasn’t meaningful. I really would like to do something physical as you mentioned to symbolize my belief in Christianity.

    Oh well, maybe I just need to do more research.

  • I actually wouldn’t be surprised; I’m surprised that anyone EVER doubts how hungry young people are for real knowledge. Right?

  • I wonder if your e-mailer was someone who was Christian and accusing you of “not being Christian enough” or one of those people “on the outside” who think of us as Always Chaotic Evil and you don’t “seem like a Christian” to them because you’re open and nice?

    Either way, it’s nice to cause a little cognitive dissonance in people, isn’t it? I mean, I love it when I do that.

  • It was from the “You’re not the right KIND of Christian” school of psychopathy.

  • Jeff Brady

    True that. I’ve got Jr. Hi kids who can now pretty much articulate a pretty decent doctrine of the Trinity! 7th graders! Paul’s words to Timothy were so true in 1 Tim. 4:12. Our youth today are so eager and hungry for Truth! With students like mine I have full confidence in tomorrow’s leaders.

  • Marlin

    ‘…you don’t “seem like a Christian” to them because you’re open and nice?’

    I think the sort of outsider perspective you’re getting at sees Christianity something like this: Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination.

    I confidently leave it to your imagination to supply other good candidate answers, identifiable to an outsider by the principle “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Consider an outsider who has concluded that Christianity of this sort is a malevolent political and cultural force. Its most relevant aspect (relevant to the outsider, that is) is encouraging humans to believe they can’t be wrong because God agrees with them. Sins are ranked by odiousness, and it turns out, as luck would have it, that the very worst of them tend to be those that Christians are least likely to have committed or even been tempted to. The outsider, not a churchgoer himself, picks up the meaning of other concepts like grace and sin as refracted through the “greatest commandments” that govern so much of Christian, um, outreach.

    Now the outsider meets John, sees that he is open and nice, and perhaps learns that John’s view of the greatest commandment is different. Why should this create any cognitive dissonance? The outsider’s reaction could be that’s great, good for you John, good luck with that (sincerely). Maybe in time your point of view will prevail; I would welcome that. In the meantime, I’m still concerned about things like this: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/08/08/BAO71KKPEC.DTL. Unfortunately John’s religious understanding can’t be turned in to the State Department for a free visa.

  • Dave


    Some Christian traditions p

  • Dave

    Darn little cell phone screens! Anyway, some Christian traditions practice a reaffirmation of one’s baptism. It’s meant for just someone like yourself. You should ask your priest.



  • DR

    I think you’re 1/3 Christian, 1/3 Man and 1/3 Flying Horse.

  • SierraStorm

    Hope you can persuade them to let you have what your heart desires.

  • textjunkie

    Yeah, you can certainly do a reaffirmation–you don’t get dunked or sprinkled but the vows are pretty darned impressive.

  • textjunkie

    It’s an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace–but you unpacked that statement just really nicely, John. 🙂 I hope the letterwriter found this helpful!!

  • David J Martin

    Putting aside the whole issue gays – I am one of “them” – expelling a man (non-citizen) who is the loving caregiver for his husband suffering the ravages of AIDS (citizen) while legal from the point of view of Immigration Law, it is certainly not moral nor Christian. But we all mistakenly believe we live in a “Christian” country, for we do not. Christ commands us to love one another – “the least of His/our brethren. Far too many people are homeless, in poverty, hungry, without proper clothing or health care. Yet, we fight in an area of the world which does not want us…spending obscene amounts of money on death. No, we are a far cry from being “Christian.”

  • Jack

    \I really would like to do something physical as you mentioned to symbolize my belief in Christianity.\

    You do that when you go to Communion or recite the Creeds.

  • Jack

    The Jewish Rite of Mikveh (to distinguish it from Christian baptism) is observed by observant women after their periods or childbirth, and is still part of the rite of formally converting to Judaism, even if a Gentile infant is adopted by a Jewish couple and they intend to raise the child as a Jew.

    Oddly enough, in both cases, triple immersion (still observed by Orthodox and other Eastern Churches) how this is done.

  • cat rennolds

    Most religions practice ceremonial cleansing before coming into the presence of the Divine. In Christianity especially, but not exclusively, the implication is the waters of birth.

  • Graham Ward

    Gina – have you thought about Confirmation? This is the sacrament for Anglicans/Episcopalians who have been baptised but who have not made an adult affirmation of their faith. Administered by a bishop, sometimes in your own church, but more frequently at a larger church or Cathedral, you affirm the promises made on your behalf at your baptism, are marked with oil in the sign of the cross and receive communion – in many ways like baptism without the water. Many confirmation services take part on Easter Eve, and are a very special, and spectacular, part of the Easter celebration.