The Christian Bible Reference Site

What Does the Bible Say About Baptism?

Frequently Asked Questions


Baptism is a rite practiced in most Christian churches. Commonly, a minister or priest sprinkles or pours water over the head of the person to be baptized. In some churches the person is briefly immersed entirely in water.

The Bible

Before the time of Jesus, there were Jewish forms of baptism for ceremonial purification (Leviticus 8:5-6, Leviticus 16:23-24, Exodus 30:17-21). John the Baptist practiced a baptism of repentance in anticipation of the coming of Christ (Matthew 3:11-12). Jesus was baptized by John at the beginning of His ministry (Matthew 3:13-17).

However, the rite of Christian baptism was initiated and mandated by Jesus, Himself:

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. (NLT, Matthew 28:19)

And then he told them, "Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone, everywhere. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe will be condemned. (NLT, Mark 16:15-16)

Jesus' disciples went on to baptize many people (John 4:1-2, Acts 2:38-41, 8:12-13, 16:14-15, 16:32-33, Romans 6:3-4, Galatians 3:26-29), and it has been universally practiced since the beginnings of the Christian Church.


Neither Jesus nor His disciples laid down any rules about how baptism was to be done, nor did they provide much interpretation of its spiritual significance. As a result, many different beliefs and practices have developed within Christianity over the centuries.

What Is the Spiritual Meaning of Baptism?

There are three main beliefs:

The sacramental view holds that baptism is a means God uses to convey grace. The person baptized is set free from the power of sin and given a new spiritual life (John 3:5-7).

The covenantal view holds that baptism is not a means of spiritual rebirth, but a sign and seal of God's covenant of salvation. Baptism depicts the freeing from sin that occurs with repentance (Acts 2:38), and serves the same covenantal purpose for Christians that circumcision does for Jews.

The symbolical view holds that no spiritual benefit results from baptism, itself. Rather, it is a public symbol of a spiritual rebirth that has already occurred in the person being baptized.

Should a Person Be Baptized in the Name of Jesus or in the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?

Both ways are mentioned in the Bible. Some churches baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). Others baptize in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38, 8:16,10:48, 19:5).

Who Should Be Baptized?

Many Christian churches practice infant baptism, citing Acts 16:15 and Acts 16:33, where entire families, presumably including infants, were baptized. Some churches baptize only infants of believing parents, while others will baptize all infants. The Baptist Church and some other churches practice believer's baptism; excluding infants and restricting baptism to those who consciously repent of sin and experience spiritual rebirth. In favor of this position, they note that most baptisms recorded in the New Testament were of adults who had repented and joined the ranks of the faithful.

What Is the Proper Method of Baptism?

The Baptist Church and some other churches hold that full-body immersion is necessary for valid baptism. They note that the original Greek word for baptize, baptizo, meant to immerse or submerge. In addition, most of the early church baptisms were apparently by immersion. However, a majority of churches use sprinkling or pouring of water over the head instead of immersion. They note that baptizo could also mean a simple washing, as it does in Luke 11:38. In addition, the Old Testament baptisms were performed in a variety of ways, and some of the New Testament baptisms apparently did not involve immersion (Acts 10:47-48, Acts 16:29-34). The Christian Church's expansion from the Mediterranean area into colder climates may help explain the decline of the immersion method of baptism.

What About Persons Who Die Before They Are Baptized?

A common concern of Christians holding the sacramental view of baptism is whether infants and children who die before being baptized will be granted salvation and eternal life. The Bible does not mention this topic, so different beliefs have developed.

The predominant belief among Christians is that God makes provision for salvation for those who, through no fault of their own, die without being baptized. It is only those who have heard and understood the Gospel, but willfully refuse to believe and be baptized, who are not eligible for salvation (Mark 16:15-16). (See What Does the Bible Say About Salvation?)

It used to be a common belief among Catholics that babies who died without being baptized would end up in Limbo, an intermediate state between heaven and hell. However, there is no mention of Limbo in the latest version of the Catholic Catechism (see below).

Church Doctrine

Here is a sampling of official church teachings about baptism from the three largest Christian denominations in the U.S.:

Roman Catholic

From Catechism of the Catholic Church, (c) 1994, United States Catholic Conference, Inc., paragraphs 1246, 1247, 1250, 1254, 1257, 1261, 1263, 1265.

Southern Baptist

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper.

From Position Statements, Copyright (c) 1999 - 2001, Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention,

United Methodist

From "By Water & the Spirit, a United Methodist Understanding of Baptism"