GraceLife Church of Pineville

Grace alone. Faith alone. Christ alone.

Baptisms: An Introduction

Scripture Focuses: Hebrews 5:12–6:3; Acts 19:1–6

We are beginning a new series on baptisms, the third of the six elementary principles (or oracles of God) that we’re studying.1The six oracles, in order of study, are: (1) repentance from dead works, (2) faith toward God, (3) baptisms, (4) laying on of hands, (5) resurrection from the dead, and (6) eternal judgment. I invite you to take this pre-quiz before continuing.

Table of Contents

Baptism Pre-Quiz

Baptism Quiz
1. You are most likely to witness a baptism at
2. Which person(s) does the Bible not mention as performing a water baptism?
4. Which of the following are baptisms not mentioned in the Bible?
7. Which Old Testament story is important to know in order to understand baptism?
10. Does the Bible ever mention being baptized twice?

A Roadmap for Our Approach to Baptisms

If you didn’t score perfectly on that pre-quiz, don’t fret: the elementary principles that we learn from the Scriptures need to be taught; and thankfully, we’re not teaching them under the same threat of the writer of Hebrews (that is, you’re not likely attempting to abandon the faith—though if you are, it’s good to know exactly what you’re walking away from). It’s from the book of Hebrews that we find our base text on baptisms:  

For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment. And this we will do, if God permits. (Hebrews 5:12–6:3)

To recap, over the course of months, we’ve studied in-depth the first set of principles or oracles of God—repentance from dead works and faith toward God. Now, we move into the second set, which are more ritualistic: baptisms and laying on of hands.

The progression within these principles is logical. First, we placed a boundary around works. Some works are dead by their nature; others are dead when coupled with incorrect intentions.

After learning those boundaries, next we learned how we’re positioned in faith toward God. Only then can we understand rituals; only then can we avoid the error of practicing dead rituals—rituals not sourced in faith toward God, rituals not sourced in correct doctrine.

But there is an obvious oddity in this third principle—actually, two oddities, depending on your Bible translation.

In our focus passage in Hebrews, you may have noticed that the quoted translation—the New American Standard Bible—used the word “washings” in verse 6:2. The ESV and HCSB translations also use “washings.” Other translations use different words here: The NIV uses “cleansing rites” and the RSV uses “ablutions.” The New King James and several other translations (NET, NRSV, BSB) all use the word “baptisms.” In this series, we’ll be focusing on the concept of “baptisms,” but generally speaking, it’s a reference to things that are being cleaned. I’ll say more on that word for “washings,” but a second oddity to note is that the word is plural—it’s baptisms, not baptism; washings, not washing. One thing is certain: whatever we’re talking about, we’re talking about it in the plural sense.

Where do we begin to unpack this concept of baptisms? In this sermon, I will give you a roadmap. Then, in the weeks ahead, we’ll get into more specifics about what the Bible says about baptisms.

Have you ever been in a car with someone, and you were expecting to go one place and you ended up going another? Maybe as a child you thought you were going somewhere, but your parents decide to run some errands first. And the whole car ride, you have to change your mind about what’s happening. A mental shift has to take place because you thought you were headed one place, but now you’re heading another place instead.

As soon as I say the word “baptisms,” nearly everyone has an idea in their minds as to what I am talking about. But if we don’t get that initial conception out of our head, we may miss some things from the start.

And so, by necessity, we’ll discuss some misconceptions about baptism first. We did the same thing when we were studying faith toward God. As soon as we began talking about faith, we addressed the common objection, “But what about James 2?” (James 2 famously discusses the interplay of faith and works and, as we saw, is often misunderstood.)2See “Faith Perfected: The Real Role of Works in James 2” Part 1 and Part 2, Pastor Michael’s sermons from July 30 and August 6, 2023, respectively. There will be a lot of “But what about …?” questions related to baptism, too. For example:

  • But what about Acts 2:38?
  • But what about Mark 16 (especially verse 16), where it talks about baptism and salvation?
  • But what about 1 Peter 3 (namely, verse 21, which says “baptism now saves you”)?

If you don’t have particular Scripture verses in mind, you probably do have particular practices in mind: what baptism is supposed to look like, what it’s supposed to be about, and who is supposed to participate in it.

We will eventually cover the practice of water baptism, which we practice at GraceLife. And I hope we will celebrate the end of this series on baptisms with actual baptisms. So let’s not go any further before declaring, from the outset, that baptism is something to celebrate.

When Jesus was baptized, His Father declared, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

Wait, you might be thinking, I thought baptism was for the forgiveness of sins, and we get baptized in the name of Jesus; why is Jesus getting baptized?!  

These are the sorts of questions we’ll answer.

Here’s the plan for this sermon: First, I’ll give you four preliminary principles for how we’ll approach baptism. We’ll also go over five Scriptural observations that challenge our presuppositions about baptism.

4 Preliminary Principles about Baptism

Preliminary Principle 1: Baptism Is Something to Celebrate

We already made this point briefly, but let’s discuss it further.

Before I became pastor at GraceLife, I wrote out a list of what I thought were challenges to pastoring an established free grace church. I then wrote out the principles I would commit to in order to address those challenges. Number 1 on my list was this: Celebrate what we’re for, not what we’re against.

Pastors must guard against error without letting it rob the joy of worship. Free grace leaders may inadvertently downplay important celebrations of the faith by overemphasizing what they’re not—declaring things like “Baptism doesn’t…” or “The Lord’s Supper isn’t…” or “Child dedication won’t…”

Boundaries are important; and there are times when they need to be emphasized, but they aren’t reasons to celebrate. So, as I’m teaching on these things, you will hear a lot of “doesn’t,” “isn’t,” and “won’t” statements; but that’s so that when we get to the thing itself—that is, when we celebrate baptism—we can embrace its goodness because we know the truth about it.

Preliminary Principle 2: Baptism Is Identification

This is baptism at its core. The word baptism is a transliteration of a Greek word, βαπτισμός (baptismos) or βάπτισμα (baptisma), which means a plunging or a washing. It comes from the root βάπτω (baptō), meaning “to dip.”3Hence the answer to the first pre-quiz question—baptism is most likely at a Mexican restaurant, where we dip chips in a wide swath of sauces. The verb “to baptize” comes from βαπτίζω (baptizo).

Baptism is, in the physical sense, an immersion into liquid. That’s the plain meaning of the word. Here are a few places we see it in Scripture (the term in bold has the same root word as baptism):

  • When the Pharisees are complaining about other people’s practices and the Scripture says they immerse their vessels into water (Mark 7:1–5).
  • Jesus, at the Passover meal, dips the morsel (John 13:26).
  • In the story of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus,4Not to be confused with the Lazarus Jesus raised from the dead. the rich man—now dead and in torment—cries out to Abraham (in heaven) and asks him to send Lazarus to dip his finger into the cool water to cool off the rich man’s tongue (Luke 16:24).
  • The robe of Jesus is said to be “dipped in blood” in Revelation 19:13.

Simply put, baptism is a means of identification with whatever it is one is baptized into.

Baptism is a means of identification with whatever it is one is baptized into.

Everything we just mentioned is a physical immersion. But the reality of physical immersion—the nature of being surrounded, consumed, encompassed—lends itself to a symbolic or metaphorical usage. We use that kind of language when we make statements like, “She was immersed in her studies.” This doesn’t mean she was literally swimming in books, but we use an expression like that to say that a person’s time, space, and identity are taken up by something. When someone takes on a task in an especially devoted way, we use similar language when we say that he is “diving in.” When someone begins to learn a new language in the most dedicated, exclusive way possible, we call it an immersive method of teaching or learning.  

Baptism, then, is deep engagement, involvement, or connection.

Baptism … is deep engagement, involvement, or connection.

The third preliminary principle is related to the idea of identification.

Preliminary Principle 3: Baptism Is a Symbol

In 1 Corinthians 10:1–2, Paul mentions baptism into Moses:

For I do not want you to be unaware, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea; and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea . . .

Why this phrase, “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea”? For context, it helps to know that Paul uses this phrase while encouraging fellow believers to successfully live out their lives. A few verses earlier, he wrote, “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win” (1 Corinthians 9:24). He is warning them against becoming disqualified—that is, against failing to live out the Christian life successfully.

And then there’s a bit of irony that arises with mention of being baptized in the sea, because the Israelites weren’t baptized (immersed) in the sea—the Egyptians were!5If you’re not familiar with the historic event of the Israelites—led by Moses—miraculously crossing the Red Sea, you can read about it in Exodus 14. The Israelites were baptized into something greater than water; they were baptized into the things of God: the prophet of God, the presence of God, the power of God; Moses, the cloud, the sea. These were deep identification symbols. You see, Paul uses the example of his readers’ ancestors—people who were there with Moses, participating in all the miracles of that age—who despite their deep identification with (baptism into) the things of God, made God unhappy and ultimately paid the price with their lives.

Baptism is identification, and therefore we see that it’s often a symbol of something greater.

Here’s another symbol of baptism: baptism of suffering. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I have a baptism to undergo” (12:50). But by this point, Jesus had already been baptized in water by John the Baptist. So what’s He talking about? He’s referring to the suffering He will endure:

I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished! (Luke 12:50)

Jesus refers to the suffering He will face as a baptism. This figurative use helps us further understand the sense in which baptism is used as a means of identification and deep connection with something.

Baptism symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Baptism symbolizes the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. But before we get into that more, we have to recognize that baptism predates Christianity. Jesus Himself was baptized, so it couldn’t have been a baptism symbolizing His death, burial, and resurrection. He hadn’t yet been crucified, buried, and resurrected!

There must be, then, some biblical forms of baptism that are different than what we see practiced today and different from what is prescribed for us today.

One final comment on baptism as a symbol: We must be careful as we’re establishing these preliminary principles about saying that “baptism symbolizes” something. I’m not necessarily saying baptism is a mere symbol, that it’s “just a symbol.” Am I saying that there’s some sort of power in baptism? Or that the presence of God is somehow involved? Does baptism actually confer something? Well, I’m saying what preliminary principle 4 says: baptism is controversial.  

Preliminary Principle 4: Baptism Is Controversial

Here are some of the questions that will arise when discussing baptism:

  • What is the function of baptism? Is it a confession of faith or a cleansing of sin?
  • What happens at baptism? This answer will require a discussion of the nature of sacraments (sacred actions); is there causation or signification?
  • Who should be baptized? Should infants be baptized? Should it be only believers that are baptized?
  • How should a person be baptized? Should it be baptism by immersion, by effusion (pouring), or by aspersion (sprinkling)?

Baptism is something to celebrate. Baptism is identification. Baptism is a symbol. And baptism is controversial. Moreover, controversy surrounds different interpretations of Scripture. Nevertheless, we won’t shy away from studying this controversial topic.

5 Scriptural Observations that Challenge Presuppositions about Baptism

As we turn now to some of the misconceptions about baptism, we’ll look at the book of Acts and make five Scriptural observations that challenge presuppositions about baptism. My hope is that these observations give you reason to pause, and then reason to pursue—to pursue the truth about baptisms from God’s Word.

Acts 19:1–6 reads as follows:

It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying.

Observation 1: There Exists More Than One Type of Baptism

Notice Paul doesn’t say, “Oh, you boys have been baptized? Great!” Instead, a curious question arises: “Into what then were you baptized?” (Acts 19:3). Paul is asking about what it is that they were connecting their lives to. Notice their answer: the baptism of John the Baptist.

Observation 2: Different Baptisms Serve Different Purposes for Different People at Different Times

From this passage in Acts, notice that baptism is associated with specific people—for example, John (the Baptist) and, of course, Jesus.6Interestingly, Apollos is mentioned in this passage. Later, there was a problem in Corinth involving his name—people were claiming to be followers of specific people, but Paul goes on to say that he didn’t remember which people he even baptized. Some people were getting caught up in baptism associated with people.

Notice, too, that baptism is associated with different focuses. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.

There are baptisms associated with different purposes—for example, in other places in Acts, we see baptism associated with the forgiveness of sins.

We also find baptisms associated with different time periods. Those baptized by John were to undergo a baptism of repentance, which was to tell the baptized that they should believe on the One who would come after John the Baptizer—that is, Jesus. This kind of baptism was only possible during one time period in all of history, because there was only one period in history in which John the Baptist lived and was immediately followed by the One we’re to follow for all eternity.

Observation 3: There Exists More Than One Type of Baptizing Medium

Two water baptisms are mentioned in this passage in Acts:

  1. John’s baptism of repentance
  2. Baptism in the name of Jesus

There’s also a non-water baptism mentioned in this passage; you’d have to have studied baptism a little to pick up on it: Holy Spirit baptism. Yes, this is controversial. But it doesn’t change the fact that we clearly see the Holy Spirit as another baptizing medium besides water. And when did that Spirit baptism occur? It was “when Paul had laid his hands upon them [the disciples]” (Acts 19:6).

Observation 4: There Is Biblical Precedent for Being Baptized More Than Once

This observation is also controversial. But look at what Paul asks in our passage in Acts 19. In essence, he says, “What were you boys baptized into? If it was John’s baptism, that’s not good enough. Something new has come about, and you need to participate in it.”

In short, this passage does give biblical precedent for being baptized more than once.

Observation 5: The Elementary Principles of the Oracles of God Are Present More Often and More Closely Related Than You Realize

If you were paying attention to these verses in Acts 19, you’ll have picked up on mention of four of our six oracles of God: baptism, repentance, faith, and laying on of hands. I’ll bold them in the passage below:

It happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the upper country and came to Ephesus, and found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said to him, “No, we have not even heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” And they said, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking with tongues and prophesying. (Acts 19:1–6)

Many ... or One?

To conclude, we’ve got baptisms, plural, in the Bible. And with them, we have:

  • Different media
  • Different purposes
  • Different people
  • Different times

But the same Paul who acknowledges multiple baptisms to the Ephesian believers he’s addressing in Acts 19 is the same Paul who will write to the Ephesians and declare, “There is … one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4–5).

How can that be?

I believe those answers are all given to us in the book of Acts.

For now, we have established some basic concepts for baptism, and next I’ll give you a “baptism blueprint” that will unlock the entire book of Acts and provide a framework for understanding all baptisms in the Bible, all baptisms in God’s church, and all baptisms in your life.