What is the purpose of baptism? 11

A month or so ago, Perry Noble and Steven Furtick baptized almost 1,000 people between them in a remarkable day when they sprung the opportunity on people who had come to church with no knowledge of what they’d end up being asked to do.

As I showed you back then, Noble spent just a few minutes actually talking about what baptism meant. The message boiled down to something like, “Go public for Jesus. Get dunked.”

Is baptism really a wet public relations exercise? If it’s all about going public, why would Jesus ask us to do it in church, or in pools set up behind a church? An announcement on Facebook or Craig’s List would be a much more effective way of telling the world of our devotion to Christ. If it’s about going public, Philip did it all wrong when he baptized the Ethiopian eunuch on the side of a desert road (Acts 8:26-40).

Although baptism is a public sacrament, telling the world about the state of our heart is not its purpose. By putting ourselves at the center of the sacrament, we invert its real meaning and function.

Baptism has three purposes.

  1. Cleanse us.We are, by nature, corrupt and sinful. Nothing we can do can cleanse us from the stench of our sins that stand as an offense to a perfect and holy God. By his grace, God provided a means of cleansing us of those sins, a method introduced in the Old Testament through sacrifices and blood. This relationship between blood and cleansing is found in a number of places, including Hebrews 9:13-14.

    If the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?

    Verses 19-21 in the same chapter describe Moses’ washing the people and vessels of worship with blood to cleanse them before God.

    Jesus’ blood becomes a once-for-all substitution of the blood of goats and bulls and washes us from our sinful filthiness. The reason that John prepared the way for Jesus by baptism was to introduce Jesus as the ultimate baptizer. Note John’s first words of identification: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The Lamb’s blood cleans us from our sin. Jesus baptizes us.

  2. Unite us with Christ.Once we are cleansed, it becomes possible to become a child of God. Baptism is a sign of our cleansing and subsequent unification (though not in the sense of being God) with Christ. We see that idea in Romans 6:3-4 where Paul explains why grace is not a license to sin.

    Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him though baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live in new life.

    If you re-read that passage and substitute united in place of baptism, Paul’s argument does not change.

    In fact, Paul does use that word in the very next verse to extend the argument.

    If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection. (Romans 6:5)

    We see this sense of unification through baptism in Acts 8:14-17.

    When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

    Again, substitute united for baptized and the meaning of what is going on here becomes clear. Not only are we united with Christ through baptism; we are also united to the Holy Spirit.

  3. Point to the Holy Spirit.If the Holy Spirit is an integral aspect of baptism, his role is going to be consistent with the existing purpose of baptism. Titus 3:5-7 shows us the relationship between baptism, Jesus’ blood and the Holy Spirit.

    [God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.

    God give us his grace, Jesus offers his purifying blood, and the Holy Spirit washes us from our sin.

    This Holy Spirit baptism is seen clearly for the first time in Acts 2, though Peter explains that Joel predicted it.

    In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. (Acts 2:17)

    It is no coincidence that we also see the Holy Spirit as a participant in Jesus’ own baptism.

    John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ”˜The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’” (John 1:32-33)

Baptism is a profoundly beautiful and simple sacrament that tells the story of God’s grace to us. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us and cleansed us from our sin, making us right with God.

That means that baptism is a sign of something that God does to us, not something we do for God.

Just as the symbols of the Eucharist match the reality of their referents, we might expect that the mode of baptism will match the spiritual reality of what it represents.

But that’s a topic for another day.

11 thoughts on “What is the purpose of baptism?

  1. Corner Coffee Nov 9, 2009 8:11 pm

    Are you a “baptismal regeneration” guy?

    • James Duncan Nov 9, 2009 10:25 pm

      CC, I didn’t know that was a club that one could be a “guy” in, but–assuming I understand what you’re asking–no.

      Baptism is a sacrament. It’s a sign of a spiritual reality, not the thing itself; however, as a sacrament, it’s closer to its referent than ordinary signs.

  2. Simon P. Nov 9, 2009 8:20 pm


    Do you believe that Baptism is such an unimportant act that 1k people can be done in 1 day? My main question here would be, how long did this take…. did the preacher ask them to acknowledge (before they were dunked, individually) that they understood what they were doing? Did he proclaim to everyone what it was they were doing for each individual person?

    Baptismal Regeneration… come on, are you simply trying to poke and prod here… much like many of your argument. I see no where in the above that he is saying that Baptism is a pre-cursor or requirement for redemption through salvation. He is simply stating that there is much more importance in Baptism than being rushed through a VERY important part of any Christian’s maturing process.

  3. Corner Coffee Nov 10, 2009 1:00 am

    1. Volume and importance are not necessarily subject to an inverse correlation.

    2. I have no idea. Do you?

    3. I’m generally not a “poker” or a “prodder”. I just wanted to know. Many times people who ascribe to reformed theology also ascribe to baptismal regeneration. Thought that might be the case here, which would have explained things.

    A sacrament is traditionally considered a means of grace. I do realize that some people only consider it a sign of grace, which is why I asked where you stood on the issue of baptismal regeneration.

    As for your last sentence, I don’t quite understand what you mean. If it is a sign, then it’s only a sign. If it’s part of regeneration, then it’s not a sign. I don’t see a lot of middle ground, nor do I see room for any one sign being closer to being part of regeneration than any other sign.

  4. keitho Nov 10, 2009 1:00 pm

    I think F. F. Bruce said it best. In his explanations on the events of Acts 2:38 (he is not in the baptismal regeneration camp, I think) he concluded by saying that “At least as far as the Apostles were concerned, there was no such thing as an unbaptized Christian”. I am quoting from memory (long ago and far far away) so if someone has a more recent recollection, please let me know.

    I don’t know what otherwordly thing may or may not have occurred when I was baptized, but because I was, Romans 6 has a much vivid and deeper meaning to me, taking grace and salvation from abstract concepts to more concrete terms.

    A question for Simon P. You mentioned preachers asking if people understand what they are doing before baptism. I am aware some knowledge prior to is a good thing but does this set people up for later in life when they don’t believe they knew enough and they feel compelled to go through baptism again? Are they placing their faith in Jesus, or in what they knew or didn’t know at the time? What saves us? Grace or correct understanding? I would suggest what we believe about baptism may be somewhat irrevelant, given we are saved by grace. Our simple obedience is our demonstration, and we rely on the spirit to do the rest.

    Other comments welcome.

  5. Simon P. Nov 10, 2009 1:59 pm


    It is in my opinion, that an act for the sake of the act is nothing but a farce. Therefore if said Christian did not feel that they truly understood what they were doing then were they really baptized? No. If that’s the case then that deeper understanding has driven them to do this again, this time with a full understanding of what they were doing, making it a much bigger deal to that person.

    You absolutely have to understand what you are doing when you are saved by Grace. You can’t say, I just thought getting saved was the write thing to do because everyone else was doing. You have to have the absolute understanding that Jesus was sent as God’s only son to die for us and through resurrection give us a chance at eternal life. It is my same belief that this follows through for baptism as well. As with everything in this world, understanding is KEY.

    • James Duncan Nov 10, 2009 3:04 pm


      Would you say that circumcision was a farce? How much did the kids understand about that?

      If they gained a better understanding later in life, should they do it again?

  6. Corner Coffee Nov 10, 2009 3:16 pm

    You comments on the understanding of signs was eloquent and deeply insightful. VERY good stuff.

    Whether baptism has a mystical otherwordly application, I’m not so sure … but I’m glad to see that you’ve made a clear distinction between it and regeneration.

    Your followup was spot-on as well.

  7. Simon P. Nov 10, 2009 4:49 pm


    I do believe that circumcision can be a farce. Circumcision was not presented to me or my wife as a religious alternative when my son was born, rather one of hygiene. Do we understand the religious implications of a circumcision? (No.) It is possible to be circumcised later in life if you so chose (if you were not and decided that your religion dictated that you needed to be.) There are, however, physical limitations here as opposed to spiritual ones (making this a somewhat different topic in my opinion.)

  8. James Duncan Nov 11, 2009 8:31 am


    Circumcision has no spiritual significance to Christians now, but God did use it for a long time as a sign of his covenant. It was God who picked a non-repeatable, non-reversable physical sign that was to be administered to ignorant children.


    I join CC in his compliments on your previous comment.


    You’re sounding like a Calvinist (minus Calvin’s position on immersion). The ironic thing about this discussion is that I do endorse a method of baptism where mass baptisms of people who did not fully (or even partially) understand the sacrament is acceptable. So if a church baptized a thousand people in a couple of hours, I think that’s very good. After all, that’s what Peter did in Acts 2.

    The problem, and the motivation for my earlier criticism of Noble and Furtick, is that their rushed and man-centered mode of baptism contradicts their understanding of its purpose. If it’s all about obedience and public statements, one would imagine that you would enhance the experience with a little information about what one is doing. There’s a big difference between obedience because you’ve been commanded to do something and obedience because you understand and agree that it should be done.

    The other reason is that a massive rush waters down the public-announcement aspect of the exercise. If I don’t know what I’m saying, am I saying much that anyone would care to hear?

  9. Corner Coffee Nov 11, 2009 11:27 am

    There is some validity in criticizing a sermon that was supposed to end in baptism, but only explained baptism as an act of obedience.

    I haven’t watched the sermon, so I’m not sure to what extent baptism was explained. Therefore, you’ll have to accept my hypothetical agreement 🙂

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