Is Baptism a Work?

This is a major question among religious people today.  The majority of denominations would say that baptism is a work, and therefore, not something necessary for salvation.  Of course, much of the reasoning behind that belief is found in Eph 2:8-9, where Paul says that salvation is not of works but of grace, lest anyone should boast.

A while back, I wrote another post on that passage, but there are a few other points about Paul’s discussion of works that I thought might be helpful to consider.

First of all, at the time the Bible was written, there was a great deal of conflict concerning the Law of Moses. Many of the Jewish Christians had trouble letting go of the religious practices that had been hammered into them for generations. Laws concerning circumcision, clean and unclean foods, feast days, etc, were things that many Jews still felt they should be observing. Beyond that, they thought that those were things all other Christians should be doing as well. Evidence of this turmoil is seen throughout the New Testament, but it’s most obvious in passages like Acts 15:1, Acts 15:24, 1 Cor 7:18-19, and Col 2:11-23.

There are many passages, and many of Paul’s writings in particular, that constantly reiterate that the Law of Moses was fulfilled in Christ’s death. If there were Jews who felt that they needed to observe some of the customs from that law, then they were encouraged to do so (Romans 14, 1 Cor 8-10, Col 2), but they were not to bind those practices on others. Christians had been delivered from the physical laws that the Israelites had been forced to keep.

The big problem was that the Jews, particularly the Pharisees thought they had everything all figured out. Romans 10 talks about this. In the beginning of the chapter, Paul says that the Jews have zeal, but not according to knowledge. They sought to establish their own ideas of righteousness without submitting to the righteousness of God. They thought that keeping the law would get them into heaven, not by God’s grace, but by their own achievement. It was almost the idea that God would owe them salvation because of their good deeds. Christ illustrated this point in Matt 23:23 and said that while it was good that they followed the law, they had left out the weightier matters: justice, mercy, and faith.

And that’s why Christ’s law in the New Testament is so different. It transcends our physical actions and goes to the heart — if the heart isn’t right, then it doesn’t matter how many good things we do, we won’t be pleasing to God. The church in Ephesus is a prime example of this. In Rev 2:1-7, Christ tells them that their actions are superb. They have labored, the have patience, and they can’t stand evil. Those are all excellent things. He doesn’t rebuke their actions at all. But they are still in danger of falling away because they have left their first love. Their hearts are not in serving God! Their actions are righteous, but they aren’t for the right reason. And just like the Pharisees (Rom 2:17-24), they’ve missed the whole point.

So when Paul says in Ephesians 2 that salvation is by grace and not of works, he’s merely pointing out the same thing Christ did in the passages we just mentioned: service to God requires our entire being. Our heart must be right, first and foremost. But in the same manner, just as Christ told the Pharisees that they should have had their hearts in their service without leaving undone their good works, we must also make sure that we aren’t leaving good works undone.

So let’s go back to our original question, is baptism a work? And if so, does that mean it has nothing to do with salvation?

Well, I don’t know if you can really classify baptism as a work or not. I mean, it’s definitely a physical action, but it’s certainly not difficult, and there’s no inherent “good” to it (in other words, it’s not like caring for the sick, or feeding the poor). But I don’t think we really have to classify it one way or the other. If you don’t mind, let me offer you a couple of examples that might help clarify this issue. Sometimes, when we’re too close to something, it’s hard to really identify it correctly. So it might help if we look to a couple of examples that are a little clearer.

There’s a popular game show right now called Deal or No Deal, which you are probably very familiar with. Now, the purpose of this game show is to allow contestants to win varying amounts of money. When the game is over, did the contestant win, or did they earn the money?

Before you answer, really think about it. Each contestant must put forth the effort to travel to the game’s studio. They would then have to sit through some type of orientation to tell them how to act and what to expect. I’m sure there are legal documents that have to be signed, the contestant would have to agree to having their likeness used in ads, etc. And then they still have to play by the rules of the game. If you think about it, there’s quite a bit that goes into it. If they win $100,000 is that something they earned, or something they won?

I think we’d probably all agree that they won it. Why? Well, the things they were asked to do in no way related to the prize they won. It may have taken effort on their part, but did anyone owe them anything based on that effort? Nope. It was still the good will of Deal or No Deal that allowed them to go home with some extra cash.

But that may not be the best example. So let me use one from the Bible. You may be familiar with the story of Naaman, found in 2 Kings 5:1-19. Naaman was a commander in Syria’s army, and he was a leper. But through a young Israelite servant girl, he found out that someone in Israel could heal him of his leprosy, Elisha the prophet.

To Naaman’s credit, he had enough faith to take an entourage to Israel in order to be cleansed. And when he arrived at Elisha’s house, Elisha sent out a servant who told Naaman to go dip in the Jordan River 7 times, and he would be clean. Well, Naaman was angry, and he went away with no intention of doing what he had been told. Why should he? Wasn’t it a silly request? As Naaman said, “Indeed, I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ Are not the Abanah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?”

Luckily, Naaman was not so foolish that he couldn’t listen to his servants. They asked him if the prophet had told him to do some great thing, wouldn’t he have done it? So why not take advantage of it when he’s told to do something simple? Naaman turned around, went to the Jordan River, dipped in it 7 times, and arose cleansed.

The solution to Naaman’s problem was so simple to everyone but him: just do what the prophet said! Naaman didn’t need to worry about why or how it worked, he just needed to do it. And when it worked, do you suppose he or his servants suddenly thought that Naaman had earned his cleansing? Now that he had “worked” for it, did it somehow limit the blessing he’d been given?

Is it any different for us today with baptism? There are so many passages that tell us baptism is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Rom 6:3-4, and 1 Pet 3:21, among others), but one of the only reasons people think it can’t be is because of statements like the one found in Eph 2. I think we’re making it much more complicated than it has to be. It’s obvious that Paul was talking about the kind of belief the Pharisees held onto — that their good actions could earn them a spot in heaven. And that’s simply not the case. Does God want our obedience? Absolutely (1 Sam 15:22, 1 John 5:3). But he also wants our hearts.

Naaman finally realized that all he had to do was obey what he had been told. Whether it’s the way he would have done it or not is irrelevant. We have to be the same way. I don’t mean to over-emphasize baptism. Just like anything else, if we don’t have true faith in God, then getting baptized is no different than jumping in a swimming pool. And if we don’t turn from our previous lives of sin, we can’t be pleasing to God either (Acts 2:38, 2 Pet 3:9). And if we don’t confess the name of Christ, then he won’t confess us before his father (Matt 10:32, Rom 10:9-10). God has required all of those things from us to receive salvation, and that really shouldn’t surprise us. Doing those things ultimately represents complete submission, and that’s all he requires.

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18 thoughts on “Is Baptism a Work?”

  1. Nate, great thoughts!
    I completely agree with your statement: “It transcends our physical actions and goes to the heart — if the heart isn’t right, then it doesn’t matter how many good things we do, we won’t be pleasing to God.”

    Doesn’t that contradict your final conclusion…

    I mean if our heart is right then getting baptized or not isn’t the issue at all. You even stated, “if we don’t have true faith in God, then getting baptized is no different than jumping in a swimming pool.” So why is it when we have true faith baptism now makes the difference between eternal life and eternal damnation?

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  2. Excellent question Stewart (and glad to see you back… it’s been awhile 🙂 ). In John 4:23-24, Jesus said that we must worship in spirit and in truth. So not only do we have to make sure our hearts are in what we’re doing, we must also be doing it correctly.

    After all, I think you’d agree that if someone had faith but decided to worship God by offering a cat as a sacrifice, it wouldn’t be pleasing to God because it’s not how he told us to worship him. You can look back to the examples of Cain, Nadab and Abihu, Saul (when he offered the sacrifice), etc to see that theory put into action. God wants what he wants.

    Therefore, like I posted above, there are numerous passages that talk about the importance of baptism, and passages that illustrate how instrumental it is to our salvation. So while it’s true that if our heart is not right, no amount of good works or baptism will matter, having the right heart and no works is just as bad. James 2:17 says “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”

    Simply put, God expects follow through. If I told my wife I loved her, but never did anything to show it and never did the things she asked me to do, how much would I really love her? It’s the same thing here.

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  3. Stewart,

    You wrote: ” So why is it when we have true faith baptism now makes the difference between eternal life and eternal damnation? ”

    I don’t want this to come off wrong, or condescending, but really it is as simple as because God said so. We don’t have to know how or why, that is the faith part of it. Naaman’s dipping in the river healed him simply b/c God said it would. Not that his flesh was literaly cleand by the water, but b/c he had faith that doing what God told him to do would heal him. This is echoed in 1 Peter 3:21. Its all about faith, but that faith must lead to obiedence. And as has been pointed out baptism for forgiveness of sins is an act of obiedence that God requires of us.

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  4. A more appropriate question might be, “If one has true faith, why WOULDN’T they be baptized?”

    Good points, fellas.

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  5. Nate excellent point:
    “Simply put, God expects follow through. If I told my wife I loved her, but never did anything to show it and never did the things she asked me to do, how much would I really love her? It’s the same thing here.”

    I whole heartedly agree. With that said, what if you told your wife that you loved her, but could not follow through? The statement was true nonetheless. Our circumstances can hinder us. What about salvation? What about a person on their deathbed committing their life to Christ? Or a young teen who came to salvation but then was suddenly ripped from this world in a terrible accident? In these cases, you can’t know either way if their faith was true… but God does. Assuming that their commitment to Christ–their faith–was true and they were not able to be baptized; what happens then? Are they saved?

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  6. Well, I think you just answered that, Stewart: God knows.

    But for the vast majority of us, we can do what God has specified. So whatever exceptions God might allow really have no bearing on us — it’s exactly what Jesus told Peter in John 21 when Peter asked about John. “Jesus said to him, ‘If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you? You follow Me.'”

    The same thing is shown in the Parable of the Talents. Would God have been pleased if the 5 talent man had looked at the 2 talent man and decided to only use 2 of the talents he’d been given? After all, that was all that was expected of the 2 talent man…

    The point is, God has told us what he wants and as soon as we realize what it is, we are liable for it. Being unable and being unwilling are two totally different things.

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  7. Could God make a rock so heavy even He couldn’t lift it?

    While these questions are fun to talk and think about, thats about all they are.

    Let’s ask a more honest question. Have you ever personally known of anyone who came to knowledge of Christ and their need to be baptized for remission of sins but couldn’t be? Or is it that they didn’t want to be inconvienced by water baptism?

    I know you are probably going to think I’m a jerk for this next statement, but I’m just trying to be honest with you.

    How about those ‘death bed experiences’? Are these people really ‘commiting their life to Christ’ or are they looking for someone to throw them a life preserver, a last second fire insurance plan if you will.

    I know that sounds so cold and hard, but remember what Christ said:
    “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

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  8. I’m sorry Matt, but there is a big difference between my question and yours. Also, I do agree with you that it is very questionable if people on their deathbeds are truly committing themselves. But that is my whole point, only God truly knows and the passage you quoted completely agrees with that assertion.

    Nate, my whole belief centers around the fact that only God knows our hearts. You see, I am not denying that baptism is important, only that it has no salvific importance.

    To answer your thoughts, I would agree with you that a person who is unwilling to be baptized is most likely not committed to Christ. But the person who genuinely has committed themselves but died unexpectedly before being baptized MUST be saved.

    You see if God looks at the heart and Eph 2:8 is correct that salvation comes solely by God’s grace through faith in His Son Jesus Christ… baptism cannot be part of the salvation process. Remember Jesus himself stated to the woman with the issue of blood that her faith had saved her.

    Hence baptism must be part of the public profession/commitment process. Believer’s Baptism professes to the world an individual’s commitment to Christ–an outward profession of faith.

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  9. Stewart said:
    Nate, my whole belief centers around the fact that only God knows our hearts. You see, I am not denying that baptism is important, only that it has no salvific importance.

    But how do you get around the many passages that say it does (Matt 28:19-20, Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16, Acts 22:16, Rom 6:3-4, 1 Pet 3:21, etc)?

    Stewart said:
    But the person who genuinely has committed themselves but died unexpectedly before being baptized MUST be saved.

    Stewart, I’m rather inclined to agree with you here (although I do think it requires some speculation on our part). But for all the rest of us, we have to do what God says. You’re using a possible exception to define the whole rule, and it just doesn’t work that way.

    If we’re going under the premise that someone has faith, but dies before they’re baptized, we’re assuming they did intend to get baptized. That’s vastly different from those who are able to get baptized but don’t bother with it.

    And if Eph 2:8-9 were the only verses in the Bible concerning salvation, then your conclusions would be correct. However, there are many other passages and examples of how one is saved, and as it turns out, faith is not the only requirement. Repentance, confession, and baptism must accompany faith for one to be saved. If anyone needs passages for those things, let me know.

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  10. Nate, if you agree that a person who has committed themselves to Christ but has died unexpectedly prior to baptism is saved… then salvation must be gifted to individuals prior to baptism. God doesn’t save one person through X and another person through Y, its all one road/way only.

    Matt 28:19-20, the great commission only tells us to go make disciples and baptize them. Showing us the significance of baptism, but this passage does not mention anything about salvation. Furthermore, confession/faith/repentance is to be assumed in the making of disciples and then baptism is to follow.

    Acts 2:38, verse 41 tells us that only those who received the word were baptized, which also concludes faith/repentance/confession occurred first, followed by baptism. Additionally during Peter’s Pentecostal sermon (verse 21) he declares, “and it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    Mark 16:16, note that the emphasis in this verse is on believing for a person who does not believe is condemned. It was expected that believers would be baptized… there were no exceptions. And as we talked about earlier, the mark of a true believer is getting baptized. You see the focus of this verse actually supports the fact that baptism does not save an unbeliever. Hence John 3:18, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” Also John 3:36 states, “He who believes in the Son has everlasting life; and he who does not believe the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

    Acts 22:16, as we discussed before: it is the calling on God which washes away the sins of a person not the baptismal water.

    Rom 6:3-4, Paul is clearly using a symbolic emphasis on how baptism identifies one with Christ. He is focusing on how a person’s devotion to God should be lived out; Paul is providing an answer to the question “shall we sin that grace may abound?” (v1). The answer given is, “No! don’t you understand what commitment to Christ is? Don’t you understand the significance?” (my paraphrase, v2). Then Paul takes the rest of that chapter and continues all the way to chapter 8 verse 1 to fully answer why a Christian should not sin.

    1 Pet 3:21, here baptism is described as the answer to a good conscience toward God and that salvation comes through the resurrection of Christ. Therefore, baptism proves ones commitment to Christ and due to Christ’s miraculous resurrection salvation has come.

    Lastly, look at Paul’s conversion/salvation in Acts 9.
    Look at verses 17 & 18…
    “And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.”

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  11. I agree that God hasn’t given different ways to be saved — there’s only one. But I believe the Bible teaches that that avenue to salvation involves baptism. What God decides to do with someone who wanted to be baptized but died beforehand is completely up to God. It wouldn’t surprise me if he saved them anyway, but there’s no way I can know that, since we aren’t told. What we are told is that we should all have faith, repent, confess Christ as our Savior, and be baptized.

    Matt 28:19-20, the great commission only tells us to go make disciples and baptize them. Showing us the significance of baptism, but this passage does not mention anything about salvation. Furthermore, confession/faith/repentance is to be assumed in the making of disciples and then baptism is to follow.

    Actually, a proper reading of this passage shows us that “teaching them” and “baptizing them” is how we are to make disciples.

    Acts 2:38, verse 41 tells us that only those who received the word were baptized, which also concludes faith/repentance/confession occurred first, followed by baptism. Additionally during Peter’s Pentecostal sermon (verse 21) he declares, “and it shall come to pass that whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    Verse 41 does say that baptism comes after one has “received the word,” but that’s obvious. Who would be baptized before they had believed Peter’s message? Verse 38 still says that repentance and baptism are necessary for the remission of sins (which we know is the forgiveness of sins, i.e. salvation). Their faith was illustrated in verse 37 when they were cut to the heart and asked what they needed to do. If faith had been enough, why did Peter tell them to do something else?

    Mark 16:16, note that the emphasis in this verse is on believing for a person who does not believe is condemned. It was expected that believers would be baptized… there were no exceptions. And as we talked about earlier, the mark of a true believer is getting baptized. You see the focus of this verse actually supports the fact that baptism does not save an unbeliever.

    You’re absolutely right: someone who believed would be baptized, so why does it have to be restated in the second part of the verse? He’s already said that someone who didn’t believe would be condemned — if they don’t believe, why on earth would they be baptized? Besides, I’m not too interested in what it takes to be condemned; I’d rather be saved. And according to this verse, to be saved I must believe and be baptized.

    Acts 22:16, as we discussed before: it is the calling on God which washes away the sins of a person not the baptismal water.

    Again, according to proper grammar, “calling on the name of the Lord” is what baptism is. Therefore, it is the baptism that saves (along with the other elements: faith, confession, repentance).

    As for Romans 6:3-4 (and the thought is actually carried on through around verse 17), you are right in saying that he is further answering the question he posed at the beginning of the chapter. But look at what he says. He says that they shouldn’t continue to sin because they have put to death the “old man,” and they are now a new creation. But it’s not until they rise from baptism that they have become that new creation. If we aren’t “walking in newness of life” until we’ve been baptized, then how is it we’ve been saved prior to that point? The entire New Testament talks about Christians being a new creation, a new people, about “crucifying” ourselves. If that happens when we rise from baptism, how can we say we’ve been saved beforehand?

    1 Pet 3:21, here baptism is described as the answer to a good conscience toward God and that salvation comes through the resurrection of Christ. Therefore, baptism proves ones commitment to Christ and due to Christ’s miraculous resurrection salvation has come.

    That’s true; in fact, as Galatians 3:27 says, we come into Christ through baptism. Romans 6, which we just discussed, says the same thing. Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection is what allows us to enjoy salvation, but our belief, confession, repentance, and submission through baptism are all required to enjoy that gift. Furthermore, 1 Pet 3:21 still says expressly that baptism saves us.

    And Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 is a great example of what I’m talking about. I’m glad you brought it up. On the road to Damascus, Paul received his vision of the Lord, who told him to go into Damascus where he would be told what he needed to do. Remember, at this point, he had already demonstrated faith and repentance in his conversation with Christ. Apparently that hadn’t been enough.

    And as you quoted, as soon as he received his sight, he arose and was baptized. Even though he hadn’t eaten for 3 days, baptism was a pressing matter to him. Combine that with his account of his conversion in Acts 22, and we see that he still had sins, according to Ananias.

    Now, I think “calling on the name of the Lord,” in Acts 22 is referring to his baptism, but I know you don’t agree. However, if it’s not referring to baptism, and it’s obviously not referring to faith, since he had already been demonstrating that since he was on the road to Damascus, then what does “calling on the name of the Lord” refer to here? I guess one could say it’s talking about confession, but you maintain that confession is included in faith. So what is being referred to here?

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  12. Hi Nathan,

    Wow – predestination, baptism, slavery – you’re really digging into serious Biblical issues. I enjoyed reading your blog very much. Have you tried having any of this published as a devotional?

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  13. It is true that God will judge us how he sees fit. Yes it is true that God knows our heart. To suggest that someone would be saved under any circumstance without baptism does not exist in the Bible. The Bible either commands baptism in all circumstances or it does not.

    How many times have I sit inside a church bulding knowing people there; even the evangelist’s children; who knows what the Bible teaches on salvation and baptism and still ignores it. Oh, yes they believe but their faith lacks so much that form some reason they choose to ignore the commands. Satan himself believes.

    In Acts 7:36 the Ethiopian Eunuch asked “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?” How did he know this? It is obvious Phillip taught him the necessity of baptism. It is after the Eunuch mentions water and baptism that belief is even mentioned. Phillip did not answer by saying “you can now prove your faith and salvation by baptism.”

    I know these passages ae not new but in 1 Peter 3:21 we read that “baptism now saves us”. I find it hard to understand how people can explain away this passage. It is not some physical cleansing in the water “but the answer of good conscience”. Without baptism you do not have that good conscience.

    Galatians 3:26-27, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” Without baptism you have not put on Christ. Without Christ you can not have salvation.

    Faith requires baptism.

    I normally do not like using secular examples for a biblical point but I will.
    If I write a book on how to make chocolate chip cookies in that book I would list the ingredients needed. Chapter one would state that you need flour to make the cookies. Chapter two would list milk. Chapter three would tell that you needed eggs. Chapter four would state that you need chocolate chips.

    Does flour make the cookies? yes
    Does milk make the cookies? yes
    Do eggs make the cookies? yes
    Do chocolate chips make the cookies? yes

    Do all these have to be listed togther in the same chapter to tell me they all are required? No.
    If after reading the book I intended to put in the chips but just forgot or did not have time did I make chocolate chip cookies? No.

    Salvation?
    Is believing required? Yes. Mark16:16
    Is repentance required? Yes. Acts 2:38
    Is confession of Christ required? Yes. Romans 10:9-10
    Is baptism required? Yes. Mk.16:16, Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21

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  14. Hey Stephanie, thanks for checking out the blog! It was good to hear from you.

    I haven’t tried publishing anything; this blog really just spun off of a message board I used to run on MySpace. Yeah, I do occasionally take some heavy subjects on here, and some of the subsequent discussions have been pretty deep. But it’s fun, and it hopefully leads to a little better understanding for everyone involved.

    I’ve stayed pretty busy lately, especially because I’ve gone back to school now, but I hope to start posting on here a little more regularly soon. I hope you’ll keep checking it out — I’ll be keeping up with yours to…

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  15. Andy, thanks for your comments. I think they’re all really good. I also think the Bible is very clear on the purpose of baptism, as the passages you mention indicate. It’s hard for me to understand why this is sometimes such an issue.

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  16. So… sprinkle or immersion? I’m actually going through a little bit of this, having just started to attend a Baptist church. I was baptized as an adult believer in a Lutheran church, via sprinkling. But the Baptist doesn’t recognize that as a valid mode. As far as I know, they don’t question my salvation, but that I “chose” an invalid mode of baptism to affirm my faith and salvation.

    Being baptized again doesn’t bother me. I know my salvation is with Christ, not the baptismal fount. If anything, it will allow me to confirm that my heart is still with Christ and the Church.

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  17. Well, I’ve always heard that the Greek word from which we derive “baptism” involves immersion in its definition. I found a website here that lists several sources for that definition.

    But also there are two main passages that I think really point toward baptism being by immersion. The first is in Acts 8, where we’re given the account of Phillip preaching to the Ethiopian eunuch. In verse 38, it says they both went “down into” the water for the eunuch to be baptized. If sprinkling were sufficient, I don’t think both of them would have had to go into the water.

    But a stronger passage is in Romans 6, where Paul describes how we’ve entered Christ through baptism. In verses 3 and 4, he likens it to a physical burial — we’re buried with Christ in baptism and raised to walk in newness of life. I think that strongly points toward immersion, as someone’s not really buried until they’ve been covered by something, whether it’s a tomb or the earth.

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