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The Scriptural Teaching of Baptism

What Is Baptism?

Jesus commanded baptism in Matthew 28:19 when He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Here we have not only the command to baptize, but the actual words we are to say when we baptize: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” When Jesus adds, “...and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” it is clear that He wishes us to continue baptizing until the end of time (v.20).

Baptism is a washing with water. But, the Bible does not specify how the water is to be applied. The word “baptize” is used in the Bible in the sense of “washing,” as in Mark 7:4 where we are told that the Pharisees baptized “cups and pitchers and copper pots.” It was the tradition of the Pharisees to wash their hands before dinner. So, in Luke 11:38, a Pharisee, who had invited Jesus over for a meal, was surprised that Jesus did not “baptize” Himself before beginning to eat. A valid baptism applies water by washing, pouring or immersing.

Baptism is, therefore, an institution of God whereby water is applied in the name of the Triune God. That is a simple definition.

What does Baptism Accomplish?

God gives rich blessings to the individual. In baptism God is at work with His blessings! And the amazing and wonderful blessing God gives through baptism is the forgiveness of sins! The water we use is simple tap water. But, with God’s command and His promise, something more wonderful happens!

If Naaman had gone to the Jordan River on his own accord, and without the command and promise of God through the prophet, he would have washed some dirt from his skin and no more. But with God’s command and promise something more wonderful happened to Naaman.


Of course, the source of our forgiveness is the cross, where Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. The Bible says, “He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world” (I John 2:2). In II Corinthians 5:19 Paul said, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The absolute and only source of our forgiveness, or the basis of our forgiveness, is the cross of Jesus. We are saved by Christ alone.


But while - by His suffering, death and resurrection - Jesus has won forgiveness for the world; it is also true that this message of forgiveness is, by nature, a mystery to mankind. It is only when a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ as his Savior that he actually receives and has the forgiveness of sins which Jesus earned for him on the cross. Just as a person cannot benefit from a feast unless he sits down and eats, so a person cannot benefit from the forgiveness that Jesus won for all people on the cross unless he trusts in Jesus Christ as his own Savior. The Bible says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved...” (Acts 16:31). We are saved by this faith alone, and not by any works of our own. This faith trusts in Jesus alone as the One who died to take away our sins and rose bodily from the grave.


A few years ago, during a devastating famine in Africa, shipments of food were being delivered to the docks of an African port. But the people were still starving; they were not eating it. This was because there were no trucks to carry the food from the docks inland to where the people were. They needed all three. First, the food on the docks, ready to go. Next, the trucks to deliver the food. And, last of all, the people to eat the food.

When Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead He placed forgiveness on the dock of God’s heart. God had graciously forgiven the world of sinners. That is an objective reality. However, people were and still are dying and being lost to hell because that forgiveness is still at the dock and has not been delivered to people so that they can believe it and live. They have not personally received the forgiveness of sins. To many, the news of the forgiveness of sins in Jesus remains a mystery, and they have no faith in Him.

So, to get the news of that forgiveness which was earned on the cross into the minds and hearts of people so they can believe in Jesus, God went into action. He has devised wonderful spiritual trucks to deliver the forgiveness of sins to us.

One such spiritual truck is baptism. It offers the forgiveness of sins which Jesus earned for mankind on the cross. Notice the following passages from the Bible:

When Peter finished his sermon to the crowds in Jerusalem on Pentecost Day, they realized that they had killed the Messiah. In their grief they cried, “`Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, `Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37,38). The people were to be baptized “for the forgiveness of your sins.” At the same time they would receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

After Saul, who would later be known as the Apostle Paul, had received a vision from the Lord Jesus and had been blinded by the incident, God sent Ananias to him and he received his sight. Saul’s conscience was heavy with guilt, since he had been persecuting the Church of Jesus Christ. So Ananias said to him, “And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). Once again, baptism is described as having the power to wash away sins.

When Paul wrote in Ephesians chapter 5 concerning the relationship between husbands and wives, he said, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word” (v.25,26). Paul states that the Church, Christians, has been cleansed of their sins by means of the “washing of water,” that is, baptism.

The source of forgiveness is the cross. Because Jesus died on the cross, the world’s sins have been removed, and the forgiveness of sins stands ready on the dock of God’s heart. Baptism is a delivery truck, a means through which God delivers the forgiveness of sins to people. And people actually receive the forgiveness of sins through faith.

Since baptism offers the forgiveness of sins, it also has the power to create faith in the heart and bring about a spiritual rebirth.

When the Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, Jesus told him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (v.5). One way the essential spiritual rebirth into God’s kingdom is brought about is through baptism. Through baptism the Holy Spirit works the spiritual rebirth and creates faith.

The Apostle Paul agrees with Jesus by asserting that baptism has the power to create faith and bring spiritual rebirth. He wrote to Titus,

“He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). We are not saved by good works, by anything we have done or now do, but only by God’s mercy. How? “By the washing of regeneration,” by baptism, which brings about a spiritual rebirth.

Comparing the water of the Flood that lifted the Ark and saved Noah, Peter wrote, “Baptism now saves you” (I Peter 3:21).

Baptism does not replace Christ, or add to His work of winning our salvation on the cross. Baptism simply delivers the benefits of what Jesus has earned for us. If I fell off a boat and Peter threw me a rope, I could say, “Peter saved me.” I could also say, “The rope saved me.” Both statements would be true. For Peter saved me by means of the rope, the rope being his tool. So, Christ alone saves. Nothing can be added to His work. But He uses different means or tools to bring us the benefits of His saving work. One of these tools is baptism.

It would be easy for us to say, “I just can’t understand how such wonderful blessings can pour out of the simple water of baptism.” Naaman thought the same thing when he was told to wash in the simple waters of the Jordan. But that plain river water was connected with God’s command and promise, and Naaman was made well. So also, though it is beyond our human reason to understand how simple water can bring Jesus’ forgiveness and a new birth into God’s kingdom, we must simply cling to God’s command and promise with regard to baptism. God can certainly deliver what He has promised! And, we must remember that it is the Holy Spirit that is at work in baptism (John 3:5; Titus 3:5)!

For Whom Is Baptism?

Of course, baptism is for adults (Acts 2:41; 8:36-38). But, baptism is also for children. Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them....” (Matt. 28:19). Certainly little children are also part of “all nations”.

Returning to the Day of Pentecost. When Peter told the people to repent and be baptized, he then added, “For the promise is for you and your children, ...” (Acts 2:39).

In the book of Acts we are told that Lydia was brought to faith in Christ. Then she was baptized “and her household” (Acts 16:15). The same was true of the jailer at Philippi (Acts 16:33) and of Stephanus (I Cor. 1:16), both of whom had their families baptized. (Also Acts 11:14.) While not specifically mentioning children, it is possible that children lived in these households.

We also know that little children need the forgiveness of sins that is offered in baptism. Jesus had told Nicodemus, “That which is born of the flesh is flesh,...” (John 3:6). Parents who have a sinful “flesh”, a sinful nature, give birth to children who also have a sinful nature. We recall David’s confession of his sinfulness in Psalm 51:5, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.” Here was the source of David’s problem, he had a sinful nature from his conception.

The Bible also tells us that little children can believe in Jesus. In Mark 9:42 Jesus said, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe to stumble, it would be better for him if, with a heavy millstone hung around his neck, he had been cast into the sea.”

(Note that a child was present, verse 36. See also Matt. 18:6-9; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:15-17; I John 2:13.)

We also know that the early Christian Church baptized children. For example, Origen, who was born in AD 185 wrote: “Baptism is, according to the usages of the church, given also to infants.”

What Must Follow Baptism?

While baptism works like a truck to deliver the forgiveness Jesus won on the cross and brings children into God’s kingdom, it ought not be conceived as the end of a child’s spiritual training. Jesus made this clear when he said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them..., teaching them to observe all that I commanded you,...” (Matthew 28:19-20).

After an adult or child has been baptized, it is necessary to sustain and strengthen his faith. This is done by Bible teaching, “teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” What parent, for example, after bringing his baby home from the hospital, would dress him in his first little outfit and set him on the front step, saying, “Now you’re on your own, little one. Have a good life!”? Babies brought into the kingdom of God through baptism are not to be left to spiritually fend for themselves, either. Parents, for example, are given the specific command to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). As parents stock their kitchen shelves with food to feed their children, so they must stock their hearts and minds with Bible truth which they can share with their children. Baptism brings children to faith; the word of God keeps them in it!

In the Lutheran Church we highly value baptism as a wonderful, miraculous work of God through which the blessings of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross are offered to an individual and received by faith in Jesus. We urge you to always prize this wonderful blessing in your life and build upon it with the word of God!

(Scripture quotes are from the New American Standard Bible.)

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