John the Baptist did not invent baptism. “During the period between the Old Testament and the New Testament, a practice emerged among the Jews called ‘proselyte baptism.’ This was a purification rite for Gentiles, a bathing that symbolized the cleansing of a people considered to be unclean. If a Gentile wanted to become a Jew, he was required … to make a profession of faith in Judaism. Then, if he was a male, he had to undergo circumcision.” Then he received the purification bath.

“John the Baptist scandalized many when he declared that Jews needed to be purified in the same manner (Matt. 3:2). It was not only the Gentiles who were in need of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Messiah,” which “is why John cried to the Jewish people, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’ (Matt. 3:2). The Pharisees were outraged…because they found their security in the old covenant.”

“When Jesus came, He instituted a new covenant and new covenantal sign along with it [Matt. 28:18-20]. In the Old Testament, God ratified His covenants with signs. The sign of the covenant God made with Noah was the rainbow, signifying that He would never again destroy the world with water. When God entered into a covenant with Abraham and his seed, He established it with the sign of circumcision.”


“Jesus took the rite of cleansing and identified it…with His new covenant. As a result, baptism replaced circumcision as the outward sign of inclusion in the new covenant community. Those who are baptized are not necessarily saved [just as no one was saved by circumcision, Rom. 2:28-29; 3:1; 4:11; ]; however, they have God’s promise that all the benefits of Christ are theirs if and when they believe.”

“Paul [in Col. 2:8-12] speaks of the circumcision not made with hands [regeneration]; he sees a direct link between the circumcision of the Old Testament and the baptism of the New Testament. Baptism is a sign of our regeneration, that we have been raised from spiritual death and made new creatures. The sign itself does not accomplish that; it simply points to what does – the Holy Spirit. Just as we are baptized with water, so God promises to baptize with His Holy Spirit those who are in Christ.”


“Some churches argue that only adults who make a conscious profession of faith can be baptized. Historically, however, the majority has believed that just as the Old Testament covenant promise was given to Abraham and to his seed [Gen. 17:7; Deut. 30:6], the New Testament covenant promise has been given to believers and to their seed [Acts 2:38-39]; and just as the old covenant sign was given to believers and their children, the new covenant sign is given to believers and their children. Just as baptism is a sign of faith, so circumcision was a sign of faith [Rom. 4:11], and we cannot argue that a sign of faith cannot be given to one’s children.”

Salvation “may come before, during, or after the administration of the sign, even as was the case with circumcision.” Further, the validity of baptism does not “rest upon the one who receives it or administers it. It rests instead on the character of the One whose promise it signifies.”

[Adapted from R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian]