The Purpose of Baptism

By Mike Willis

One of the distinguishing marks of those who contend for the faith once for all delivered unto the saints (Jude 3) is what they teach regarding the purpose of baptism. Whereas denominationalism generally teaches salvation by faith only, resulting in the dogma that one does not have to be baptized in order to be saved (i.e., to receive remission of his past sins), Christians have consistently taught that the purpose of baptism is to receive remission of one’s past sins.

Through the years since the beginning of the restoration movement in America, gospel preachers have met denominationalists in debate in more towns than I can name to discuss the purpose of baptism. Denominationalists of every hue have defended the doctrine that a person is saved by faith only, before and without baptism. Gospel preachers have affirmed that baptism is essential to salvation.

Another generation has grown up among us who apparently are unfamiliar with these debates. They are being spoon-fed by some infidels who do not believe that one must be baptized in order to be saved. Those men are historically associated with the churches of Christ, they do not believe what gospel preachers have been preaching through the years with reference to baptism. To demonstrate that these charges are not fabricated, I want to cite several sample quotations from the pen of some of the leading exponents of the grace-unity movement to demonstrate that they are ready to extend the right hands of fellowship to those who were baptized for some reason other than to obtain salvation. Keep in mind that most denominationalists teach that baptism is an outward sign of an inward grace, a testimony to the world that one has already been saved, or the door to enter a particular denomination. To such denominationalists, Garrett and others are now ready to extend the right hand of fellowship.

It is becoming increasingly apparent that many of us in the Churches of Christ have abused the scriptures in this way in reference to baptism . . . .

We have failed to relate baptism to the love and mercy of God, and folk really believe that we are saved only by the grace of God. We have left the impression that baptism is, after all, a work that we do in order to become righteous, thus denying the apostolic insistence that salvation is “not by works of righteousness which we have done ourselves” (Tit. 3:5), and so we have invited those endless debates on baptism that could have been avoided, for the most part, if we had always related baptism to the Cross. In depicting it as the response of faith, or as “the cultivation of grace,” to use Campbell’s expression, rather than as arbitrarily “essential,” the religious world would have been more impressed. Not only have we hammered away at the “something you have to do” bit, but we have made a big deal out of one’s proper understanding of the import of the act, which makes not only the act essential but a certain indoctrination as well.

This abuse of baptism is evident in the widespread practice of reimmersing people who are already immersed believers . . . . We are wont to re-immerse all Baptists that come our way . . . . (Leroy Garrett, “The Rebaptized Church of Christ,” Restoration Review, Vol. XVII, No. 4, pp. 62-63).

Notice the comments made by Garrett. We could have avoided all of those debates on baptism with the Baptists, Methodists, and other with whom they were held. He bases this conclusion on his own belief that one does not have to know the purpose of baptism before being baptized. I will concede that Garrett can avoid debates with Baptists because he sees no essential difference in what they are teaching on baptism and what he is teaching. Compare their “outward sign of an inward act” concept with these statements regarding baptism. The context of these comments is Garrett’s comments on Col. 2:11-12.

This “circumcision of Christ” is formalized in baptism. If something very significant has not happened in one’s inmost self, if he has not been “circumcised” by Christ, then baptism has little or no meaning. It may happen that a real transformation, a heart circumcision, does not come until years later. In such cases baptism would have a retrospective symbolic value, as if one would say, “I was baptized into Christ, but only now am I coming to realize its significance.” It is to overdo the symbol to be baptized again and again and again, even though it might well be true that we keep on experiencing now and again “the circumcision of Christ.”

We should see here the stark reality of circumcision as a symbol of what Christ does in us and for us. The mercy and severity of his truth, which may cut and hurt in its healing, removes that which separates us from God and sets us apart from a world that would otherwise hold us captive to sin. Baptism is our assurance that such surgery has been performed by the Spirit of Christ in our hearts (“Are We Hung Up On Baptism?, Restoration Review, Vol. XXI, No. 2, pp. 30-31).

Frankly, I see little difference in Garrett’s statement and that made by any other Baptist. Consequently, Garrett criticizes those who are “reimmersing” Baptist and writes,

I have long since quit looking upon people as Baptists, Methodists, or whatever, but as men and women for whom Christ died. If they share the faith in the risen Christ and have responded to the gospel, they are my brothers and sisters. Not Baptist brothers or Church of Christ brothers, but simply brothers (“Drama On Both Sides of the Border,” Restoration Review, Vol. XVII, No. 5, p. 97).

Another editor of a journal designed to propagate the peculiar tenets of the grace-unity sect among us, R.L. Kilpatrick, editor of Ensign Fair, wrote as follows:

Bro. Nichols says that one of the essentials for salvation is understanding the “purpose of baptism”. Again, we ask, to what degree? I cannot agree that the alien sinner must know that baptism is for the remission of sins before God will declare his baptism valid. What God does require is that the sinner submit himself to His will. Baptism, being a part of that will, and when submitted to, is just as efficacious and valid if he had graduated from Freed-Hardeman, regardless of his understanding of the subject (“Denominations,” Ensign Fair, Vol. VI, No. 1, p. 14).

In the July 1978 issue, the editor wrote on the thief on the cross to reach the conclusion that one can be saved without baptism. The material was so rank that Charles A. Holt felt compelled to respond to it, charging Kilpatrick with denying that baptism was essential for salvation; he wrote, “The question of the place (essentially) of baptism is where it all comes together; where the entire matter stands or falls. This (baptism) is the `stone of stumbling and the rock of offense’ for every position or doctrine on the salvation of the sinner” (“A Review of `Weightier Matters,’ ” Ensign Fair, Vol. VII, No. 10, p. 2).

Later, one of the readers wrote to Kilpatrick regarding this exchange with Charles Holt, stating that what Kilpatrick had written was “the same position I have heard Baptist preachers take in debate.” Kilpatrick took three full pages trying to distinguish his position from that of Baptists. If my assessment is correct, he was unsuccessful in making such a distinction.

These are the journals so highly commended by Arnold Hardin and Bruce Edwards. Articles written by brother Edwards are appearing rather regularly in Ensign Fair. Arnold Hardin frequently commends the writings of R.L. Kilpatrick. Yet, both Kilpatrick and Garrett are loose on the subject of baptism. If I correctly assess a recent article by brother Hardin, he is moving toward a position which will deny that baptism is always essential for salvation (8 June 1980 issue of The Persuader which is the bulletin which Arnold edits).

What Is The Purpose of Baptism?

The Scriptures are not so unclear that one has trouble determining what the purpose of baptism is. Rather denominational creeds and dogmas force people to deny the clear statements of Scripture with reference to baptism. Consequently, let us reiterate the purpose of Bible baptism.

1. Mark 16:16. In giving the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” (Mk. 16:15-16). Jesus gave two conditions for salvation – belief and baptism. If one must believe in order to be saved, then surely he must also be baptized. Hence, baptism is a condition for salvation in exactly the same manner as belief is.

2. Acts 2:38. After Peter preached the first gospel sermon, the Jews who heard the sermon and were pricked in their hearts asked Peter and the rest of the apostles what they had to do in order to be saved. Peter said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). Repentance and baptism are here listed as conditions for receiving the remission of one’s sins. If an individual can understand that he must repent of his sins in order to receive the forgiveness of his sins, he can also understand that he must be baptized in order to receive the forgiveness of his sins. Both conditions are named as being essential for remission of one’s sins.

3. Acts 22:16. When Ananias approached the believing and penitent Saul of Tarsus, he told him, “Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). This man had seen the resurrected Christ and believed on him; for three days he was in agony because of the sins which he had committed. Yet, he was not yet saved. Ananias told him that he must be baptized in order to have his sins washed away. Hence, baptism is essential to have one’s sins washed away.

4. 1 Pet. 3:21. Peter related how that the waters of the flood had saved Noah from the wickedness of the world in which he lived. He then added, “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh; but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The plain statement of Scripture is that baptism saves us. Peter did not believe that baptism alone saved anyone; he is simply stating what Christ said in the Great Commission and what he also had said on the day of Pentecost, namely that baptism is a condition for salvation.

5. 1 Cor. 12:13; John 3:5. Another line of argument which demonstrates that baptism is essential to salvation is seen in these passages in which baptism is said to be necessary to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:5) and to enter the church (I Cor. 12:13). There are only two kingdoms in this world – the kingdom of God’s dear Son and the domain of Satan (Col. 1:13-14); one is either a member of Jesus’ kingdom or he is a member of Satan’s kingdom, lost in sin, and doomed to hell. Yet, Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). One must be born of the water – be baptized – in order to become a part of God’s kingdom.

Similarly, one enters the church. The church is simply composed of the called out people of God; they have been called out of the darkness of sin into the light of God’s word. The saved compose the Lord’s church (Acts 2:47; Eph. 5:23, 25). One becomes a member of the Lord’s church by being baptized into it. Paul wrote, “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13). Hence, one becomes a member of the called out people of God by being baptized into that one body. Hence, baptism is essential for salvation, for becoming a member of the kingdom of God or the church of our Lord Jesus Christ.

6. Matt. 28:19. In Matthew’s account of the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” One translation reads like this: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit . . . .” This is more accurate than the AV. Jesus said to go make disciples; the participal- clause “baptizing them” explains how one makes disciples. Hence, in order to become a disciple of Jesus Christ, he must be baptized. Without becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ, one cannot be saved (Jn. 14:6; Acts 4:12).

Is Baptism A Work?

When one preaches that one must be baptized in order to be saved, Baptists have generally charged that one is teaching salvation by works. Now men such as Arnold Hardin, Bruce Edwards, R.L. Kilpatrick, and Leroy Garrett are saying the same thing. We, therefore, raise the question, “Is baptism a work of merit by which one earns his salvation?”

The answer to this question should be obvious without considering a specific Scripture. The New Testament frequently mentions salvation by “works” in the books of Romans and Galatians. In both contexts, salvation by works refers to a system of salvation through perfect obedience to a law of God. The man who is saved by works is saved, not on the basis of having had his sins forgiven, but on the basis of the fact that he has never sinned. Hence, he has earned his salvation through perfect obedience. Baptism can never be considered a part of a system of salvation by works so long as one is teaching that baptism is essential to obtain the forgiveness of one’s sins simply because, in the system of salvation by works, one has no sinsl Consequently, baptism is totally incompatible with the doctrine of salvation by works.

The Scriptures are, therefore, quite clear in distinguishing baptism from works. Consider the following verses to demonstrate this:

1. Tit. 3:5. Paul wrote, “But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward men appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 3:4-5). The reference to “washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” is very similar to “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5). Practically every commentary which one can consult will identify the “washing of regeneration” with baptism. Notice that the “washing of regeneration” (baptism) is carefully distinguished from works, it is a part of God’s mercy, kindness and love. Hence, baptism is not a work whereby man earns his salvation; it is a gracious act of God in which He pardons man of his sins.

2. Col. 2:11-12. This passage compares what happens in baptism with what happened when the Jewish man-child was circumcised. Paul wrote, “. . . in whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith in the operation of God, who had raised him from the dead.” What happens in baptism is not man working to earn his salvation; rather, it is the “operation of God.” In baptism, God acts to forgive man of sin. Hence, baptism is not man’s work, but God’s work.

3. Gal. 3:26-27. The third chapter of Galatians consistently discusses two systems of salvation – salvation by works (through which one earns his salvation) and salvation by faith (through which one is saved because God forgives man of his sins). Significantly, in Paul’s contrast; baptism is put on the side of salvation by faith, not salvation by works. Notice that entire chapter with its contrast to grasp this point.

Baptism is not a work whereby one earns his salvation. When a man goes forward to be baptized, he does not state that he is already saved through his own perfect obedience. Rather, such a man openly acknowledges that he is a sinner doomed to hell on the basis of his own works. He then confesses that he believes that Jesus died on the cross to bear the punishment for man’s sins and to offer salvation for all men. He believes in Jesus, repents of his sins, and desires to be baptized in order that his sins might be washed away. He acknowledges that salvation is God’s gift of grace to him, received upon the conditions of faith, repentance, and baptism. Hence, baptism is most definitely not a work whereby man earns his salvation.


The grace-unity brethren consistently charge that brethren are separating baptism from the Christ. I deny that charge and defy them to produce the material which documents it. We are not reacting because brethren want to emphasize that salvation is of grace and through Christ; we are reacting to brethren who are teaching exactly what the Baptists have been teaching on the subject of baptism. We are opposing brethren who teach that one can enter covenant relationship with God without baptism. We are opposing those who teach that one does not have to know the purpose of baptism in order for it to be valid.

We are positively affirming that baptism is a condition in order to receive the forgiveness of one’s sins, the gift of God’s grace. We are basing this position, not upon the traditional teachings of members of the church of Christ (although this should have just as much validity as the traditional teachings of the Baptist Church, Methodist Church, and Catholic Church – churches which teach contrary doctrines to this but whose human traditions have the power to save, according to Leroy Garrett), but upon the plain statements of Scripture as cited in this article. We shall stand upon these plain promises of God.

Without any scriptural evidence, we shall not promise salvation to the unbeliever, the man who has not repented, or to the one who has not been baptized. We have no divine authority to indicate to anyone that a man can be saved before and without baptism. Until we see positive divine authority which so indicates, we shall carefully avoid leaving such a man with the impression that he stands approved before God. Instead, we shall labor to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, calling upon men to obey that gospel in faith, repentance, baptism, and faithful living.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 38, pp. 611-614
September 25, 1980