Waters That Unite: Five Truths About Water Baptism
Too often baptism is seen as waters that divide. In the New Testament, however, baptism publicly identifies Christians with their Lord and one another. Especially in Paul, baptism is appealed to as a means of unity in the church. Those who have died and risen again with Christ are known by their common baptism (Romans 6:3–6). As Paul says in Galatians 3:25–29, all those who are “one in Christ Jesus” have been “baptized into Christ.” Baptism, therefore, is a means of identifying those who are one in Christ.
This unifying purpose of baptism explains why Paul is emphatic about baptism in 1 Corinthians 1. Instead of unifying the church in Corinth, it was dividing it. In response to the news that the church was fractured by personality cults (“I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Cephas, I am of Christ,” v. 12), Paul reminds the Corinthians of their unity in the gospel (see 1:17–2:16). He reproves them for the way baptism was playing a part in dividing them, and in the process Paul presents five truths about baptism.
FIVE TRUTHS ABOUT BAPTISM
1. Baptism identifies us with Christ.
The Corinthians had made the mistake of identifying their baptism with the person who baptized them. Or at least, that’s what Paul’s rhetorical question overturns in verse 13: “Were you baptized in the name of Paul?” Absolutely not!
Baptism doesn’t connect us to the individual who immerses us; it identifies us with the king represented by that individual. Even if that person later disqualifies themselves from ministry or leaves the faith, the baptism remains valid. Baptism symbolizes Christ’s work of grace; it doesn’t confer grace in itself.
As Jesus taught in Matthew 28:19 (“make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”), baptism identifies us with Christ, as it is administered by his church. In this way, baptism is the way Jesus gave his disciples to publicly identify with him. He could have said build an ark or move to Israel, or stop cutting your hair. In the Old Testament he commanded some of his people to do these things. However, in the New Testament, baptism is the initiatory rite of every follower of Christ.
Baptism is what marks out Christians and divides them from the world. It symbolizes our spiritual unity in Christ and brings visible unity to Christ’s church. Therefore, if you want to publicly identify with Jesus, water baptism is the way.
2. Baptism doesn’t save; it announces salvation.
First Corinthians 1:14 is a fascinating verse because of the way it downplays baptism. Paul says, “I thank God that I baptized none of you . . .” And to paraphrase, “Oh well, except for a few like Crispus and Gaius. And, oh yes, the household of Stephanas too. I don’t remember anyone else” (vv. 14–16).
These verses disclose the humanity of Paul’s letter, and strangely his Godward praise for few baptisms reveals something about baptism. Most immediately, it reveals that baptism was a concern for Paul in Corinth—why else the emphasis on baptism right after introducing the problem of divisions? Clearly, Paul’s gladness for baptizing only a few people relates to the factions in the church (v. 12).
More theologically, Paul’s words reveal that baptism is not salvific—i.e., baptism does not grant or guarantee salvation; it announces salvation. If baptism effected salvation (as in the erroneous doctrine of “baptismal regeneration”) he would not be able to say: “I’m glad I baptized only a few.” He can only say this if baptism symbolizes the real thing.
Therefore, we conclude from this verse (and the rest of the New Testament), baptism doesn’t confer or complete salvation; it announces the antecedent, already-present gift of salvation. In fact, baptism makes two announcements, one by the individual and one by the church.
3. Baptism is an individual announcement.
Most familiar to us in baptism is the reality that baptism gives the individual an opportunity to pledge themselves to Jesus. In Acts, when individuals repented and believed, they “publicized” their newfound faith by baptism. The same is true today.
When I was 17 and just beginning to learn how to walk with God, I was asked if I wanted to be baptized. I absolutely did. Somewhere during that year, God opened my eyes to see my need for Jesus and filled my heart with faith.
I spent weeks preparing to give my testimony, so that before entering the water I would verbalize my trust in Jesus. At my baptism I shared my testimony and my faith in Christ’s death and resurrection. The visible act of baptism was personalized by the verbal announcement I made just before.
In every baptism, the individual makes a public confession of their sin and their need for a savior. For this reason, it is vital he or she knows how baptism symbolizes the gospel they believe—i.e., death and resurrection with Jesus (Rom 6:3–6). At the same time, churches must help individuals know what they are announcing in baptism. Ideally, this includes the person sharing their testimony of conversion (through writing, video, or speaking).
In 1 Corinthians 1, Paul identifies two names and one household baptized by him. These individuals testify to God’s work of grace in Corinth and each of them publicly announced their break from Corinth and their allegiance to Christ in their baptism. In this way, they reiterate the point: baptism is an individual announcement. But that’s not all.
4. Baptism is also a church announcement.
In 1 Corinthians 1 we find two ways baptism is the church’s announcement.
First, consider the time Paul spent in Corinth compared to the number of people he baptized. How could Paul spend 18 months in Corinth and only baptize a few people? The best answer is that he instructed others to baptize. In other words, he entrusted the work of baptism to the church that he planted in Corinth.
When Paul came to Corinth, no church existed. Typically the church, as an embassy of the kingdom, baptizes the new citizen of the kingdom. Because baptism and church discipline are the means by which the church exercises the keys of the kingdom (cf. Matthew 16:18–20; 18:15–20), the church is the spiritual institution authorized to baptize.
However, when a church does not exist, as in Corinth, it must be the apostle or missionary who baptizes. This is what Paul did in Corinth (see Acts 18). But as soon as he baptized a few, he apparently handed over the baptismal duties to someone else.
This leads to a second observation. In verse 17 Paul declares, “For Christ did not send me to baptize.” What an odd statement. How can Paul say Christ did not call him to baptize? What about the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19)? Was Paul only called to make converts, not disciples? He did in fact baptize some; so what is Paul saying?
I don’t believe Paul is confused or negligent in his calling. Rather, he understands his calling as distinct from the work of the local church (where baptism is “housed”). He was not a local pastor. He was an apostle (1 Corinthians 1:1), an evangelist, a missionary. If you follow Paul through Acts, he went around preaching the gospel and planting churches. Even when he stayed from longer periods (18 months in Corinth; 3 years in Ephesus), he was not a local elder per se.
It’s for this reason that Paul distinguishes his mission as a call to preach the gospel and not to baptize. In planting churches, it makes sense he would baptize some, but as a roaming apostle his life-calling was not to baptize many in a local church.
Broadening Paul’s personal conviction to a wider principle, his statement reiterates the point Jesus made about the keys of the kingdom. They are not given to any individual but the church in its local assembly. It is the local church that baptizes believers—unless, of course, no church exists. In which case, someone like Paul in Corinth or Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8) baptizes a new convert in hopes that he (or she, in the case of Lydia) will be part of a new church.
The abiding principle is this: the church has the responsibility in baptism to testify to a person’s faith. The church does not have the power to confer or complete salvation. However, it does have the delegated authority to baptize believers in Christ based on their visible faith, which leads to a final consideration: the relationship between belief and baptism.
5. Baptism follows belief.
Believer’s baptism, defined as baptism following belief, is the pattern in Corinth. Acts 18:8 says, “And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.” This comports with the regular pattern in Acts: the gospel is preached, people believe, and they are baptized.
Throughout the New Testament, baptism comes after belief. Even when households were baptized, as with Stephanas (1 Corinthians 1:16), the baptism came to the believers of the household.
Acts 16 bears this out. When Paul was in Philippi, the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul responds: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (v. 31). In short, it is not baptism that saves, it is faith in Jesus Christ. However, because baptism is the means by which individuals make their faith public, and the way churches affirm their profession, Luke continues the baptismal story of the jailer:
And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God. (vv. 32–34)
Notice the stress on the preaching of the Word (v. 32) and the joy of receiving that Word in faith (v. 34). Significantly, it wasn’t just the jailer who rejoiced in faith; it was the whole household. There is no mention of infants here; no mention of sprinkling. Sprinkling cannot be “baptism” because the word baptizō means “to immerse.” The pattern repeats: baptism follows belief.
Historical records show the origin of infant “baptism” did not occur until the practice of “emergency baptisms” began in the third century. In the New Testament, the regular pattern is for baptism to follow belief. To a church divided by the practice of baptism, Paul emphasized their belief in the gospel. In fact, Paul’s words about divisions exacerbated by baptism (vv. 13–16) are followed by his corrective: a renewed vision and focus on the cross of Christ (vv. 17–25).
In truth, baptism is given to affirm the faith of those who believe the gospel. In Corinth, they had lost sight of Christ’s cross (1:18–25), the Father’s calling (1:26 – 31), and the Spirit’s illumination (2:6 – 16). Indeed, baptisms that should have been pointing to the gospel of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had become an object in and of themselves. And for that reason, Paul called the church to look through the symbol to the substance, to see the one God in whose triune name they were baptized. Indeed, this is the unifying purpose of baptism—to conjoin through the same covenant sign believers in Christ to enjoy the same fellowship with God by the same Holy Spirit.
A FINAL WORD
Today, baptism is both overemphasized and underemphasized. Some make baptism necessary (and sufficient) for salvation. Others, in response to this overemphasis, make light of baptism. Likewise, some put no barrier around baptism, letting anyone who wants to dive in. Still others, who want to only baptize true converts, make it overly hard to be baptized. To be balanced, faithful pastors and churches should aim to affirm evident faith as soon as possible.
For some, like the Philippians jailer, it will not take long to observe their faith or to join that brother or sister in affirming his or her faith with baptism. For others, for children or those who are still hazy about the gospel, the decision to baptize may take longer. In principle, though, the five truths outlined above will be helpful to remind us of the importance of baptism. While not essential for salvation, it is essential for the health and witness of the church. Moreover, churches who take baptism seriously serve individuals well by stressing the seriousness of baptism and the joy it is to be baptized.
Much more can be said about baptism. If you are interested or inquiring, let me commend Bobby Jamieson’s two excellent books on the subject: Going Public: Why Baptism is Required for Church Membership and Understanding Baptism). For now, 1 Corinthians 1:13–17 gives us an important (and often-neglected) passage on baptism that reminds us how this sign of the new covenant ought to bring unity and purity to the church.
May God give us great grace to see and apply these truths in our churches.
 Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 857: “The most plausible explanation for the origin of infant baptism is found in the emergency baptism of sick children expected to die soon so that they would be assured of entrance into the kingdom of heaven. There was a slow extension of the practice of baptizing babies as a precautionary measure. It was generally accepted, but questions continued to be raised about his propriety into the fifth century. It became the usual practice in the fifth and sixth centuries.” See also Steven A. McKinion, “Baptism in the Patristic Writings,” in Believer’s Baptism: A Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (ed. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright; Nashville: B & H Academic, 2006), 163–88.