The Four Views of Baptism

I suppose the issue of baptism has been so divisive within the church because of man’s proclivity toward tradition.  We hear this most often in the phrase, “Well, that’s just how I was raised.”  As if that is an authoritative argument.  I propose that we ask with Paul, “What saith the Scripture?” (Rom. 4:3)

There are 4 views of baptism within Christendom that have been debated for hundreds of years.

Baptismal Regeneration (baptism washes away sin and saves the soul) is the common doctrine of the Roman Catholic tradition as well as the Lutheran Church though there are slight differences even among these two.  While the Lutheran believes that the act of baptism is ineffectual unless the person already has faith the Catholic church teaches that baptism confers grace (ex opera operato) and is sufficient in itself to save the soul.[1]  Robert Kolb, ordained Lutheran minister and professor Concordia College, very clearly outlines the Lutheran view.  “’Baptism…saves’ (I Pet. 3:21). The apostle Peter was direct an simple…(baptism) gives salvation, that is, new life in Christ…”[2]  Therefore, this is a need in these churches for infant baptism to wash away original sin and regenerate the soul for entrance into the kingdom of Heaven.

Covenantal Baptism (baptism is a Sign and Seal of the New Covenant) is the common doctrine of Reformed & Presbyterian churches.  Just as God set up the covenant of circumcision with Abraham to be a sign and seal of God’s people during the Old Testament age, so Go has set up the covenant of baptism with the church to be a sign and seal of God’s people during the church age. (Col. 2:11-12)[3]  This gives way to the proliferation of infant baptism, not as salvific act, but as a sign of being in a Christian home and a seal of eventual saving faith.

Salvation Occasion Baptism (baptism as the culminating act of salvation) is the common doctrine of Church of Christ and Christian churches.  According to John D. Castelein, professor of contemporary Christian theology at Lincoln Christian College, “In (baptism), God enters into a covenantal relationship with an individual, and, in turn, that individual knowingly and willingly accepts God’s offer of restored fellowship.”[4]  Baptism is not merely a symbol of your faith but is the act of faith that saves the soul.  Salvation is baptism and baptism is salvation.  This is why when asking many Christians if they have ever been saved, they will reply with, “Oh yes, I was baptized on…”  There is no distinction between salvation (receiving Christ as Savior) and baptism for they have been taught that they are one in the same.  Therefore, in many of these churches people are asked to come forward to be baptized and very little emphasis is given on repentance and receiving Christ by faith through prayer for repentance and receiving Christ is baptism.

Believer’s Baptism (baptism is an outward symbol of personal faith in Christ) is the common doctrine of Baptist churches.  Baptism is neither sacramental nor covenantal but purely symbolic.  Baptism is done out of obedience to Christ (Matt. 28-19-20), identification with Christ (Rom. 6:4) and symbolic of our repentance and faith in Christ (Matt. 3:2, 6).  It is believed that baptism is only offered to those who have personally come to Christ by faith, repented of unbelief and received Christ as seen in the pattern of Pentecost (Acts 2:37-41).  Therefore, someone must be first saved and then baptized as a symbol of that salvation.  Baptism must be by immersion only keeping with the symbolism of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection as well as the examples given in the New Testament seem to indicate immersion. (Acts 8:38-39; Matt. 3:16)  Obviously, I would side with those who teach Believer’s Baptism.


[1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 1998), 1100.

[2] John H. Armstrong, Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 91.

[3] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 1998), 1103-4.

[4] John H. Armstrong, Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 130.

  1. Tom says:

    Thank you for another resource to shine light on biblical baptism. This article is more help than you know! Thanks Pastor.

  2. Dawn Froehlich says:

    I remember someone trying to convince me shortly after I got saved that salvation occasion baptism was necessary in order to have a relationship with God. Thanks for the clear presentations of each!

  3. gary says:

    I grew up Baptist/evangelical. Here is what opened my eyes to what I believe is the true Gospel of Christ: Does God save man 100% by himself or does he need the sinner’s assistance, or at the very minimum, the sinner’s cooperation? If salvation is a free gift, why does the sinner have to make a decision before it is his? If something is really free…it is yours without DOING anything.

    I believe that Baptists and evangelicals get so worked up over the orthodox/Lutheran view of Baptism that they miss the central message of HOW we believe that God saves.

    The biblical Plan of Salvation:
    1. God predestined you, before the world existed, to be his child.
    2. At some point in your life, at a time of HIS choosing, not yours, God quickens your soul by the hearing/reading of the Word, gives you the gift of faith, and you believe and repent. You are saved! NOTHING that the sinner decides to do can help save him…including being baptized! Salvation is ALL God!

    That is how salvation occurs.

    So if God performs 100% of the action of salvation, he doesn’t need your “decision” to save you. He doesn’t need your intelligence or maturity to save you. He doesn’t need your decision-making ability to save you. God saves you all by himself!

    Before addressing the issue of Baptism, I challenge you to search Scripture to verify that what I have said IS the true Gospel. Salvation really and truly is FREE! That is why lost sinners have such a hard time believing it: “It’s too easy! I have to do SOMETHING to be saved!”

    The Bible says you don’t!

    Before one can determine from Scripture the purpose of Baptism, it is absolutely necessary to understand HOW the salvation of sinners occurs.

    God bless,
    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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