Symbolize or Save?

The Baptism Debate

In a previous article, I pointed out three controversial reasons as to why the method of baptism should be by immersion and not sprinkling. Those reasons were:

  1. The word baptism literally means, “to dip, immerse, submerge” into water.
  2. The gospel narratives describe immersion when mentioning the baptism of people.
  3. The spiritual truth that it represents is more accurately illustrated by immersion.

These all describe the method (or mode) by which we should baptize. The third and final reason introduces us to another aspect of baptism that is important for us to understand. It is the purpose for which we are baptized. It does not pertain in particular to the how, but to the why.

If those three points are controversial, then this one is even more so. It answers the question, “Why should I be baptized?” and “What is the affect of baptism, if any?” Christian organizations respond to these questions in two different ways. Some will say that it is commanded and symbolizes salvation. The others will say that it is commanded and causes salvation. So the real question over the purpose of baptism is this, “Is baptism a symbol or does it save?” i

Spearheading those who teach that baptism causes salvation is the Roman Catholic Church. According to the New Advent Encyclopedia, it is the “door to the spiritual life” and that “by it we are made members of Christ and incorporated with the Church.” It goes on to say that “the effect of the sacrament is the remission of all sin, original and actual; likewise all punishment which is due for sin.” And in case you still have questions about your future after such baptism, you will “attain immediately to the kingdom of heaven and the vision of God” if you die before you sin again. The idea here is that baptism washes away the person’s sin giving them entrance to heaven (where sin cannot be). ii

It was Paul who said, “for by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” when he was describing spiritual regeneration (1 Cor. 12:13). So, there is a baptism that removes the guilt of and punishment for sin, federally joins us with Christ, and drafts us into spiritual church body. But this baptism is one of spirit. It is a divine work and not one that we perform. Notice that Paul wrote, “for by one Spirit” this baptism is performed. It is the Spirit of God that baptizes us – not another person.

If you skip over to Paul’s letter to Titus, you read that God “saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” which “being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:5-7). So when we baptize we are not washing away sin or regenerated the heart. This is the work of God (see Eph. 2:8-9).

However, Jesus commanded the disciples to baptize those who become disciples of Him. And if you follow these disciples throughout acts you will find them first acknowledging those who have been regenerated by God and then baptizing them. Take the account of Peter at Cornelius’ house found in Acts 10. After explaining the gospel to them, they believed. “The Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (Acts 10:44). Peter’s response was “surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did” (Acts 10:47).

Was Peter trying to seal the deal? Not at all. In fact, when preaching the gospel to them, he said, “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sin” (Acts 10:43). Peter, like many that followed, baptized those who were already believers, regenerated, washed by the Spirit and adopted into the body of Christ.

And for this reason, Paul wrote in Romans 6:3-8:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 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. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, 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. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him.

Water baptism is a symbol of a spiritual reality that the Bible describes as a washing of sin and regeneration of the heart. It symbolizes the sinner dieing and raising anew with Jesus when He made atonement on the cross. Water baptism does not save.


  1. I know that few will admit that baptism alone saves someone like my words may imply, but this is a rarity. Most who believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, do not argue that it is the only thing necessary for salvation, there are other things like faith and obedience. However, for the sake of keeping this article as brief as possible and to not lean outside of the context, I simply abbreviated the statement.
  2. New Advent web site, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02258b.htm (October 17, 2008).
Posted by Jacob Abshire on October 20th, 2008 - 6:37 pm
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