Baptism is one of the most important actions in the Christian faith. The act, which involves using water to signify a person’s embrace of the gospel, is handled quite differently by various denominations. While some Christians baptize babies, others wait until children or adults are old enough to make a baptism decision for themselves.
What Is Baptism?
Merriam-Webster defines baptism as “a Christian sacrament marked by ritual use of water and admitting the recipient to the Christian community.” While there is debate over the meaning and usage of baptism, there are also some clear facts about the practice.
To begin, Jesus commanded Christian baptism, telling the disciples before His ascension to spread the gospel to the ends of the Earth and to baptize people along the way. Matthew 28:19–20 (NIV) reads:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
And that’s not all. Jesus himself was baptized by John the Baptist, with Matthew 3:13-17 explaining the details of this monumental event — one in which Jesus appears to be setting an important example for the rest of us to follow.
When John initially balked at Jesus’ request that John baptize him and said Christ was more fit to baptize John, Jesus responded as follows: “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Verses 16-17 explains the rest:
“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.’”
Common Ground on Christian Baptism
In much of the Protestant world, Christian baptism is seen as a fulfillment of one’s commitment to Christ, and a symbolic move that shows that a person is moving from darkness to light. It is also widely seen as a public declaration of faith and commitment to the gospel.
While disagreements abound over whether baptism is required for salvation, the vast majority of Christians, if they are reading their Bibles, would see it as an extremely important — if not essential — act that is modeled in scripture.
Divisions on Christian Baptism
One of the big divisions over baptism centers on when it should unfold. While many Protestants believe that baptism should come after a person is old enough to decide to accept Christ for him or herself, others hold a different view, believing that it should specifically unfold during infancy.
The Catholic Church believes that “baptism is necessary for salvation.” The Catechism further explains:
The Church does not know of any means other than Baptism that assures entry into eternal beatitude; this is why she takes care not to neglect the mission she has received from the Lord to see that all who can be baptized are "reborn of water and the Spirit." God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments.
The Catechism also addresses children who have died before receiving baptism, noting that the Catholic Church can “only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them.” The document goes on to discuss the importance of God’s mercy:
Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus' tenderness toward children which caused him to say: "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,” allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church's call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
Others take a different view, with Crosswalk.com proclaiming that “baptism is not a requirement of salvation” and citing scripture to back that view:
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 [Jesus] 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.
Conclusions on Christian Baptism
Differences aside, baptism remains an important facet of the Christian experience for more than 2 billion Christians across the globe. At the very least, it is an outward expression of one’s belief in and devotion to the gospel.