The Purpose of Baptism
No topic is more widely disputed than the purpose of baptism. In a recent article on this site titled, “The Greek Preposition Eis,” evidence was presented to demonstrate that baptism is “unto the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38; ASV). The modern-day digression away from apostolic teaching on this subject necessitated a linguistic examination of the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” in order to prove the purpose orientation of Peter’s command to repent and be baptized in Acts 2:38. The overwhelming consensus of Greek scholars – both past and present – is that the language enjoins repentance and baptism as acts of obedience “to,” “unto,” “for,” or “so that” sins might be forgiven. The Greek preposition eis is an indicator of direction toward a goal or intended destination.
The present article is not written to further combat false teaching from sectarian entities concerning the purpose of baptism, but to correct an error being espoused by sincere preachers in the church of Christ who are claiming the “only reason” given for baptism in the New Testament is “for the remission of sins.” While it is certainly true that one purpose of baptism is to obtain the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), the New Testament evinces other purposes that are equally significant results of baptism. Failure to discern and thus proclaim all the benefits associated with baptism leaves the prospective convert potentially unaware of God’s multi-faceted design which effectively highlights the essentiality of baptism in the conversion process, thus leaving the door ajar for a solitary objection by the wily adversary to override the necessity of baptism for salvation.
Baptism: Circumcision of the Sinful Identity
In emphasizing the benefits of baptism, Paul links baptism with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. He states, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection” (Romans 6:4-5). Baptism emulates the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and the one submitting to baptism does so in order to obtain all the benefits made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
Paul goes on to describe how the one submitting to baptism does so “in order that our body of sin might be done away with” (Romans 6:6). The phrase, “in order that,” is expressive of the reason for baptism. The old sinful identity is “done away with” in baptism, and as a result, the convert is considered to be “dead unto sin, but alive unto God in Christ Jesus” (6:11).
The apostle discusses this particular reason more fully in the Colossians letter, stating, “in Him you were also circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of flesh by the circumcision of Christ; having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead” (Colossians 2:11-12). The dead body of sin is “done away with” by “the circumcision of Christ.” Baptism is the burial of the body dead in sin, being cut away by Christ, so that we may be “made alive together with Him” (Colossians 2:13) through identification with His resurrection.
By what other means does the Bible exhibit the removal of the “body of flesh” if not through baptism? As the “old man of sin” (Romans 6:6) is crucified with Christ, the dead body is buried in baptism in order that one might be raised a “new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17) by the power of God, resulting “in newness of life” for the one resurrected after the manner of Christ. The apostle regards circumcision of the sinful identity as a persuasive reason for one to submit to baptism; yet this particular purpose is seldom mentioned, and too often remains neglected entirely by those espoused to Acts 2:38 as portraying the sole reason for baptism.
Baptism: A New Birth
After Nicodemus confessed his conviction that Jesus was “a teacher from God,” the Lord did not even acknowledge the compliment, but immediately began additional instruction, exclaiming, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Correcting a misunderstanding of the previous statement by Nicodemus, Jesus clarified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (3:5).
Jesus’ redress explains how one is “born again” (3:3; cf. 3:7). Prior to the time of John Calvin (1509-1564), it was universally recognized that being “born of water” was a reference to baptism in water as ordered by the apostles of Christ. Paul wrote, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). The world’s greatest Greek scholars acknowledge the parallelism of this passage with John 3:3-7 (cf. Spicq, Thayer, Robertson, Danker, Arndt & Gingrich, et al.).
The “washing of regeneration” is without question a reference to baptism in water in order to be “born again.” The word “regeneration” translates the Greek palingenesia which Vine defines as “new birth” (1996, p. 517). It is derived from palin, “again,” genesis, “birth.” The word “washing” refers to “a bath, a laver” (Vine, p. 667). It is impossible to miss the connection of “born of water” as declared by Jesus with the “washing of regeneration” (lit. “bath of new birth”) as described by Paul.
The “renewing by the Holy Spirit” signifies the result of conversion achieved through being “born of water and the Spirit.” As noted by Jackson, “There is one birth consisting of two components–a conception and a delivery” (2011, p. 144; bold in orig.). Sinful man is “born again” through the “washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” These two components are essential elements of the new birth. No man can enter the kingdom of God who has not been “born of the water and the Spirit.”
The primary focus of this article is to note the various purposes assigned to baptism, and according to the Lord’s own avowal in John 3:3-7, the goal or purpose of the new birth is to gain entrance “into” the kingdom of God. Writing to the Colossians, Paul says, “For He rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us into (eis) the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14).
The time of transference “into” the kingdom of Christ occurs when we are “born again,” but the new birth is accomplished through baptism (cf. Colossians 2:9-12), whereby we “enter into (eis) the kingdom of God.” We are baptized in order to be born again, gaining entrance into the Lord’s kingdom. Here is another compelling reason for baptism.
Baptism: Transition into Christ
The apostle Paul describes how the grace of God is accessed, saying, “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?” (Romans 6:3). Paul explains baptism as the mode of entrance “into Christ Jesus.” No one can be “in Christ” who has not been “baptized into Christ Jesus.” The word “into” translates the Greek preposition eis that was thoroughly examined in the article noted in the introduction. It is the same word translated as “for” or “unto” in Acts 2:38. Paul uses the preposition eis in Romans 6:3 to indicate a spatial transition “into Christ” from the former lost condition of one existing outside of Christ.
This particular purpose or reason for baptism is better explained in Galatians 3:27 where Paul writes, “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Baptism places the penitent sinner “into (eis) Christ,” and Paul employed the metaphor of putting on clothing to indicate the result of baptism. This transition “into Christ” becomes the basis for the forgiveness of sins. Christ paid the cost of human iniquity when He “was made to be sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21). In Christ, the account of sin has been settled; but no one can obtain remission of sins until they have been “baptized into Christ.” Remission of sins is not the exclusive purpose of baptism.
Being “baptized into Christ,” we are also “baptized into (eis) His death” (Romans 6:3), deriving all the benefits contained in His death upon the cross. The shedding of blood occurred in His death, and we are released “from our sins by His blood” (Revelation 1:5). Baptism is the transition of the sinner “into Christ” and “into His death.” The sinner does not ask Jesus to come into his heart as ignorantly proposed by many today, but the sinner is transitioned “into Christ” through baptism. We are “united” with Christ through baptism (Romans 6:5), becoming fully identified with the sinless and righteous Lord. Baptism is no mere “outward sign,” but is the divine expressway “into Christ Jesus.”
Baptism: Transition into the Name of Deity
Matthew’s account of the Apostolic Commission records these words of Jesus: “Go ye therefore, and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19; ASV). The word “into” translates the Greek eis, indicating forward direction toward an aim, goal or objective. It is the same preposition as found in Acts 2:38. In Matthew 28:19, the preposition eis denotes transition “into” the name of deity. The unfortunate translation of the KJV, “baptizing them in the name,” has become no small source of misunderstanding.
It is typically asserted in the church of Christ that this passage teaches baptism is administered “by the authority” of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. However, it must be remembered that Christ initiated the Apostolic Commission by stating, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (28:18). Christ is the exclusive authority behind every activity of the church (cf. Colossians 3:17), including the necessary prerequisites for becoming a Christian. Because Christ possesses “all authority,” it should be readily apparent that baptism is not administered by the combined authority of the Godhead, but by the authority of Jesus Christ as the sole Mediator between God and man.
The preposition eis in Matthew 28:19 indicates transition “into” the name (singular) of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The theological import of this passage is immensely significant. The three divine Persons belong to one name – the name of deity. Baptism, as authorized by Christ, is for the purpose of entering into a state of union and communion with the name of God. W. E. Vine comments, “The phrase in Matt. 28:19, ‘baptizing them into the Name’ (RV; cf. Acts 8:16, RV), would indicate that the ‘baptized’ person was closely bound to, or became the property of, the one into whose name he was baptized” (Op. cit., p. 50).
A vast chasm exists between those claiming that the phrase denotes authority for baptism as opposed to the explanation given here that one is baptized “into” a holy relationship with the name of deity. As the inimitable Guy N. Woods well stated, “Brethren who are disposed to follow the erroneous translation of the King James Version, ‘baptizing them in the name of the Father, etc., rather than the Revised Version, ‘baptizing them into the name,’ should ponder these facts well and bring their practice into conformity with the will of the Lord touching these matters” (1976, p. 166; ital. in orig.).
Blind allegiance to the KJV must give way to a study of the Greek text, enriching the teaching of the gospel by an honest search for the most authentic reading and meaning of the original language. Regardless of the sincerity of the preacher, error remains error. While all translations have weaknesses, the KJV contains not only weaknesses of translation (as in Matthew 28:19-20), but, as it is based upon the late manuscripts used for the Textus Receptus, it is also inundated with various interpolations (cf. 1 John 5:7) and corruptions (cf. Acts 9:6) not found in more modern versions that are translated from manuscripts discovered in recent centuries that date at least seven hundred years earlier than the base texts of the KJV.
Jesus ordered the apostles to bind baptism as the means of entering a covenant relationship with the divine Godhead. Here is a remarkable purpose or reason for baptism that further establishes the absolute necessity of baptism in order to be saved. Who would attempt to argue that one can be saved absent a communal relationship with the name of God? However, we are baptized “into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” – not as an obligation of combined authority by all the Persons of the Godhead, but “into” communion with the name of God by the authority and actions of Jesus Christ (cf. Revelation 3:12).
Baptism: Transition into the Name of Jesus
Similar to the previous purpose of baptism, yet unmistakably distinct from it, is the affirmation that one is “baptized into the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:16; cf. 19:5). Having already discussed the rampant confusion emanating from Matthew 28:19 regarding the presumed authority underlying baptism, a second misunderstanding involves the presumption that Matthew 28:19 constitutes a binding “word-formula” that must be spoken at every baptism. Other than the baptisms conducted personally by the author, no exception to this ritual can be recalled among churches of Christ.
On these grounds, the United Pentecostal people have vehemently protested the tradition practiced by members of the church of Christ who religiously use Matthew 28:19 as a “word-formula” that is regurgitated at every baptism. The United Pentecostals insist baptism must be administered “in the name of Jesus only,” audibly mentioning only the name of Jesus when conducting baptism. Their contention is based on the fact that nowhere in the book of Acts is anyone commanded to be baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” but baptism was always ordered “in the name of Jesus.”
This gravely unfortunate controversy stems from both sides confusing what is actually occurring at baptism with what is being audibly spoken at baptism. Not a single passage can be cited regarding what is to be spoken by the administrator of baptism. The New Testament is silent concerning what is said – if anything at all – during the baptism process. Much could be written pertaining to this specific issue, but an examination of the Greek prepositions used in the pertinent passages should clear away the various cobwebs of misunderstanding arising from the following assortment of phrases:
Matthew 28:19 says, “baptizing them into (eis) the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 2:38 says, “baptized in (epi) the name of Jesus Christ” (literally, “upon the name”).
Acts 8:16 says, “baptized into (eis) the name of Jesus Christ.”
Acts 10:48 says, “baptized in (en) the name of Jesus Christ.”
Acts 19:5 says, “baptized into (eis) the name of the Lord Jesus.”
Although the KJV translates each of these verses as “baptized in the name of” (becoming the source of the confusion), it should be noted that three different Greek prepositions are employed (including three out of the four verses that refer to the name of Jesus only). A variety of English translations draw out the particular distinctions (cf. ASV, NIV, YLT, NASB fn). In none of these passages is a “word-formula” being ordered that must be recited at every baptism, and this is clearly discernable by the nuances of arrangement.
If one is inclined to argue contentiously to the contrary, then which statement is the formula? Is it epi to onomati (on or upon the name, Acts 2:38); eis to onoma (into the name, Acts 8:16; 19:5); or en to onomati (in the name, Acts 10:48)? Unyielding adherence to the flawed KJV has distorted the true meaning of these similar, yet significantly different phrases as worded in the Greek. Our brethren need to awaken, casting aside vain traditions emerging from a faulty translation that is blatantly inaccurate with the Greek text in far too many instances, resulting in the espousal of errant theology.
The verses under consideration have meanings that are strikingly distinct. If one accepts the New Testament as the wholly inspired word of God, then each of these passages in the original language is accurate in detailing the baptism process. These assorted texts are not in conflict one with another, but are simply discussing baptism from four distinctive points of view. The meaning of these similar, but differing statements has been well summarized in the Wycliffe Bible Dictionary:
“The meaning of baptism in the name of Jesus varies slightly according to the Greek preposition used. In Acts 2:38 Peter exhorted the Jews to repent and be baptized in or upon (epi) the name of Jesus Christ, resting upon His authority and being devoted to Him. Later Peter instructed Cornelius to be baptized in (en) the name of Jesus Christ, acting on His authority [Acts 10:48]. Three passages use eis (Mt. 28:19; Acts 8:16; 19:5) plus the parallel phrase ‘baptized into Christ’ (Rom. 6:3; Gal. 3:27). A study of these verses along with the verb baptizo and eis in 1 Cor. 1:13; 10:2; 12:13 indicates that the one baptized is identified with Christ (or Paul or Moses) and passes into new ownership or partnership with Him, with new loyalty and fellowship” (Mare, 2003, p. 1176).
Baptism “into (eis) the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) brings one into a covenant relationship with the singular name of the divine trinity of Persons, i.e., the entirety of the Godhead. Baptism “upon (epi) the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38) indicates the basis, ground, or “rock” upon which the church and every Christian is established (cf. Matthew 16:18 “upon (epi) this rock”). Baptism “in (en) the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48) is descriptive of the authority by which baptism is ordered and administered. Baptism “into (eis) the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16; 19:5) reveals the transition that occurs as one becomes identified with or united with the name of Christ, receiving all the benefits associated with His holy name.
The significance for the study at hand is that the passages using the preposition eis are denoting a purpose or reason for submitting to baptism. Matthew 28:19 declares one is baptized “into” communion and fellowship with the divine Name; literally becoming bound to or owned by the Name, and thereby deriving the blessings which are summed up in the Name into which we are baptized. Acts 8:16 and 19:5 reveal baptism is “into” identification or union with the name of the Lord Jesus Christ – a name which is unique to the Person whose nature is both God and Man (cf. Revelation 3:12 – last phrase).
Although Christ, as deity, belongs to the singular name of God (Matthew 28:19), the angel announced the name, Jesus, in association with His humanity (Matthew 1:21). Concerning the name, Jesus, Peter declared: “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:10-12). The name of Jesus is uniquely assigned to Christ, and this explains why God gave the name “Christian” – not “Fatherian” or “Spiritian” to those being saved. The existence of Christ Jesus in human flesh has immense significance regarding the salvation of mankind; accordingly, we are properly “baptized into the name of Jesus.”
Baptism: Unto the Remission of Sins
It is unimpeachable that baptism is also “unto the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). It seems the English word “for” in the KJV rather than the word “unto” as used in the RV and ASV is again the source of misunderstanding among us. Some apparently believe the word “for” is representative of an exclusivity of reason. In the same way denominational preachers have argued that “for” can mean “because of,” we have preachers in the church keying on the word “for,” insisting the “only reason” assigned to baptism in the New Testament is that it is “for the remission of sins.”
As this article has presented, the Greek preposition eis found in Acts 2:38 is the same preposition found in the phrases: “baptizing them into (eis) the name of the Father…” (Matthew 28:19); “baptized into (eis) the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:16; 19:5); “baptized into (eis) Christ” (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27); and “baptized into (eis) one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Through baptism, one is “born again” so that he might “enter into (eis) the kingdom of God.” The word “for” in Acts 2:38 denotes direction to the very same goal as that intended by the English translations which utilize the words “unto” (RV, ASV) and “to” (Young’s Literal Translation). Each of these English words must be understood in relation to the meaning intended by the original Greek word “eis.”
Although Peter links repentance and baptism as obedient acts that are “unto the remission of sins,” it cannot be argued that belief and confession are therefore unnecessary based upon their absence in Acts 2:38. Jesus personally testified to the necessity of both belief and baptism for salvation (Mark 16:16), repentance “eis” the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47), and confession as a vital part of acceptance by Christ (Matthew 10:32-33). In no particular passage of Scripture are all the various components of salvation assimilated within a solitary decree, but they are realized through the sum of revelation.
After discussing in significant detail the benefits of baptism “into Christ” (Romans 6:3ff), Paul went on to affirm, “for with the heart man believeth unto (eis) righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto (eis) salvation” (Romans 10:10). As observed in the ASV, the word “unto” translates the Greek eis in both Acts 2:38 and Romans 10:10, expanding the terms of salvation to include belief, confession, repentance, and baptism – all of which are “unto” (eis) righteousness, remission of sins, and salvation.
There is no qualitative difference in the meaning of eis in Romans 10:10 compared with the use of eis in Acts 2:38, and the oft repeated argument by preachers claiming “unto” in Romans 10:10 means “headed in the right direction, but not there yet,” while the word “for” in Acts 2:38 is cited as evidence of completed arrival, is syntactically inaccurate and represents failed exegesis of the preposition eis by those appealing to such devices. Of course, if these preachers were reading from the ASV instead of the KJV, the issue would be a moot point (the ASV employs the word “unto” to translate eis in both passages). In reality, the preposition eis points to a goal towards which belief, confession, repentance, and baptism are all progressing – a goal not reached by any of the acts of obedience alone, but achieved by all combined.
The three related results (remission of sins, righteousness, and salvation) are not exclusive of each other, but mutually inclusive one with the others. No man can become “righteous” by belief alone; or attain “salvation” by confession alone; or receive “remission of sins” by baptism alone. It is sheer foolishness to suggest that any one of these statements stands alone as the basis for the individual result connected with it in a particular passage (cf. Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 2:38; Luke 24:47; Romans 10:10). None of these passages can be isolated from the others as imposing an “only” doctrine.
It is not without great significance that belief, confession, repentance, and baptism are all governed by the directional preposition eis, thus involving each requisite act of obedience as a compulsory element that is “unto” the redemption of sinful humanity (cf. Acts 2:38; Romans 10:10). No one has the right to dismiss, disqualify, or disallow any one of these requirements delivered by Christ and the apostles, but each element must be obeyed from the heart in order to receive the promised reward of eternal life.
Although repentance and baptism were specified on Pentecost as essential acts of obedience for those who would receive forgiveness of sins, it is neither stated nor implied anywhere in the sacred text that such is the “only reason” for baptism; and the English word “for” used to translate eis in Acts 2:38 in some versions should not be pressed into argument for such. The word “for” in the KJV exhibits the very same meaning as “unto” in the RV and ASV, and means the same as “unto” in both instances of Romans 10:10. The preposition eis indicates direction toward a goal, and this remains true in Acts 2:38.
The purpose of baptism is expanded exponentially by the teachings of several other passages. This is similar to prayer. Although Jesus taught his Jewish disciples who were living under the Law of Moses how to pray (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4), this model prayer is not the “only way” for the Christian to pray. In fact, not a single prayer in the book of Acts – each spoken by inspiration – begins with the address, “Our Father,” as Jesus began the model prayer.
The vital truth emanating from this discussion is that a solitary passage of Scripture cannot be appealed to as a proof text when other passages clearly present an expansion of understanding. In His model prayer, Jesus did not pray for the sick (cf. James 1:14), for all men (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1), or for rulers (cf. 1 Timothy 2:2). In answering the people on Pentecost, Peter did not expound upon every significant purpose related to baptism, but ordered them to repent and be baptized “unto the remission of sins.” Other passages unquestionably expand the purpose of baptism to include a variety of reasons compelling one to comply with the rite.
The ultimate purpose of baptism is salvation (Mark 16:16; 1 Peter 3:21). Humanity is saved by being “baptized into Christ” (Galatians 3:27; Romans 6:3), thus “baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13), “which is His body” (Ephesians 1:23). We are “baptized into the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 8:16, 19:5), undergoing the “circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11), whereby the old sinful identity is removed, so that we may be “born again” (John 3:7) as a “new creature” (2 Corinthians 5:17), transferred “into the kingdom” (Colossians 1:13), and identified by a new name – the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we are baptized “into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” entering a blessed union with the divine Name, wherein we enjoy the glory and privilege associated with the name of deity (Revelation 3:12).
The assertion that “for the remission of sins” is the “only reason” given for baptism in the New Testament is simply untrue, and such arguments should be abandoned as a means of opposing other false teachings concerning Acts 2:38. The assembly of passages engaged previously denoting the various divinely appointed purposes of baptism offers irresistible evidence of the essentiality of baptism in the scheme of human redemption.
Defending the gospel with a broken sword is never prudent or beneficial. We must not become guilty of distorting God’s amazing design for salvation by attaching an “only” label to the purpose of baptism in the same manner as others have done in connection with faith. May the Lord bless our search for apostolic truth which under-girds the church of Jesus Christ in all her generations.
Jackson, Wayne (2011), A New Testament Commentary (Stockton, California: Christian Courier
Mare, Harold and Hobart Freeman (2003), Wycliffe Bible Dictionary, eds, C. F. Pfeiffer, H. F. Vos,
John Rea (Peabody, MA)
Vine, W. E. (1996), Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers).
Woods, Guy N. (1976), Questions and Answers – Open Forum (Henderson, TN: Freed-Hardeman