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The Meaning of Baptism

Question: What is the meaning of baptism?

Answer: Baptism is a New Testament ordinance established by Jesus Christ just before His ascension into heaven. The Lord Jesus commissioned His disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all people, and to baptize new believers in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:16). The rite is performed by immersing the person in water. Baptism is a sign to the new disciple of his fellowship with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3, 4, 5; Colossians 2:12) and of remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 22:16).

Baptism is sign of salvation

Baptism is a sign (symbol, picture) because it shows spiritual realities by means of physical elements and actions (immersion in water). Baptism is a sign is acknowledged by all, including the modern Roman Catholic Church:

The sacraments are efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us. The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament. They bear fruit in those who receive them with the required dispositions…This sacrament is called Baptism, after the central rite by which it is carried out: to baptize (Greek baptizein) means to “plunge” or “IMMERSE”; the “plunge” into the water symbolizes the catechumen's burial into Christ's death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him, as “a new creature” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131, 1214).

So, baptism is a sign of regeneration and cleansing of the believer. However, for the Catholic Church, baptism is something more than a sign. It is an “efficacious” sign; it “makes present” the grace that it “signifies.” Baptism is both a “sign” and the “instrumental cause” of justification (Council of Trent, session 6, chapter 7).

This doctrine, known as baptismal regeneration, is not taught in the Bible. Catholics repeat the same mistake of the Jews by confusing the sign with the reality it signified. The Jews boasted about their circumcision, without realizing that the “true circumcision” is a matter of the heart and performed by the Spirit (Deuteronomy 10:16, Romans 2:29) Similarly, the Bible makes a clear distinction between baptism from the reality it represents. We receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:14); salvation is through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth (2 Thessalonians 2:13). Water baptism follows faith to signify the Spirit’s work in the heart.

Baptism is not the cause of salvation

1. Baptism is not the cause of salvation because people are saved without, or before, water baptism.

All the Old Testament saints (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, etc.) were saved by faith in the Lord. None of them were baptized. Jesus assured the woman that she was saved by faith: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:50). Similarly He assured the repentant thief, “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). The introduction of the baptism in the New Testament church certainly doesn’t destroy the saving efficacy of faith. After preaching the gospel, the apostle Peter baptized Cornelius and his household because he was sure that they were saved by faith in Christ. (Acts 10; 11; 15). The apostle Paul’s mission was “not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” and he was confident that “it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Corinthians 1:17,21).

On the other hand, there are many baptized people who evidently are not born again. Water baptism did not change the heart of Simon the magician, for soon afterwards the apostle Peter did not hesitate to warn him that his heart was not right with God and that he was still bound by sin (Acts 8:21,23). There are thousands like him who have been baptized with water, and yet show no evidence of being born anew (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7). They still love the sin they practice; they do not fear of God nor respect His commandments; nor do they love the brethren. Yet they still call themselves Christians, call God their Father and think that they are members of Christ’s church. Despite their baptism, they have no share in Christ and are still enslaved by sin.

2. There is overwhelming scriptural proof that justification and salvation are received by faith. The Bible assures believers that they are born again and possess eternal life.

Eternal life

  1. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life (John 5:24).

  2. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life (John 6:47).

  3. Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God (1 John 5:1).


  1. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8).

  2. And that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).

  3. For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek (Romans 1:16).


  1. Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1).

  2. We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ (Galatians 2:16).

  3. And be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith (Philippians 3:9).

These and scores of similar passages clearly teach that salvation is received by faith. Faith is the “instrumental cause” of justification. If baptism is taken as the instrumental cause instead of faith, all these scriptures are contradicted and negated. Faith is incapacitated!

3. Like Circumcision, Baptism does not justify

It is generally agreed that Christian baptism corresponds to the Old Testament rite of circumcision. It is therefore helpful to study what the New Testament has to say about this sign, and it’s relation to faith and salvation (please read Romans 4).

The apostle Paul establishes the principle of justification by faith, apart from works (4:1-8). Then he asks whether both Jews (the circumcised) and Gentiles are justified in the same manner, by faith. He considers Abraham, who was circumcised many years after he had been justified by faith. What then is the use of circumcision if it does not achieve justification? Paul answers, Abraham “received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while still uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all those who believe” (4:11).

The physical sign did not cause justification. Circumcision is a sign and a seal. It is God’s symbol and mark to Abraham of his justification, which had been received by faith. The apostle Paul applies this principle to the rest of us: we are justified by faith. If God’s method of justification had been changed in the New Testament (by baptism, instead of by faith), his argument is rendered meaningless. Evidently, God justifies the ungodly today as he ever did before! By faith! We have a different sign today, baptism, which like circumcision is a sign and seal of the righteousness of faith. Thus, the biblical sequence is this:

  1. Faith

  2. Justification

  3. Baptism

We would do well not to mix up the sequence. Catholicism actually reverses the order for infants:

  1. Baptism

  2. Justification (apart from personal faith!)

  3. Faith (later on, hopefully)

Catholicism also mixes things up in adult converts:

  1. Faith (and still not justified!)

  2. Baptism

  3. Justification

It is the duty and privilege of every new convert to be baptized to signify the new life and cleansing that are his through faith in Jesus. Whereas infant baptism denies the necessity of personal faith for justification; and baptismal regeneration of adult believers denies the sufficiency of faith for justification.

Baptism is not a mere sign

Sometimes Catholics argue, “If baptism is a mere sign, and if it does not regenerate or justify, why should we bother with baptism at all? It is completely useless.”

This is a false dilemma. The alternative to “baptismal regeneration” is not an empty and useless sign. Circumcision was not useless to Abraham, nor is baptism useless to Christians. Through baptism, God bestows great spiritual blessings to the believer.

Like the written Word (which in its ultimate analysis is also a sign), baptism is a God-given means of revealing Himself to His people. We are blessed when we receive God’s truth by faith and obedience. Neither the Word nor the sacraments confer any spiritual blessing in a magical or automatic manner. The Bible would be of no benefit to me if I simply hear or read it without believing and obeying God’s commands and promises. “For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it” (Hebrews 4:2). James says the same thing, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).

Baptism is God’s Word in a living and dramatic form. When a Christian understands the meaning of baptism, believing the great transformation that has occurred in his life, and obeys its message, baptism becomes the means of grace and life. Thus the apostle Paul first reminds us what baptism really means:

"Don't you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life" (Romans 6:3,4).

Baptism means that believers are united with Christ. His death is their death; His resurrection life is their life. Then the apostle Paul applies this great Gospel truth in a practical way:

"In the same way count yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness" (Romans 6:11-13).

How is God’s grace received in baptism? How does it change the believer’s life? Does it transform a person by virtue of the application of water? No, it is only through faithful obedience - counting ourselves dead to sin and alive in Christ, rejecting sin, pursuing righteousness in the service of God. Then, baptism transforms sinners to saints. A useless sign? Far from it!

© Dr Joseph Mizzi