In the Book of 2 Kings, a Syrian military commander named Naaman journeyed to the city of Samaria seeking a cure for his leprosy. He’d heard about the God of Israel from a Hebrew slave girl captured during a Syrian raid into Israel some years earlier. Naaman was desperate for relief, so he listened to the child and made the trek south with plenty of silver and gold in tow.
But when Naaman and his entourage arrived at the house of Elisha the prophet, Elisha didn’t come to the door. Instead, he sent out his servant with a message: “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean” (2 Kings 5:10). This was not what Naaman wanted to hear. He wanted a divinely inspired cure from the hands of God’s prophet. He wanted a miracle. But instead he received instructions for a bath. What good could it do to wash in the river? Naaman must have thought.
Baptism is a physical picture of a spiritual reality.
Many new Christians have a similar feeling when it comes to baptism: What difference could it make to be immersed in water? Yet Jesus was clear on the subject, telling His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19–20; emphasis added).
Jesus wants His followers to be baptized, so what should we believe about it?
WHAT BAPTISM DOESN'T DO
Reading through the New Testament, baptism is everywhere. It’s no wonder some people think the waters of baptism play a role in salvation. These people can even point to Bible verses that seem to suggest this is the case. For example, the Gospel of Mark records Jesus saying, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” (16:16).
While some traditions do teach that baptism is needed to truly wash away our sins, that is not the teaching of the Bible. God’s Word is clear that people are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ—nothing more, nothing less.
The apostle Paul wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). And just in case you’re wondering if baptism might be necessary in order to receive such grace, he continued: “And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (vv. 8–9). In other words, there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s grace, not even submitting to baptism.
But what about what Jesus said in Mark 16:16? The first thing we ought to notice is that Jesus links believing with baptism. He didn’t say, “Whoever is baptized will be saved.” Rather, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” One must have faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
The second half of verse 16 is also telling: “. . . but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Whoever does not believe or doesn’t get baptized will be condemned.” Again, the essential part is believing. The lack of a baptism will not condemn anyone. Neither will baptism save anyone.
WHAT BAPTISM DOES DO
Baptism doesn’t save us. It doesn’t wash away sins. It doesn’t make us right with God. Yet the New Testament makes it clear that Christians should be baptized. What, then, is the purpose of baptism?
Baptism is a sign for believers: Baptism is a sign and symbol of a believer’s faith in Jesus. One of the purposes of baptism is to remind us that we have died with Jesus and been raised to new life. Paul wrote, we have “been buried with him [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12). Baptism is a physical picture of a spiritual reality. A person being baptized goes down under the water, like a burial, and comes up again, like a resurrection.
In the Old Testament, God commanded many of His prophets to undertake a physical task in order to communicate a spiritual truth to His people. God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute in order to illustrate how spiritually adulterous the people of Israel had become, chasing after other gods (Hosea 1:2). There was also Ezekiel, the prophet God told to pack his bags and parade in front of the people to show them they would soon be packing their own bags for an exile into Babylon for their ongoing disobedience (Ezekiel 12:1–7).
In much the same way, baptism is a sign that we have died to sin and are now part of a new creation. It is a prophetic act of faith for the believer who is being baptized while also an encouraging reminder for every Christian gathered to witness the act.
Baptism is a testimony to the world: Jesus said, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32–33). When we come to faith in Christ, baptism is one of the first opportunities we have to stand up publicly and be counted for Jesus. It’s a way of letting the world know He is our Lord and Savior.
Rather than something to brag about, baptism is a way of announcing that you are a sinner in need of God’s grace, that you have repented and made a commitment to faith in Jesus, who died for you. In so doing, you have died to your old self and been raised to newness of life, so that the life of Jesus might be lived through you. It’s a powerful statement—and an unparalleled invitation to people in great spiritual need.
Baptism is an initiation rite: Finally, baptism is for New Testament believers what circumcision was for Old Testament Israelites. Paul makes this connection clear in the book of Colossians: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism” (Colossians 2:11–12).
In the Old Testament, circumcision was a sign of the covenant God had made with Abraham, and it marked members of the covenant community. (Women were marked by having a father or a husband who was circumcised.) In much the same way, baptism is an initiation to membership in the community of the church, Christ’s body here on earth (1 Corinthians 12:13).
WE BELONG TO JESUS
When Naaman emerged from the Jordan River for the seventh time, he looked down to discover that his leprous skin had become “like the flesh of a little child” (2 Kings 5:14). Of course, it wasn’t the water that healed Naaman. It was the power of God, available to Naaman as he exercised his faith. His “baptism” in the Jordan, then, was the outward sign of his faith in the Lord.
Baptism is a sign of our faith in Jesus and our allegiance to Him. And while the water doesn’t change us physically, as Naaman’s dip in the Jordan did, it signifies a change no less dramatic: our redemption, the forgiveness of our sins, and our adoption as God’s children.