Basics about Water Baptism

What does baptize literally mean? Can infants be baptized, biblically speaking? What  about adults being baptized twice? Questions like these are answered point by point.

Let’s get started.

1.. Why do some churches call baptism an ‘ordinance’ and others call it a ‘sacrament’?

An ordinance can be defined as a “prescribed practice or ceremony” (Williams, vol. 3, p. 221) There are two visible or public ordinances in all churches: baptism and the Lord’s Supper (other denominations add others, like marriage and last rites). Ordinance is related to the word ‘ordain,’ and Jesus clearly ordained those two ordinances.

A sacrament means that the physical object (i.e. water or the bread and wine) are made sacred by faith and prayer and consecration.

The Roman Catholics and a few Protestant denominations (e.g. Lutherans) call them sacraments, while standard Baptist, Calvary Chapel, Pentecostal and independent charismatic churches call them ordinances. It is just water, but during the act of baptism the Spirit can move in the heart of the person being baptized (but not in the water), so it is not an empty ceremony when it is received in faith and by the power of the Spirit.

But I have heard some of these latter groups also call them sacraments. So the distinctives are not “watertight.”

2.. What are the basic words for ‘baptism’ and ‘to baptize,’ and what do they mean?

Before we begin, in first-century Israel, mikvahs dotted the nation. A mikvah was a pool where people entered to be washed. Archaeologists found a mikvah outside Jerusalem, which existed at the time of Jesus. People waded in, so immersion is the right idea, as we find in these Greek words.

The New Testament was written in Greek. Bauer, Danker, Arnt, and Gingerich (BDAG) were influenced by Lutheranism in their Greek lexicon (or so it seems to me), but we can still learn some basic meanings. We also appeal to Liddell and Scott, two classicists (those who study ancient Greek broader than the New Testament), who cut away the excesses.

Let’s get right the Greek words.

A.. BDAG says that the verb baptizō (pronounced bahp-tee-zoh) “is a ceremonious washing for the purpose of purification; wash, purify”; “it is to use water in a rite for purpose of renewing or establishing a relationship with God, plunge, dip, wash, baptize”; still another aspect of the verb is “to cause someone to have an extraordinary experience akin to initiatory water-rite, to plunge, baptize,” and an example is the Holy Spirit or fire (BDAG). See Mark 7:4; Luke 11:38; John 1:25; 3:23a; 10:40; Mark 1:4; 6:14, 24.

Classicists Liddell and Scott say it means “to dip in or under water.”

B.. The noun baptisma (pronounced bahp-tees-mah) is found only in Christian writers. It means the “ceremonious use of water for purpose of renewing and establishing a relationship with God, plunging, dipping, washing, water-rite, baptism”; and “an extraordinary experience akin to an initiatory purification, a plunge, a baptism (BDAG).

C.. Baptismos (pronounced bahp-tees-moss) is used by a physician as meaning “act of immersion or dipping … It is a water-rite for purposes of purification, washing, cleansing of dishes (Mark 7:4)” (BDAG). Liddell and Scott say it means “dipping in water, ablution.”

D.. The adjective baptos (pronounced bahp-toss), not used in the New Testament, means “dipped, dyed” (Liddell and Scott).

E.. All of those above words are related to the more basic verb baptō (pronounced bahp-toh), which means “to dip” (see John 13:26; Rev. 19:13) (BDAG). Liddell and Scott say, “to dip in water, to dip in dye, to draw water by dipping a vessel” in water.

The main point is that the bapt– stem means “to dip” or “to plunge.” If a church uses sprinkling or pouring as the rite of baptism for the renewal of one’s relationship with God, then this church is using another meaning. The ideal is full immersion.

3.. Can symbolic uses of baptism illustrate immersion?


First, Rom. 6:4 and Col. 2:12 says we are buried with Christ (going down in water), and then we come out of the water (resurrection). Therefore, full water and immersion best expresses the symbol of faith and resurrection.

Next, Titus 3:5 and John 3:3-5 talk about regeneration and rebirth, and this is total immersion in the Spirit.

In 1 Cor. 10:1-2 Paul writes that our fathers in the Old Testament were all under a cloud, and all passed through the sea, and so all were baptized into Moses. This is a parallel with baptism into Christ.

In Heb. 10:22, our evil conscience is sprinkled, while our body is washed. This speaks of immersion or at least a thorough washing, which is best done with a lot of water.

In 1 Pet. 3:20-21, Peter likens Noah’s ark going through the flood to baptism: “And this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v. 23, NIV). The ark was immersed. And incidentally it was not the water that saves but our being in the ark—Jesus Christ—that saves. It is also his resurrection that saves, not H2O, even water that has been ritually blessed..

Finally, in Luke 12:50, Jesus said that he had a baptism with which to be baptized. He spoke of his death, which is total immersion—one cannot partly die!

4.. Can water baptism take place before the gift of the Spirit?


In Acts 2:38 Peter preached to the crowd in Jerusalem that they needed to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and they shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This reception means either logically or chronologically after baptism. The two are closely connected, but it is possible to be baptized first and then receive the empowerment of the Spirit.

In Acts 8:12, the Samaritans, both men and women, received water baptism, and then later Peter and John came down and prayed that the Samaritans would receive the Spirit, and this happened (8:15-16). So the reception of the Spirit is not tied to water baptism.

This point shows, in other words, that the water is not a sacrament or holy in itself, and it is not the vehicle or channel to receive the Holy Spirit, who is actually received by faith in God through Christ.

5.. Can water baptism take place after the gift of the Spirit?


In Acts 10:47-48 Peter was preaching to Cornelius and his household, and the Holy Spirit fell on them, with the gift of prophecy and prayer languages, and then they were baptized in water.

Saul / Paul received the Holy Spirit, and the evidence was scales falling from his eyes, and then he arose and was water baptized (Acts 9:17).

Now when did the 120 in the Upper Room get water baptized? Some were baptized with John’s baptism, but when were they baptized in the name of Jesus? Would Peter have said that the Jerusalem listeners should be water baptized if he had not himself been baptized? John 4:1-3 says that Jesus was baptizing and gaining more disciples than John was, though Jesus himself did not baptize, but his disciples did. Could it be that the disciples baptized each other in the name of Jesus? Probably. Surely Jesus was standing right there, while they were baptizing. Or maybe John had baptized them.

In short, we don’t know when they were, but the logic of the earliest Jesus movement says they too were water baptized.

6.. Is water baptism a precondition or a channel for the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Some church denominations teach this, but the two previous points say no. That is one big difference between an ordinance and a sacrament. Recall that water baptism came before or after receiving the gift of the Spirit. There was no room for ritual in receiving the Spirit. Nothing, not even a ritual, was going to stop the Spirit’s movement back in the first-century church, and no ritual or an absence of one is going to stop it now; water is not necessary for the Spirit to act.

Therefore, there is no necessary or essential connection between water baptism and the Spirit’s baptism. If someone receives the Spirit during water baptism, then that is his faith reaching out to God, and God honoring his faith. Receiving the fullness of Spirit can happen then, but it is not necessary. It can happen afterwards or beforehand. People should be born again before water baptism, however. So there is a distinction between the Spirit causing new birth and full baptism in the Spirit. Sometimes they can happen at the same time, but in most other cases Spirit immersion (baptism) happens after new birth

7.. Is water baptism connected to the forgiveness of sins?


In Peter’s language at Pentecost, the 3000 converts repented and were baptized for the forgiveness of sins. So what is the connection? In Greek for is the preposition eis (pronounced “ace”), and it means a “direction towards” and “entering the object”—it means “unto” or “into.” Picture a circle and eis, like an arrow, heading towards and entering it. Other verses say faith triggers the forgiveness leading to salvation (“your faith has saved you”), so the power is not in the water, but it can serve as a channel for grace. (This is different from its being a channel of the Spirit.)

Renewal theologian J. Rodman Williams writes in regards to the 3000 who were saved at Pentecost: “Baptism for each one of them was a visible, tangible expression of faith and repentance, an outward cleansing through which forgiveness was mediated. Thus water baptism was the means of receiving the grace of forgiveness and new life” (vol. 2, p. 284).

However, as noted in points nos. 1 and 2, the water itself contains no power, as if H2O, even if blessed, saved people. Peter proclaims that God exalted Jesus to his right hand, as Leader and Savior, to give repentance and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31), which shows that salvation is offered apart from water baptism, though it can be assumed that eventually he did talk about water baptism later. But there is no essential and necessary connection between the water and repentance and forgiveness.

8.. Is water baptism a sign, and if so, of what?

It is a sign of the inner work of the Spirit, repentance, and forgiveness of sins.

This point is the conclusion drawn from the previous ones.

Paul discusses circumcision as a sign and seal of the old Sinai Covenant (Rom. 4:11). In a parallel way, baptism is a sign and seal of the New Covenant. Circumcision used to be a bodily sign and seal, and so is going down into the water.

Baptism is a public demonstration of your becoming a new creation. In this public display, you are “all in.” You tell people that God has transformed you and washed you, just like water cleanses the body from dirt. Jesus said that if you confess him before men, he will confess you before the angels of God (Luke 12:8).

It is a sign of your being buried (going down in the water) and resurrected with Jesus (coming up from the water). Now you are raised to new life (Rom. 6:3-4)

It is a divine sign and seal that you are totally forgiven of all your sins, which are now in the past. When you get up out of the water, your sins must be forgotten, because they are forgiven. For God to forgive a sin means that it is expunged from your legal record in heaven (so to speak). Completely erased.

9.. Is water baptism a seal, and if so, of what?

It is the seal of regeneration, faith and forgiveness.

As noted, Paul discusses circumcision as a sign and seal of the old Sinai Covenant (Rom. 4:11). In a parallel way, baptism is a sign and seal of the New Covenant. Circumcision is a bodily sign and seal, and so is going down into the water.

The Spirit’s work of giving you faith and forgiveness is invisible to your eyes and the eyes of others who watch you going into the water. You need an outward display of this “done deal” inner work. The act of baptism is a reminder to yourself and to the Christian community that God’s work is sealed and secure in you. Titus 3:5 says God saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit. Regeneration is the new birth, and Jesus said this was done by the Spirit (John 3:3-5). The Spirit first, the water second.

This point and the related, previous point says that water baptism is a sign and seal of those blessings, so let’s not get too technical about the terms.

10. What did Jesus mean when he said that we must be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5)?

Various explanations have been put forward, but the simplest and best one references Titus 3:5. which says: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” This verse clearly connects washing with water and the Spirit at new birth or regeneration.


The Spirit + Inner washing = Rebirth (or born again)

the Gospel of John was written long after Paul’s letter to Titus, but clearly the connection between being born again with inner washing and with the Spirit had been circulating throughout the Christian community for decades, originating with Jesus’s words as recorded by John.

11.. Water baptism unites us with Christ and his body.

Gal. 3:27 says that we have been baptized into Christ and have put on him. Then in v. 28 Paul adds that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Baptism is the great equalizer. Everyone goes down in the water.

12.. Should we be baptized in Jesus’s name or in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

Yes! In other words, both are legitimate. “The name of Jesus” is used in Acts, and Jesus said to use the Trinitarian formula (Matt. 28:18-20). When Luke wrote his history, he recorded Peter and Paul (and others) ministering to Jews and Gentiles. Gentiles already heard, directly or indirectly, from synagogues that God is the way, and of course Jews believed this. So Luke is very keen to advance a more specific and newer way of salvation—Jesus Christ. Just repeating the generic name God or Elohim was too broad for that culture and Luke’s purpose. Jesus is now the way to God, and people must be baptized in his name.

Jesus is the relevant revelation of God for people today. But I suggest that people be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. However, I heard one Pentecostal pastor, who became a leader in the Charismatic Renewal in the 1970’s, proclaim to his large church, “I baptize people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and in Jesus’s name!”

I still suggest the Trinitarian formula.

13.. Who are the candidates for water baptism?

Anyone who professes with his mouth and believes in his heart the Lordship and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 10:9).

Acts 2:41: those who heard and believed Peter’s word were baptized.

Acts 8:12: The Samaritans believed Philip’s gospel and were baptized.

Acts 8:35, 38: The Ethiopian eunuch heard Philip proclaim the good news and was baptized.

Acts 10:48: Peter commanded that the Gentiles who received the Spirit to be baptized.

Acts 16:14-15: The Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s words, and she and her household were baptized.

Acts 16:31-33: Paul and Silas proclaimed a very brief word to the Philippian jailer, and he believed, so he and his household were baptized.

Acts 18:8: Crispus believed in the Lord, and he was baptized.

Acts 19:4-5: Paul told the Ephesians that John’s baptism was for forgiveness, and now they were to be baptized in Jesus’ name. They responded.

The Roman Christians were ready for baptism or had already received it (Rom. 6:4).

The Galatians were baptized (Gal. 3:27).

The Colossians were ready for baptism or had already received it (Col. 2:12).

The communities Peter wrote to were baptized or were about to be (1 Pet. 3:21)

Some of the Corinthians were baptized (1 Cor. 1:14-17), and no doubt they all were, eventually.

Anyone responding to the message of the gospel with repentance and saving faith are ready for water baptism.

14.. Who can administer water baptism?

Any believer in Jesus can do this.

In Acts 2, 3000 were baptized, and it is likely that the apostles had nonapostolic help.

A Messianic Jew named Ananias baptized Saul / Paul (Acts 9:18).

In Acts 10:48, Peter commanded Cornelius’s household to be baptized, indicating that those with Peter—his entourage—did the baptizing (v. 45).

Paul said God did not send him to baptize, but to preach the gospel. Other baptized them (1 Cor. 1:14-17).

I strongly urge that the candidates be adequately instructed, and their baptisms happen in the Christian community, though of course Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch without a community or detailed instruction. But that seem like an exceptional case. Yet let’s not delay if someone is ready. Get in the water!

15.. Where is baptism done?

It should be done in a body of water, where immersion can happen (see point no. 2), like a swimming pool at a house or a baptistry at church or a lake or ocean or gently flowing river.

Please be sure it is done in public, for it is a demonstration to the Christian community and the world that God has already regenerated and washed and forgiven the candidates. Let witnesses affirm the baptism.

16.. What about pouring or sprinkling?

The New Testament indicates baptism was always immersion, because they would have understood the stem bapt– that way (see point no. 2).

Now let’s answer some alternatives.

Ezek. 36:25 says that God will sprinkle water upon Israel, and they shall be clean. However, those words do not connect to baptism in the New Testament, which, as just noted, was done by immersion.

Heb. 10:22 says we have our consciences sprinkled clean from an evil conscience. However, it goes on to say that their bodies were washed. It is easy to imagine these earliest Messianic Jews going into a deep pool to be baptized, not sprinkled.

The Didache (pronounced dee-dah-khay) was an early Christian writing, as far back as the late first century. It says immersion is the best, but if enough water is lacking, then pouring is permitted. And if only a little water is available, then sprinkling is allowed.

But the issue of water is not crucial because people can be saved without it. And pouring can parallel the outpouring of the Spirit. Yet, it is always better to follow the teachings and examples of the New Testament, which always assumes or clearly teaches immersion.

17.. Can baptism be done twice?

Maybe. In Acts 19:1-7 Paul discovered about twelve men who had been baptized only by John’s baptism. They were not filled with the Spirit, either. When Paul found this out, he prayed for them to be filled with the Spirit and had them rebaptized in the name of Jesus. This is the only recorded instance of a rebaptism in water. So baptism a second time is valid.

But when can this be done today?

If someone was baptized as an infant and as an adult has come to be born again and a believer in Jesus, then it is recommended that he be baptized again. Water baptism is for believers, and a baby or young child has no mental or soul-capacity to understand fully salvation and certainly not baptism. Adult baptism after infant baptism can be called baptismal renewal.

Now what about someone who was baptized as an adult and requests to be baptized again?

Normally, baptism corresponds to Christ’s once-and-for-all act of sacrifice and redemption on the cross, and our initial belief in his saving grace (Heb. 9:26; 10:10). Therefore, to get rebaptized is jarring and out of step with Christ’s final and once-and- forever death on the cross and his one act of redemption.

However, if someone had been baptized years ago, drifted from the Lord, and came back, then his rebaptism depends on the context or his journey. For example, if a church teaches that a person can “lose” his salvation, then rebaptism is up to the candidate and the pastor. On the other hand, if a church teaches that “drifting” is not the same as “losing,” then the candidate can simply rededicate his life at the altar in front of the church. He can even give his “lost and found” testimony, to help people. This is also a public display of his repentance and Christ’s forgiveness, proclaiming that he is all in or “all back in.” Baptism in water is not really necessary.

But each case is up to the local pastor, who comes to know the candidate’s personal story.

This is why it is so very important to belong to a Christian community before being water baptized.

18.. Should infants be baptized?

Many denominations practice this, even Protestant ones, like Anglicans, Lutherans, and some Reformed.

However, the biblical and short answer is no. But let’s look at the main ideas and some verses that seem to support this practice and then reply to them.

A.. Households were baptized: Cornelius’s household (Acts 10:48); Lydia’s household (Acts 16:15); the Philippian jailer’s household (Acts 16:33); and so on. This implies that children were baptized. Therefore infant baptism is valid by insinuation.

In reply, those texts do not say infants, though older children may have believed. Households could include servants as well. But Acts and the epistles are clear that repentance and believing is the qualification for baptism, and if ‘youngish’ children meet those two conditions, then baptism is right. Infants, however, could never meet them. (As for ‘youngish’ children, see point D. below).

B.. Circumcision and baptism are equated (Col. 2:11-12), and infants were circumcised. Therefore, if infants were circumcised, then they can be baptized.

In reply, the similarities between baptism and circumcision are not airtight. Baptism is only for those who believe in Jesus Christ, while circumcision was a sign of the Old Covenant and did not have the requirement of saving faith in Christ. In fact, Abram, an adult, believed in God before he was circumcised, and an infant cannot have this sort of saving faith in God (Rom. 4:11; cf. Gen. 17:10-12). So the differences are more numerous than the similarities.

C.. Jesus blessed the children and took them into his arms, implying that they were small (Mark 10:14-15).

In reply, it is hard to see how this relates to baptism. Instead, this supports the better practice of dedicating infants before the church.

D.. Prevenient grace blesses the infant before they can have faith. So baptism prepares their hearts for conversion. There is no harm in infant baptism and can even bring blessing to the candidate.

In reply, yes, it may bless the parents, to give them reassurance of something. However, grace calls for a personal response of repentance and faith. Infants cannot do this, though certainly older children can, even as young as three years old. But in their cases water baptism should wait until they understand its significance. But the exact age of their getting baptized is up to the parents and their pastor (see point E, as well).

E.. The seed of faith and vicarious faith is planted in the infant’s heart. That is, his parents’ faith can vicariously represent the child’s absence of faith, and a small seed can be planted by water baptism.

In reply, this does not adequately understand repentance and faith, which must be done in the individual, not for the infant by the parents or godparents or congregation. Infants don’t have the capacity to repent and believe (see point D., as well).

F.. Original sin contaminates everyone born in the world, and baptism removes its guilt. If they die as infants, then Christ can save them in the future.

In reply, it is true that infants are born with original sin (as one doctrine holds), but baptism does not save infants. Baptism is for those who repent and have faith in Jesus and his finished work on the cross.

As for their (sad) young deaths and where they go in the afterlife, Matt. 19:13-15 // Mark 10:13-16 // Luke 18:15-17 (see also Matt. 18:1-5 // Mark 9:33-37 // Luke 9:46-48) say that Jesus took children in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them, proclaiming that the kingdom of God belongs to them. Yes, he was speaking about our becoming children in simplicity, but one gets the impression that it goes deeper than a call to adults to have a childlike heart. In those passages, nothing is said of original sin closing heaven’s door or predestination or adult-level saving faith or water baptism; therefore, it is reasonable to infer that they will belong to the eternal kingdom after they die as young children or infants (before the age of accountability). Christ can save infants or young children after they die young, whether they are baptized or not. Your child is in heaven right now.

See my post What Happens to Children after They Die?

G.. Peter says the promise of the Spirit and repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins will be applied to their future children (Acts 2:38-39). Therefore, baptism can be included for those future children.

In reply, the gift of the Spirit and baptism are for their sons and daughters (Acts 2:17), not infants who can’t repent and believe in Jesus. It is simply a generic promise that those things will always be offered from then to now. They don’t end with the first generation of believers.

H.. The early church practiced infant baptism.

In reply, this was not done at all in the first and second centuries. Tertullian (c. 160/70 to 215/20) wrote against it in 200 A.D. After him the practice took off, however, particularly in Augustine’s time (354-430), until it was officially recognized by churches.

To sum up, the practice of infant baptism is not exactly heretical, because baptism itself points towards salvation. It is harmless to the child. However, it is best for each believer in Jesus, if he was baptized as an infant, to be rebaptized as an adult. The Bible supports baptism for those who repent and believe, not for those who cannot do this, due of infancy.

19.. But weren’t the New Testament church made up of adults only?

No. Babies were born in the New Testament community regularly. The epistles were about issues in those churches, and never once did infant baptism come up. Just the opposite. Whenever baptism is specifically mentioned, adults (or households) were baptized, without ambiguity over infants.

20.. Can adults with mental incapacity be baptized?

Yes, because adults (or older children) who have mental deficiencies may be able to repent and believe in their hearts. But the parents (or caretakers) and pastors can work that out, case by case.

So how does this post help my walk with the Lord?

Water baptism is a public declaration of your repentance and God’s forgiveness of your sins. Therefore it is best to belong to a local Christian community before you are baptized. No, you don’t have to belong to one, or else your baptism would be invalid, for the Ethiopian eunuch did not (yet) belong to a local Christian community (Acts 8:26-40). But this was an unusual circumstance. Most people don’t get whisked away after ministering, as happened to Philip the evangelist. In any case, please be cautious about baptizing yourself or your friends or family apart from a local church. Again, your baptism is a public declaration of the inner work of God.

Finally, water is not a necessary channel of the Spirit, as if the Spirit cannot be given without water, but the Spirit can work at your baptism, as seen in the Trinitarian formula in Matt. 28:18-20. He is there. Never discount Jesus sending his Spirit to baptize your spirit and soul as you go down into the water and come out of it. Your body can be immersed, and so can your inner being.


Works Cited

At that link, look for Williams, vol. 2, 238-39, 279-87, 291-93; and vol. 3, pp. 221-37.

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