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Baptism, What is It? Meaning and Definition

  • Compiled & Edited by Crosswalk Editorial Staff
  • 2017 20 Nov
  • COMMENTS
Baptism, What is It? Meaning and Definition

There are so many questions surrounding the Christian term baptism. It seems as if every church has a different method or idea of what baptism means and how the step is taken. We hope to answer all of your questions about being baptized so that you can confidently take this step of identification with Christ Jesus! 

What is Baptism?

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. The purpose of baptism is to give visual testimony of our commitment to Christ. It is the first step of discipleship (Acts 8:26-39).

The symbolism of baptism is that, just as Christ died and was buried, so the baptized person is submerged (whether physically or symbolically) under water.  And just as Christ rose again from beneath the earth, so the baptized person rises again from beneath the water. Under the water is the believer’s old, dead, heavy, suffocating life. Out of the water, cleansed by the blood of Christ, is the believer’s new, fresh, purposeful life.

Baptism is like a wedding ring. We put on a wedding ring as a symbol of our commitment and devotion. In the same way baptism is a picture of devotion and commitment to Christ. A wedding ring reminds us and tells others that we belong to someone special. In the same way, baptism reminds us and others that we are devoted to Christ and belong to Him.
Excerpt from What is Baptism by John Shore

Do You Need to be Baptized to be Saved?

According to God's Word, Baptism is not a requirement of salvation. Let’s examine what the Scriptures teach on this issue:

It is quite clear from such passages as Acts 15 and Romans 4 that no external act is necessary for salvation. Salvation is by divine grace through faith alone (Romans 3:22, 24, 25, 26, 28, 30; 4:5; Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:8-9; Philippians 3:9, etc.). If water baptism were necessary for salvation, we would expect to find it stressed whenever the saving gospel of Jeuss is presented in Scripture Paul never made water baptism any part of his gospel presentations. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul gives a concise summary of the gospel message he preached. There is no mention of baptism. In 1 Corinthians 1:17, Paul states that “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel,” thus clearly differentiating the gospel from baptism.

If baptism were part of the gospel itself, necessary for salvation, what good would it have done Paul to preach the gospel, but not baptize? No one would have been saved.  The penitent woman (Luke 7:37-50), the paralytic man (Matthew 9:2), the publican (Luke 18:13-14), and the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43) all experienced forgiveness of sins apart from baptism. For that matter, we have no record of the apostles’ being baptized, yet Jesus pronounced them clean of their sins (John 15:3—note that the Word of God, not baptism, is what cleansed them).

There are two Bible verses that may cause confusion in regards to how baptism and salvation is mentioned togteher. Acts 2:38 says "repent and be baptized"... meaning that baptism is not required but a physical next step to take after the spiritual step. Mark 16:6 "whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned."...again ,baptism is stated as a natural next step after the spiritual believing. It is the belief that grants salvation and the failture to believe that causes condemnation.

Water baptism is certainly important, however, the New Testament does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Excerpt from Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation? by John MacArthur

Infant Baptism vs Adult Baptism

What is the difference between infant and adult baptism? Let's take a look at how infant baptism began and why it's important for adults to take the symbolic step of baptism.

Infant baptism arose from the teachings of some early second and third century church fathers that baptism washed away sin. This meant that if you died without being baptized then you died with your sins unforgiven and thus went to Hell (or purgatory as that concept developed over time). With the high infant mortality rate in the early centuries, the concept of baptizing babies as soon as possible came into vogue. Since it is not necessarily good to push baby heads underwater, the idea of sprinkling took hold.

The Greek word for “baptism” is “βαπτιζω". The English letters look like this: "baptidzo." The word does not mean “sprinkle or “pour”. The Greek word "baptidzo" literally means to “dip” or to “immerse”. 

Throughout the years of the Church, baptism by immersion has taken several forms. Some baptize by dipping three times in the “Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit". Others use the Jewish model for baptizing Gentile converts into Judaism. The initiates wear white robes and are dipped three times forward and three times backward. The most common mode of baptism is once backward to portray the death, burial and resurrection of Christ.

According to Romans 6:1-10, baptism pictures at least three things:

  1. First, baptism is a picture of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. As we stand in the water we are representing Christ on the cross. As we are dipped underwater we illustrate the burial of Christ. As we come out of the water we demonstrate the resurrection of Christ.
  2. Second, baptism is a personal testimony to us of the washing away of our sins. As we go under the water we reconfirm that our sins are forgiven and as we come out of the water we are resurrected to live a new life in Christ.
  3. Third, baptism represents our personal identification with Christ. Paul declared in Romans 6:3-4  “We were buried with Christ in baptism and we are raised to walk in a new life" as forgiven followers of Christ empowered by the Spirit of God.

Being sprinkled or having water poured over your head when you were an infant, or too young to understand, missed the point of baptism on all three levels.

The Bible teaches that commitment to Christ always precedes baptism. In fact, baptism is your testimony of surrendering your life to Christ. The New Testament order is not be baptized and then receive Christ. It is always first you receive Christ and then you get baptized. If you were not aware of submitting to the Lordship of Christ then it is impossible to think of your baptism as a personal commitment to Christ.
Excerpt from Is It Important to Get Baptized As An Adult? by Dr. Roger Barrier 

Christianity.com: Should infants be baptized?-Mark Dever from christianitydotcom2 on GodTube.

Jesus' Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17 - "Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

If John was baptizing for repentance and Jesus was without sin, why would he have to be baptized? Jesus’ meaning in Matthew 3:15 was not a statement that baptism is necessary for salvation, nor that he needed to repent of anything. The intent of the Jewish people regarding baptism was to signify their readiness to follow the will of God. So by engaging in this action, by including himself in this tradition of his people, Jesus “fulfills all righteousness,” not merely by the physical act, but by the spiritual implications of it. 

There was no written legal requirement for Jesus to be baptized in order to inaugurate his ministry. Jesus followed the law, but he also followed the traditions in line with the heart of the law. By this act, Jesus proclaims the beginning of his ministry.
Excerpt from Why Was Jesus Baptized by Joel Stucki

Scriptures on Baptism

1 Peter 3:21 - "and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.."

Colossians 2:21 - "having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead."

Ephesians 4:4-6 - "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all."

Acts 22:16 - "And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.’"

Read more Bible verse about Baptism at BibleStudyTools.com


This article is part of our larger resource library of terms important to the Christian faith. From heaven and hell to baptism and communion, we want to provide easy to read and understand articles that answer your questions about theological words and their meaning.

Heaven - What is it Like, Where is it?
Hell - 10 Things You Should Know
Baptism - What Does it Mean and Why is it Important?
Communion - 10 Important Things to Remember
Predestination - Biblical Support and Facts
Armor of God - What is it and How to Use it