Is baptism purely symbolic, or is it necessary to be reborn?
Sometimes there are theological questions that divide whole denominations or distinguish between one understanding of salvation and another. The issue of water baptism is one of them. Is baptism purely symbolic, or is baptism necessary for regeneration? Must one get wet to be born again?
My first observation is that it’s a false dichotomy. It’s not one or the other. I think one can say that baptism is not necessary for salvation, but that doesn’t mean that baptism is purely symbolic and just a motion that we go through. There is a genuine grace that accrues to the person that is baptized, but it isn’t the grace of salvation.
There’s no question that the habit of the early church was to baptize virtually right after a person made identification with Christ or a proclamation of faith. This was a way of saying, “I’m on a new track, a new trajectory, and I’m moving from the old ways and going to the new ways.” It served to mark a distinction between paths of life. There is a symbolic element, but there’s also more. In the early church, if there were alter calls, they would have included baptism. Baptism is more than symbolic. It’s a statement that is made that involves grace that God provides.
However, is being baptized a prerequisite for regeneration, receiving the Holy Spirit, being born again, being saved? I think the correct biblical answer is “no.” Having said that, I understand that there are some verses that seem to point to that. For example, in Acts 2 it talks about being baptized for the remission of sins and receiving the Holy Spirit. That’s there in Peter’s first sermon. I want you to note that even thought the wording sounds like it’s saying if you get baptized, you get the remission of sins, the way the words are stacked does not require that interpretation.
Sometimes you are doing something (for) to get something, and sometimes you are doing something (for) because of something else. For example, I am receiving this award for an accomplishment I have completed. There, the accomplishment was in the past, and the reward is something to demonstrate what has happened in the past. One could read Acts 2 in the same way. We should be baptized in virtue of the forgiveness of our sins. Let’s just say passages like those are ambiguous at best.
Here’s where I go to get a definitive word regarding this issue. Cornelius in Acts 10. Both Peter and Cornelius had a vision that they were to visit with each other. Peter crossed the threshold of a Gentile home to share the Gospel. As Peter is giving the bones of the Gospel, the people who are listening believe and begin manifesting the visual signs of their belief through prophesying, speaking in tongues, etc. There is a manifestation of the Spirit. It didn’t always happen that way, but when it did, it was evidence that the Holy Spirit was in them. Peter realized they had been given the Holy Spirit just “as we have been.” These people that manifest, in this case tongues, are by Peter’s assessment, brothers and sisters in Christ. How can we withhold water baptism from these who have the Holy Spirit like we do? It seems to me that ends the debate.
If baptism were necessary for regeneration, these Gentiles would not have been regenerated before they were baptized. They received the Holy Spirit the same way that Peter did. Therefore, baptism was appropriate, in virtue of the remission of sin. In virtue of the regeneration that had already manifested itself before Peter the Jew amongst these believers that were Gentiles.
Clearly, baptism is important, commanded, and critical for a whole lot of reasons. But one of those reasons is not to get regenerated. Faith in Christ regenerates us. Then we receive the Holy Spirit. Ephesians makes this clear: “Having believed, we received the gift of the Spirit.” Water baptism comes afterwards as an appropriate picture of the new life that we’ve already experienced.