8 Mistaken Ideas About Baptism

Although baptism is mentioned dozens of times in the New Testament, the rite has been so grossly misunderstood in a great variety of ways.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

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Some subjects in the Bible are more difficult to comprehend than others. Even Peter declared that Paul had written upon themes that are hard to understand (2 Pet. 3:16).

But it should be obvious that things pertaining to the plan of redemption should be the easiest of all subjects to grasp.

The topic of water baptism is mentioned dozens of times in the New Testament. It is intimately connected to the divine plan of salvation. Instructions regarding this sacred obligation are very precise. So it is truly amazing that this topic has been so grossly misunderstood in a great variety of ways.

In this study, let’s consider some of the false ideas about baptism that have risen across the centuries.

“Baptism Is Obsolete Today”

Some have been taught that even though water baptism played a role in the divine scheme of things during the first century, it eventually became obsolete, and so is not appropriate today.

An Anglican clergyman named E. W. Bullinger (1837-1913) originated a doctrine that has come to be known as Ultra-Dispensationalism. Basically, ultra-dispensationalism alleges that the “water baptism” of the New Testament was a Jewish ceremonial ritual that was a part of the Mosaic economy.

Further, he contended that the Mosaic system was not abrogated until the end of the book of Acts. Accordingly, when the law of Moses was terminated, water baptism became obsolete.

How then are the numerous references to baptism in the epistles explained? (e.g., Rom. 6:3-4; Gal. 3:27)?

Supposedly, they refer to a form of “Spirit baptism,” which is effected the moment a person trusts in Christ. It is denied that these references have anything to do with water baptism.

What shall we say to these matters?

First, the law of Moses was terminated at the cross (Eph. 2:15-16; Col. 2:14), not at the end of the book of Acts, which occurred a third of a century after Christ’s death. The water baptism mentioned in the book of Acts (cf. 8:36ff) was thus not a Jewish ceremony.

Second, the most obvious refutation of this false idea is found in Matthew’s record of the Great Commission. In that account, the Lord commands his followers:

“Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them ... and lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Mt. 28:19).

Now here are two important facts about this passage. First, the “baptizing” is clearly a reference to water baptism, because it has a human administrator — “Spirit baptism” does not (Mt. 3:11).

Second, embedded within this command is a promise that the Lord will always (unto the end of the world) be with those who are carrying out this commission. In other words, the water baptism here contemplated will last until the end of time. Water baptism is thus a permanent feature of the Christian system.

But then consider this. If there is no water baptism today, then there is no way to enter the kingdom. Why? Because it is by the birth of “water” (i.e., baptism) that one enters the kingdom of God (Jn. 3:5; cf. 1 Cor. 12:13).

The ultra-dispensational view of baptism contradicts the teaching of the New Testament.

“Baptism Is for Babies and Young Children”

Another common error associated with baptism is the notion that it can be administered to infants or young children, as well as adults. It is suggested, for instance, that baptism was symbolically pictured by circumcision. Colossians 2:11-12 is employed as a proof-text for this position. Since circumcision was for infants, it is contended that baptism is similarly for infants today.

There are several major flaws in this argument.

First, if circumcision typifies baptism, in the sense argued by pedobaptists, then only males should receive baptism because only males were circumcised.

Second, the only analogy between circumcision and baptism, as per Colossians 2:11-12, has to do with the fact that both involved “putting off the flesh.” Circumcision severs the flesh literally. But in baptism, one determines to sever himself from fleshly pursuits. That exhausts the connection between circumcision and baptism.

Thirdly, since baptism is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38), it is not appropriate for infants or young children, because they have no sin (Mt. 18:3; 1 Cor. 14:20). Infant baptism is unknown in the New Testament. As J. L. Jacobi, a Lutheran theologian, confessed: “Infant baptism was established neither by Christ nor the apostles” (287).

For more on children and baptism, see: What About the Baptism of Young Children?.

“Sprinkling Is an Acceptable Mode of Baptism”

It is a well-known fact that many religious groups, in the administration of what they call “baptism,” do not immerse. Rather, they either pour water or sprinkle it on the candidate’s head. But this procedure ignores the following facts.

The Greek word bapto means to “immerse”—nothing else. So the standard Greek lexicons affirm (Balz & Schneider, 192). Note that the word is translated “dip” in passages where there is no theological bias involved (cf. Lk. 16:24; Jn. 13:26).

Next, the New Testament makes it quite plain that baptism involves a burial and resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). Sprinkling and pouring certainly do not require this.

Then, history is explicit regarding the fact that sprinkling and pouring are post-apostolic innovations. The historian Mosheim declares that baptism, in the first century, “was performed by an immersion of the whole body in the baptismal font” (36).

“Baptism Is Just a Symbol of Salvation”

A common denominational declaration regarding the purpose of baptism is this: “Baptism is a mere symbol of salvation. It is an outward sign of an inward grace.” Frequently 1 Peter 3:21 will be employed in an attempt to prove this assertion. Baptist writer B. H. Carroll, in his discussion of 1 Peter 3:21, declared that baptism “saves us in a figure, not reality”( 218).

But there is absolutely no New Testament support for this allegation. Consider the following:

First, the Bible plainly teaches that baptism is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38), it is to “wash away your sins” (Acts 22:16), it puts one “into Christ” (Rom. 6:4, Gal. 3:27), etc.

Second, in every New Testament passage where baptism and salvation are mentioned together, baptism always comes before salvation (cf. Mk. 16:16; Acts 2:38; 1 Pet. 3:21).

Third, 1 Peter 3:21 does not say that baptism merely saves figuratively.

What it does teach is this. Noah and his family were saved through water. What does that mean? They were transported by means of water from a world of sin to a cleansed environment. Our salvation is the anti-type (“like-figure” — Greek: antitupos) of that. The anti-type refers to the reality that the figure represents. By baptism, we are conveyed from the state of guilt to the state of redemption. Robert Stein, a Baptist scholar, has recently acknowledged:

“At times salvation is said to come about through baptism. Here once again we can mention 1 Peter 3:21, where baptism is clearly said to save. The only way that we can separate baptism from salvation in this statement is by attributing to the word baptism a meaning different from which it usually bears” (335).

Elsewhere Dr. Stein declares that any attempt to spiritualize the water of 1 Peter 3:21 “drowns in the flood waters mentioned in verse 20!” (330).

“Baptism Is a Work of Human Merit”

Another twist to the foregoing error is the charge that baptism is excluded from the plan of redemption because it is a “work.” And since no one is saved by “works” (Eph. 2:9), baptism cannot be a part of our salvation.

Our response is as follows

First, baptism is a divine command (Acts 10:48) given by the Lord. To classify it as a work of human merit disdained in Ephesians 2:9 is a gross form of wickedness.

Second, if baptism is a work of human merit, then those who receive it, believing that it is “for the remission of sins,” have trusted in the wrong Savior and thus remain lost. No one can therefore patronizingly say: “We believe you are wrong on baptism, but we still accept you as a brother in Christ.” That is nonsense.

Third, the New Testament clearly denies that baptism is a work of human merit. Paul declared that we are not saved by works of human righteousness, but that we are saved by the washing of regeneration — or water baptism (Tit. 3:5). Even Baptist scholar A. T. Robertson admits that the expression “washing of regeneration” is probably a “reference to baptism,” though he denies the plain language of the passage that connects the washing with salvation (607).

Simply put, human works of merit and water baptism are not in the same category. When one is raised in baptism, it is a “working of God” (Col. 2:12), not a meritorious act of human effort.

“We Are Saved Through Baptismal Regeneration”

The Roman Catholic Church holds to the dogma of “baptismal regeneration.” This is the idea that there is merit in the rite of baptism itself, separate from any preliminary obedience (e.g., faith or repentance). This is why the Roman Church administers what it calls “baptism” (it is rarely immersion) to infants, aborted fetuses and even the insane (Attwater, 45).

This is a woefully erroneous theology. The Scriptures teach that both faith in Christ (Mk. 16:16) and repentance of sin (Acts 2:38) are conscious acts of obedience which must precede the reception of immersion. Baptism is not a magical ritual that automatically bestows redemption. It is simply the appointed means by which God cleanses the alien sinner through the blood of his Son. And those who accuse the churches of Christ of practicing “baptismal regeneration” do so either ignorantly or maliciously.

“Baptism Must Be Administered in the Name of Jesus Only”

Preachers of the “oneness” Pentecostal persuasion argue that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the same person, and that person is Jesus. It is thus contended that in order for the baptismal rite to be valid, the words “in the name of Jesus” must be uttered when baptism is administered.

Actually, no passage mentioning baptism gives instructions as to what, if anything, is to be said when immersing a person. Matthew 28:19 connects baptism with the phrase “the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” but this verse is not suggesting a verbal formula to be spoken during the baptism. The Lord is simply declaring that when one is immersed, he is entering into a relationship with the Godhead three.

The term “name” signifies to become the “possession of” and to come under “the protection of” the one whose name he bears (Arndt & Gingrich, 575). A comparison of several passages in which the term “name” is associated with baptism will certainly reveal that no precise verbal pattern of words is indicated (cf. Mt. 28:19; Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5). Several of these verses merely indicate that immersion is to be performed by the “authority” of Christ.

Here’s a similar passage. “And whatsoever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus ...” (Col. 3:17). Is there any difficulty understanding that when we are required to do anything “in the name of the Lord Jesus,” no demand is being made for a vocalized formula? Then why can’t the same principle be recognized with reference to baptism?

“It’s Not Necessary to Understand the Purpose of Baptism”

It is becoming increasingly common for some to argue that one’s baptism is valid as long as it was done “to obey God,” regardless of whether the candidate understood its specific design or not. In other words, it really doesn’t matter if someone wasn’t baptized “for the remission of sins” (or some equivalent expression) as long as they had a good motive.

We believe this to be a mistaken viewpoint. The following questions put this issue in sharper focus.

  1. If understanding the design of baptism is unnecessary, why is the purpose so frequently attached to the command in the New Testament?
  2. If it is essential to understand that Jesus died “for the remission of sins” (Mt. 26:28), why isn’t it necessary to understand that immersion is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38)?
  3. If “obeying God” is the sole intellectual criterion for validating one’s baptism, would not virtually everyone who has been immersed be a Christian, since all who submit to baptism do so to obey (certainly not to disobey) the Lord?
  4. Does not obeying “from the heart” (Rom. 6:17) imply that true obedience involves a correct understanding in the heart (cf. Mt. 13:15)?


Baptism is a very serious matter. Every person who truly wants to be well-pleasing to God should carefully consider whether they’ve been mistaken on this vital issue. The time to make a correction is now.

  • Arndt, William & Gingrich, F. W. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Attwater, Donald. 1961. A Catholic Dictionary. New York: Macmillan Co.
  • Balz, Horst & Schneider, Gerhard. 1990. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. I. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  • Carroll, B. H. 1973. An Interpretation of the English Bible. Vol. 6. Grand Rapids: Baker.
  • Jacobi, J. L. 1880. “Baptism.” Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature. John Kitto, Ed. Vol. I. New York: American Book Exchange.
  • Mosheim, J. L. 1959. Ecclesiastical History. Vol. I. Rosemead, CA: Old Paths Book Club.
  • Robertson, A. T. 1931. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. IV. (Nashville: Broadman, 1931).
  • Stein, Robert H. 1990. Difficult Passages in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker.