And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?" -Acts 8:34-36
“Here is water!”
These words came from an Ethiopian man whom Philip had never met, responding to the good news of Jesus that he had never heard. Why? Why baptism?
But Why Baptism?
What is it about Jesus that led the obscure African man to say, “Here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?”
My estimation is that when Philip explained the good news of Jesus through the prophet Isaiah (see Acts 8:30), he presented the man with the complete good news of Jesus ending in the resurrection and ascension of Christ (Matthew 28:19).
Philip’s message was probably concluded like the Apostle Peter’s in Acts 2.
And Peter said to [the crowd in Jerusalem], “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. -Acts 2:38, 41
Whatever was said, though, the eunuch came to the right conclusion, a conclusion that Jesus commanded. “I believe in this Christ, so I should be baptized now.”
What Prevents Me From Being Baptized?
The eunuch asked a great question, one with an answer. “What prevents me from being baptized?” What would have prevented him?
Unbelief is the great obstacle preventing someone from baptism. Taking into account the whole of Scripture, baptism is set aside for those who put their faith in Jesus. We call this believer’s baptism. Baptism is set aside for those who put their faith in Jesus. However, you will not find Scripture that says, “you should not get baptized if you are an unbeliever.” Rather Scripture affirms, and only clearly affirms baptism after a person has put his or her faith in Jesus. Paul says it this way:
for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. -Galatians 3:26–27
How do you become a son? Through faith you are a son of God. In a similar way, the Ethiopian man heard the news about Jesus, believed the message and concluded, “What prevents me from being baptized?”
The simple answer is, “nothing.” Faith is the only door one opens before entering the waters of baptism. In the same way, we believe that baptism without faith is an inappropriate act.
And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. -Hebrews 11:6
But Again…Why Baptism?
The first answer to this question was that Jesus commanded it to be done, and it was put in place by his apostles clearly in the book of Acts and the following epistles. Is Jesus’ command not enough?
There are some who claim that you should baptize because it imparts salvation to the recipient. This belief is called baptismal regeneration. Their “why baptism?” is a critical element to salvation. However, we heartily disagree. In fact, we would find this type of baptism, a baptism for salvation, unbiblical and deceiving. Baptismal regeneration would argue that faith is not the door of salvation, rather water is. We reject that an infant, without any ability to trust in Christ, can be saved by a work he or she has no choice in. Baptism is not saving. Rather, we believe Scripture shows that baptism is a symbol.
The apostle Peter who oversaw the baptism of over 3,000 souls on the day of Pentecost, spoke of baptism this way:
Baptism, which corresponds to this [referring to a previous example of Noah’s Ark being a place of rescue from the flood], now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ... -1 Peter 3:21
What is baptism to Peter? It does not remove anything from your body of death (sin), as if the waters washed away your sins. Rather, baptism is an appeal (a symbolic appeal) to God based on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
We agree with Peter. Baptism is a symbol. It is one’s appeal to God, an appeal of faith, made alive through the Spirit’s awakening work of regeneration.
I would like to point out that there are others, many of whom are Gospel-centered Christians, who hold to an infant baptism (pedobaptism) that is not saving but rather what they consider as an entry into the covenant of the people of God. Though we disagree with this teaching, believing they are in error in reading their Bibles, we affirm that they elevate the same ‘Faith alone’ as saving. This faith unites us in the body of Christ, though we disagree on how the Church should baptize.
Baptism is a Symbol but not ‘Just’ A Symbol
So, we believe baptism is a symbol, meaning it does not impart saving benefits to the person being baptized. Rather, it is a symbol that signifies the real conversion that happens in a Christian through faith.
However, a symbol does not imply a lesser value. For example, we should never say that baptism is ‘only’ a symbol.
1. If baptism were ‘just’ a symbol, Jesus would have not commanded us to do it.
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. -Matthew 28:19
2. If baptism were ‘just’ a symbol, it would not be intimately linked to the many descriptions of salvation in the New Testament (Romans 6:3-4, Colossians 2:12).
I must admit, a quick read of Scripture seems to imply that baptism itself does bring about salvation (baptismal regeneration). For example, Paul says:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. -Romans 6:3–4.
Rather than being an action that causes salvation, baptism is intimately connected to faith and salvation throughout Scripture so it is often difficult to separate the two. Faith/belief/trust always precedes baptism and baptism always follows. As seen above in Romans 6, Paul speaks of baptism and salvation as if they are dependent on one another. Yet earlier in Romans (and all through Scripture), Paul affirms:
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. -Romans 5:1-2
So, in terms of biblical description, salvation is by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), and saving faith directs one to say, “See, here is water!”
Remember the Ethiopian man. What preceded his baptism? It was the good news of Jesus, the Gospel. He believed in Jesus and logically concluded, “What prevents me from being baptized?”
Baptism is a Symbol but not Optional
Considering how closely tied faith and baptism are in Scripture, one closing point needs to be clear. Though baptism is a symbol of our salvation rather than salvation itself, it is never optional. There is no biblical language that offers baptism as anything less than absolutely commanded, commanded by Jesus himself.
No, baptism does not save, but it would be foolish and selfish to assume that though Jesus calls all believers to it, it is something that I can deny with the argument, “Well it's just a symbol. It doesn’t save me.”
If you believe in Jesus, for the forgiveness of your sins and new life in him, you should be baptized.
Taking any other action would be a misreading of Scripture.