Baptism: Ritual or Requirement?

Scott D. Winnail

Does baptism matter? Have you been sprinkled, splashed, poured on or immersed? Can you have the Holy Spirit without water baptism? Is baptism valid without true repentance? People have all sorts of different ideas about baptism, but what does your Bible say?

Have you ever wondered whether baptism is really important for true Christians? Have you ever questioned whether yourbaptism is really valid, or whether those performing the baptism had the proper "credentials" in God's sight? Were you baptized correctly, and did you truly repent before your baptism? What is the relationship between repentance and baptism? If you have had questions like these, you are not alone. Thankfully, God clearly answers these questions in His inspired word, the Holy Bible.

For centuries, many professing Christians have been sprinkled with water at baptism. How did this custom arise? Is it biblical? At first, sprinkling was used only for those deemed too sick for immersion, but it has since become commonplace (Latourette, K.S. (1999), A History of Christianity (pp. 195, 529, 715). Peabody, MA: Prince Press).

St. Augustine, writing in the late fourth and early fifth centuries ad, is credited with popularizing infant baptism. He believed that children were born with "original sin" and needed baptism as soon as possible after birth to cleanse them of this sin. Martin Luther built on Augustine's teaching by asserting that baptism changed, cleansed and renewed the infant by faith.

Infant baptism ultimately became popular because of the false notion that if an infant died before being baptized, it would be condemned to hellfire. The idea is that if parents do not have their infants baptized, they are in effect withholding an infant's right to the grace of becoming a child of God (Catholic Catechism, Pt. 2, Ch. 2, Section 1, Article 1, "Baptism").

But infant baptism requires no repentance—nor any commitment of faith! As we will see, baptism must follow true repentance. And repentance requires people to be mature enough to recognize their need to repent, as well as to understand "how" to repent.

God's View of Baptism

What does the Holy Bible say about baptism? The Apostle Peter commanded, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38). This command teaches two things: First, baptism is essential for all Christians. Note that Peter did not say, "Repent if you want to," or, "It would be nice if some of you would decide to get baptized." He commanded them to "repent and be baptized." Second, there is a process surrounding baptism—repentance and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Savior, followed by baptism, after which a true minister of Jesus Christ lays hands on the baptized individual for God to impart His Holy Spirit.

Repentance literally means to turn around and go the other way.

The word "repentance" originates from the Greek word metanoeo, meaning: to "think differently about," to "heartily amend with abhorrence to past sins" Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, Abington Press: Nashville). Repentance literally means to turn around and go the other way. It requires the ability to analyze one's self critically in the light of the Bible, make a conscious decision to change, and actively begin living God's Way. Baptism requires the actions of a mature adult—children and even many teenagers do not yet have the mental capacity or life experience to understand and make this deep spiritual commitment.

Sprinkling or Immersing?

God inspired John to baptize where there was much water: "Now John [the Baptizer] also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there. And they came and were baptized" (John 3:23). Additionally, "When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water…" (Matthew 3:16). Christ plainly stood in the river, not on the shore. Think clearly about this! If baptism required only a small amount of water for sprinkling, Christ would not have stood in the water, and "much water" would not be needed for His baptism. John easily could have used a bucket or water pouch. The Greek word for baptize, used in both Matthew's and John's accounts, is baptizo, which means to immerse, submerge, or put under the water. Note that God did not inspire the use of Greek words meaning "to sprinkle" or "to pour."

Repentance and baptism are the starting point on the road to the Kingdom of God.

Baptism symbolizes the burial of the old sinful self in a watery grave. Rising out of the water represents our resurrection as a new person who will live in newness of life—a life where sin will no longer rule (Romans 6:3–6). God actually refers to repentant Christians as a "new creation" in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). And Paul refers to baptism as the "washing of regeneration" (Titus 3:5). A Christian's baptism pictures Christ's death and resurrection (Romans 6:1–6). The old sinful person "dies" and is buried in the watery grave, sins are washed away, and the person emerges as a changed and new person. The action and symbolism of baptism are extremely important to God.

The End of the Matter

God inspired the Holy Bible so we can learn more about Him and His expectations for us. The Bible clearly defines the doctrines that God's true Church should believe and practice. God does not allow us to choose which aspects of His truth we want to keep. He does not say "Thou shall keep only what is convenient for you, for I understand how difficult it is." God expects us to do His will and live according to His "every word" (Luke 4:4). And He promises to reward us for that obedience.

God clearly commands repentance and baptism, in order to receive the gift of His Holy Spirit—if we want to be part of His Kingdom one day. Without true repentance and proper baptism, sins and their penalty cannot be washed away. We should "give our heart to the Lord Jesus Christ" and commit to living according to His teachings. But living as He taught requires truly repenting and being properly baptized by immersion in water. Jesus Christ Himself set the example. Repentance and baptism are the starting point on the road to the Kingdom of God. They mark a change in our life that will positively affect even our friends and family, and will ultimately allow us to enter into God's Kingdom at the return of Christ. God does require baptism for true Christians!