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Can Baptism Do Anything?

by Mark Horne

Copyright © 2002

Lots of conservative Protestants want to answer “no” to this question.

The problem with this position is that conservative Protestants are bound to believe what the Bible teaches. And the Bible says inconvenient things, like “baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3.21), or “all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3.27, 28), or “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free” (1 Corinthians 12.13), or “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, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.3, 4), or “in Christ you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 3.11, 12).

Many people have decided that since they know the Bible could not possibly be saying such things about baptism, the baptism being referred to must be a dry “spiritual” baptism, not water baptism.

But again there are some inconvenient statements in the Bible. For example, in the book of Acts in the first sermon of the Church, Peter gives this altar call: “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2.38). Here, there is no question that normal water baptism is intended, because the text goes on to record that three thousand were baptized that day in response to Peter’s words. Yet Peter’s statements about baptism are quite similar to those in the New Testament Epistles quoted above. On what basis do we claim that the Epistles must not be speaking of water baptism?

We can be sure, of course, that baptism does not absolutely guarantee that a person will inherit glory and escape condemnation at the resurrection. The Apostle Paul says amazing things about baptism in chapter 12 of his first letter to the Corinthians, but he warns them earlier that baptism does not mean they will escape the wrath of Jesus if they worship other gods (1 Corinthians 10.1-12). Likewise, Acts tells us of a man named Simeon who was baptize but then manifested an unbelieving heart (Acts 8.9-24). Likewise, when the Apostle Peter writes, “baptism now saves you” he compares baptism to the Noah and his family brought to safety through the flood on the Ark. Yet Ham apostatized and rebelled as both Peter and his readers must have known.

So what are we to think of baptism?

If we try to solve this puzzle without considering anything besides the ritual itself, I don’t think a solution is available. However, what if we consider the fact that Jesus established a new society, His Church? The Church is “the household of God” (1 Timothy 3.15; 1 Peter 4.17). She is the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5.32) and the mother of all believers (Galatians 4.26). She is a corporate priesthood and royal dynasty (1 Peter 2.5, 9; Revelation 1.6). The Church has been given Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1.22, 23) with all his benefits and gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12.4ff).

Here we have an angle that allows baptism to be something incredibly important and yet avoids superstition. Baptism is how one enters the Church. If the Church is the family of God (1 Timothy 3.15; 1 Peter 4.17) and the mother of all believers (Galatians 4.26), and if baptism is how one is admitted into the Church (1 Corinthians 12.13), then naturally, baptism would be the normal way one is adopted into God’s family as one of his children (Galatians 3.26, 27).

While members of the Church are promised forgiveness, the Spirit, and many other benefits, the Bible does not say that all members of the Church will take advantage of these great things. Sadly, some do not persevere in what they have been given. One is justified by faith, after all–a persevering faith (Hebrews 10.35-39). But the fact that baptism and membership among God’s people does not guarantee one will inherit eternal life, does not mean that we should disregard it as of no significance.

The point here is that it is easier to trust Christ to save us and bring us to the resurrection in glory if one is confident that one has been entrusted to Christ. The Church is Jesus’ special trust and we receive in baptism God’s promise that we belong to him and he to us. We must respond to this in faith by following Christ all our days.

No one should presume on his baptism as a “free pass” into heaven, but neither should anyone despise his baptism in unbelief.

Copyright © 2002


  1. This is a good article on baptism. This website has a ton of great reading on it. I could spend quite some time here.

    Comment by Paul — August 6, 2007 @ 7:53 am

  2. Mark,

    Is there an article here that deals with those exceptions to the rule? That is, what if he dies on the way to baptism? Uh, I have a friend whose wife is struggling with this issue and she always throws that in m…his face.

    Comment by Travius Mattheus Finleyus — February 9, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

  3. Also,

    If baptism is only initiatory and not effectual until faith, then can we not speak of adoption, et al? Whence falleth baptism in the ordo salutis? Or do we speak merely of what baptism holds out (promise only) and call for a revivalistic faith?

    Comment by BlackNTanInTheAM — February 9, 2008 @ 4:12 pm

  4. 1. As I see it, baptism is a kind of “death” and “new life.” For a professing believer or a child of the covenant, I think he is solemnly admitted into the Kingdom of God in heaven at death where we don’t see it. So it is more comforting to see this admission with our eyes beforehand.

    2. I am not in favor of regarding baptized infants as lacking faith. We should disciple them as Christians and encourage them to improve on their baptisms.

    Comment by mhorne — February 9, 2008 @ 4:26 pm

  5. Mark,

    I agree. But when I read the WCF I read it as a typical TE: Invisible= signed, sealed, delivered; visible= promise and cross your fingers.
    And again, where is baptism in the ordo salutis? If you have MSN IM, I am TheRtRev.

    Comment by BlackNTanInTheAM — February 9, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

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