Christian baptism is necessary for the Christian life. The New Testament regularly considers it in the same context of conversion (see Part 1). It’s the new birth certificate, the public record, that one has been born again. While the act of baptism does not technically save anyone, it is nonetheless part of what it means to be saved. The New Testament simply has no category for an unbaptized Christian. Baptism was simply part of what it meant to respond to the gospel.
Acts 8.26-40 recounts the sensational account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The Ethiopian was on his way home from Jerusalem reading what we know as Isaiah 53. He knew the passage was about a person, but did not know who. God sovereignly commanded Philip to help sort that out: “Beginning from this Scripture, [Philip] preached Jesus to him” (v35). And as soon as the eunuch spotted some water, he compelled Philip to baptize him (v36).
In one verse, Philip preached the gospel (v35). And in the very next verse (vv36, 38), the eunuch insisted on being baptized. One minute the Ethiopian did not know who Jesus was. The next he begs to be baptized in him. How did he make this connection? Perhaps Philip explicitly explained it and/or the eunuch knew from observable experience: baptism was part of responding to the gospel. The eunuch knew becoming a follower of Christ meant being baptized in him. It was not salvific per se, but it was necessary if he was to enjoy the benefits of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant.
Here are some realities about baptism:
1. If you want to repent from sin, believe the gospel and confess Christ then you need to be baptized. It is part of the confessing process. There is simply no category in the New Testament of an unbaptized Christian.
In fact, it was not until a person was baptized did the apostles consider anyone part of the new covenant community. They knew it did not make them a Christian, but it was necessary to be considered a Christian. Baptism was a death wish and anyone willing to go through it likely demonstrated a genuine faith.
This grounds one of the most important Baptist distinctives: regenerate church membership. Baptists confess only those biblically demonstrating saving faith, which includes baptism, should be members of the local church. Only Christians are in Christ’s kingdom (the universal church); therefore, we are convicted that the local church should resemble the universal church as much as possible. Therefore, as all historic Baptist confessions declare, baptism is a necessary prerequisite for taking the Lord’s Supper. Although, given how infrequently most Baptist churches observe the Lord’s Supper I am not sure the connection is visible anymore. But that’s for another fancy another day.
2. If you are a discouraged Christian looking for a peg on which to hang some hope, your baptism serves as a sweet reminder of God’s grace. If you are longing for something to encourage your faith then reflect on your baptism. We are to remember our baptism as surely as the old covenant Jew remembered the Exodus (salvation through God’s judgment water!). Only now, we in the new covenant have the substance of the Exodus: Christ himself!
Consider how often Paul exhorts us to remember our baptism and what it meant (e.g. Rom 6). It was God’s work of killing sin (and killing us, really) and crediting Christ’s righteousness to us. We are indeed united to Christ who has saved us.
Baptism is done to us because it is God who has acted on us. We do not (or should not!) baptize ourselves. In baptism, we confess we are crucified, are buried and are raised – all with Christ. Our baptism reenforces the fact that we are acted upon by God and he never reneges on what he has done. Read Jonah 2. It’s the song of the baptized.
Christian, remember your baptism. It really meant something and God really designed it to anchor your faith in the objective work of Christ. God has saved you. Christ is risen for you. You have been raised to walk in newness of life (Rom 6.4) and sin is no longer your master (Rom 6.6, 14). Rejoice for your are freed from sin!
3. The Baptist church must particularly recover the glory and weight of baptism. Is it not ironic that those who believe we have baptism right observe it so lightly?
Baptism is a heavenly event. But since revivalism took root in the 1800s we have replaced the “drama” of baptism with the altar call. We now have 30-minute, tear-jerking altar calls and 5-minute scripted baptisms. Rarely would we have remotely as many return Sunday night for a baptism service as for a concert or fellowship meal.
Jesus would not be pleased with how we are making disciples who bear his name. If we are making them at all. It is his name we’re doing it in so he has every right to be concerned.
The pandemic practice of re-baptizing people three and four times is an offense to Christ and his gospel. And most churches think nothing of it and even rejoice that little Johnny has finally “got it right” . . . again . . . and again. The sheer fact that we would baptize someone more than once means we are not taking it seriously the first time.
Is a person justified more than once? Of course not! So we had better be sure to get it right the first time. There is not one example of anyone ever being re-baptized in the New Testament. But we have considered baptism an “add-on” to church that it can be done and undone at will. Baptism is not necessary for discipleship but it is a helpful way to pad our stats in the denomination. (If we are going to be honest, any church re-baptizing someone should request their stats be amended to reflect the previous baptism should not have been counted. Unlikely.)
Consider my beloved Southern Baptist Convention. Well over half of our baptisms are of those 18-years-old and younger. Most of those are during July-August (i.e. VBS time). And yet studies clearly show 18-22-year-olds are leaving the church en masse. It seems clear we are not stewarding the gospel, baptism or souls well if a large majority of those we baptize will soon leave the church.
This is simply not how Jesus or his apostles viewed baptism.
History shows the weakening of baptism coincides with the decreasing emphasis on church discipline. In matters that should be otherwise corrected or remedied by church discipline we now handle with another baptism. Because we do not practice church discipline, those in unrepentant sin who want to “get right” are simply rebaptized. We get off the hook and can add another tally.
In the Baptist tradition, we baptize no one we are not confident are believers. So, to baptize is to affirm one’s inclusion in Christ by faith. Jesus did not prescribe baptism as the means of restoring those believers when they repent. He prescribed church discipline and restoration as the remedy (2 Cor 2.6-11; Gal 6.1). We don’t keep baptizing them. We keep restoring them and welcoming them to the Lord’s Table.
The New Testament assumes a church would never baptize anyone they are not willing to discipline, if necessary. Baptism really means something. Christ’s name and fame are at stake. There is a real union going on. We cannot cheapen baptism by assuming we can just do it again if the first one does not take. No! We are promising God, the new convert and the church that we only baptize once. Therefore, we must be careful about doing it.
We may baptize fewer people at any given time, but those we baptize will be true Christians. Jesus cares very little about how many we baptize. He cares about who we baptize in his name.
Baptism is one of Christ’s most precious gifts to the Christian. It is a tangible means of knowing his grace and salvation. Let us not rob another Christian from its power by refusing it or redoing it.
4. If you are not a Christian you might ask if you should get baptized. And I would confidently say with the apostles: “Absolutely!” “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22.16).
You must know, though, that in being baptized you are confessing Christ, repenting from your sin, trusting Jesus with your life and promising to obey him with a new heart changed by the Holy Spirit. You must know that when you come out of the water you are giving yourself also to a people whose accountability you welcome and consider God’s means of grace to remain faithful to Christ. You must know that in baptism you are formally declaring war against your sin and confess you are hopeless apart from Christ’s death, burial and resurrection on your behalf. You must know that in baptism you are announcing your own death and that you are no longer your own. And we’re only going to do this once.
Are you ready to let go of your sin and this world because Christ is too glorious not to? Then you should be baptized. Are you ready to repent-believe-confess and forever unite yourself to Christ and his people? Then you should be baptized. Why would you delay? Why live one more moment in sin and under God’s wrath? Why not be cleansed by Christ? Why not be united to Christ by faith and raised to eternal life?
Baptism should excite our souls and bring tear to our eyes. It is a funeral and wedding wrapped up in one majestic scene of God’s redemption in Christ. So, let’s fill the baptistery to the brim. There are disciples to make.