What is Water Baptism? 3 Purposes of Immersion in Water

There are lots of opinions about water baptism. Differing groups practice it in various ways. What is water baptism and its purpose?

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Baptism is included in the Bible through the Old and New Testament. There are at least 7 types of baptism in the Bible. Specifically, water baptism is an important part of the faith of a follower of Christ. What is water baptism and why is it so closely tied with Christian faith? We will examine these questions and others in this article.

What is water baptism?

Water baptism is to immerse, or cover completely in water. Another way to say this is to “submerge”. This is because the word for “baptize” in the New Testament means to immerse or to plunge. Therefore water baptism is a total covering or submersion into water. This stands in total distinction from other methods of “baptism” such as sprinkling or pouring of water.

Comparing immersion baptism vs sprinkling is not a real comparison because the two have differing definitions. Sprinkling is no more like immersion than eating a salad is like eating a sandwich. The early church (including orthodoxy) agreed upon this aspect of Christian baptism until about the 12th century.

If I were to tell you to immerse yourself in the Spanish language, how would you understand that? We know this to mean that we are to cover ourselves in the Spanish language from every angle and every aspect. To immerse ourselves, we may move to a Spanish speaking country, and listen to Spanish music, eat Spanish food, and find new Spanish friends. This is seeking to touch and experience everything Spanish.

Is immersion really necessary to bapize?

If you have more questions about immersion and if it's really necessary to submerse a person to baptize them, see my article: Baptism by Immersion: Is full immersion necessary?

Water baptism is no different than this idea, except it is our physical bodies that immerse with water. By submerging ourselves in water, it touches every area of our physical body. Water baptism, therefore, is a total covering of our physical bodies in water. This is why all the biblical examples of water baptism that we have involve “going down into” the water, rather than sprinkling or pouring. Often, people who are baptized as infants, or by sprinkling later in life get baptized again by immersion.

A person under water holding onto the cross of Christ

A Symbol of Your Death, Burial, and Resurrection With Christ

In Romans 6, the apostle Paul describes baptism as joining in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ:

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.

In this way, our immersion in water is symbolic of uniting ourselves to Jesus. As we go under the water, it is like our very own “burial”. Then, as we raise up out of the water all that remains is the “new man”. This mimics the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, our physical baptism in water symbolizes uniting with Jesus. This is why Paul says “baptized into Christ Jesus”.

Baptism for the dead?

Some people, particularly those in the Mormon faith, practice something called baptism for the dead. This section of Romans relating baptism to resurrection is one of the main reasons I reject this practice.

This concept of a burial also supports the total immersion, or covering of water. When someone is buried, they do not simply sprinkle dirt on the grave. Instead, they cover it.

In order for a proper burial to take place, however, someone has to die. The same is true with baptism by water. Part of us has to die in order for us to be “buried with him by baptism”. Paul says in verse 2 of the same context, “How can we who died to sin still live in it?” Then, in verse 6-7:

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.

Before our baptism in water takes place, we must first crucify the “old man” who is a slave to sin. Then, we symbolically bury this man into a “watery grave” and resurrect into a totally new life. This symbolizes our commitment to never going back to the old life we lived, which was subjugated and enslaved by sin and sinful desire. Paul describes a person who is in Christ as a “new creation” in 2 Corinthians 5.

A Symbol of Remission and Washing Away of Sins

In Acts 22:16 Ananias calls Saul to “arise, be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” In 1 Peter 3:18-22, the apostle Peter says that water of baptism resembles the water in the great flood. Peter also commands baptism for the “remission of sins” in Acts 2:38.

The word remission in Acts 2:38 is often translated forgiveness. It means to send away or let go of something. In this case, it is the sending away of sins.

But is it possible that the work of submerging underneath water has power to actually remove sin from me? If that was the case, then a Christian could certainly appeal to God based on their works. In this way, it would be as if the Christian had earned the grace of God through their obedience to the command. What then, does the physical act of submerging in water have to do with sins washing away from my life?

I will discuss this in more depth in another article, but for now let’s answer this question by understanding that water baptism is never limited to only submerging in water. Many Christians understand this instinctively and use the phrase, “without repentance, baptism is simply getting wet.” There is another critical part of the conversion of a Christian and that is repentance.

Is water baptism only symbolic?

No, water baptism is not only symbolic. It would be very difficult to argue that point based on these verses: Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16, Acts 2:38, 41; 8:12-13; 10:44-48; 16:31-33; 18:8; 19:4-5; 22:16. It’s true that baptism symbolizes our burial with Christ, but that is not the extent of its meaning. If that is the case, what then is the purpose of water baptism outside of symbolism?

A person standing on a shallow dock surrounded by water.

What is the purpose of water baptism?

There are quite a few reasons to get baptized. The purpose of water baptism, though, is summed up in at least 3 ways: making an appeal to God, accepting the new covenant, and committing your life in Christ. Here’s what each of those mean:

An Appeal to God

In the section we touched on earlier in 1 Peter 3, the following statement is made:

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

The phrase “corresponds to this” is a reference to the great flood of Noah’s time. Peter then follows that thought up by asserting that water baptism isn’t intended to cleanse dirt from our physical bodies. Rather, the saving mechanism in it is the appeal to God for a good conscience.

What does it mean to make an appeal to God? The greek word is better defined as a demand or strong inquiry. Most likely, Peter specifically chose this word because God promises that He will make us righteous because of Jesus’ faithfulness to the Old Covenant. The following phrase is a nod toward this idea when he says “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.

Therefore, our immersion into water is how we make a “demand” of God for a clean conscience. This means that our act of symbolically participating with Christ’s death in water, is how God wants us to take hold of the promise he has for cleansing our sin. More than that, however, since Peter compares baptism to the great flood, this “clean conscience” is not only the removal of sin, but the cancellation of its power in our life. This is the same idea that Paul describes in our earlier reference of chapters 6-8 of Romans.

Accepting the New Covenant

When God finally brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt, He decided to make a covenant with them. The details of this agreement are documented starting in Exodus 19. This covenant was presented to the people in a promise. God said that they would be his “treasured” people in the earth, and that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. God required that Israel be obedient to Him, and keep the covenant with Him as their side of the agreement.

In order for this agreement to become active, Israel had only to accept what God offered. This happens in Exodus 24 where the people verbally agree saying, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient. After this verbal agreement, Moses seals (or confirms) the covenant by taking the blood of the offering he had already prepared, and throwing it upon the people.

How do we accept the new covenant?

Today, the new promise from God is available to us. Peter, with the other apostles, summarizes this new promise (along with other words) by quoting Joel in Acts 2:

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Later, he commands his audience to “repent and be baptized”, a verse which we have already touched upon in this article. However, he says that those who repent, and submit to baptism, will “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

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.”

The Gift of the Holy Spirit

Much debate has ensued, and ink spilled to determine what this phrase “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” means. Most of this confusion is because we misunderstand the word “receive”. Typically, we interpret this to mean “you will be given”. In reality, this word is better understood as “accept”.

The gift of the Holy Spirit, then, is not a mystical indwelling in my body. Instead, it is quite literally the new promise (covenant) message that he brought and was pouring out through Peter and the other apostles before the audience’s very eyes.

With this interpretation in mind, the meaning of this statement becomes clear. When a person repents and is baptized, they accept the gift of the Spirit. Repentance and baptism is how a person accepts the new covenant of God.

This matches what we learned from 1 Peter 3, as well as the prophesy of the promise that Peter references from Joel, “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” This is why Peter follows up his statement about receiving the Spirit by echoing this statement: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off”.

A Commitment: Initiating Your New Life in Christ

The one who claims to be a follower of Christ must be one who commits everything to him. Remember from Romans 6, this involves a part of you dying. Water baptism is your proclamation to God you have put to death the old life in favor of the new life reigning in you. So a commitment is taking the reins of your life and directing them towards Christ.

Part of the idea of following Christ in a committed way is obeying his commands. Jesus told his apostles this:

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.

The call to “go and make disciples” is emphatic by Jesus’ command to baptize them and teach them to “obey everything I have commanded.” This is the idea of a person who is a disciple, one who is “disciplined” to serve Jesus and his commands. In Luke chapter 9, Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus says every person who makes the decision to follow him must be committed.

I believe it’s a combination of accepting physical water baptism, and committing yourself by immersing your spirit into Christ that marks the individual as “in Christ”. This is an immersion in water, and an immersion into Christ (think of our earlier example of immersion into the Spanish language).

In a way, water baptism is the first act of obedience that the believer completes as a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. This reflects the examples we see in scripture such as Pentecost (Acts 2) where those who accepted his message were baptized.

Stairs leading down into a body of water

How important is water baptism to salvation?

Water baptism by itself does nothing to place you into Christ, as we noted earlier in this article. If a person goes swimming and jumps in a pool, this does not mean they are baptized into Christ. So the act of submerging in water by itself has no significance without repentance, commitment, and accepting God’s promises.

If a person claims to believe in Christ, this alone may also not be enough to save. You must be a disciple of Christ, one who is obedient to his calling. This does not mean that the works themself save you! Rather, it is the symbol of baptism combined with the death of your old life that enables Christ to identify you as part of his body.

For more information on baptism’s role in salvation, read my other article: Is baptism necessary for salvation?

Water Baptism FAQ

How do you get baptized in water?

You get baptized in water by being submerged into it by someone else. There’s not really any particular required process for water baptism into Jesus Christ other than submersion into water. Biblical examples always have another person doing the baptizing while the believer accepts the baptism. See: “Can I baptize myself?” However it’s beneficial to make a public declaration and proclaim to God (and the recipient) why they are being baptized, and to the promise they are appealing.

What does water symbolize in baptism?

Water symbolizes the great flood of Noah’s era in which 8 souls were saved on the ark (1 Peter 3:20-21). This is significant because the water “washed away” the children of evil in the world, while those who sought after God remained. In the same way, the water in baptism “washes away” sin’s grip on our lives and consciences by our appeal to God. This enables us to live in freedom to our Lord Jesus Christ.

Does baptism water have to be blessed?

No, baptism water does not have to be blessed. Catholicism practices this “blessing” of the water used in baptism but this practice is never commanded or recorded in scripture. Remember, it’s not the kind of water that’s important, any body of water will do!

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1 thought on “What is Water Baptism? 3 Purposes of Immersion in Water”

  1. Thank you very much for your love of sharing water baptism May God continue to work in your heart with all mightiness May use rejoice with love peace and joy

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