What is the biblical understanding of baptism?

I have to wonder if God laughed, cried, or both when Paul wrote "...one baptism" in Ephesians 4:5. Baptism, perhaps more so than any other issue, is definitely not something on which there is one Christian viewpoint. Virtually every aspect of baptism is hotly debated. Who should be baptized, infants or converts? How should baptism be done, sprinkling, pouring, or immersion? What does baptism mean? Is it symbolically identifying yourself with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus? Or, is it when the Holy Spirit is received? Or, is it the initial act of obedience, after faith, that God requires before He grants salvation? Should baptism be done in Jesus' name or in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? The only thing that virtually all Christians seem to agree on is that baptism should involve water.

So, where does all the confusion come from? To be honest, some of the confusion is due to certain biblical texts related to baptism not being entirely clear. Several of the key baptism verses can be interpreted in different ways. There is only one correct interpretation, don't get me wrong. I am just saying that the lack of explicit biblical clarity makes it easy for us to allow our traditions and presuppositions to impact our interpretations on the issue of baptism.

For example, several verses seem to indicate that baptism is necessary for salvation: Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; John 3:5; Acts 22:16; Galatians 3:27. We know from many other biblical texts that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, not by works or obedience (John 1:12; 3:16, 36; Acts 16:31; Ephesians 2:8-9). Either one of these sets of verses contradicts the other, or one of the sets is being misinterpreted. Since salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, is so clearly communicated throughout the entirety of Scripture, the verses that appear to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation must be interpreted differently. They must speak to the importance and value of water baptism, or possibly to Spirit baptism, or possibly some other interpretation—but they cannot mean the obedience of baptism is a required work for salvation.

Another example is the debate over infant baptism. For me, the issue is abundantly clear, the New Testament only describes believers in Jesus Christ being baptized. Nowhere in the New Testament is an infant or unbelieving child baptized. Some point to Acts 16 and the Philippian jailer's household being baptized, but again, the text does not mention children or infants. Those who view infant baptism as the sign of the new covenant do so based on Romans 4:11 and Colossians 2:11-12. Essentially, they understand baptism to be the new covenant equivalent of circumcision. While Colossians 2:11-12 seems to make this connection, why would such a crucially important doctrine only be covered, nebulously, in one verse in the entire New Testament?

Also, for me, the idea that infant baptism places a person into the new covenant until the "age of accountability" is reached just does not seem right. Why would God allow an infant who was baptized before death into heaven while sending an infant who was not baptized before death to hell when neither infant had any control whatsoever as to whether he/she was baptized? No, my conviction is that God, in His amazing mercy and grace, forgives the sins of all infants and children who die before the age of accountability. While I understand the thinking behind infant baptism, and I definitely understand parents' desire to protect their children, I do not think infant baptism is necessary or biblical.

Then there is the mode of baptism. For me, this should also be a cut and dry issue. The word "baptize" literally means to "immerse." That would seemingly decide the issue. Yet, most churches that practice infant baptism also practice baptism by sprinkling or pouring. How a person can be immersed in water by sprinkling or pouring, I'll never know. Further, if baptism is a picture of Christ's death (going under the water) and resurrection (coming out of the water), how does sprinkling or pouring illustrate those two symbols? But, still, those who believe in baptism by sprinkling or pouring will go to great lengths to argue for their viewpoint, including arguing that there could not possibly have been enough water for Philip to immerse the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. Really?

I truly wish there was only one baptism and only one view on baptism. Sadly, that is not the case. Interestingly, I have been baptized four times. I was baptized as an infant. I was baptized at a youth event when I was around 8. I was baptized in a bathtub when I came to faith in Christ as a teenager (by someone who believes baptism is when you receive the Holy Spirit). And, I was baptized as an adult when I became unsure that I had been truly biblically baptized. So, I guess I am covered no matter which viewpoint is correct! Whew!

S. Michael Houdmann

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What is the biblical understanding of baptism?