If you wish to start an argument among a group of Christians, all you need to do is ask this question: “Is water baptism essential for salvation?”
Baptism has historically been one of the more controversial issues debated in the church. Is baptism essential? The scriptures are clear: You are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). You are not made right with God by water. Only the blood of Jesus makes us clean.
So why does Peter refer to the baptism that saves you?
Baptism now saves you… (1 Peter 3:21)
Apparently baptism saves us, but which baptism? There are several types of baptism including:
– John’s baptism of repentance (Act 19:3–4)
– water baptism done in Jesus’ name (Act 10:48, 19:5)
– Holy Spirit baptism (Act 11:16)
– Jesus’ baptism of suffering (Matt. 20:22)
– baptism for the dead (1 Cor. 15:29)
So many baptisms! It’s no wonder people argue. But in his letter to the Ephesians, Paul said there is only one baptism:
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3–6)
What is the one baptism?
Theologians will tell you that Paul is referring to some rite undertaken by new believers, but which one?
“It’s repeating the apostle’s creed.”
“It’s water baptism.”
Arguments about baptism lead to strife and division, which is the exact opposite of what Paul is calling for here. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit.”
The one baptism is not water baptism or any outward act. It is the baptism that happens to every believer when they are put into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit.
For even as the body is one yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)
The moment you came to Jesus, you were baptized or placed into his body by the Spirit.
What does it mean to be baptized?
To be baptized means to be dipped or immersed. To use an obscure word, it is to be whelmed.
To whelm something is to bury it in dirt or sink it in water. It is what happens when a ship goes down in a storm or a skier is hit with an avalanche. To be baptized or whelmed is a dramatic and catastrophic event.
And it happened to you.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death? (Romans 6:3)
Your old self has been scuttled, sunk, and sent to the bottom of the sea. This did not happen when you were water baptized; it was done to you by the Holy Spirit the moment you said yes to Jesus.
You: “Yes, Lord.”
Holy Spirit: “Bam!”
“You have been baptized (read: whelmed) into his death” (Rom. 6:3b). Do you realize what this means? The person you used to be no longer lives. Which is wonderful news when you think about it.
Your old self had issues that you could never resolve. The Holy Spirit’s solution was not to patch up your old self but to whelm him or bury her in the ground with Jesus. This is what it means to be baptized into his death. Your old self is history. He’s done and dusted, dead and buried.
Of course, that is only half the story.
Therefore we have been buried with him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4)
The Holy Spirit didn’t leave you in the ground. Just as he raised Jesus, he raised you.
Knowing this, that our old self was crucified with him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (Romans 6:6–7)
Because of that One baptism you are now free from sin. Sin is no longer your master.
Which is pretty good news, wouldn’t you say?
What is the baptism that saves?
Peter and Paul were talking about the same thing. The baptism that saves and the one baptism are the baptism that happened when the Holy Spirit placed you into the body of Christ:
Baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to him. (1 Peter 3:21–22)
The only thing that can give you a good conscience before God is the cleansing blood of Jesus (Heb. 10:22). So again, it’s not water that saves you but the blood of Jesus.
The moment you put your faith in the risen Lord, you receive the baptism that saves. Your old man is buried with Christ and you are instantly raised and seated with him in heavenly places. In that moment, you are as saved as saved can be.
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:27)
The old has gone, the new has come. The life you live, you live by faith in the Risen Son of God.
When you get this revelation, it will free you from the curse of trying to rehabilitate the old self. (He’s dead.) It will liberate you from your struggle with sin. (Reckon yourself dead to it.) When you know you have been baptized and raised by the Holy Spirit, it will empower you to truly live.
Why get water baptized?
…in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also… (1 Peter 3:20–21)
Peter is not saying we are saved through water baptism; he’s saying water baptism symbolizes the baptism that saves us – the baptism done by the Holy Spirit.
Water baptism is a powerful demonstration of faith because it reenacts what the Holy Spirit has accomplished. We don’t go into the water to save ourselves or to complete some process that Jesus started. We do it in response to what the Spirit has done.
Water baptism is an outward act testifying to a supernatural reality.
You may have been baptized as a Catholic or a Lutheran or even a Baptist, but there is only one Body of Christ and there is only one baptism. If you are a believer, you have been baptized by the Holy Spirit into that body. He did it all.
With that in mind, let us put off strife and dissension. Knowing there is only one baptism that matters, let us “be humble, gentle, and patient, bearing with one another in love” (Eph. 4:2–3).
Image: The Baptism of the Christ with Dove, by Daniel Bonnell
Got questions about baptism? Check out Paul’s Water Baptism study note on Patreon.
Got a question about a tricky scripture? Check out The Grace Commentary.