The Baptism Debate: Save or Symbolize?

When it comes to the baptism debate, how you like your ice cream topping is not the only thing that is boggling the minds. People also parley about the purpose of baptism. To what end is someone baptized? Does it perform some kind of salvific feat or merely symbolize? These are the two ends of the stick.

The idea of purpose was used in the third leg of the last race—baptism by immersion most accurately represents its spiritual counterpart. Of course, I assumed you were on board with its spiritual equivalent. (The first and second legs in the race brought home win either way, so no harm done if you disagreed. However, I intend to put that to rest now.)

First, it is never a poor decision to start with a Spurgeon quote. So here goes:

“A man who knows that he is saved by believing in Christ does not, when he is baptized, lift his baptism into a saving ordinance. In fact, he is the very best protester against that mistake, because he holds that he has no right to be baptized until he is saved.”

Wasn’t that good? The issue of “effect” divides protestants from their pseudo protestant (and Roman Catholic) friends. In a sense, it is the answer to the question, “What does baptism do?” Granted, it is more complex that just that, but you get the idea. The camps would respond in different ways.

Again, putting it simply. The winning team would answer, “It symbolizes the application of saving grace to the baptized.” The other team—booo, hissss—might say, “It applies the saving grace to the baptized.” Did you see the difference? On one hand, it is primarily a representation. On the other hand, it is the actual thing.

Leading the “actual thing” camp is the Roman Catholic Church. According to the New Advent Encyclopedia, baptism 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 [of baptism] is the remission of all sin, original and actual; likewise all punishment which is due for sin.”

In other words, you don’t get to God until you get sprinkled (since they don’t submerge). The water is your ticket in. It literally washes away your sin, even your “original” sin, as well as the punishment that comes with it. So, if you live clean after that, you will “attain immediately to the kingdom of heaven and the vision of God.” In their minds, baptism washes away the stuff that Heaven doesn’t allow.

The Baptism that God Does

Both camps would agree about the purity of Heaven. Sin cannot go through the pearly gates. God will not, because He cannot, allow it. It was the apostle Paul who said, “for by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” when he described spiritual regeneration (1 Cor. 12:13).

There is a baptism that removes the punishment for sin, federally joins us with Christ, and grafts us into the spiritual body of Christ called the Church. But notice how Paul describes the baptizer. It is the “by one Spirit” who is the Holy Spirit. He performs this kind of baptism, not any pastor or layperson. This is a spiritual baptism, not physical baptism.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, he says that God “saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness [including baptism], 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” (Tit. 3:5-7). It’s a mouthful, but so tasty.

Here’s what he means when you put it all together: spiritual baptism—a baptism by which God regenerates and renews the believer—is work performed solely by God (see Ephesians 2:8-9).

The Baptism that We Do

At the same time, Jesus commanded His disciples to baptize those who believed in Him. In other words, go out and find all of those people whom I spiritually baptized and physically baptize them in water to show everyone what I did. And, this is exactly what we see.

The book of Acts follows these guys around. In it, we see them proclaim the gospel and follow up with baptism as people showed belief. It was almost like the the proclamation of the gospel was lighting up the people who God regenerated—like a firecracker under the seat of a child. Boom! “Okay boys, baptize him, for he believes in Christ.”

Consider the account of Peter at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10). After unpacking the gospel, they believed. The light went on. God saved them. “The Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (Acts 10:44). It was evident that God baptized them spiritually, so Peter responded, “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).

Peter was not trying to seal the deal. Not at all. Rather, when preaching the gospel to them, he told them that “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sin” (Acts 10:43). In other words, “if you believe in Christ, He saves you.” Peter wanted to physically baptize the spiritually baptized. He wanted to capture God’s work in the symbol of water baptism.

This is how Paul describes the spiritual baptism:

“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” (Rom. 6:3-8).

If these examples tell us anything about the effect of baptism, it is this: God spiritually baptizes all who believe unto salvation. Man, on the other hand, only pictures it. Water baptism symbolizes the sinner dying to sin, being buried with Christ, and raising to a new life in Christ. The water does not save.


  • NewTestamentChristian

    Jesus said in Mark 16:16, “He that believes AND IS BAPTIZED WILL BE SAVED…”

    • JacobAbshire

      Thanks for commenting. I assume that you are inferring from this passage that baptism is necessary for salvation. However, that is not what the text is saying at all. Actually, the full verse says, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

      The verse says two things: (1) those who believe and are baptized will be saved; (2) those who do not believe will be condemned. It does not say anything about those who believe and are not baptized—whether they are saved or condemned. Other passages, however, say that those who believe without baptism will be saved (Eph. 2:8-9). Even more teach that only belief is necessary for salvation (John 3:18; John 5:24; John 12:44; John 20:31; 1 John 5:13).

      You are making a “negative inference” without any additional Scriptural support. Suppose the verse read this way: “Whoever believes and lives in Texas will be saved, but those who do not believe are condemned.” This statement is absolutely true. All people in Texas who believe will be saved. However, to say that only those who believers in Texas are saved is a false assumption. The statement does not rule out believers in California or New Mexico.

      It is better to not assume what the text does not say and build your key doctrines on what Scripture does say and teach. The Bible is clear that we are saved by faith alone (Rom. 4:1-25; Gal. 3:6-22). Additionally, we find in Scripture that people who believe possess all the promises and blessings of salvation at the point of faith (John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; 6:47; 20:31; Acts 10:43; 13:39; 16:31). Water baptism is not required for salvation.

      • NewTestamentChristian

        Why can’t you take Christ at His word? Those that receive and Him the right TO BECOME” children of God (John 1:12). Those that believe in Him “should not” perish (John 3:16). If I say that I believe in Jesus, but reject His teachings, do I really believe?

        Your “living in Texas” analogy is fallacious. Christ’s instructions were:
        To be saved- Believe the gospel and be baptized.
        To be lost- Reject the gospel.
        If one rejects the gospel there will be no reason to say “….and is not baptized.” We are not saved by faith only.

        The clause in the verse is plainly joined by the conjunction “and,” making BOTH belief and baptism necessary to be saved. What is the opposite of saved?

        • JacobAbshire

          Actually, I’m taking Christ at His word. You, respectfully, are adding to His Word that which He did not say. And, by “His Word,” I mean all of Scripture. Consider the way to salvation according to Christ’s apostles, who said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). Consider the reality of God’s salvific work, “For by grace you have been saved through faith [which] is the gift of God, not a result of works” (Eph. 2:8-9). Jesus said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

          You mistakenly interpret “should not” to mean “might not” but this is not what the Greek reads (nor the English in context). The word “should not perish” (ἀπόληται) is a subjunctive clause because it communicates intention, not possibility. The passage literally says, “God sent his Son for the purpose of saving those who believe.” It does not say, “God sent his Son to make salvation possible for those who believe.”

          Also, your emphasis of “to become” in John 1:12 is out of context. Verses 12 and 13 say that those who “believed in his name” were born again by God. All of this action is past tense. So, those who believed (who were born again) have been given the right to claim divine adoption. In other words, they can say that they belong to God, because they do belong to God, not might belong to God.

          To be clear, we are not discussing whether one prooves his salvation through baptism, but whether or not baptism actually saves. I never argued for the use of “one who does not believe and is not baptized is unsaved,” for that is redundant. You are assuming too much, again. Here is what I said: If one disbelieves Christ, he is unsaved. If one believes Christ, he is saved.

          Baptism is side note.

          Whether or not the person is baptized is besides the point. If he believes Christ, he will likely obey Christ’s command and be baptized. But, not being baptized, does not prevent salvation. For example, someone might be killed after belief and have no opportunity to be baptized (like the theif on the cross in Luke 23:43). Another person might not be convinced of baptism yet. In neither case does one willfully reject Christ’s commands to be baptized. So, without baptism, he willfully believes and surrenders to Christ and is saved without baptism.

          Paul said, “Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel … lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power” (1 Cor. 1:17). Paul took Christ at His Word and didn’t add baptism as a necessary component of salvation. If Paul argued as you do now, then the cross of Christ will “be emptied of its power,” and we don’t want that.

          Yes, I am taking God at His Word.

          • NewTestamentChristian

            If I “believe in Him,” then I am going to believe what He says do. WHAT does Jesus say one must do to be saved in Mark 16:16? “Believe AND be baptized.”

          • JacobAbshire

            Here’s the thing, you are arguing from a verse that appears in a portion of the Bible that the oldest and most respected manuscripts do not have as well as ignoring the rest of Scripture. Romans 10:9 says, “if you believe in your heart you will be saved.” Acts 16:31 says, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

            Now, to answer your questions. I agree, if you believe in Christ, you will believe what He says to do. However, you will also not do what you believe at times, and you will not do what you don’t know He says do at times. According to you, if either of these are true, then Romans 10:9 and Acts 16:31 are lies.

            Let’s see how your logic implies to you. Do you believe in Jesus Christ? If so, do you do absolutely everything God says to do, when He says to do it, and how He says to do it?

          • NewTestamentChristian

            Then I will be watching to see if you ever use verse 15 without giving the spiel about chapter 16.

            Did Peter lie (Acts 2:38; 1 Peter 3:21)?

            Did Paul lie (Romans 6; Gal. 3:26-29; Col. 2:12; Titus 3:5)?

            Did Ananias lie (Acts 22:16)?

            All that was preached to the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:35-36) was Jesus, but what was his response in verse 36? “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”

            You can’t scripturally preach Jesus unless you preach baptism also.

          • JacobAbshire

            I think you are getting off track. There was never an argument that water baptism is not to be preached or obeyed. Our conversation has always been wether it is necessary for salvation. The majority of the passages you cited convey spiritual baptism where people are baptized “into Christ” and not water. The others are paraphrases of Mark 16:16.

            I gave you Scriptures where people preached Jesus without preaching baptism. So yes, it can be done. This is because water baptism is commanded, but it has no salvific effect on the one who believes. To continue our conversation, I’ll need you to stay on point.

          • NewTestamentChristian

            Because that is the only baptism that is performed by man. You seem to want to assume that every time baptism is mentioned, in a salvation sense, it is Holy Spirit baptism. Man cannot administer Holy Spirit baptism. Yet, the apostles were commanded to baptize.

            You continually deny Jesus Christ at His word.