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Purpose of Baptism: Outward Sign? Condition of Forgiveness?

Is baptism essential as a condition to be saved from sin or is it a sign that one has already been saved? Why should a person be baptized? Are we saved by faith only without obedience?How important is baptism according to the Bible? Is it essential as a condition in order for a person to receive salvation from sin, or is it simply a sign that one has already been saved? Why should a person be baptized? 

Are we saved by faith only without obedience? Does forgiveness of sins come before baptism or as a result following from it? What does the gospel of Jesus teach?

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Matthew 28:18-20 records the "Great Commission." Jesus here commands all people, in becoming His disciples, to be taught His word and be baptized.

Clearly baptism is important:

This is clear from Matthew's account of the Great Commission:

(1) Baptism is based on Jesus' own authority. He has commanded it. Anything He commands is important. Furthermore, it must be taught and practiced as Jesus wants it to be. Men have no right to change what Jesus has instituted. [Matthew 15:9,13; Galatians 1:8,9; 2 John 9-11; Colossians 3:17; Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12; 3:5,6; Revelation 22:18,19]

(2) It is a fundamental part of becoming a disciple.

(3) Jesus wants everyone in the world to be taught about it.

So, everyone needs to understand Jesus' teaching about baptism so they practice it the way He said to do it.

Yet baptism is highly controversial and often misunderstood.

Important as baptism is, many people are confused about it. Some admit they do not understand it. Others claim to understand it, but when their practice is compared to what Jesus said, it does not harmonize.

Without question, people need to study baptism to be sure they have obeyed Jesus' will.

The purpose of this lesson is to study one aspect of baptism: its purpose.

Why should a person be baptized in water? What should be the goal that he intends his baptism to accomplish?

I. Different Views of Baptism and the Importance of the Issue

A. People Usually Hold Either of Two Views of the Purpose of Baptism.

Some people believe baptism is a sign that a person has already been forgiven.

Consider a lost sinner who has never received forgiveness by Jesus' blood and never become a Christian. Some churches say that such a person must believe in Jesus and repent of sins, then at that point Jesus forgives his sins (some add that he must confess Jesus or pray).

So, this view means that baptism is not essential to receive forgiveness, but one should be baptized after he has been forgiven. The purpose of baptism, they say, is to provide an outward sign to show others that he has been saved, or perhaps to join a particular denomination.

"Baptism is not essential to salvation ... but it is essential to obedience, since Christ commanded it. It is also essential to membership in the church which is his body" - Standard Manual for Baptist Churches, Hiscox (pp. 20,21) 
"Is baptism necessary for salvation? I don't beat about the bush about it at all. I come out with a plain, definite, NO! No, baptism doesn't save, doesn't help save, and I'll go even further to say that it doesn't have anything in this world to do with the saving of a soul" - Good News, 3/2/72 (a Baptist paper) 

The Seventh Day Adventist "Baptismal Vow" requires a person, before baptism, to answer this question: "...have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, and do you believe that God, for Christ's sake, has forgiven your sins, and given you a new heart

This is standard doctrine in most Protestant churches (though many do not emphasize it). As a result, when a person expresses a desire for baptism, most churches schedule him/her for a baptismal service at some future date. They believe the person is saved in the meanwhile, so there is no hurry.

[All above quotations are taken from the Handbook of Religious Quotations.]

Other people believe one must be baptized in order to receive remission of sins.

These people teach that one must truly believe in Jesus, repent, and confess Christ, and they agree that it is the blood of Jesus that forgives a person's sins. But they believe that sins are not forgiven until the person has been baptized.

This means that the purpose of baptism is to receive forgiveness. To be a Scriptural baptism, it must be done for the purpose of being cleansed or freed from sins by the blood of Jesus. So, a person stands justified before God only after he has been baptized, not before.

B. Why Does the Question Even Matter?

As long as a person is baptized, why does it matter what his purpose is?

Acts of service to God must be done from proper motives.

Romans 6:17,18 - To be made free from sin, we must obey God from the heart. Service to God is not acceptable if we just go through outward motions. We must understand and sincerely mean what we do. This principle can be illustrated by other works of service to God.

1 Corinthians 14:15 - Singing and prayer must be done with the spirit and the understanding. Outward actions are not enough.

1 Corinthians 11:26-29 - In the Lord's supper we must recognize the spiritual meaning of the elements. If we do not discern the Lord's body, we eat and drink damnation to our souls.

God requires proper outward actions, but He also requires proper motives and purposes.

[1 Corinthians 13:1-3; Psalm 51:6,10; Proverbs 4:23]

When God assigns a purpose to an act, the purpose becomes part of the pattern.

Galatians 1:8 - Our service to God must conform to His word, without changing the pattern. When God reveals the reason or purpose for an act, if we do it for a different purpose, we have changed the pattern.

2 John 9 - One who does not abide in Jesus' teaching does not have the Father and Son. So whatever Jesus' word teaches about the purpose of baptism, we must abide in that teaching. If we practice a different purpose, we have gone beyond what Jesus revealed.

Acts 19:1-5 - In this example some men had been baptized, even by immersion in water. If the outward act is all that matters, their baptism would have been fine. But they had to be baptized again to do it right, so clearly there was something wrong with their understanding of the purpose. The same would be true of anyone today whose baptism did not fit the gospel pattern.

When we teach the importance of baptism, people sometimes accuse us of over-emphasizing outward actions. The opposite is true. The reason we emphasize baptism is that inner intentions and purposes do matter. When people say baptism is not necessary so we can overlook the purpose for baptism, they are the ones who are teaching that the meaning does not matter.

[Matthew 15:9,13; Colossians 3:17; Jeremiah 10:23; Proverbs 14:12; 3:5,6; Revelation 22:18,19]

II. Scriptures about the Purpose of Baptism

We will consider six fundamental passages (though there are others that teach the same).

Mark 16:15,16 - He Who Believes and Is Baptized Will Be Saved.

Where does this passage place salvation in relation to baptism?

Does salvation come before baptism or as a result of it? We can no more be saved before baptism than we can before believing.

It is like 1 + 1 = 2. Take away either of the "1's" and you no longer have two. Likewise, if you take away either faith or baptism, you no longer have salvation.

Some respond: "It says you will be condemned if you don't believe, but it doesn't say you will be condemned if you are not baptized."

The Bible does not always spell out what we have to do to be lost. It tells us what we have to do to be saved and expects us to realize that, if we don't do it, we will be lost.

According to Luke 7:30, those who are not baptized reject the counsel of God, so Jesus had already dealt with people who held that that view.

But in Mark 16:16, Jesus says we must do two things to be saved. To be lost, you only need to omit one of them. If you don't have faith, you probably would not be baptized, and it would not do any good if you did it. To be lost is easy - just don't believe. To be saved is harder - you must both believe and be baptized.

Further, Jesus said to believe the gospel (vv 15,16). What does the gospel say? "He who believes and is baptized will be saved." That is what the gospel teaches, so that is what people who seek salvation must believe. What if I don't believe that? Then I don't believe the gospel! What does the passage say about people who don't believe the gospel?

Note the difference between what men say and what the gospel says:

Men say: He who believes is saved and may then be baptized.

The gospel says: He who believes and is baptized will be saved. Both faith and baptism are essential in order to receive salvation.

Remember, we cannot please God by following human doctrines that differ from the gospel (Galatians 1:8; Matthew 15:9; etc.).

B. Acts 2:38 - Repent and Be Baptized for Remission of Sins.

Where does this passage place remission in relation to baptism?

Are sins forgiven (remitted) before baptism or as a result of it? Note that the purpose of baptism is clearly stated: it is for remission of sins.

What does "for remission of sins" mean?

Some say that "for" means "because of," like "He received a ticket for speeding" - i.e., because he had been speeding, not in order that he might speed. "For" can have this meaning in English, but the word cannot mean this in Acts 2:38 (see ASV and other translations.)

Consider the people to whom Peter was speaking.

If "for" means because they already had remission, then Peter must have been talking to people who were already saved. Was he?

He had just convicted them of killing Jesus (v36), and they were pricked in heart and asked what to do (v37). They did not already have remission, but stood in need of receiving it.

Peter then told them to "repent." If they already had remission, why did they need to repent? The command to repent proves these people were not saved but were still sinners needing to receive remission.

Peter also told them to "be saved" from the wicked generation (v40). If they had already been forgiven, why did he tell them to be saved?

Surely these were not saved people being told what to do because they had remission. They were lost sinners being told what to do to receive remission. So, "for remission of sins" in v38 means to be baptized "in order to receive remission."

Consider the parallel to Matthew 26:28.

Matthew 26:28 says Jesus' blood would be shed for many "for remission of sins."

Acts 2:38 says be baptized "for remission of sins."

Did Jesus shed His blood because people already had remission of sins? No, He shed His blood so people who did not have remission could receive it.

Likewise, baptism is administered, not because people already have remission, but so people who do not have it can receive it.

Suppose a person was baptized without understanding that the gospel says he should be baptized in order to receive remission of sins. Suppose he believed he was saved before baptism. Then would he be baptized in order to receive remission? How could he if he believed he already had salvation? How then could his baptism harmonize with the pattern of God's word?

1 Peter 3:21 - Baptism Saves Us.

Noah illustrates how we are saved. V20 says he and his family were saved "by (or through) water." The flood water destroyed wicked people; but it also saved Noah because it bore the ark up, delivering (saving) Noah from death.

This illustrates the fact that what saves us is baptism. This does not refer to physically washing dirt from our bodies. The power is not in the water but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. But baptism is when we contact Jesus' blood so we are saved.

Galatians 3:27 - We Are Baptized into Jesus.

How many people are in Christ? Just as many as have been baptized into Him. What if a person has not been baptized into Him? Then that person is not in Him.

Why is it important to be in Christ?

* Ephesians 1:7 - Forgiveness of sins is in Christ.

* 2 Timothy 2:10 - Salvation is in Him.

* 1 John 5:11,12 - Eternal life is in the Son

* Ephesians 1:3 - All spiritual blessings are in Christ.

[Cf. Romans 8:1; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Philippians 4:7]

If a person is outside Christ, he does not have forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, or the other spiritual blessings that are in Christ. But how does one come into Christ? He must be baptized into Christ. Then what is the condition of one who has not been baptized or who does not believe baptism is for the purpose of being saved?

Hearing, believing, repenting, and confession are all essential steps toward Christ, but baptism is the step that puts a person into Christ. Before baptism, a person is still outside Christ, still without forgiveness and the other blessings that are in Christ. If he wants those blessings, he must be baptized for the purpose of coming into Christ.

Romans 6:3 - We Are Baptized into Jesus' Death.

This verse says again (as in Galatians 3:27) that we are baptized into Jesus. But it also says we are baptized into Jesus' death.

Why is Jesus' death important to us? It was in His death that He shed His blood that saves us from sin! How do we come into contact with His saving death? We are baptized into it!

Often people who teach the necessity of baptism are accused of not believing in salvation by Jesus' blood. The truth is just the opposite. The reason we believe baptism is necessary is that baptism is where the sinner contacts Jesus' blood! Those who say you are saved before baptism are (unintentionally) saying you are saved without the blood, because they are teaching the sinner is saved before he contacts Jesus' blood!

In baptism we receive the benefits of Jesus' death! What then is the condition of those who say you are saved before baptism or that baptism is not necessary for the remission of sins?

Acts 22:16 - Be Baptized and Wash away Your Sins.

Where is the washing away of sins in this passage: before baptism or a result that follows from baptism?

The sinner in this story (Saul) had already done before baptism everything most churches say one must do to be saved.

He had seen Jesus on the road, clearly believed in Him, and was willing to obey Him (22:5-10; 9:3-6). He had even been praying (9:9,11). If anyone could be saved before baptism, it would have been Saul. Was he saved?

Jesus had said Saul should go into the city and be told what he must do (9:6). Ananias came and told him to be baptized and wash away his sins.

If sins are forgiven before baptism, at this point in the story Saul would have had no sins to wash away. But he had his sins till he was baptized. So today, though a person may believe in Jesus and repent, he is still guilty of all his sins till he is baptized.

That is why in Bible examples of conversion, people never postponed baptism.

Always, as soon as the sinner understood the Bible teaching, believed, and repented, he was baptized immediately:

Acts 2:41 - "That day" 3000 were baptized.

Acts 8:36 - "What hinders me from being baptized?"

Acts 9:18 - "Immediately ... he arose and was baptized"

Acts 16:33 - "...the same hour of the night ... immediately he and all his family were baptized"

Acts 22:16 - "...why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins...."

When modern denominations postpone baptism of penitent believers to some future baptismal service, they are not following the Bible pattern regarding the urgency of baptism. The reason they postpone baptism is that do not believe the proper purpose of baptism. They believe the person is already saved, so what's the hurry?

When we understand that a person is still in sin until he is baptized, then we understand why people in the Bible did not postpone baptism.


According to the passages we have studied, the purpose of baptism is as follows:

Mark 16:16 - Baptism is required in order to be saved.

Acts 2:38 - Baptism is for (in order to receive) remission of sins.

1 Peter 3:21 - Baptism saves us.

Galatians 3:27 - We are baptized into Christ.

Romans 6:3 - We are baptized into Jesus' death.

Acts 22:16 - Baptism is needed so sins are washed away.

These are all different ways of saying the same thing. To teach that one is saved before baptism is to teach a human gospel different from what the Lord authorized. Those who are baptized according to such a doctrine have not received a Scriptural baptism.

What should such people do? Like the men in Acts 19:1-6, they should be baptized in harmony with the teaching of the gospel.

What about you? Have you been baptized properly? Are you living a faithful life?

Note: Many people respond to these thoughts by claiming that we are saved by faith alone without obedience or that nothing we do is essential to salvation. Others wonder about the thief on the cross. These questions are dealt with in other articles on this site. Please see the links below for further information.

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(C) Copyright 1998, 2012,David E. Pratte;
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Topics for further Bible study

Why We Need Forgiveness
Things that Are Essential to Salvation
Is Obedience Essential to Salvation?
Have You Been "Born Again"?
Individual Responsibility in Salvation
Why Must We Be "In Christ"?
Should Babies Be Baptized?
Is Baptism Sprinkling, Pouring, or Immersion?
Salvation by "Faith Only" vs. Obedient Faith
What Must We Believe to Be Saved?
Should Alien Sinners Pray for Forgiveness
What about the Thief on the Cross?
Pharisees: Who Were They Really?
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