Examining the purpose of baptism seems to be an emotionally charged endeavor. Unnecessarily so! As a topic, baptism is a prominent fixture in the New Testament. Various angles can be pursued such as: what is baptism is, or what baptism is compared to, or the even baptism of the Holy Spirit. However, the purpose of baptism is another matter.

There are many in the religious world today that would say, “it’s an outward showing of an inward commitment.” In fact, an almost identical statement is made by Crosswalk.com, “Baptism is an outward act that symbolizes the inward phenomenon of coming to and accepting Jesus Christ as real, as God incarnate, as the sacrificial means by which those who believe in him can be forever reconciled to God.” There are many references to baptism and baptizing in the New Testament so we should be able to see something about the purpose of baptism in Scripture.

How Scripture answers "What is the purpose of baptism?"

The purpose for baptism is profound and so much more than simply a symbolic act1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,11,14. John the Baptist prepared the way with “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”9. Peter says the same thing on the day of Pentecost – baptism (in connection with repentance) was the remedy for removing/forgiving sins1 – saving us3.

Paul makes the same direct connections to forgiveness of sins2,5 and salvation4,12. He further makes a connection to being “buried with Christ”2; and to the Galatians he connects baptism to what put them “into Christ” – effectively putting on Christ7 and being added to His church (universal)11. He further links the “washing” to the promise1,7 and sanctification of the Holy Spirit12,14. All of this correlates with Paul’s account of his own “faith journey”13.

Do you want to put on Christ7? (And would we really consider someone saved without putting on Christ?) Or, put the way Paul states it in Romans2 and Colossians6, do you want to be “buried” and “raised” with Christ? Baptism is the only thing that does these things, allowing us to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit1, “walk in newness of life”2, and inherit the kingdom of God12. When put in these terms, wouldn’t you agree the purpose of baptism is essential for salvation? BTW, these connections explain perfectly the immediacy of being baptized after hearing the word preached4,5. We even see immediacy when there’s every reason in the world to wait10. Just as Paul was told, “And now why do you wait?”5.

Answer built on scripture-blocks below

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brothers, what shall we do? And Peter said to them, Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.

When they heard the preaching of Peter and the rest of the apostles, they were convicted by them and asked what they should do [to be saved].  Peter told them that they each should repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ so that they could receive the remission of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  This “gift” was the promise made for all Jews, but also all Gentiles — everyone whom God calls to himself.

Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost where he recalled several prophetic statements from Joel and David (vss 16-36). By divine inspiration, Peter interpreted these statements to apply their fulfillment to Jesus and the ushering in of the “last days”.

He also specifically refers to the “promise of the Holy Spirit” earlier – given by the Father to the Son (vs 33). More were continuing to be saved and they began meeting together as the Lord’s church (vss 41-47).

Scripture-block application to this question

Convicted of their wrongdoing by Peter’s sermon, they asked what they needed to do and they were told they needed to be baptized to have forgiveness of sins and receive the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. This was available for not only them, but anyone whom God chose to be His.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
What’s the conclusion then?  We should never continue in sin just so that God’s grace will be magnified. We can’t continue to live in sin after dying to it.  It was our baptism into Christ Jesus that united us in His death.  Our baptism was a death burial together with Him so that just as He was raised to glory by the Father, we too will be raised to have a new life.

Paul is making the broader point of the richness and fullness of God’s grace toward sinful man (chap 5) before turning to man’s response (and responsibility) for salvation. Through the beginning verses of chapter 6, Paul correlates Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection to the Christian’s “death, burial, and resurrection” to a new [spiritual] life.

Scripture-block application to this question

In his conclusion, Paul makes a direct connection between baptism and Christ’s death. In other words, nobody shares in Christ’s death except through baptism. He further states the benefits of “dying with Christ” as:

  • being united with him in His resurrection (vs 5)
  • no longer being enslaved to sin (vs 6); being “free from sin” (vs 7)
  • living or alive with him (vs 8)
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
Baptism, like Noah being saved through the water, isn’t a bath in the physical sense of bathing. It “saves you” and is your commitment to God for a good conscience by Jesus’ resurrection, the same Jesus that ascended to heaven and is at God’s right hand, with all angels, authorities, and powers made in subjection to Him.

Peter is comparing the way in which Noah and his family were saved (through water) to the way baptism now saves (also through water).  Importantly, he’s not discounting or negating the gift of God’s son and His sacrifice which makes it all possible.  Those elements that make salvation possible at all are alluded to, it’s just not his main point right here.

Scripture-block application to this question

The saving element in both instances is the water, therefore water baptism saves us spiritually.

Then he brought them out and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved? And they said, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household. 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.
Answering a direct question about what he [the jailor] must do to be saved, the answer is to believe in Jesus.  They then spoke the word of the Lord [the Gospel] to them and in the same hour they were baptized.

Paul and Silas are in prison and miraculously set free, but after witnessing their praise and confidence in God the jailor is convicted to obey the Gospel.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul and Silas’ answer to his direct question is to believe, but given the full context (specifically, the action the jailor and his household took immediately after that) we must conclude that being baptized was also part of the answer to his question.

And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.

Don’t delay, rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.

Paul is testifying to the Jews about his personal salvation while he was alone three days with Ananias.

Also told by Luke (9:1-19) and again by Paul (26:12-18).

Scripture-block application to this question

In this case, Paul doesn’t mention that he actually believed in Jesus but it’s obviously inferred and unquestioned. Instead, he connects the visible action of being baptized as his converting act (and connects it to “calling on the name of the Lord“).

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, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

In Christ, you were circumcised by being buried with him in baptism.  This wasn’t a literal circumcision done with hands, but a removal and burial of your carnal intents. And you were raised with him out of baptism through faith in the powerful working of God, who also raised him from the dead.

Paul is writing the church in Colossae to encourage them and resist the false teaching, specifically “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition” or anything that is not according to Christ (vs 8).  He continues by specifically calling out the Mosaic Law (“a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees”) – the law that Christ replaced.  Under the same theme of not falling away, he tells them not to allow others to judge them against things pertaining to the Mosaic Law such as food, drink, feasts, Sabbath days (vs 16).   In Christ, they are not obligated to observe those things.

Scripture-block application to this question

Very similar thought to what Paul wrote to the Romans2 with the added analogy to circumcision.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Whoever has been baptized has been clothed in Christ.  Everyone [that’s been clothed] is one in Jesus Christ, regardless if they are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. Likewise, if you’re clothed in Christ, you are part of Abraham’s spiritual family and heirs according to the promise made to him by God.

Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia (a region).  Chapter 3 specifically argues the Christian’s justification through the [New] law of Christ, not the [Old] law of Moses, while at the same time, drawing strong parallels between the two. He has just stated that those “in Christ” are sons of God.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul says that baptism is how one “puts on Christ”.

For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, I follow Paul, or I follow Apollos, or I follow Cephas, or I follow Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?

I [Paul] have heard from Chloe’s people that quarrels are happening based on individuals claiming allegiance to Paul, Apollos, Peter or Christ. But Christ is not/should not be divided in this way. Christ was crucified. They are baptized into Christ.

Paul is writing to the church in Corinth dealing with several serious issues throughout the letter, but here dealing with divisions among them.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul asks three rhetorical questions, apparently obvious to his audience (saints in Corinth). Baptism is the subject of one, alongside Jesus the Son and His crucifixion. Not only does this highlight the importance of baptism, but also infers that all at Corinth (the saints) had been baptized — which he explicitly states later on in his letter11.

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
John appeared baptizing in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. All across Judea and Jerusalem, people were going out to John to confess their sins and be baptized in the Jordan river.

Mark’s succinct gospel introduction gives an account of John the Baptist’s fulfilling the Isaiah prophesy that he would “prepare the way of the Lord” (vss 2-3) and the nature of his message.

Parallel, and more detailed, accounts are found in Matthew 3:1-12, Luke 3:1-18, and John 1:19-28

Scripture-block application to this question

The baptism of John, as a forerunner to Christ, was for the forgiveness of sins for those repenting, or turning, from them.

Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized? And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Philip begins with a Scripture [Isaiah] and shares the good news of Jesus.  As they were traveling along the road, the eunuch sees water and wants to be baptized, so together they go “down into” the water where Phillip baptizes the eunuch.  When they “came up out of” the water, the Spirit took Philip away.  The eunuch joyously returns home to Ethiopia and never sees Philip again.

Phillip is sent by the Spirit of God to teach the eunuch who is reading Isaiah while he’s traveling back from home from visiting Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost. When they see water, they stop in order for the eunuch to be baptized.  We hear no more about Ethiopia in the Bible, but history records it to have a great Christian history.

Philip quotes from Isaiah 53

Scripture-block application to this question

The eunuch wanted to immediately be baptized after hearing “Jesus taught” to him. It wasn’t the most convenient time and he wasn’t with any friends or family (but he was on his way back to them).

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body. Whether Jews or Greeks or slaves or free, we were all made to drink of the one Spirit.

Just as our bodies have many body parts that all together form one body, so it is with Christ’s body.  Regardless of whether you are Jew or Greek, slave or free, we were all baptized in one Spirit into one body, drinking of the same Spirit.

Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth addresses many serious and difficult issues they were facing.  Division among the body was a recurring theme – addressed in chapter 1 as following after certain prominent men (instead of Christ) – and here in chapter 12 as boasts in various spiritual gifts.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul explicitly states that “all” were baptized into Christ’s body.

And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
Some of you were engaged in these sinful practices, but you have been cleansed [of sin], set apart (e.g. made holy), and reconciled through the authority of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is addressing the brethren of Corinth that are relatively new to the faith. He lists several sinful practices of the “unrighteous” (vss 9-10) – practices that some in Corinth had taken part of but had turned from them in their conversion.

Scripture-block application to this question

Paul connects their baptism (e.g. “washed”) with being set apart and reconciled [to God].

!! scripture-block context extra important here !!

Paul has just enumerated several sinful acts that will exclude those committing them from “inheriting the kingdom of God” (vss 9-10). Therefore, being “washed” does not guarantee but makes one eligible to inherit the kingdom of God.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

To be sure, I [Paul] consider nothing above knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For Him have I suffered the loss of everything, considering it all worthless anyway, in order to pursue Christ and be found in Him, not based on works of my own law-keeping, but based on faith in Christ and the good works that it produces — coming to a knowledge of Him and the power of His resurrection, sharing in His sufferings, becoming dead to the flesh, that at any cost I may achieve life after death.

Paul’s letter to the Christians at the church in Philippi, established during his second missionary journey.
Scripture-block application to this question

Paul recounts his own “faith journey.” He doesn’t explicitly mention his baptism here (he does in Acts 22), but he does state the fact that he can “be found in him”7,11 (the result of his baptism).

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,

God appeared in the form of Jesus and saved us, not based on our merit but by His mercy, by the “washing of regeneration” and by renewal of the Holy Spirit, poured out fully through Christ.

Paul’s letter of encouragement to a young preacher Titus. Much like his letters to Timothy, Paul instructs Titus regarding the different churches “in every town” (1:5) to which he was ministering. Also, like Timothy, he encourages Titus to “let no one [in the church] disregard” him (2:15).

Scripture-block application to this question

It is through “washing” that a Christian receives the “regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”. What besides the act of baptism – just as Peter stated1,3 – could this be?

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John Muchemi Gichuki

That’s enough to convince a person who seeks the truth, diligently. Job well done! Thanks!