Baptism: A Bible Study

by Douglas Atkinson, November 2000; updated Nov 2003

Purpose: This study outlines the subject of baptism and covers three topics surrounding it: 1) Infant Baptism; 2) Baptism as a Seal; and 3) The Mode of Baptism. I first began this study because the subject of infant baptism was discussed in our church. I was given a book by Robert Booth, "Children of the Covenant", that presents a case for the baptizing of infants. Rather than concentrate on infant baptism, I felt it was better to simply look at baptism as taught in the Scriptures to see what the Word states. I expaned the discussion area to cover the other topics as well. The Nov 03 update simply changes some formatting and cleans up some of the wording a bit.

How this study was performed. This is certainly not the study to end all studies. This study focuses on the New Testament, and a word search was performed on all forms of the word "bapt" (baptize, baptized, baptism, etc.). The word "baptism" doesn't appear in the Old Testament, but it is apparent that it is not a new concept since the baptisms performed by John the Baptist were not looked at as new. Baptisms in the OT are the cleansing or purification rituals, wherein water or blood was sprinkled on the subject as a sign of cleansing. This, too, will be explored a bit.

There is some discontinuity in the "flow" of the paper. Because I did not want to leave out any Biblical discussions of baptism, I have included some Biblical references for the sake of completeness, even though they may not apparently add to our understanding of baptism.

Limitations: When performing a "word search" study, you have to be very careful. It is easy to simply take the immediate text out of context and to misinterpret the meaning. You have to be sure to determine where you are reading, what the subject matter is, who is being addressed, and so forth. In addition, it is possible you will miss important passages concerning the subject, perhaps passages that don't include the "keyword" but still are relevant to the subject of baptism. I have tried to make this study thorough, but it is certainly possible that I have missed important passages.

Also, as mentioned above, this study focused on the New Testament. It is also possible that a thorough study of Old Testament purification rituals would add additional light to the subject.

Multiple Baptisms? Although Ephesians 4:5 states, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism,", the baptism spoken of here is that of the Holy Spirit. When we look at all of Scripture, we see that there are at least three baptisms spoken about in the New Testament. The first is that of the Holy Spirit mentioned above. This is the "true" baptism, and is more than a sign, but results in a spiritual change inside the individual. The other types of baptism are the physical sprinkling, pouring, or immersion baptisms performed by men. I use the plural here because different physical baptisms had different significance, depending on when it was administered. As we will see, for example, baptism by John the Baptist had a different significance than baptisms performed after Christ's work on the cross was completed.

John's Baptism. The first baptism spoken of in the New Testament is that of John The Baptist, and is called the "baptism of repentance".

The baptism by John the Baptist is related in Matt 3:1 and Mark 1:4. Here is the text from Mark:

John's "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" doesn't seem to have been viewed as highly unusual. We see that "all the land of Judaea" went out to him and were baptized in the river.

When we put these verses together, we can see that John's baptism was intended as a cleansing ritual, meant for those who would repent of their sins. Those coming were to bring fruits of repentance, and John's baptism is seen only as a precursor to that of Christ.

I would also note the following: First, many of those coming to John's baptism were likely already circumcised, yet they still saw the need for cleansing. Second, all of them seemed to be older as they were "confessing their sins" and were told to bring fruits "meet for repentance". Finally, the Pharisees considered themselves "children of Abraham", incorrectly concluding that this physical relation to Abraham was sufficient. However, John correctly points out that the axe is laid to the root, and that each tree must bring forth good fruit.

Here we see examples of fruit unto repentance. We also see that the "baptism of repentance" did not bring the Holy Spirit to the individual, this was yet to come.

John's Baptism of Jesus Christ

Since Christ was sinless, why would he need to be baptized by John for the remission of sins? We see that even John wondered the same thing when he states, "I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?" A good explanation is found in the book, "The Meaning and Mode of Baptism", by Jay E. Adams. Without going into too much detail, Christ was fulfilling the legal obligations for being a priest, as he is our High Priest forever. In accordance with Numbers 8:6-7, a priest is to be cleansed as part of his ordination. Thus, although Christ was baptized by John, the significance was totally different than for others who were baptized.

We see that Jesus' Baptism was special, for he received the Holy Spirit upon his Baptism. This began the worldly ministry of Christ.

Baptism from Jesus

Here we see the transition from the baptism of John to the baptism of Christ. However, at this point we don't see any noted difference between the two baptisms. John the Baptist noted that he "must decrease", but had not stopped baptizing. Also, we see that Jesus himself did not perform the baptisms, but his disciples (although John 3 states that Jesus baptized, John 4 shows it was Jesus' disciples who really did the baptism). It seems at this point that we do not yet have the baptism of the Holy Spirit.

The Great Commission:

By this time, the work of Jesus on the Cross has been completed. These passages indicate the coming of a new baptism, that of the Holy Ghost (especially Acts 1:3).

Matthew 28 provides a "high level" view of the commission, while Mark 16:16 provides a few more details.

Note verse 16 which states the order of "believeth and is baptized". I believe that the word "baptized" here refers to the baptism of the Holy Spirit, not water baptism. We will see below that water baptism is a sign of obedience, but does not in itself save. On the other hand, all who are saved are baptized by the Holy Spirit.

The Nature of Baptism

Here is an early indication that the baptism of the Holy Ghost would be more than John's baptism of repentance. The baptism that Christ would bring will divide houses, as those with the zeal for the Word of God will no longer be able to tolerate walking as the world does.

John's Baptism Insufficient

Here we see that John's baptism was different than the baptism of the Holy Ghost. We see that a baptism without understanding the work of Christ is incomplete. Those who were baptized just with the understanding of the baptism of repentance were re-baptized after they understood the work of Christ and were baptized "in the name of the Lord Jesus". In this instance, we also see that a physical baptism was performed, after which the "Holy Ghost came on them". At this point, we can see a difference in the effect of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, but we are not yet provided the difference in meaning.

Holy Spirit Baptism Sufficient!

Acts 2:36-44 indicates some similarity between the baptism of John and the baptism of the Holy Ghost. It is still for the "remission of sins", although now it is in the name of Jesus Christ and promises the gift of the Holy Spirit.

There are several interesting things to note in these passages. When they were told about Christ, they were "pricked in their heart", showing that first God worked in their hearts. They are then commanded to repent and be baptized, and that they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 39 states, "for the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call." This indicates that the promise is not just to those who were standing there hearing this message, but to future generations and to others who were not hearing this immediate message. The promise is to "as many as the Lord our God shall call." Jesus' commission was to all nations, Gentile and Jew. Likewise, the promise was to all.

Baptism for Men and Women

Here we see that Baptism was performed both on men and women. We also see that they first believed and were then baptized.

Receiving the Holy Ghost

Acts 8:13-24 give the story of Simon. We are told in verse 13 that he believed and was baptized, but as we will see below, whether his belief was genuine or not is questionable. We also see that in this instance, there were some in Samaria who were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and yet had not received the Holy Ghost.

Continuing the story of Simon, we see that his heart was not right with God. Does this mean that he wasn't saved, or simply that he still harbored a grave sin that he had not yet repented of? His prayer request in verse 24 indicates at least that he was concerned about what Peter told him! This may be a case of a physical water baptism not being accompanied by the baptism of the Holy Sprit.

We also see in verse 17 that it wasn't until the disciples laid hands upon those at Samaria that they received the Holy Ghost.

Believe and be Baptized

For the new believer, we see a distinct order: "If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest be baptized."

Saul's Baptism

Saul, who as a Jew had already been circumcised, was baptized after he believed.

Holy Spirit Before Baptism

Acts 10:44-48 shows an instance where the Holy Ghost came first, and the physical baptism followed. This is a good indication that the physical baptism is a symbol of the true baptism of the Holy Spirit. As we have seen, a physical baptism didn't always bring the Holy Spirit. Sometimes, the laying on of hands was needed. Here, the Holy Ghost fell on the Gentiles without a baptism being performed. So far, however, we see in every instance that believing and baptism are tightly joined.

Whole Household Saved

In Acts 11 we see the calling of Peter to the Gentiles. We see the wonderful proving out of "faith comes by hearing" in verses 14 and 15, where the Angel told them that "all thy house shall be saved" and that "as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them." They heard the Word first, and then were saved. In this case, we find through divine revelation that the whole household was saved. There is no mention of water baptism being performed in these verses, but it seems that in this case the Holy Spirit came first, and baptism was probably performed later.

Salvation to the Children of Abraham

Note: vs. 26 "Men and brethren, children of the stock of Abraham, and whosoever among you feareth God, to you is the word of this salvation sent." Again, the men and women who feareth God are the children of the stock of Abraham.


Acts 16:14-15 relates Lydia's baptism, with her household. In this instance, we know that Lydia first believed, but we are told nothing of who was in her household or whether or not they first believed.

The Jailer

Acts 16:29-34 concerns the baptism of the household of the jailer. Verse 31 states, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house." Then, verse 32 indicates that the Gospel was spoken to the jailer and his household. Verse 33 tells us the jailer "and all his" were baptized, and we see in verse 34 that he believed in God, "with all his house." Again, believing and baptism are joined.


Again, we note that "all his house" believed, and that others "believed, and were baptized." We don't know who made up the members of the household, but we are told they all believed.

Paul and the Meaning of Baptism

This is in reference to Paul. He has already been "saved", and baptism is to represent a washing away of sins. He is also to call upon the name of the Lord.

Romans 6 expands our understanding of the meaning of baptism. Here we see that a baptized person has been buried and raised up anew, that our old man is crucified. Our baptism relates us directly with the work that Christ did for us on the cross. I believe here the baptism referred to is the baptism of the Holy Sprit, and again, our water baptism is a symbol of this.

Paul's Baptizing

Here Paul speaks about baptizing several people. Two individuals and one household are mentioned. Note it is not three households, and nothing is stated about who was in Stephanas household.

Baptism and Moses

In this verse, we find that the "fathers" were "baptized unto Moses" and "drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them". However, "but with many of them God was not well pleased". This may indicate that the baptism of the wildnerness trek was a baptism of fire, that helped to separate the wheat from the chaff.

One Baptism

Again, the "one baptism" is that of the Holy Spirit.

Baptized for the dead

It is not clear what is meant here by "baptized for the dead". One explanation states that Paul is concentrating not on baptism here, but on the resurrection. There were some who (falsely) "baptized for the dead", yet did not believe in the resurrection. Paul may have been pointing out their inconsistency by pointing out that if the dead will not be resurrected, then there certainly is no point in performing baptisms for the dead.

The Meaning of Baptism, Continued

When we are baptized, we have "put on Christ", we have become sons. God "hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts". Note also that the children of God are those through faith in Christ Jesus, that is, we are Abraham's seed if we be Christ's.

One Baptism, Again

Circumcision and Baptism

Here is the first occurrence of circumcision and baptism being mentioned together. They are not regarded here as equal to each other.

Doctrine of Baptisms

I don't believe this passage is meant to state that "dead works", "faith toward God", "doctrine of baptisms", and so forth are not important, but that the instruction was not to "lay again" these foundations. That is, it may be saying that some who have fallen away keep bringing up these "milk" subjects, while they should be advancing to the "meat" of the Gospel.

Baptism and Noah

Noah's salvation through the flood is also likened to baptism.



These are the New Testament passages that teach about Baptism. In almost every passage of Scripture, baptism is closely linked with believing, repentance, and being filled with the Holy Ghost. The physical baptism represents our being indwelt with the Holy Ghost, and represents our being buried with Christ and raised again, with our sins washed clean.

It is clear from Scripture that a physical water baptism should come when we have believed in Jesus Christ. However, it is also clear that it is not this physical baptism which does any salvation.

Topic 1. What about Infant Baptism?

One of the arguments for infant baptism starts with covenant theology (I generally agree with covenant theology). This states that each covenant that God made with man from Abraham to Noah, to David and through the "new" covenant at the death of Christ on the Cross were essentially the same. That is, salvation has essentially been the same from the beginning, though there are some differences in application throughout history.

From here, it is argued that since it is clear that infant children were included in the covenant in the Old Testament, that infants of believers must still be included in the New Testament. Since infants were circumcised in the Old Testament as a sign of their belonging to the covenant, then infants in the New Testament also should receive this sign, which is now baptism.

The reformed view of infant baptism does not say that the water baptism has any saving power. It is still God who saves, and it is possible that a baptized child may turn away from God, just as many circumcised Israelites turned away from God. Just as Abraham had to be obedient in providing the sign to his children, modern believers should be obedient in providing the sign to our children.

Discussion of Infant Baptism

1. Nowhere do we see any examples of infants being baptized.

During the time of Acts, Pentecost had just occurred. Thus, baptisms described were initial baptisms, that is, new converts. No one argues that new converts should be baptized upon their faith being placed on Jesus Christ. It is also possible that there were infants in some of the "households" referenced for baptism.

Although these points are true, there is still not one example of an infant being explicitly baptized. Also, in most cases of a household being baptized, we are also informed that the whole household was saved or believed. Regardless of how this was made known, it certainly qualifies the entire household to be baptized.

2. Nowhere are we commanded to baptize infants.

Although we are not commanded to baptize infants explicitly, we might infer that the command to have our children circumcised as a sign of belonging to the convenant should be extended, since the covenant in essence has not changed. Since circumcision has been "nailed to the cross", we use baptism to represent membership in the covenant.

I provide the following arguments against this point of view:

First, nowhere in Scripture do we find baptism being regarded as a replacement for circumcision. In fact, even Jews who were baptized still wanted the Gentiles to undergo circumcision.

Second, as we saw in the study, baptism represents so much more than circumcision did, just as the purification rights in the Old Testament were still needed even though someone was already circumcised.

Third, we are clearly told in Scripture that the true "children of Abraham" are those who trust in, or have "put on" Jesus Christ. For any given infant, we cannot know if they are saved or not.

While children of believers do have a special place (1 Corinthians 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy), in no place does Scripture indicate this place needs to be acknowledged through infant baptism.

3. Baptism represents the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. What evidence do we have in an infant that the Holy Spirit is present?

As a child of a believer, that child has a good (or better) chance of being a believer. Proverbs tell us to raise up a child in the way he should go, and he will not depart from it. Corinthians 7:14 indicates that the children of believers are holy.

All this is well and good. I am very pleased that my children are considered holy, and I even feel I have seen some evidence that God is working with each of them. Again, however, I cannot know, especially in an infant, that they are regenerated at such a young age.

I cannot read Romans 6:3-6 (below) and assume that my infant is in this state. While it is certainly possible that an infant can be saved even in the womb, it is not something I can know. Baptism is very important, and not something to be taken lightly. How can I be so presumptuous as to assume something about the work that is only Gods? It is not the physical baptism which saves, but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. If my son or daughter has been saved by birth, then the symbolic physical baptism declaring that can certainly wait. If they are not saved, or if their salvation is to come at a late age, who am I to impose this baptism upon them before they are aware of their condition?

(Romans 6:3 Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: 6 Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.)

4. God's commands to baptize are always accompanied with "repent", "believe", "call on the Lord", and similar acts of submission. The infant cannot consciously perform any of these.

Baptizing infants does not fit the Biblical model. Baptism is not just a sign that we are members of a covenant, baptism represents the true baptism of the Holy Ghost. There is no way we can know our children are repentant of their sins or sin nature. As such, there is no Biblical warrant for baptizing infants.

Question to Ponder; Baptism and the Lord's Supper

If the argument for including children in baptism is that they are members of the covenant and we are following the example of circumcision, why then are children often denied as partakers in the Lord's Supper in these same churches? Surely children participated in the Passover meal, which is the predecessor to the Lord's Supper! If we are assuming the children are saved (as represented by baptism), why do we deny them the wafer and the wine?


Not only is there no mandate in Scripture to baptize infants, the baptism of infants actually belittles the true meaning of baptism! We are buried with Christ in baptism, and risen with Him. Our baptism recognizes our mandate to walk in the newness of life, and this cannot be done if God has not called us.

A father's lack of providing baptism for his child does not in any way deny his child entrance into the covenant of God. That is God's work, not ours. We are commanded as Christians to raise our children in a Godly way, to raise them up in the way they should go. We do our best to raise both by word (Word!) and deed, we pray daily for our children, and we guide them as best we can. The rest is up to the Lord.

Topic 2. Baptism a Seal?

In some baptism rituals, I have heard the water baptism referred to as a "sign and a seal" of salvation.

Physical baptism is certainly a sign, but nowhere does Scripture call it a seal. A seal is an assurance.

Nowhere in the KJV do we find the word "seal" in reference to baptism (I haven't checked the others). The only place we find it is in reference to circumcision, which Abraham took to signify the faithfulness that was already in his heart.

In this case, Abraham's circumcision was a true seal, an assurance of the covenant God made with Abraham that exists to this day. Other circumcisions, however, are only referred to as signs, not seals. The circumcision of any one particular descendent of Abraham did not seal that individual. That individual still needed to "put on Christ".

Physical baptism is also not referred to as a seal, only the Holy Spirit is. The true baptism of the Holy Spirit is certainly a seal, but the physical baptism is only a sign, or symbol of the real thing.

Topic 3: The Mode of Baptism

When reading about baptism in the various commentaries, websites, and books, you will find heated debates about the proper form of the water baptism ceremony. Some will insist that immersion is the only way, other will argue that immersion is not even Scriptural. In my readings, I have seen references to three modes of baptism performed: sprinkling, pouring, and immersion. I find support for all three modes in the Bible.

Sprinkling: Sprinkling is signified in the Old Testament as a method of cleansing. Baptism represents our cleansing from sin. A couple examples are: Numbers 8:6-7, "Take the Levites from among the children of Israel, and cleanse them. 7 And thus shalt thou do unto them, to cleanse them: Sprinkle water of purifying upon them, and let them shave all their flesh, and let them wash their clothes, and so make themselves clean." and Ezekial 36:25 "Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you."

Pouring: Pouring combines the concept of washing away our sins, with the pouring out of the Spirit as indicated in Acts 2:17a, "Acts 2:17 And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh..."

Immersion: Some arguments supporting immersion as the only proper method don't hold up to Scripture. For example, in some passages the text indicates the person baptized "came up out of the water". However, those same passages usually indicate that both parties went down into the water. Another example is that the Greek word "bapto" means "to dip". However, this does not mean that similar words must carry the same meaning. Rather, words like "baptizo" and "baptismos" indicate "washing", as found in Mark 7:4, "And when they come from the market, except they wash, they eat not. And many other things there be, which they have received to hold, as the washing of cups, and pots, brasen vessels, and of tables." Thus, while Scripture doesn't mandate immersion as the only mode of baptism, immersion certainly does indicate a washing of the whole person, and thus, in my view is a valid mode of baptism.

I will also add that we see two references to "baptism" in the Old Testament where nobody even got wet: see references to the Isrealites being baptized unto Moses, and those with Noah being baptized through the Flood, above.

Scriptural Summary

Mark 1:4-5 "John...preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins...and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins."

Mark 16:16 He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned

Acts 1:5 For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.

Acts 2:38 Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.

Acts 8:12 But when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women

Acts 8:37 And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest.[be baptized]

Acts 9:18 And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.[Saul]

Acts 10:47 Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we?

Acts 11:16 "...but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. 17 Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ..."

Acts 16:14 "...Lydia...heard us: whose heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul. 15 And when she was baptized, and her household..."

Acts 16:30 "...what must I do to be saved? 31 And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house 32 And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. 34 And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.

Acts 18:8 "And Crispus...believed on the Lord with all his house; and many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized.

Acts 19:4 Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. 5 When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus

Acts 22:16 And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

Romans 6:3 " many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life."

1 Cor 12:13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit

Gal 3:26 For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

Col 2:12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead.

1 Pet 3:21 The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ [referring to Noah]

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