Most people I teach have been baptized. Some were sprinkled as infants, but the majority were immersed, sometimes more than once. However, of those who have been immersed, very few were immersed believing that God was cleansing or forgiving them of their sins at the point of immersion (Acts 2:38; 22:16). Instead, the evangelical world teaches that salvation comes prior to baptism. In their view, baptism is necessary as a symbol of salvation already obtained.
The question we need to consider is whether this difference in “when” salvation happens is important. After all, these people are seeking Jesus. They believe in Jesus as their only hope for salvation. They have repented from their life of sin, and they have been baptized in obedience to Jesus. Should we quibble about their belief that salvation came prior to immersion?
Mistakes We Make
First, it is important that we correct some of our own misunderstandings and approaches to the subject of baptism. I find that Christians often leave the wrong impression in their discussions. Have you ever heard someone say, “You people believe in water salvation; baptism is just symbolic”? These conclusions indicate that we have given the wrong impression. I repeatedly have to say, “No, I do not believe in water salvation. It is not the water that saves me nor is it the mere act of being immersed that saves.” Our approach should be to agree with most of what our friend believes about salvation. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith. Yes, Jesus is the one who forgives us and saves us. Yes, baptism is a symbolic picture of salvation. In fact, baptism is filled with symbolism! Baptism symbolizes our connection to the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom.6:3-4). Baptism symbolizes the life of sacrifice we live for Christ and the continual death to sin that we will practice (Rom. 6:5-11). But the one thing the scriptures do not teach is that baptism is symbolic of our past salvation.
You see, we are not talking about the “what,” that is, what God has done to save us or that we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). We are talking about “when,” – when does God save us by grace through faith?
Breaking Down the Difference
The importance of insisting on forgiveness at the point of immersion is the principle of faith. Every professed follower of Christ recognizes that faith is the key to salvation and to serving God. But what does that mean? Faith isn’t just, “I believe.” Faith is a true trust in both what God has asked us to do and how God wants it done. This should not be an unusual concept since everyone who has ever worked in the secular world recognizes that we do not have the freedom to choose how an employer wants his company run and how he wants his “widgets” made. Faith is trusting God’s way of doing things.
This principle is repeatedly evident in the examples of how God handled worshipers who were not careful to worship in God’s prescribed way. Cain was rejected because his sacrifice was not what God commanded (Gen. 4:1-8). Nadab and Abihu were consumed with fire because they offered “unauthorized fire which the Lord had not commanded” (Lev. 10:1-3). Uzzah was struck down because he tried to save the Ark of the Covenant from falling off a cart (2 Sam. 6:1-7). David and the Levites even took the blame because they did not consult the Lord “according to the proper order” (1 Chron. 15:12-13). In the New Testament, Jesus condemned the entire Israel nation for their vain worship in following the commandments of men and neglecting the commandments of God (Mark 7:6-9). Consider also that when Ezekiel foretold the days of the Messiah, he said, “And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules” (Ezek. 36:27). God foretold that the Messiah’s people would have a desire to be careful to obey the Lord’s rules. Just as a spouse desires to be careful to please the one he or she loves, so we, as the bride of Christ, should want to do all we can to please our bridegroom.
If baptism is no more than a ritualistic way of showing that we have been saved, then how do we explain the re-baptism of the twelve at Ephesus (Acts 19:1-6)? Paul met a group of disciples who had been baptized by John’s baptism. John’s baptism called Israel to repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah. The fact that these disciples had to be baptized again plainly rejects the idea that the command can be obeyed without an understanding of the biblical purpose. John’s baptism had many similarities to the baptism of Christ. It was immersion and it was for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). John’s baptism would have looked identical to the baptism practiced by the apostles after Jesus’ resurrection. However, in the case of the twelve at Ephesus, it was their understanding of why they were baptized that was different. John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism had different purposes. When Paul explained the difference, the Ephesus twelve were “baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 19:5). The phrase, ‘in the name of Jesus Christ’ is significant. They were baptized by the authority of Jesus, that is, in the way and the purpose Jesus authorized baptism.
Therefore, if baptism were merely symbolic of one’s salvation already secured, why did the twelve need to be baptized a second time? Being baptized by “John’s baptism” would certainly have fit the denominational teaching of an outward expression that proclaims the inward grace of having been saved. Instead, these twelve men immediately responded by being immersed a second time. The only difference in their first and second baptism was their understanding of baptism. Their baptism was now by the authority of Jesus and not of John. They were now being baptized “into Christ and into his death” (Rom. 6:3).
What is perplexing to me is why anyone would want to quibble with this. Peter commanded, “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins…” (Acts 2:38). A person with a humble heart, who desires to be forgiven and please Jesus, would be thrilled to do just that. If that requires being immersed a second time, what could be more simple? Why not be careful to obey the Lord with the correct understanding of the purpose of the command?