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What is Baptism?

Michael Pollick
Updated Jan 28, 2024
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In the modern sense of the word, baptism is a Christian ritual or sacrament symbolizing the cleansing of sins or other spiritual impurities. Following baptism, Christian believers are welcomed into the Church body as sanctified members. Most ceremonies involve the use of water, although different Christian denominations have different methods of baptizing congregants. Some clergymen will sprinkle the water over an infant, while others prefer to fully immerse an adult candidate in a body of water.

The concept actually predates Christianity. The Greek word for baptism has no religious connotations whatsoever. To the Greeks, it described a submersion or dunking, in the sense of a sinking ship or a piece of cloth being submerged in dye. There is another Greek word, roughly spelled raptizo, which is said to denote sprinkling or pouring. This distinction between baptizo and raptizo does have some bearing on the modern Christian ritual.

Certain sects within Judaism also practiced a form of baptism before the arrival of Jesus Christ. The essential concept of cleansing one's spiritual body is similar to the modern Christian ritual, but it was also very different in its intent. When John the Baptist began perform his own baptism rituals, it was in accordance with the existing Jewish practice. When Jesus Christ arrived at the Jordan river, John the Baptist recognized the difference between his own largely symbolic ritual and the future baptism by the Holy Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

As Christianity grew in popularity, the sacrament of infant baptism became a vital element in the Catholic Church. During this ritual, an ordained priest sprinkles a few drops of holy water over the child's head or places a few drops on his or her forehead. The infant ceremony is accompanied by specific readings of Scripture, along with responses between the priest, parents and congregation. Baptism of an infant is believed to establish a bond between the child and God, leading to a blessed life as a new creature.

Protestant denominations vary widely on the issue. Some of the older denominations, such as Lutherans and Episcopalians, still practice infant baptism as a form of sanctification. Others, such as mainstream Baptists and Methodists, have also adopted the practice of adult rituals featuring full immersion, but have also maintained some forms of infant baptism. Many Charismatic churches stress the importance of baptizing an adult as a necessary part of a total plan of personal salvation. In these denominations, the ritual follows the act of repentance as a form of spiritual death, burial and resurrection.

Some of the differences between Christian denominations over the accepted form of baptism lie in the original language of the New Testament scriptures. Those denominations favoring sprinkling or pouring believe the original Greek translations used the word raptizo, which means to sprinkle. Others say the word was baptizo, which indicated a full immersion. This has led to several divisions within the Christian Church, based on disagreements over the form ordained by God.

Another controversy over the ritual is the age of accountability. Some Christian denominations believe that an infant should be baptized as soon as possible, in order to live out his or her life without the stain of man's sin. Others believe that it has no spiritual meaning until the candidate has reached an age of accountability, usually by age 12. Adult baptism through full immersion is seen as an act committed by someone who actually understand his or her sinful nature. Infants have no such understanding, therefore they are protected by God's grace.

The sacrament of baptism, regardless of the form it takes, is a tangible act of contrition which often provides the recipient with a sense of renewed purpose and dedication.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Pollick
By Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range of topics. His curiosity drives him to study subjects in-depth, resulting in informative and engaging articles. Prior to becoming a professional writer, Michael honed his skills as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.
Discussion Comments
By anon319721 — On Feb 14, 2013

I've been in many discussions about baptism and have never heard anybody make the point captured in this line from the above article: "Those denominations favoring sprinkling or pouring believe the original Greek translations used the word raptizo, which means to sprinkle."

Infant sprinkling friends of mine (Lutheran, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic) think the original practice was immersion; they simply think the outward form is not crucial to the rite's significance. Can anyone point me to a serious source?

By anon192231 — On Jun 30, 2011

@anon156342: My mom also grew up in the Church of Christ. However, she became a Methodist when she was nearly 50.

I believe the Bible teaches salvation is a gift from God, and when one accepts Christ as Savior, by faith, the salvation is conferred. The Methodist Church teaches that baptism is an outward sign of an inward change, and I think this is a good doctrine.

Saying that baptism itself confers salvation, to me, is in direct contradiction with the Bible teaching that man can do nothing to save himself. Getting baptized is a human act, so I would say that baptism is a response to a change that has (or should have) already taken place. Only God can give salvation. Baptism is simply our public response to what should have already happened in our lives.

By anon156342 — On Feb 26, 2011

I grew up in the church of Christ, that teaches one must be baptized as a condition of salvation. For years I've been conflicted by this.

If grace is God's gift and Jesus died for my sins, because i could not save myself from hell, how can salvation rest on my own actions? Would not baptism be a form of works, as if Jesus needed my help? Didn't he say just before he died, it is finished? L.M.R.

By amypollick — On Jun 06, 2010

@Anon88621: It depends on the church. All Christian churches baptize with water, but some pour it, as from a shell or pitcher, on to the person's head, while other churches have a baptistry, which may look like a pool or a bathtub, and they immerse the person in the water. Hope that answers your question.

By anon88621 — On Jun 06, 2010

what do christians use in a baptism?

By serious — On Apr 29, 2010

Here again 'water baptism/immersion', is a jewish ritual, nowhere in the New Testament will you find a 'Gentile' immersed.

Most everything the Jews did was related to a ritual.

By anon77908 — On Apr 16, 2010

if Jesus died for our sins, why are we born into original sin and need to be baptized?

I'm so confused!

By anon50947 — On Nov 02, 2009

"Raptizo"? Not in any manuscripts I am aware of. This article needs some revising. Baptism always meant immersion *into* water, not a sprinkling as some churches demand today. Baptists have always immersed, thus the name we are called. Also, this article leaves out a large number in Christianity, including Baptists, who place no real spiritual significance on baptism, except for God's blessing on the individual who is obedient to be baptized. We believe baptism is simply an outward symbol of what Christ has already done in our lives. It imparts no grace nor does it contribute to one's salvation, which needs to happen before one is baptized.

By anon46570 — On Sep 27, 2009

what bible version used raptizo? i believe that pouring is the right node of baptism. Please help me to fully understand the issue.

By anon7155 — On Jan 19, 2008

Hi I have been a Baptist for 30 years and I can tell you that the Baptist's believe that you are baptized only after you have repented of a sinful lifestyle and have then accepted Christ as your personal savior believing that Jesus is God and died on the cross for our sins as a sacrifice and then rose again 3 days later, just like the charismatic denominations. Cynthia Brower

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick
As a frequent contributor to WiseGeek, Michael Pollick uses his passion for research and writing to cover a wide range...
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