Water Baptism


Often referred to as the water that divides, baptism holds significant scriptural significance while employing varied meanings in religious traditions. Divided waters, however, have a positive connotation in the Scriptures—often leading to deliverance for God’s people. So how can followers of Christ bridge the current negative theological divide concerning baptism?

Certainly no walls can come down without open Bibles, deeper understanding of context, and humble discussions concerning tradition. No matter how great the attempt to avoid such walls, all people approach the Scriptures through personal lenses of culture and tradition. Careful study helps one navigate through culture, tradition, and Scripture.

In this paper I shall give attention to water baptism in the contexts of the Old and New Covenants, the Gospels, Acts, and the Epistles—thus clarifying baptism’s meaning and purpose today. I shall also discuss the dividing walls of church traditions in order to bridge the divide—navigating with greater clarity, biblical integrity, and eagerness to live a “baptized life.”[1]

Word Meaning             

Baptism (Baptizo), derived from the Greek word, bapto, means “to dip,” “to immerse,” or “to submerge.”[2] German theologian Albrecht Oepke more accurately denotes the meaning as “to dip in or under.”[3] He notes that baptizo is used when referring to John’s baptism and Christian baptism. The Greek language, since the time of Hippocrates, has used this word form in contexts such as “the sinking of a ship in water or of one who drowns in water.”[4]

Since there was no English equivalent for the word, English Bibles have transliterated the word instead of translating the word. Bruce Ware, in Wright’s book on Baptism: Three Views writes:

One cannot help but wonder how the church’s grappling with the issue of baptism might have been altered had the translators of our earliest English Bibles actually translated bapto and baptizo instead of transliterating the term. If we had read in our English Bibles that Jesus was “immersed” in the Jordan by John the Baptist, or that Jesus commanded his followers to make disciples, “immersing” them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit—one cannot help wonder how differently the thinking of Christian people may have been.[5]

Importance of Context

When the Israelites passed through the divided waters of the Red Sea, they had no GPS to give them the context of their location and destination, and many likely just followed the masses. Because of the multitude, most of them would not have seen the “light at the end of the tunnel.” Today, as followers of Jesus navigate through the divided waters of baptism, they must carefully consider the different contexts surrounding baptism—so as not to become carried along by the masses. Without knowing the contexts one can easily follow another into walls of tradition built from misreading Scripture—often beginning with contextual misunderstandings of the Old and New Covenants.

Covenantal Context

According to Hebrews 8:7-13 and 9:15-18, the Old Covenant became obsolete when the New Covenant went into effect after the death of Jesus:

7  For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another.
8  But God found fault with the people and said: “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.
9  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not remain faithful to my covenant, and I turned away from them, declares the Lord.
10  This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.
11  No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.
12  For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
13  By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.[6]

The writer of Hebrews continues in chapter nine:

15  For this reason Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance—now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant.
16  In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it,
17  because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living.
18  This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood.[7]

The New Covenant, according to Hebrews, did not go into effect until Jesus died. Thus, the following disputed events took place under the Old Covenant: the baptisms of John the Baptizer (including Apollos); Jesus’ baptism; and the saving of the thief on the cross.

The first baptisms under the New Covenant (after Jesus died) are recorded in Acts 2:38-42. These happened after Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, when three thousand were baptized, the Holy Spirit entered them, and the church began.

Covenant Connections and Baptism

Theologian Sinclair Ferguson, in Baptism: Three Views, explains that throughout redemption history, God has used emblems in his dealings with his people, particularly with divine covenants. He promised Noah’s redemption through the flood and added the physical token of the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-16). Later, the Abrahamic covenant had its sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:11) while the “visible” sign of the Mosaic covenant was the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16-17). Within their own contexts, each of these covenant signs pointed toward fulfillment in Christ’s new covenant. “He is the true Noah in whose ark we are saved (1 Peter 3:20-22), the seed of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth are blessed (Galatians 3:13-22), the prophet-leader like Moses in whom the final Exodus took place (Deut. 18:15; cf Luke 9:31)”[8]

In connecting the Old and New Covenants, John Piper uses John 3:5 (born of water and the Spirit) and Titus 3:5 (saved by washing and renewal) as parallel thoughts.[9] He compares Ezekiel 36:25-27, where Ezekiel states:

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.[10]

Piper believes both scriptures denote new birth. He states:

Jesus was saying something like this: ‘The time of the New Covenant promises has arrived. Ezekiel’s promise is coming to pass by the Spirit’s connection with me…and when the Spirit connects you to me by faith, you experience a new birth. And there are at least two ways to look at it: cleansing from all that is past and renewal for all that is future.’[11]  

Piper, in his writing, does not connect water baptism to these New Testament scriptures, which seems lacking since baptism in the New Testament involves water, the Spirit, and regeneration. 

So what does covenant have to do with baptism? Proponents of infant baptism often rely on the continuity between Israel and the church, focusing on God’s single covenant with his chosen people. Wright, in his article “Infant baptism in Historical Perspective,” describes this continuity of covenant as:  

an apologetic for infant baptism which has deeper and wider roots than simply a parallel with circumcision, appealing, for example, to the importance of the family as a building block of the people of God. By contrast, the case for believers’ baptism has typically been based on the New Testament alone—which is, after all, the only part of the Bible where we encounter Christian baptism. The first Anabaptists’ rejection of infant baptism was but one aspect of their wholesale rejection of a comprehensive ordering of church, state and society which found most of its biblical warrants in the economy of Israel rather than in the marginalized minority congregations of the New Testament.[12]

Circumcision and Covenant

Circumcision and baptism are often compared, bringing confusion and disagreement resulting from whether one sees circumcision as a sign and seal that continues with God’s people in the New Covenant. F. Legard Smith explains that a parallel is often drawn with those practicing infant baptism with the covenant of circumcision, made with Abraham. Through this covenant, God promised that all people would be blessed. Some see this covenant as ongoing for all time. Because Jesus is the fulfillment and ongoing mediator of the covenant, the seal of the covenant has become baptism instead of circumcision.[13]

Gordon Ferguson, in his book, Prepared to Answer, compares Old Covenant circumcision and baptism:

Circumcision was for the Jews, but baptism is for all nations (Matthew 28:19).

Circumcision was for Jews eight days old, but baptism is for those old enough to believe and repent.

Circumcision was for males only, but baptism is for males and females.

Circumcision was for those already born into the covenant, but baptism puts us into the covenant under Christ (Galatians 3:26-27).

Circumcision placed the one circumcised under the obligation of the Law, but baptism frees us from the Law (Galatians 3:24-29).

Circumcision bore no relationship to the cross, but baptism is into the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (Romans 6:3-4).

Circumcision had no connection to forgiveness of sins, but baptism is expressly for the forgiveness of sin (Acts 2:38; 22:16).

Circumcision was not connected to the reception of the Holy Spirit, but baptism is followed by our reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).

Circumcision caused those circumcised to go on their way weeping, but baptism causes those baptized to go on their way rejoicing! (Acts 8:36-39).[14]

Fundamental to one’s view of baptism is the understanding of its place in covenantal context. Since the Old Covenant has been replaced by the New, it follows that the examples and instructions of baptism should be found in the New Covenant.

New Covenant Baptism

The book of Acts begins with Luke’s account of Jesus from the time he was resurrected until he was taken back to heaven. Since Jesus had already died, the New Covenant was now in effect, and the Old obsolete. In this account Luke quotes Jesus saying, “For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”[15] Jesus had previously spoken of this to his disciples, charging them to go into all the world, make disciples, and baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.[16]

Here we learn that baptism means more than it did in the Old Covenant, now involving the Spirit of God. The following are examples of baptisms in Acts, which not only involve water, but for the first time also involve the Holy Spirit:

In Acts 2:36-42 Peter preaches that all are responsible for Jesus’ death. Many are “cut to the heart” and ask what to do. This assumes they now have faith—but something more is needed, according to Peter. He tells them to repent and be baptized into the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, and they will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. He then tells them the promise is for them, their children and children’s children, and all who are far off. This is an ongoing promise for all nations and all generations. This was the first time baptism was administered under the New Covenant.

In Acts 8:12-13 people hear the good news of Jesus, believe, and are baptized. Not all the dynamics mentioned in Acts 2 are included, such as repentance, but faith and baptism are recorded. In Acts 8:26-40, the Ethiopian eunuch only knows the Old Covenant teaching of Isaiah and the prediction of Jesus. After Philip shares the news of Jesus with him, the eunuch sees water and asks to be baptized.

Acts 10:30-48 tells of the first Gentile baptism. The Spirit works to convince Peter and the Apostles that God desires all to be saved, not just Jews.

Acts 16:25-34 gives the account of the Philippian jailor coming to faith, followed by his immediate baptism. 

Acts 18:24-28 tells of a spiritual man who only knows the baptism of John in the Old Covenant. Priscilla and Aquilla give him the more accurate teaching of baptism into Christ. Whether or not he was baptized again we do not know, only that he was taught that baptism into Christ was now more accurate than the Jewish baptismal practice of John.  

In Acts 22:6-16, Jesus speaks to Saul on the road to Damascus. Blinded and hearing Jesus, he comes to faith but still needs to be taught how to be saved. God sends Ananias to tell him the message of salvation, and to wash his sins away, calling on Jesus’ name. Baptism in the name of Jesus was the “new” authority of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles.

Next, we see references to baptism in the Epistles. These references were written to those who were in the young churches, those who had already become Christians. References to baptism in the Epistles include Romans 6:1-7, where Paul reminds the Roman Christians they were baptized into the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. This, of course, is unique to the New Covenant, since these events had not happened in the Old.

John R. W. Stott, in his classic, Men Made New, exposits on this Scripture’s meaning as he writes, “Christian baptism is baptism into Christ… A Christian is not merely a justified believer. He is someone who has entered into a vital personal union with Jesus Christ.”[17]  Stott further explains that we are not vaguely, or generally united with Christ, but that we have participated in his death and resurrection. “So we have actually shared, willy-nilly, by union with Christ, in His death and resurrection.”[18] Stott refers to C.J. Vaughn’s commentary who describes baptism as a ”funeral and a resurrection from the grave.”[19]

Certainly, baptism is a divine mystery which defies any dimension available to humans. Considering these scriptures, my mind’s eye pictures baptism as the agency through which this union with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ takes place through the power of God and our faith. As one is buried under the waters of baptism, somehow the blood of Christ is united with us, taking the sin away—thus leaving a holy soul where the Spirit of God can reside. Baptism involves the divine action of the Father, the sacrifice of the Son, the power of God’s Spirit, the faith and repentance of the one desiring to make Jesus Lord, and the agency of baptism, uniting them all.

I have a dear friend with congestive heart failure who needs a heart transplant. For this to happen several events and attitudes must converge. A skilled physician must be competent and available to perform the surgery, a donor must give a heart, and my friend, the patient, in complete surrender must sign over his life to the operation. Then, the physician, the patient, and the heart must all meet in the operating room. Perhaps this might serve as a rough analogy for what takes place in baptismal union with Christ. God (with all power and ability) through Jesus (the Great Physician and heart donor) meets us in the operating room of baptism. Jesus replaces the old heart with the new, divine heart—made to beat by the Spirit of God. 

Further references to baptism in the Epistles include Galatians 3:26-27, Ephesians 4:1-6, Colossians 2:9-13, and 1 Peter 3:21.

Authority of Scripture versus Traditions

When exploring varied views on baptism held by Catholics, Reformers, Baptists, and Restoration churches one finds anything but the “one baptism” described in Ephesians 4:5. Infant baptism, confirmation, sprinkling, pouring, whatever-you-choose modes of baptism, baptism not necessary for salvation but necessary for church membership, baptism as a symbol, baptism not involving water but only the Spirit, and repentant believer’s baptism for forgiveness of sins are only some of the views on baptism. Even among Protestant views, there is disagreement. Karl Barth, a Reformed theologian writes: “Indeed, we have thought it could be regarded as self-evident that in the work of baptism one has to presuppose . . . human beings who are capable of thought and action and who may be summoned as such to conversion, obedience, hope, and the decision of faith. We could not even consider the possibility that infants might be baptized.[20]

Often, Old Covenant scriptures are referred to as if they are still in effect. Also, many practices point back to church fathers, church traditions, and councils—giving more credence to these than to the actual teachings found in the New Testament. Lane, in the Global Dictionary of Theology describes how this might be viewed by early Christians:

The polarization of faith and baptism would have appeared strange to New Testament Christians. In the Book of Acts, when people came to the point of conversion they repented, believed, were baptized and received the Holy Spirit. All four things are not mentioned every time because such repetition would be tedious. But whereas in Acts 15:7-9 only faith and receiving the Spirit are mentioned, an earlier account of the same event shows that there was also repentance and baptism (Acts 11:15-18). Where there was reason to suppose that one or another element was missing, steps were taken to rectify it (Acts 8:15-17, 20-23; 19:1-7). For the New Testament Christians, one became a Christian by repenting, believing, being baptized and receiving the Spirit. These were not alternatives but parts of the “package.” Thus Paul can glide naturally from talking about faith to baptism (Gal 3:26-27) or vice versa (Col 2:12). On a larger scale, he can move from justification by faith (Rom 1-5) to baptism (Rom 6) without giving any indication that he has changed the topic… This departure from apostolic practice had serious consequences. The link between baptism and conversion was broken…This affects our understanding of conversion and opens the door to disputes between salvation by faith and salvation by baptism, which are foreign to the New Testament.[21] 

After discussing the tragic disagreement of 1527 concerning baptism (which resulted in Reformer Zwingli’s murder-drowning of one who believed in baptism by immersion), professor and author John Armstrong writes, “Recovering the essence of the New Testament church will be no easy task today, especially in an age committed to easy solutions and pragmatic results.[22]

He continues with a thought for all who hold to opposing views:

Paobaptists (baptize infants) and credobaptists (baptize adults) have both veered from a transformative understanding of baptism. Paobaptists usually view baptism as initiation and credobaptists most often view baptism symbolically. Because of this, baptism should be revisioned as a “powerful conversion-initiation rite for which we have precedent in the New Testament. Conversion-baptism should be revisioned as transformation.[23]

While there is much truth in this statement, biblical baptism always involves faith, repentance, immersion in water, and receiving of God’s Spirit—thus beginning a lifetime of transformation.


Though all the Bible is inspired, care must be taken to read Scripture in context. The law was our guardian,[24] but gave way to something better, as taught in Hebrews 8 and 9. In the Gospels, the Old Covenant was not yet obsolete. The book of Acts illuminates the beginning of new life under the New Covenant, happening after Jesus’ death offered all who would respond the opportunity for justification and atonement in baptism, resulting in the reception of God’s indwelling Spirit. The Epistles gave further instruction for the baptized believers, who struggled to leave behind Jewish works-of-the-law mentalities and pagan worldly thinking.

Baptism, the new birth, is the beginning of life in Christ—but not the end all. Jesus commanded all disciples to go and make disciples, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all he had commanded them.[25] The newly baptized disciples had much to overcome, yet possessed the Spirit of God, great purpose, a spiritual family, and eternal hope—as do disciples today.

In first century Jewish society, conversion to Christianity often brought persecution, ostracization, and disownment; no little deal. Disciples (Christians) are called to follow Jesus, imitating His lifestyle (1John 2:5-6). A disciple no longer lives for self but for Him (2 Corinthians 5:15). Peter reminds disciples that Jesus died so that they (the Christians) might die to sin and live for righteousness (1 Peter 2:24). A disciple must deny self and follow Jesus (Luke 9:23).

Tom Jones, in his book, The Baptized Life, speaks of baptism as the beginning of a new way of life, Kingdom life. He quotes from Robert Webber’s Divine Romance: “Baptism, while it may occur in a moment in time, is a state of continual being. We are called to live daily in our baptism. Those who do not live in the divine embrace where their new identity has been established in baptism should not make a claim to have it. Baptism is a way of life.”[26]

Discerning how will God view baptismal cognizance is beyond the purpose and purview in this writing and something I can entrust to God. I believe that the closer we get to the heart of God the closer we become to one another. May all who follow Jesus navigate through the waters that divide with clarity of context, biblical integrity, and a transformed heart leading home— to the very heart of God.



Armstrong, John H. ed., Understanding Four Views of Baptism, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.

Ferguson, Gordon, Prepared to Answer, Woburn, MA: Discipleship Publication Int., 1995.

Geissler, Rex, Born of Water, Boulder Creek, CO: Grand Commission Illustrated, 1996.

Hicks, Mark and Taylor, Greg, Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism in God’s Transforming Works, Siloam Spring, AR: Leafwood Publishers, 2004.

Jacoby, Dr. Douglas, Water that Divides (CD), Spring, TX: Illumination Publishers, recorded  April 1, 2009.

Jones, Tom A., The Baptized Life: The Lifelong Meaning of Immersion into Christ, Spring Hill, TX: Discipleship Publications International, 2013.

Kline, William, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation Third Edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017.

Lane, A N. S. “Baptism in Water,” William A. Dyrness, and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen. Global Dictionary of Theology, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008, accessed February 15, 2019. http://0-search.credoreference.com.library.regent.edu/content/entry/ivpacat/baptism_in_water/0?institutionId=2468.

Pawson, David, Understanding Water Baptism, Ashford, Great Britain: Anchor Recordings, 2015.

Piper, John, Finally Alive, Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God Foundation, 2009.

Smith, F. Legard, Baptism: The Believer’s Wedding Ceremony, Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1993.

Stott, John, Men Made New, England: InterVarsity Press, 1966.

Travis, McMaken, “Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism, The Foundation of the Christian Life,” The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2013, accessed February 15, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt22nm5sm.9.

Weil, L., “Entering the household of God: Taking baptism seriously in a post-Christian society.” Anglican Theological Review, 86(2), 2004, 369-370, accessed February 8, 2019. http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.regent.edu/docview/215266154?accountid=13479.

Wright, David F. ed., Baptism: Three Views, Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009.

Wright, David F., “Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective,” Studies in Christian History and Thought, Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2009, accessed February 15, 2019. http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e093mww&AN=880592&site=ehost-live.

[1] The term “baptized life” is taken from Tom Jones, The Baptized Life, (Spring Hill, TN: Discipleship Publications International, 2013).

[2] G R Beasley-Murray, “Baptism,” NIDNTT 1:144, cited in David F. Wright ed,, Baptism: Three Views, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[3] Albrecht Oepke, “bapto,baptizo,” TDNT 1:529, cited in David F. Wright ed, Baptism: Three Views, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.         

[4] Albrecht Oepke, “bapto, baptizo,” TDNT 1:530, cited in David F. Wright ed,, Baptism: Three Views, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[5] Bruce Ware in David F. Wright ed., Baptism: Three Views, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 21.

[6] Hebrews 8:7-13 (NIV).

[7] Hebrews 9:15-18 (NIV).

[8] Sinclair Ferguson in David F. Wright ed., Baptism: Three Views, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 85-86.

[9] John Piper, Finally Alive, Minneapolis: Christian Focus Publications, 2001), 91.

[10] Ezekiel 36:25-27 (NRSV).

[11] Piper, 92.

[12] Wright, David F.“Infant Baptism in Historical Perspective,” Studies in Christian History and Thought. (Milton Keynes, England: Paternoster, 2009), ch. 27, accessed February 15, 2019, http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=e093mww&AN=880592&site=ehost-live.

[13] F. LeGard Smith, Baptism: The Believer’s Wedding Ceremony, Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate, 1993), 148.

[14] Gordon Ferguson, Prepared to Answer, (Woburn, MA: Discipleship Publication Int., 1995), 106.

[15] Acts 1:5 (NIV).

[16] Matthew 28:18-20.

[17] John R.W. Stott, Men Made New, (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1972), 34.

[18] Ibid., 37.

[19] Ibid., 36.

 [20] W.Travis, McMaken, “Barth’s Doctrine of Baptism, “The Foundation of the Christian Life” in The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth, 151-208, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2013), accessed February 15, 2019, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt22nm5sm.9.

[21] Lane, A N. S. “Baptism in Water,” William A. Dyrness, and Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, ed., Global Dictionary of Theology, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), accessed February 15, 2019, http://0-search.credoreference.com.library.regent.edu/content/entry/ivpacat/baptism_in_water/0?institutionId=2468.

[22] John H. Armstrong, Understanding Four Views on Baptism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 19.

[23] John M. Hicks & Greg Taylor, Down in the River to Pray, (Siloam Springs, AR: Leafwood Publishers, 2004), 237.        

[24] Galatians 3:24-25 (NIV).

[25] Mathew 28:18-20 (NIV).

[26] Robert E. Webber, The Divine Embrace, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 153, cited in Tom Jones, The Baptized Life: The Lifelong Meaning of Immersion into Christ, (Spring Hill, TN: Discipleship Publications, 2013), 13.

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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