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It is common for Baptists to take the position that any passage in scripture that sounds like its saying baptism is required for salvation is referring to "Spirit baptism." [Examples, Acts 2:38, Gal 3:26-27...]

If this is really their belief, why do they even administer the "ordinance" (their term) of "Water baptism" at all? I mean if all references to baptism are really "spirit baptism" why even waste your time baptizing in water, and why make your beliefs about immersion and credo-baptism a distinctive to the point of calling yourself "Baptist" (and with a capital "B" to boot) if you don't think the baptism that is administered by men has any real relevance to salvation and that its only "spirit baptism" (which obviously can only be administered by God) that matters?

[Knowing my own perspective may help in formulating an answer I guess: I also believe in immersion and credo-baptism, and I believe that spirit baptism takes place in water baptism, never separate, neither before or after but always at the same time; the only exception being in Acts 10 when God diverged from the normative order to show Peter that Gentiles are acceptable candidates for baptism and not just Jews. Its possible, I suppose that Baptists mean the same thing(?) and so I guess knowing I believe this could help answer the question.]

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    "I mean if all references to baptism are really "spirit baptism"" I think this question is based on a straw man argument. Even if you think that many or most references to baptism aren't referring to a ritual, that doesn't mean you think all are. Can you provide some reference to people who insist that every reference is spiritual? – curiousdannii Aug 24 '14 at 0:11
  • @curiousdannii, While he might have overstated the case, I think the point he was making is that any time you come to a place where it sounds like "baptism" is commanded or spoken of as something that precedes/accompanies salvation, baptists will, generally, interpret that as referring to spiritual baptism. I don't think it's really a straw man. This is not an extreme position. It's the assumption they start with. – mojo Aug 24 '14 at 2:40
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    @mojo as someone who does like to interpret baptism as referring to spiritual baptism, I think there's a major difference between the references that command it and those that refer to it in passing. All references to baptism is either an unhelpful exaggeration, or a type of Baptist theology I've never heard of before, which is why I asked for references. – curiousdannii Aug 24 '14 at 4:25
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Baptists practice baptism because it is something taught in Scripture.

Your question hits exactly on the distinction between those denominations that believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, and those that don't. Baptists don't see it as necessary for salvation. Instead, it's seen as an outward expression of obedience.

The analogy is graduation. getting your diploma doesn't impart knowledge onto you. Getting an education - sitting through class, studying, etc. imparts knowledge. Yet people participate in the graduation ceremony. Similarly, Baptists, and other groups that believe that baptism is not a necessary component of salvation practice it as a celebration, or an outward expression of the fact that they are already saved, and have already been born again of the spirit.

Backing reference: Baptists: Believer’s Baptism

Excerpt:

Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism is important but not necessary for salvation. For example, the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39-43), Saul on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-18) and the people gathered in Cornelius’ house (Acts 10:24-48) all experienced salvation without the necessity of baptism. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter urged those who had repented and believed in Christ to be baptized, not that baptism was necessary for salvation but as a testimony that they had been saved (Acts 2:1-41).

Thus, baptism is symbolic and not sacramental. Baptists believe that the Bible teaches that baptism symbolizes that a person has been saved and is not a means of salvation. Baptism is not a means of channeling saving grace but rather is a way of testifying that saving grace has been experienced. It does not wash away sin but symbolizes the forgiveness of sin through faith in Christ.

While baptism is not essential for salvation, it is a very important requirement for obedience to the Lord. Christ commanded his disciples to baptize (Matthew 28:19) and therefore baptism is a form of obedience to Jesus as Lord. Baptism is one way that a person declares, “Jesus is Lord.”

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In addition to David Stratton's excellent answer as a long time Southern Baptist there are a couple of things I wish to add.

Not only do Baptists believe in Baptism, but it must also be immersion Baptism, and there are several reasons for that.

  1. Jesus was immersed in the Jordan River when he was Baptized by John the Baptist.

Matthew 3:15 and 16 KJV And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him:

Since Jesus was immersed it seems to follow that we too should also be immersed.

  1. After Jesus came up out of the water the Spirit of God descended on him.

This was a sign that God was now pleased with Jesus for having been Baptized, as John said he should be baptized by Jesus; and Jesus answered we must fulfill all righteousness.

A Baptist Minister once explained to me the ritual of Baptism, as signifying three things.

  1. Going down into the water, signifies our old sinful self being buried with Jesus.

  2. Coming out of the water, signifies our becoming a new person acceptable to God, and his pride in our regeneration.

  3. That we are now clean by having been washed in the blood of Jesus, and baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Luke 3:16 KJV John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire:

So our idea of Baptism is that it is a way of announcing to the World that we are a new person (saved by the free Grace of God, and not by anything we have done).

This is in a way our answer to Jesus when he said:

Matthew 10:32 and 33 KJV Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.

So even though we do not believe that Baptism is necessary for Salvation, it is a very important part of our binding with Jesus, and a way of expressing our unity with Christ.

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