Baptism : A Comparison of the Biblical Tradition with Modern Denominational Practices

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One of the main reasons for the different denominations is their core, or fundamental, difference of belief concerning baptism. I hope to show many of the individual beliefs that are held by the different denominations, and to go back to the Bible and show what it has to say concerning baptism. The point is not to distinguish who is right and who is wrong, but to make people think about what they have been taught in their denomination, and to compare it to what the Bible has to say on the matter.

If we go back to the original Greek we find several words used for baptism, baptizing, and baptized. All of these words have their root in the Greek word, Bapto; meaning to overwhelm, i.e. cover wholly with a fluid. The most common Greek word used to describe the act of baptism is. This is the word used throughout scripture for baptism. If translated directly into the English language, its meaning is: “The process by which a man or object is completely immersed in water and then withdrawn from it again.” (Barth 1948) This is what John the Baptist did; he baptized them by immersion in the Jordan River that came to him, after they repented of their sins (Matthew 3, Mark 1, and Luke 3). Here we have our requirements for baptism as laid out by the Bible:

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  • You must come to be baptized (not be brought) Later in Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus adds to these requirements that the believer
  • Be baptized by another believer
  • Be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, Holy Spirit

According to the scriptures “John the son of Zechariah in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar came out of the wilderness and preached baptism for the repentance of sins” (Luke 3; RSV). He baptized people in the River Jordan, amongst those that he baptized was Jesus. He only baptized those who came out to him and repented of their sins. Upon Jesus’s request, John, who did not believe himself worthy to baptize Christ, did so. Even here with Christ’s own baptism we see him following the second, third, and fourth rules. As for the first and fifth rules Christ was without sin and thereby had no need to repent of it and Christ had not given the command of the fifth yet. Here Jesus himself is showing us that baptism is something good and, something that every believer should do. Jesus even says that this own baptism is “fitting(_) to fulfil all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15 RSV). The Greek word _ presumably indicates, in an indirect manner, the divine will (Beasley-Murray 1963). This implies God’s own will in Jesus’s baptism. God himself endorses baptism again by opening the heavens after Jesus’s baptism and says ” This is my son in whom I am well pleased”(Matthew 3:17, Mark 1:11, Luke 3:22 RSV). We also see that Jesus himself told his disciples to baptize people early on in his ministry (John 4:1-2 RSV). Although Jesus Christ himself did not baptize anyone he not only was baptized, but he told his disciples and all of his followers to be baptized and to baptize others. In all the above cases we see the first three (and in some cases the fourth) requirements followed.

Primitive Baptism, or the tradition of Baptism found in the early Church, is outlined for use through out the New Testament (Acts 2:38, 10:48, Galatians 3:27; NIV). It is still argued today whether or not water-baptism was practiced in the early Church (White 1960). This argument has been an ongoing argument that will not be solved this side of Heaven, and for the sake of this paper we will use Dr. Weizsacker’s statement in his book The Apostolic Age(1958), “From all our authorities there can be no doubt that [baptism] was practiced from an early date in the Apostolic period.” In light of the fact that in scripture the apostle neither added or took away from baptism, then Weizsacker’s statement holds to be true. The traditions of the early church followed all five of the above mentioned requirements with none of the apostles adding to or subtracting from them.

In G. R. Beasley-Murray’s book Baptism in the New Testament(1963) he brings out what scholars believe Paul’s view of baptism was. In consideration to the amount of scripture that Paul did write and the amount of teaching he did in the early Church, many people have stated that he has an unclear viewpoint on baptism. In the reading that I have done by Beasley-Murray and the Bible, Paul’s view point is very clear. Baptism is an initiation into life in Christ and the Church (Beasley-Murray 1963),symbolically joining with Christ in his crucifixion and his subsequent resurrection (Romans 6:3-4 NIV). As for the specifics in baptism we find Paul true to the teaching of Immersion.

The Greek word used in the sixth chapter of Romans is or baptizo meaning “to make fully wet; used only in the New Testament of the ceremonial or ordinance of baptism(Strong 1996).” This fulfil’s the second of the five requirements. As for the first requirement Paul in Acts 22:16 (NIV) Paul up holds it stating that they should “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away calling on his name.” not only does he say to wash your sins away, but he up holds the fifth requirement. In order for anyone to have been baptized by Paul they would have had to come to where he was in order for it to take place. Therefore we know because Paul did in fact baptize people (I Corinthians 1:13-17 RSV) that they where adults and that they came to him.

As for the last requirement, being a believer in Christ, I do not think that there is any doubt that Paul was a believer. It is also interesting to note that by Paul’s time the practice of believer baptism was not even questioned. According to H. Wheeler Robinson in his book Christian Doctrine of Man,(1911) “Paul was never confronted with the anomaly of an unbaptized believer, still less, we may add, with the anomaly of a baptized non-believer”.

With this support it is clear that only believers where baptized, and from that it is easily extrapolate that only adults who had made a personal commitment to live their lives for Jesus Christ were baptized by Paul. Paul makes it quite clear in the book of Romans that the believer is to be baptized, and that it is not the baptism that saves them but their faith in Jesus Christ and his redeeming work on Calvary. He also makes it clear who is to be baptized, under what conditions they are to be baptized, and how they are to be baptized.

Paul’s Gospel message can be condensed to eleven words “Believe on the Lord, Jesus Christ, and you will be saved”(White 1960). With this statement we can dispel the most common error about baptism, that being that it is required for salvation, and the second most common error, that being that an infant can be baptized. Neither of these two errors are supported by Paul or his epistles, in addition they are not supported by any scripture that I know of.

In addition to the writings of Paul we have Peter both his elder and his contemporary. Peter was the apostle known as the “beloved of Christ” and therefore may have known the heart of Christ the man, better than anyone of his day. It has been suggested by some that the first epistle of Peters is an address to candidates for baptism, and that it is given at the close of their preparatory instruction. No where else in scripture is there so much written about baptism than in I Peter 1:3-4:11. This fact makes I Peter unique among New Testament writings. We find in I Peter two subthemes, according to White on page 257 of his book The Biblical Doctrine of Incitation: A Theology of Baptism and Evangelism(1960).

The first of these being: “the joy of actualized redemption into which the believer enters at baptism and hope of coming glory.” This is the theme that is overwhelming in the first chapter and supports the idea of believers coming to a new life in Christ and that baptism is just the start of it. The second being: “the nature of the life that knows redemption by the lamb and expects the judgement and resurrection (White 1960).” Peter supports here the symbolism of death with Christ on the cross, and rebirth i.e., resurrection which is the promise to all who believe in him. Peter also supports the confession of sins as a requirement for baptism in chapter 3 verses 20-21 of his first epistle. In his first epistle Peter insist that salvation is only achieved through the grace of God. He stress the need for obedience to God (I Peter 1:22, 2:8, 4:17).

Here with Peter’s writings we find that he adds nothing to the requirements for baptism, while at the same time takes nothing away from them. His soul reason for writing on the topic is to address new candidates who have had some instruction in basic Christianity and clarify some things that may have been confusing to them.

We see through-out the Bible that the five rules of Baptism are not changed or added to during the history of the early Church. It is not until much later from the writings of Origen, in 1047 that we have the first reliable source confirming the practice of infant baptism. Over one hundred years after the death of Christ, the Church (and there was only one church at this point in time.) decides to add something to the baptism process.

It is held by some scholars that the reason for infant baptism stems from a misunderstanding of Mark’s writing in his Gospel were he states that ” He who believes and is baptized will be saved (Mark 16:16 RSV); but he who does not believe will be condemned.” In early translation the distinction that is was the disbelief in Christ that condemned them was not as clear. Due to this misunderstanding the Church started to baptize infants thereby setting a dangerous precedent.

Amongst the strongest denominations in the world is the Catholic Church. This was the keeper of much of scripture for hundreds of years. The Catholic and Orthodox Church share a common history, due to the fact that they where the same group for a goodly period of time, and therefore a natural commonality of practices.

These two denominations have practiced infant baptism for hundreds of years and both state it as required for assurance of salvation. In their defenses though they do make the statement that confirmation is the second step of baptism and this is when the baptism is complete. This is a nice way of combining two traditions that they hold to, but it still states that it is required for salvation. For them it is a matter of Faith and Morals. These two denominations are not alone, standing with them in this practice are the Lutheran Denominations, both the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and the Missouri Synod. These two denominations hold common ancestry as well, and both are born out of the Roman Catholic.

The United Church Of Christ and The Congregational Church are two more denominations that have joined forces and practice infant baptism. The concern here though should not be over baptism but over the belief in who you are being baptized in. As a matter of doctrine these denominations do not hold to Trinitarian Doctrine and there for have larger problems.

The United Methodist, Evangelical Free Church, and the Episcopal Church are others who practice infant baptism. This is by no means an exhaustive list just one to show how many groups there are that are practicing infant baptism and some how tied it to salvation.

On the other side of the coin are the churches that practice Adult immersion Baptism, these being the many different Baptist churches such as; The General Assemble of Regular Baptist, The American Baptist, The Southern Baptist, and the North American Baptist. We also have the Assembly of God churches, the Free Methodist churches, Church Of God. All who practice Immersion baptism and claim that is nothing more or less than, the outward expression of an inward faith.

Out of all the above stated opinions and facts we of the modern world have come up with our traditions of baptism. Each branch of Christianity supporting their own beliefs with scholars and the works that these scholars have done. Adding into that the scripture passages that back or can be made to back their own belief system. The Bible itself is clear, there are only five “rules” concerning baptism:

  • You must be or completely immersed in water
  • You must come to and ask to be baptized (not brought and volonterred)
  • You must be baptized by another believer i.e., another Christian but not always a pastor or priest.
  • You are to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These and only these are the Biblical requirements for baptism that I have been able to turn up in my research.

I am not perfect and would not like anyone to believe that the research I have done is to offend anyone. I have done the research however and would challenge you to take it seriously and to consider what your denomination does in the way of baptism, and if it follows the biblical traditions.


  1. Anderson, Ken.(1996). Where to find it in the Bible.
  2. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
  3. Barth, Karl.(1948). The Teaching Of The Church Regarding Baptism. London: S C M Press.
  4. Beasley-Murray, G. R.(1963). Baptism In The New Testament. New York: London Macmillan & Company LTD.
  5. Conant, Thomas J.(1977). The Meaning and Use of Baptizein. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications.
  6. The NIV Study Bible.(1995).
  7. White, R.E.O.(1960). The Biblical Doctrine of Initiation: A Theology of Baptism and Evangelism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.


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