Baptism is a New Testament ordinance instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ just before His ascension to 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 disciple in water.
Who should receive this rite? Christ commanded that “disciples” and those who “believe” should be baptised (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15,16). All recorded baptisms in the New Testament follow personal conversion to Christ, as indicated by such words as believe, repent and calling on His name. (See Acts 2:38; Acts 2:41; Acts 8:12,13; Acts 8:36, 37; Acts 10:47,48; Acts 16:14,15; Acts 16:32-34; Acts 18:8; Acts 19:4,5; Acts 22:16).
Baptism is God’s sign to the new disciple of the 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 a sign (symbol, picture) because it shows spiritual realities by means of physical elements and actions (immersion in water). That baptism is a sign is acknowledged by all, including Roman Catholics:
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, confuses the sign with the reality it signifies.
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 baptised. 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 baptised 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). Paul and his associates only baptised those who had been saved through faith.
On the other hand, there are many baptised 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 baptised with water and yet show no evidence of being born from above (1 John 2:29; 3:9; 4:7). They still love the sin they practice; they have no 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 they 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.
The Bible teaches that whoever believes in Christ has eternal life: “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); “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me has everlasting life” (John 6:47); “Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ is born of God” (1 John 5:1).
Salvation is through faith in Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8); “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); “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).
Justification is also by faith in Christ: “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1); “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ” (Galatians 2:16); “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 – the spiritual hands that receive the gratuitous gift of the righteousness of God. 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 its relation to faith and salvation (Romans 4).
The apostle Paul establishes the principle of justification by faith and apart from the merit of personal works (4:1-8). Then he asks whether both Jews (the circumcised) and Gentiles are justified in the same manner, namely by faith. He takes Abraham as an example: the patriarch 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: like Abraham we are all justified by faith. If God’s method of justification had been changed in the New Testament (by baptism, instead of by faith), Paul’s 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:
We would do well not to mix up the sequence. It is a great error to attribute to baptism what the Bible attributes to faith. A person is justified by faith and he is afterwards baptised. Catholicism actually reverses the order for infants:
Infants are said to be justified by baptism even though they cannot exercise personal faith. Catholicism also mixes things up in adult converts. Faith is a necessary disposition for adults to worthily receive baptism (Baltimore Catechism, Q668). Yet the catechumen is told that he is not yet justified even though he already believes in Christ. He must wait until baptism to receive forgiveness.
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 saving work in the heart.
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). Thus, James also warns us, “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:
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:
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. Only then does baptism transform sinners to saints. A useless sign? Far from it!
The Catholic Church teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1277). Baptism causes regeneration. (In theological jargon, baptism is said to be the instrumental cause of regeneration). Baptism is not only a sign; it actually brings about the new birth. “Through baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1213). Moreover, as with other sacraments, baptism acts “ex opere operato” - literally, by the very fact of the action being performed. The right application of the outward sign is always followed by the gift of internal grace if the sacrament is received with the right dispositions.
In the case of infants, baptism removes original sin and brings about regeneration even though the infant does not personally believe in Christ. “It may not be doubted that in Baptism infants receive the mysterious gift of faith. Not that they believe with the assent of the mind, but they are established in the faith of their parents” (Catechism of Trent). In the case of adults, faith is necessary, but it is not sufficient for forgiveness or eternal life. Faith is considered as one of the factors constituting the “right disposition” for baptism. “Besides a wish to be baptised, in order to obtain the grace of the Sacrament, faith is also necessary” (Catechism of Trent). Yet the believer does not receive grace (forgiveness or regeneration) until and unless he is baptised with water.
To prove that “baptismal regeneration” is a true biblical doctrine, it is not enough to quote some scriptures that somehow link baptism to forgiveness or the new birth. Baptism must be shown to be the instrumental cause of regeneration.
Faith, repentance, baptism, confessing Christ, holiness and good works are all aspects of the human response to God's grace; all are somehow related to salvation. That does not mean that faith, repentance, confession, works, baptism, etc, are all correlated to salvation in the same manner. The distinction between the different roles is clearly seen in Ephesians 2:8-10 - "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them."
Salvation is "through faith" and "not of works." The apostle Paul is adamant that good works are not the means of salvation. Yet, in the same breath, the apostle is equally insistent that works are the fruit of salvation - "for good works". So then, whoever "believes" and tries to do good works to merit salvation does not understand the Gospel. Nor does the man who "believes" and continues to live in sin, devoid of good works. Only he who believes in Christ, and forfeits any reliance on the merits of personal works, and whose life is overflowing with good works, can be confident that he is truly saved by grace.
While it is true that both faith and works are related to salvation, yet it is fatal to attribute to works the role which the Word of God attributes to faith. Faith is the instrumental cause; works are the necessary fruit.
We should therefore ask about the relation of faith and baptism to salvation. Is faith insufficient to save, or does it require the addition of baptism? Or is faith sufficient and baptism the sign of salvation? Think of Paul's argument in Romans 3 and 4. He uses Abraham as an example of justification by faith. At least for Abraham, faith was sufficient to justify him (Abraham was never baptised, and he was justified by faith before he received the sign of circumcision). Moreover, since Paul uses Abraham as a model for all of us (in New Testament times), it is impossible to deny the saving efficacy of faith apart from works of the law and rituals. Not, of course, that we disown the Law of God; for every believer seeks to fulfill its precepts (as Paul argues later on in his letter); nor that circumcision was meaningless, or that baptism is optional (for he later reminds the believers about their baptism and the implications to the Christian life).
Therefore it is not enough to show from Scripture that “faith and baptism” or “repentance and baptism” saves. Evangelical Christians also believe that “faith and baptism” saves, without accepting the idea of baptismal regeneration. Evangelicals say that a person is saved by faith (instrumental cause) and baptism (as the sign of salvation). Whereas Catholics say that faith is a predisposition (which is not sufficient to save by itself); cleansing is actually brought about by baptism (instrumental cause).
So to prove baptismal regeneration, it must be shown that:
Without baptism, faith does not save
Let us look at the most important “proof texts” to see whether they actually prove baptismal regeneration or not.
“Proof Texts” Examined
John 3:5 - Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
For the sake of argument, let us ignore the strong contextual evidence that “water” is not primarily a reference to baptism; let us assume that in fact it does. In that case “water” and “Spirit” must refer to different aspects of the work of regeneration. In Catholicism, the Spirit is the agent; water baptism is the instrument. In biblical Christianity, the Spirit is the agent; baptism is the sign of salvation. Why can’t we understand water as the reality signified by the external rite (namely spiritual cleansing and new life) brought about by the Spirit? There is no compelling reason why “water” must be understood as the instrumental cause.
Christ teaches that the new birth is the sovereign work of God the Holy Spirit. "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8); "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12, 13). Man cannot determine when and who will be born again; God regenerates whenever and whoever He wishes. The new birth is not "according to the will of man." Now if water baptism automatically causes regeneration, we must say that the wind blows where man wishes, who can tell exactly where it goes because the administration of baptism is very much a matter of the human will.
Mark 16:16 - He who believes and is baptised will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.
Catholics and Evangelicals agree that faith and baptism save – the disagreement is on their separate roles. Catholicism takes personal faith as a mere “predisposition” and insufficient to bring salvation or indeed as unnecessary in the case of infants. On the other hand, Christians say that salvation is through faith which is followed and signified by baptism. Jesus emphasizes the primacy and necessity of faith by warning that “he who does not believe will be condemned.” We know, at least, that one can be baptised and still be lost if he does not believe. Matthew 16:16 says nothing about the unusual case of someone who believes and is not yet baptised. Therefore, this verse cannot be used to prove something ("faith is insufficient") that it is not talking about.
Acts 2:38 - Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter powerfully persuaded the Jews that the man they had crucified as a blasphemer is the Lord and Messiah. They were pierced to the heart and asked what they should do. Peter replied that they must repent, i.e. change their mind about Jesus - they who previously disbelieved Jesus must now believe in Him. Baptism in the name of Jesus Christ served as a courageous public testimony of their repentance and faith in Him, knowing full well that it meant persecution from the Jewish leaders and the rest of the Jews.
There is nothing in the text that compels us to see baptism as the instrumental cause. Why not take repentance as the means of receiving forgiveness, and baptism as the sign of true repentance and forgiveness? Indeed, a short time later the apostle Peter promised forgiveness on the basis of repentance without even mentioning baptism (Acts 3:19 - Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out). Faith in the Messiah (implied in genuine repentance), rather than baptism, receives God's gracious pardon.
Acts 22:16 - And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptised, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.
The outward act, “arise and be baptised,” is linked to the heart appeal to Christ, “calling on the name of the Lord.” The result is spiritual cleansing - “wash away your sins.” We see immediately that this verse says nothing about forgiveness apart from personal faith. Nor does it necessarily prove that “calling upon the Lord” is insufficient for cleansing. For baptism can be considered as an external sign (washing the body) of the inner reality (washing the heart from sin) brought about by faith (calling on the Lord). Grammatically, “wash away your sins” is linked to “calling on the name of the Lord” and not to “be baptised.” Elsewhere Scripture is clear that the instrument of salvation is calling upon the name of the Lord, i.e. by faith. God “is rich to all who call upon Him. For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved. How then shall they call on Him whom they have not believed?” (Romans 10:12-14). In other words, their faith (manifest in their call for mercy) results in salvation. Baptism does not repeat what is already achieved through faith (salvation, cleansing); baptism signifies this great truth.
Romans 6:3, 4 - Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
This passage, especially the phrase “buried with Him through baptism,” seems to support the idea that baptism is the instrumental cause of justification. However, even here baptism could be understood as the sign of justification. It is not unusual in Scripture to call the reality by the name of its sign. Thus, for example, Paul says that all Christians are circumcised (even though one may not be physically circumcised!) - meaning that they possess what circumcision signifies (Philippians 3:3). Using this kind of language, Paul can speak of the great reality of the believers’ spiritual union with Christ, and the benefits which flow from that union, in terms of baptism, its sign.
We are forced to give this interpretation by the context. Before mentioning baptism in chapter 6, Paul had repeatedly emphasised that faith alone is the instrumental cause of justification (Romans 1:16, 17; 3:22, 25, 26, 28, 30; 4:5, 13; 5:1, 2). Righteousness is “imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised up because of our justification” (Romans 4:24,25). Since they received the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection (justification), and that through faith, believers must be spiritually united to Him (delivered and raised up with Him). If baptism is taken as the instrumental cause, then Paul contradicts what he had established before, namely that justification is by faith.
Elsewhere, the apostle Paul clearly teaches that what is signified in baptism (buried and raised with Christ) actually occurs “through faith.” Christians are “buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). Justification on account of union in Christ's death, burial and resurrection is brought about “through faith” - and is properly symbolised by dipping the new believer in and out of the water.
1 Peter 3:21 - “There is also an antitype which now saves us - baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Peter was speaking about Noah and his family who were saved through the floodwater. He makes a comparison between that water and baptism. One corresponds to the other (that’s what antitype means). The flood symbolised baptism. Further, Peter says that baptism now saves us. Conscious that his statement is liable to be misunderstood, Peter explains himself. Negatively, baptism does not save because water is applied to the body: “not the removal of the filth of the flesh.” Water can only cleanse the flesh outwardly; it does not cleanse the heart from sin. Positively, baptism saves because it follows a personal response to God as indicated by the phrase “the answer of a good conscience toward God.” The Bible usually uses such terms as “believe,” “repent,” and “call upon” to describe this personal response to God. It is that aspect of baptism (what is signified, “the answer of a good conscience toward God”) rather than the external rite (the sign, the application of water) that saves. In this sense, we affirm that baptism saves.
Consider the following conversation:
Strictly speaking, the husband is united to his wife because of the marriage vows rather than the ring. Yet since the latter is the sign of their union, it is natural to speak of the ring to mean the reality it represents. He is married because he wears a marriage ring. Compare this to a similar conversation about salvation:
So, when we say that baptism saves us, we do not mean that the sacrament saves us apart from faith in Christ; we mean that baptism signifies our salvation by faith in Christ. Contrast this to the position of the Roman Catholic Church. Infants are said to be saved by baptism even though by reason of his age a baby cannot make such a personal appeal to God, as the Bible requires. 1 Peter 3:21 actually denies baptismal regeneration ex opere operato!
We have seen that there are a few scriptures that relate baptism to salvation. All these scriptures also associate baptism with faith and repentance. Therefore, baptism can be understood as the sign of salvation received by faith in Christ. None of these verses prove that baptism, rather than faith, brings about justification, nor that infant baptism is efficacious since personal faith is absent in infants. Therefore, baptismal regeneration is not a proven biblical doctrine.
The Biblical Pattern
Baptismal regeneration does not only lack biblical proof; it is refuted by the Scriptures. The narrative of Cornelius’ conversion illustrates that salvation is not preceded or caused by baptism; on the contrary, having been received by faith, salvation is followed by baptism. Cornelius’ story is emphasised in the book of Acts because he and his relatives were the first Gentile converts admitted into the church. (Acts 10; 11:1-18 and 15:7-11).
An angel told Cornelius to send for Simon Peter, “who will tell you words by which you and all your household will be saved” (Acts 11:14). When Peter and his Jewish companions entered the house, they found Cornelius’ family and friends gathered together, eager to hear what the apostle had to say. Peter preached the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, promising that “through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). As he spoke, the Holy Spirit came upon the group. Peter and the Jewish Christians were amazed because they realised that God had saved and welcomed the Gentiles into the church.
At this point we must stop and ask an important question. Did they receive the Spirit by baptism? Clearly, they received the Holy Spirit before they were baptised with water. Furthermore, we must ask about the significance of the Spirit's baptism. Could it be that the Spirit was given to show that they had believed the Gospel and that their hearts were cleansed from sin through faith? The answer is a definite yes! After visiting Cornelius, the apostle Peter had to defend himself before the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem to explain why he had entered a Gentile’s house and received Gentiles into the church:
According to Peter, the Holy Spirit proved that Cornelius and the other Gentiles had believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, just as the apostles and the early disciples had done before. On another occasion, Peter explained further:
We should not miss this important conclusion: While hearing the Gospel, Cornelius and the Gentiles believed in Christ, and God purified their hearts by faith. This agrees perfectly with the promise that “whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43).
What should Peter have done in that situation? He reasoned: “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptised who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). So Peter commanded the new converts to be baptised in the name of the Lord.
Please note that they were baptised after hearing the Gospel. They were baptised after believing in Christ. They were baptised after receiving the Spirit. They were baptised after their hearts were purified by faith.
This clear example cannot be dismissed as an exceptional case. The apostle Peter declared before the Jerusalem council: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we (Jews) shall be saved in the same manner as they (Cornelius and the other Gentiles)” (Acts 15:11). Salvation by faith in Christ, followed by baptism, is the divine pattern for all people, whether Jews or Gentiles.
Baptism is not the means by which we receive salvation. We are forgiven and purified by faith in Christ, followed by baptism to signify that amazing reality. Every professing Christian should be careful not to be deceived in thinking that he is right with God simply because he or she had been baptised - one could be baptised and still be lost. On the other hand, for every true believer, baptism is God’s sign of his saving union with Christ.
© Dr Joseph Mizzi