What Is Baptism?

What Is Baptism?

Christian churches around the world practice baptism. What's the point?

If you attend a Christian church for very long, you will likely see a baptism, though the ritual will vary according to culture and custom. It could be a baby’s head sprinkled with a few drops of water during a ceremony. It could be a teenager immersed in a small pool of water—called a baptismal—inside a church sanctuary. Or it could be a group of full-grown adults dunked into the waters of a lake or river as part of a church celebration.

Christians around the world regularly practice baptism. But what does it mean? Who should get baptized? Are there right and wrong ways to be baptized? Is there something special or magical about the water itself? Does God require baptism or is it just a human tradition?

These are important questions for anyone seeking to understand more about the meaning of this Christian custom.

Historical Roots

The Christian practice of baptism has roots in Judaism. Hebrew law offered many prescriptions for Israelites to cleanse themselves through regular ritual washings. The primary purpose of these rituals was purification. The people believed that because God is pure and holy, one must be cleansed of anything impure in order to worship and serve him.1 Even priests were required to wash themselves with water in order to be consecrated for their duties.2

By Jesus’ time, Jews had developed an additional practice—baptism—for Gentiles (non-Jews) who wanted to convert to Judaism.3 When partnered with circumcision (for men) and an offering of a sacrifice, baptism signaled the conversion to Jewish faith and entrance into the Jewish community.

While the act of baptism echoed the themes of ritual washing and purification from sins, the primary purpose was to signify the taking on of a new identity.   

John the Baptist

One well-known Jewish leader in Jesus’ time used the practice of baptism in a similar way but for the Jewish people themselves. The prophet John the Baptist (as he became known) encouraged Jews to seek the kingdom of God, to repent of their sins, and to commit to a new life of obedience. Baptism became the means for publicly demonstrating these acts. He baptized many Jews in the Jordan River.4

Even Jesus came to John to be baptized. It shocked John at first, because he did not think Jesus needed to repent or be baptized. Nevertheless, Jesus persuaded him to do so in order to “fulfill all righteousness.”5 It became an important event in the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.6

Through his baptism, Jesus was not only consecrating himself for ministry (in the tradition of Hebrew priests) but also identifying himself with John’s message about the kingdom of God.7

Baptism in the Early Church

The book of Matthew records that after Jesus was crucified and resurrected, he charged his followers with a mission: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”8

In other words, Jesus instructed his followers to take his message of salvation around the world, so that other people would become disciples—followers of Christ. When they did, Jesus wanted these new believers to identify with him publicly. By participating in the act of baptism, a new follower of Jesus symbolically aligned himself or herself with new beliefs and a new community.

The Apostle Paul underscored the symbolic nature of the water involved in baptism. He suggested that baptism represents a person’s identification with Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. When participants lie back in the water, it signifies the death of their sinful nature. When they come out of the water, it illustrates their new life in Christ.9

The book of Acts and other New Testament books describe the baptisms of thousands of people.10 Most were adults who professed faith in Jesus and joined the Christian movement. There are a few references to the members of someone’s household being baptized, but it is not clear if this included infants or young children.11

Baptism Today: Differing Views

The tradition of baptism has continued through the centuries and remains an important part of the Christian church today. However, various denominations do differ in the details of their views of baptism.

Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches understand baptism as a sacrament or “holy mystery.” Sacraments are religious ceremonies that convey a special kind of grace from God. For example, in Catholic theology, the act of baptism is unique and essential: it is “the basis of the whole Christian life.”12 Baptism not only signifies one’s identification with Christ but also “actually brings about” one’s new standing with God.13 In this understanding, baptism is “necessary for salvation.”14   

However, most Protestants—including evangelical, Pentecostal, and nondenominational Christians—refer to baptism as a practice or ordinance. While it serves as an important moment in one’s journey of faith and a celebration for the church community, baptism is primarily symbolic. There is nothing magical about the water or act.

Nor, within Protestant theology, does being baptized make one a Christian; it is not a means to an end. After all, there is no indication that the thieves crucified next to Jesus were baptized. But after one of them recognized who Jesus was and pleaded for mercy, Jesus responded, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”15 Baptism did not seem to be essential for his salvation.

Groups of Christians also differ in the method of baptism. Some churches maintain the practice of full immersion in water, as seemed to be the case in the early church. Others have adopted the manner of sprinkling or pouring water over an individual’s head.

Finally, the issue of infant baptism has raised questions. Some have taken the position that baptism in the Christian church functions in a way similar to circumcision in Israel in the Old Testament. As such, it serves as a marker of participation in the community of faith. Therefore, infants are baptized to signify their inclusion as sons or daughters in God’s family. The hope is that when they are older, they will confirm their commitment to Christ with their own decision of faith. While the Bible never explicitly articulates this viewpoint, many throughout church history have practiced baptism in this way.

Others hold firmly to the idea that baptism is first and foremost about a willful change of allegiance—forsaking one’s old life of sin and embracing the way of Jesus. It is believed that, though it is important to include children in the blessings of the community of faith, baptizing them misses the larger point of one’s public demonstration of personal faith.

A New Identity

However one feels about the theological implications of baptism or exactly how it should be practiced, its most simple meaning is the most important. Baptism is a sign of a new identity and the grace of God that paves the way for that new identity. As such, all Christians ultimately see baptism as a celebration of God’s movement in our lives.

  1. See The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Leviticus 15 for examples of what made Israelites unclean and how ritual baths were prescribed.
  2. Ibid., Exodus 40:12 and Numbers 8:5–7.
  3. Thomas M. Lindsay, “Baptism,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 1, ed. by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982), 418.
  4. See The Holy Bible, Matthew 3:1–12.
  5. The Holy Bible, Matthew 3:15.
  6. See The Holy Bible, Matthew 3:13–17.
  7. Bible scholar Craig L. Blomberg writes that by being baptized by John, “Jesus identifies with and endorses John’s ministry as divinely ordained and his message as one to be heeded.” Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 81.
  8. See The Holy Bible, Matthew 28:19–20.
  9. Ibid., Romans 6:3–8.
  10. For example, see The Holy Bible, Acts 2:37–41, 8:12, 8:38, 10:48; 1 Corinthians 1:13–17; and Colossians 2:12–13.
  11. Ibid., Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Corinthians 1:16.
  12. See “Part Two: The Celebration of the Christian Mystery,” Catechism of the Catholic Church, sections 1213, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p2s2c1a1.htm.
  13. Ibid., section 1215.
  14. Ibid., section 1277. See sections 1281 and 1283 for some exceptions to this rule.
  15. The Holy Bible, Luke 23:43.
  16. Photo Credit: Evan Schneider / Stocksy.com.