The devil has used the waters of baptism to sink more souls in hell than about any other vice or device. Wily as Satan is, he has stolen a beautiful ordinance of God and used it for himself, filling church houses with hypocrites whose lives have never been changed by way of a meeting with the living God — they went into the water a dry sinner and came up a wet sinner. The murderer, the sexually immoral, the thief, the gossip, the liar, and the arrogant hypocrite hide behind the baptistry. How many, by their infant baptism, have been insulated from a sense of their need of coming to Christ for true conversion in later years? Now think of this! Most of the main-line churches teach that water baptism is somehow effectual in dealing with sin – Roman Catholic, Lutheran, many Presbyterians, most Methodists, some Pentecostal, Episcopal, Christian, and Church of Christ. Baptism, that is, false concepts of it, is a great factory of false Christians.
Yes, baptism is biblical. A Christian ought to be baptized. But the point is this: it is not something one does to become a Christian. Rather, it is something one does because he is already a Christian. To put it another way, although baptism is at the door of salvation, it is not the door.
That distinction must be maintained to avoid a false gospel. Proof? ‘Judaizers’ troubled the Galatian churches. While they taught that Christ truly was the Messiah and salvation was through faith in Him, they added something — that circumcision also was necessary to be saved. That is, they taught a ‘faith plus’ salvation. The Apostle Paul called this “another gospel”; it was “desertion” from the true faith; and those who held to it were “accursed” of God, that is, headed for hell (Galatians 1:6-9). So, in the same way, to add that water baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins is an exact parallel to the Galatian error, incurring the same curse.
Another bible proof that water baptism has nothing to do with the cleansing of the heart (it should be obvious that water on the skin won’t reach the heart) is the case of the conversion of Cornelius and his household. It is related in Acts chapter 15, verses 7-9. Note the sequence: 1) they heard the gospel, 2) they believed the gospel, 3) their hearts were cleansed by that faith, 4) God bore witness to their hearts by giving them the Spirit, and finally, 5) they were baptized (Acts 10:48). You see, their sins were forgiven and they received the Spirit before they went in the water. The fact that Jesus himself was baptized proves baptism does not save. He did not need saving. It is only a ceremony.
Admittedly, there are bible verses that seem to make baptism effectual for forgiveness, such as Acts 2:38: Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. But the key is this: the Greek word “eis” translated “for” can have the meaning “in view of”. Thus, the meaning is this: be baptized in view of your sins having been forgiven. Matthew 3:11 shows this same principle: As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance. Now, no one would say baptism produces repentance! So, isolated verses of the Bible can be used to prove about anything. God left plenty of dead ends for the dishonest. Another example is Mark 16:16: He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned. At first glance it seems to make baptism essential to salvation. But the fact that the second phrase omits baptism will make the honest reader suspicious and turn to clearer passages for a solid definition.
What’s so attractive about baptism? It is something man does, and proud man always wants something he can do to try to find favor with God. But God has set up salvation such that we are left helpless and we must come to God as empty-handed beggars, looking to the living God for a hand out – for charity, for grace. And to put our little finger in to help is an insult to Him.
But baptism is a beautiful ordinance. First, it signifies the burial of the old sinful self and the raising up of a new man in Christ upon true conversion, a miraculous work of the hand of God (Colossians 2:12). Second, it signifies the washing away of sins (Acts 22:16). Third, it is the ‘initiation ceremony’ into the church of Christ (Acts 2:41), testifying to the watching world that the candidate has forsaken the company of sinners to side off with the saints.
The devil is good at superstition – he would get you to miss the reality for the symbol, the substance for the shadow. Make sure you have actually come to know the living God. Make sure your sins are personally washed away through raw faith in the death of Christ who died as a substitute to pay the sinner’s sin-debt. Make sure the Spirit of Christ has invaded your heart, breaking the power of sin, changing your life. This is the new birth. This is mere Christianity. This is life.