Tag Archives: baptism

Why was Jesus baptized?

We first come across baptism in the context of John the Baptist. John’s baptism is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). John came as a prophet, calling people to repent and, as a visible way of showing that response, to be baptized in the Jordan River. John saw this “baptism of repentance” as an act which prepared Israel for the coming Messiah, the one who would “baptize with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8).

This context makes Jesus’ own baptism by John all the more perplexing. If submission to John’s baptism was an act of repentance, then does that mean that Jesus needed to repent? Did he need to turn from sin? Did he need to be forgiven?

What didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism?

First allow me to stress two things that didn’t happen at Jesus’ baptism. First, he did not repent from sins. Second, he was not adopted as God’s Son.

He was not repenting of sins.

John had just finished saying that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit. In Matthew, he goes on to describe Jesus as the Judge of all: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:12). Jesus was the Judge who could adjudicate true from false repentance, he had no need of repenting himself. That is why John expressed disbelief when Jesus came to be baptized by him by saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:13) Jesus never sinned (Hebrews 4:15), so he had no need of repentance.

Jesus was not adopted as God’s Son at the baptism.

There was a popular heresy in the early church that said God adopted Jesus as his Son at the baptism. This heresy arose out of a misunderstanding of Mark 1:11 and its parallel passages in the other synoptic gospels when the voice from heaven declares “You are my Son, whom I love; and with you I am well pleased.” But what we have here is the same thing we have in Romans 1:4 when Paul says that “through the Spirit of holiness [Jesus Christ] was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead.” In neither event, the baptism or the resurrection, is Jesus made the Son. Instead, he is declared to be the Son. That is, his divine Sonship is made clear. His identity is confirmed, not formed, by these events.

So why was Jesus baptized?

If Jesus didn’t need to repent or be forgiven, why then did he submit to John’s baptism?

Jesus was identifying with Israel.

When the people came to John in the wilderness they were re-enacting a portion of Israel’s history. By coming to the wilderness they were entering a place associated in the Old Testament with testing and decision. When Israel rebelled in the wilderness they were met with judgment. When Israel trusted God, they were brought through the raging waters of the Jordan, into the Promised Land. By being baptized, the people of Jerusalem were committing themselves to trust God. They were, in a sense, identifying themselves with past Israel.

Jesus was doing the same sort of thing, not as an act of repentance, but of solidarity. He was saying, in a sense, “your story is my story.” I am willing to walk in the same steps as Israel, committing myself to God alone.

The problem for Israel, though, is that even though they had periods of repentance, they quickly fell back into sin. Indeed, even though “all of Jerusalem” came out to be baptized, it was also those from Jerusalem who called for Jesus’ execution. While many heard and responded to John’s call to turn from sin, they never responded, or didn’t properly respond, to John’s call to look to the Greater One.

Jesus was identifying with fallen humanity

Israel’s story, though, is a microcosm of humanity’s story. And Jesus is not only identifying with Israel, but with all of humanity. The need to trust God fully goes back not just to Israel’s wilderness wanderings, but to Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. In submitting to a “baptism of repentance” which he did not need, Jesus identified himself in solidarity with all fallen humanity.

Jesus was declared as the true Son

After Jesus was baptized we’re introduced to a marvelous scene: “he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:10-11)

The Father describes Jesus as “my Son.” In the Old Testament, the phrase “God’s son” can sometimes refer to heavenly beings, to kings (especially in the line of David), and to Israel itself. Here Mark wants to show us Jesus’ special relationship with the Father and restate his Messianic role. Jesus is not just son, He is The Son, a truth which becomes ever more clear throughout the gospel and the rest of the New Testament.

We begin to see a continuity and discontinuity with Israel and its kings. Israel was God’s “son” who was trapped in a cycle of repentance and failure. The same story goes for its kings. But Jesus comes along as the true Israel, and as the true Messiah-king. The rest of the story reveals to us that Jesus does not fail, that he remains faithful to the Father even to death on the cross.

Again, we can go back even farther than Israel’s story, to the story of Genesis. In the creation story the Spirit hovers over the waters and it is by God’s breath that Adam becomes a living being. God’s revelation of the Spirit in Jesus’s baptism ought to draw our minds back to creation, back to Adam and Eve. Here, though, the Spirit is at work empowering Jesus to take up the role of the true human who would succeed where Adam and Eve failed.

Why does it matter that Jesus was baptized?

Jesus’ baptism doesn’t prove his unique identity by itself, but it does remind that Jesus stands both with humanity and above humanity. The rest of the New Testament shows us that Jesus was fully man and fully God. In his baptism he fully identifies himself with fallen humanity, not because he himself is fallen, but as an act of solidarity. This is a sort of “proto-cross” event. On the cross Jesus goes a step farther. He doesn’t just identify with humanity, but he takes the penalty for humanity. Jesus’ baptism sets us up for that reality.

But it’s also clear that Jesus doesn’t just come as a normal human being standing in for the rest of all normal human beings. If he did that, his death could at best only save himself. He would only be giving to God what he already owed him. No, the voice from heaven, the presence of the Spirit, and the declaration of the Father all point us to the fact that Jesus is something more. He is the Son who pleases the Father. And, because he is the true and infinite Son, his stand of solidarity can really be effective in our salvation.

I was baptized as a baby, should I be re-baptized as an adult?

Given that our little baptist church is in predominately Reformed West Michigan, it is not uncommon for people to come to our church from a Reformed background where infant baptism is the norm. As people get more involved, or begin to consider membership, we are inevitably asked about our view of baptism. Specifically, we get this question: “I was baptized as a baby, should I be re-baptized as an adult?”

Sometimes, though not always, this question is intensely personal. For some it feels like an unnecessary step. For others, it can feel like a rejection of one’s tradition, or of one’s parents.

Whether or not someone decides to be re-baptized as an adult, to participate in what we call “believer’s baptism,” depends entirely on what they come to believe about baptism. This post isn’t a defense of the baptist position (I have a longer post on that subject here.) Instead, I will only briefly discuss what we believe, not why.

Baptism is first and foremost a response of obedience to Jesus to his gift of salvation. Since salvation occurs when one puts their faith in Jesus. Pre-conversion baptism may serve some function (like a parental baby dedication) but it’s not the same thing – or doesn’t serve the same function – as post-conversion baptism. For that reason alone I would recommend pursuing adult baptism as a response of joyful obedience.

Second, baptism is an outward symbol of an internal reality. More than a symbol, baptism is a re-enactment. It is accompanied by a public confession, and a public confession is a critical component of baptism, but it is not only public confession. It’s more that just what we say but something we do. In baptism by immersion, the believer being baptized is lowered down into the water. This act symbolizes being buried with Christ. It symbolizes the reality that our sins are nailed to the cross with Jesus and that we have consciously decided to daily die to sin. Then the person baptized is raised up out of the water. This symbolizes being raised with Christ. It symbolizes new birth – both objectively performed by God – and subjectively lived as we live by the power of the resurrection.

Some of the push back we’ve gotten to our form of baptism has not come from the Reformed tradition, but from the hyper-dispensational perspective of nearby Grace Bible College. They believe that what matters is merely what is symbolized but that the symbol itself (e.g., baptism) is of secondary importance. For that reason, baptism becomes optional, one of multiple ways of expressing the inward reality. (As optional, a person must be specifically “led” to baptism by the Holy Spirit.) We believe that the action itself matters. The same is true for the Lord’s Supper. It is true that one of the main reasons we regularly participate in the Lord’s Supper is to remember that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but that doesn’t mean we could just replace the Lord’s Supper with a time of quiet and reflection. For some reason, by God’s grace, God has given us these two communal practices which we get to participate in, and that help us to grow in our relationship with him. It is fitting to receive these gifts with joy.

So, if you were only baptized before you were saved, should you be re-baptized now as a believer? That depends on your view of baptism. If you come to the conclusion expressed above, then Yes, first as a response of obedience to Jesus, and then as a way to symbolize the inward reality of salvation in a public and confessional way. But I’m also sensitive to the fact that this is a position on which many good Christians disagree. I would not want to pressure someone into baptism. Without the beliefs in place, re-baptism can actually be a form of disobedience, as a way to please man instead of pleasing God. To someone considering baptism I say this: Consider what the Scripture teaches on baptism, and then act accordingly, without compulsion.

Pastoral addendum: Is my adult baptism a rejection of by infant baptism? I would say it doesn’t have to be, though it will likely be a re-interpretation of the infant baptism. It is possible to view the infant baptism as an act of good faith by the parents to dedicate their child to the Lord. If viewed in this way, then the believer’s baptism can actually function as a re-affirmation of that first baptism. You would then be saying: “Just as my parents dedicated me to the Lord as a baby, so now, as an adult, I personally reaffirm what they taught and show to the rest of the watching world that I have decided to follow Jesus.”

The best case against re-baptism (from a baptist perspective): Historically, re-baptism was seen as a repudiation of the church which performed the initial baptism. That is, it was a way of saying that the first church to perform that baptism was sub-Christian, heretical. If the same were true today, then re-baptism would be an offense to the fundamental unity all Christians have in Jesus. However, I do not think the practice today has the same meaning that it has had in other historical contexts. And I would counsel against such an interpretation from my Reformed brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, if I were to make a case against re-baptism, I would do so on these historical grounds, for the sake of the unity of the universal Church.

The time I counseled against re-baptism: Once a woman in our church approached me about being re-baptized. She had been baptized as a teenager after she was saved. Since that time, she had drifted away from the Lord, but had recently “returned” to following him. Her re-baptism would have served as marking a re-dedication to Jesus. In this case, I suggested she simply share her public testimony before the church without the act of baptism. Baptism in this context would have been performed purely for experiential and public testimony purposes. She had already symbolized new birth in her initial baptism. That new birth happens only once, and so the symbol should only be performed once. In other words, I would counsel against using re-baptism as a form of re-dedication.

Research Paper on Baptism

Research Paper on Baptism (originally written November, 2009)

Author’s Note: One of my primary sources for this paper was the book Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Counterpoints: Church Life) and it continues to be a primary resource for continued study. If you’re interested in further study, I highly recommend the linked book. 


Baptism is one of the most important steps in the life of the believer. It is the symbolic representation of the believer’s identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. In baptism God gives the believer an external seal of the promise of salvation and the believer, in turn, makes a confession before God and before the Church. Because this powerful drama is played out in the physical world with physical elements the mode of baptism as the immersion of the believer in water is important. Also, because baptism is a rehearsal of conversion, it should only be applied to believers. Baptism is a gracious gift from God which helps the believer individualize his or her experience of conversion. Nevertheless, the issues surround baptism present challenges for churches trying to be faithful to the meaning of baptism, the conscience of believers, and the unity of the universal Church, which baptism is intended to maintain. The final part of this essay, then, will examine the issues of eligibility of baptism and the question of rebaptism from a pastoral perspective.


Baptism is clearly an essential initiatory rite of the Christian life. It is primarily an external representation of the internal reality of salvation. It symbolizes ones identification with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, baptism is the rite by which one is initiated into the visible church. Third, in baptism the believer identifies himself with the universal Church. Baptism is therefore a fundamental basis for unity in Christ. Fourth, baptism is a public confession of Christ. Fifth, baptism is an act of discipleship and obedience. Finally, baptism is the means of receiving gracious gifts from God, an idea which will be fully expanded later in this essay.

Symbolic Representation

Baptism is a symbolic representation to the believer and to the church of his or her identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. The internal reality of salvation is brought about by the grace of God, through faith, apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9). This salvation is brought by ones union with Christ in his death and resurrection. In Christ’s death the believer finds atonement and justification. In Christ’s resurrection, the believer finds new life, brought about by the power of God. As Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

This internal reality is intimately tied to the external symbol of baptism. Paul seems to see repentance, baptism, and salvation as near concurrent events. “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:2-3). Paul draws a similar connection in Colossians 2:12; “having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” Because of such an intimate connection one could read from these passages that baptism constitutes the saving event. It would be better, however, to view such a close connection because Paul could assume that the members of the church had already been baptized.[1] Baptism, then, servers as a “vivid reenactment” of our spiritual identification with the historical reality of Christ’s death and resurrection.[2]

Nevertheless some are inclined to see not only a symbol, but an existential reality. In this view, baptism plays an essential role in conversion. It leads to the remission of sin and the actual dying of the “old man.” “The outcome of baptism [is] a reality, the dying of the old and the living of the new life by the power of the Spirit of God.”[3] Here baptism is more than just a symbol of the reality but the reality itself. It is a “new condition for the salvation for salvation in the New Testament era.”[4] One cannot be saved unless he or she is also baptized and the baptism is the occasion, or embodiment, of salvation.[5]

In this view baptism is also the occasion for the granting of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit may be made evident in the baptized first by receiving certain “sign” gifts, such as speaking in tongues or prophecy. The Spirit is also manifested in the more permanent gifts which build up the church. Finally, the Spirit is evident in that He grants special power to the believer to overcome sin and live a holy life.[6]

This view of baptismal regeneration is not without biblical merit. Several texts draw a particularly close relationship between salvation and baptism. In Acts 2:38 in response to the question “what must I do to be saved” Peter responds, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” The first question here is a linguistic one, namely, what is the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” connected to? Should it be “repent for the forgiveness of sins” or “be baptized for the forgiveness of sins”? While the language here is somewhat ambiguous the pattern, “repent for the forgiveness of sins” is in continuity with Peter’s message.[7] In Acts 4:4, for instance, baptism is not part of the equation for those who joined the church.[8] Even if “forgiveness of sins” is linguistically tied to both repentance and baptism Peter’s pattern is still maintained. The primary is one of faith and repentance. Baptism serves as the external sign of repentance as in John’s baptism.[9]

Another text which connects baptism and salvation is Acts 22:16. Here, Ananias says to Paul, “get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” Here again the essential nature of baptism is the outward expression based on the internal decision. It was the process by which Paul pledged allegiance to Christ by calling on his name in baptism. Here he was following the practice of proselyte baptism, dramatizing his decision to join the new community. However, this not only the expression of changing allegiance, but also the symbol of receiving one of the primary benefits of discipleship, namely the removal of sin. The “washing” of baptism is an ideal symbol for this internal reality since washing is used elsewhere in Scripture for the same purpose (Isaiah 1:16, Psalm 51:2).[10]

One final text which connects baptism and salvation is 1 Peter 3:21, “and this water symbolized baptism which now saves you also – not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Christ Jesus.” This is the only time in the New Testament where baptism is used as the subject of an action verb.[11] The phrase “baptism now saves” seems unambiguous so the key question must be “how does baptism worm in salvation?” The answer to this is given in the following clauses. Peter guards against the idea that it is the ritual of baptism which saves by specifying that the essence of baptism is a “pledge of good conscience toward God.” In other words, it is the declaration before God that saves. Brooks summarizes this line of argument saying, “baptism does save – it saves because it is a declaration – a decision – a pledge of contract.”[12] In other words, to the extent that baptism serves as the initial “cry of faith toward God” it serves as the means of salvation. This is essentially no different from Romans 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord … you will be saved.”[13]

Finally, baptism is not the occasion for receiving the Holy Spirit. In Acts, the pattern simply does not hold. For instance, Cornelius receives the Spirit before baptism. In fact, it is his reception of the Holy Spirit which makes him a candidate for baptism.[14] When Peter and those who were with him recognized that the people had believed the message and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit he only then recommended water baptism.[15]

Again, in the case of the Ephesian believers (Acts 19:1-7) the occasion for receiving the Spirit was not baptism, but Paul laying his hands on them. Here, the Ephesians had heard an incomplete gospel since they were not told about the Holy Spirit. They therefore received an incomplete baptism since they were only given a baptism of repentance in the example of John the Baptist. It was only after Paul’s proclamation, their rebaptism, and Paul’s laying on of hands that they received the Holy Spirit. In other words, it was right belief which constituted the reception of the Holy Spirit, not the baptism itself.

Instead, the occasion for receiving the Holy Spirit, that is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, is the moment of salvation. Baptism of the Spirit has a parallel function of water baptism. Both are cleansing but the Spirit baptism results in “washing” away of sins in forgiveness. This is the baptism of the Spirit prefigured by John the Baptist in Mark 1:8. As Guelich remarks, “Those submitting to John’s baptism … prepare themselves for the Greater One’s baptism by the Holy Spirit who ultimately forgives their sins in the eschatological act of salvation.”[16]

Initiation into the visible church

Baptism is the initiation of the believer into the visible church. In Acts after Peter preached to the crowd those who heard and received his message were baptized. “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (Acts 2:41). The implication is that baptism was an outward sign which demonstrated the growth of the church. Furthermore, Paul assumed his Christian readers were baptized when he wrote to the churches in Rome (Romans 6:3-4), Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:13-17; 12:13), Ephesus (Ephesians 4:5), Colossae (Colossians 2:12), and the churches of Galatia (Galatians 3:27). Paul also uses baptism to remind the Church of those essential things it has in common (Ephesians 4:5, 1 Corinthians 12:13). In baptism, the believer identifies himself as united with the Church and the Church (specifically, a local church) with the believer.[17]

Initiation into the universal church

It should also be noted that baptism is also an initiatory rite into the universal church. Ephesians makes it clear that “there is one body and one Spirit … one hope … one Lord, one faith, and one baptism; one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). It is therefore as a basis of unity within the universal church (Ephesians 4:3). This unity is the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13). Paul therefore denounced sectarianism based on baptism.[18] Some in Corinth were divided between church leaders, some following Apollos, others Paul, and others Cephas. Paul counters by asking “were you baptized into the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13) The answer to this rhetorical question is “no,” they were baptized into the name of Christ. Therefore, no one can say that they “belong” to Paul, Apollos, or Cephas, instead, all must say they belong to Christ. What binds the church in unity, then, is that each person belongs to Christ, and this profession of belonging is made in baptism.[19]

Since part of the purpose of baptism is to bring unity to the universal church, divisive arguments based on baptism are antithetical to the spirit of baptism. For this reason, some have argued that the theology of unity ought to supersede arguments for modes and methods of baptism. Harper and Metzger, for instance, hold to believer’s baptism but admit they would not rebaptize those previously baptized only as infants for the sake of unity.[20] This will be analyzed further under “Pastoral Application.”

Public confession of Christ

Baptism also serves as the believer’s public confession of Christ.[21] It is public by nature. One cannot baptize oneself. Instead, one is baptized before and into a community. It is also a confession of Christ because it is an external identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. Of course it is not a confession of Christ only, but also of the Father and the Spirit (Matthew 28:19).

Act of discipleship

Baptism is also a decisive act of obedience in discipleship of Jesus. The call of the disciple is to follow and emulate the Master. Since Jesus was baptized, believers are also baptized. In Matthew, the reason Jesus gives for receiving baptism was to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Baptized believers are also called to fulfill righteousness by obedience to the Father in the model of Jesus. Therefore, Jesus’ baptism is a model for the disciples’ baptism.[22] Likewise, before Jesus ascends into heaven he commands his disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…” (Matthew 28:19). The connection here between baptism and discipleship is clear. Baptism is an essential part of discipleship, right along with, and even before, obedience to the commands of Jesus.

Occasion for receiving gracious gifts from God

Finally, simply because baptism is a symbol it does not follow that it should be considered a “mere” symbol. Likewise, it is not only something which the believer performs before God but is also something in which God imparts his gifts to the believer. These gifts are not salvific nor regenerative nor do they represent a special dispensation of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, they are gifts from God not available through other means of obedience. The first gift of baptism is that it is a lasting symbol to our conscience of our decision before God. It is like a wedding ring.[23] A wedding ring is a gift imparted from one member of the covenant to the other. The ring reminds the spouse of the promises made on the wedding day. It symbolizes the actual commitment. Likewise, in baptism the believer receives the external symbol of the covenant made at the time of salvation.

The second gift which the believer receives in baptism is that of participation in a unique aspect of obedience and identification with Christ. Obedience to God in discipleship is one of the means of progressive sanctification.[24] Submission to God, for instance, is a means by which one can overcome temptation (James 4:7-8). Therefore, baptism provides a unique way by which the believer receives sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.


Baptism is for believers only. This is seen first by observing the order given in the New Testament, second by observing that there are no unambiguous New Testament examples of infant baptism, and third by arguing that initiation into the covenant people of God comes through faith.

First, the order given to the disciples in the great commission is to go, make disciples, baptize, and teach (Matthew 28:19-20). This order is important and is seen in all the baptisms of the New Testament. Those who were baptized by John were those who had repented and confessed their sins (Mark 1:5). In Acts, after Peter preached, it was those who had accepted his message who were baptized (Acts 2:41). The result was the same when Philip preached. Those who believed were baptized (Acts 8:12, 13). Likewise, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized after hearing and responding to the message (Acts 8:38).

Second, there are no explicit examples of people who were baptized who had not already believed.[25] There are a few cases where “households” are baptized (Acts 16:15, 33; 1 Corinthians 16:32). In these cases one who have to assume that all the members of the household were baptized. In the case of the jailer (Acts 16:32 – 33) Luke explicitly states that Paul spoke to the jailer and all others in his house. This follows Luke’s pattern in Acts where baptism follows preaching and repentance.[26] Therefore, even in the few potential New Testament examples of infant baptism, it is more likely that only believing members of the household were baptized.

The primary reason given for infant baptism, however, is not based on any New Testament pattern but on an understanding of the covenant relationship between God and his people. Here, the key distinction between is between the continuity and discontinuity between Old and New Covenants. In the Old Covenant the covenant was passed from one generation to the next and the sign of the covenant was circumcision. Those in the Reformed tradition tend to see more continuity than discontinuity. For them, there is a direct line of connection between circumcision as a sign of the covenant in Israel and baptism as the sign of the covenant in the Church. While the Reformed view does not view children as the guaranteed heirs of the covenant it does stress that the covenant “gave special place to the progeny of believers as the expected … heirs of the promise.”[27]

The New Testament, however, puts forth a vision of a new covenant inherited through repentance and faith and not through family heritage. When John the Baptist came he chastised the Pharisees who, while claiming to be children of Abraham, did not show it through works coming from repentance. John’s baptism was one of repentance, which constituted the recipient as a true child of Abraham (Matthew 3:7-12).[28] Likewise, Paul reminds the Galatians that it is those who believe God who are true children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7). It makes no difference if you are a Jew or a Greek, those who are in Christ are the recipients of the promise (Galatians 3:27). Circumcision, the outward sign of the Abrahamic covenant, made no difference in salvation, only “faith expressing itself in love” (Galatians 5:6) and “new creation” (Galatians 6:15). For John, baptism signified repentance. For Paul it demonstrated ones faith in Christ. In neither case did it demonstrate entry into the covenant by birthright. There is continuity, then, between baptism and circumcision. Both are an external sign of the covenant. However, in the New Covenant one becomes an heir to the promise through a spiritual rebirth occasioned by repentance and faith.[29]

One final note is that the Didache, one of the earliest pieces of Christian literature on baptism, only specifies believer baptism. Here, the candidate for baptism is required to undergo a period of fasting before baptism.[30] Certainly, infant baptism is not in view here.


The ideal mode of baptism is immersion. The Greek baptize means “plunge, dip, wash.”[31] Even after becoming a technical term it retained the idea of full immersion.[32] The examples of baptism in the New Testament also point to immersion.[33] For instance, the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized only after finding some water along the road. Acts 8:38 then says that the eunuch when “down into” the water where Philip baptized him. Immersion was also the preferred mode of baptism for Luther and Calvin.[34]

Baptism by immersion is important because the symbol is important. In immersion the believer is “buried” in the water, symbolizing his identification with Jesus in his death. When the believer is raised out of the water he is symbolically raised to new life with Christ by the power of the resurrection. Like the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, the symbolism is important. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper have power because they connect the actions with the message.[35] The baptized believer enters into the drama of his conversion in an individual and physical manner. Baptism by sprinkling simply does not have the same symbolic power.

Immersion, however, is not the only acceptable mode of baptism. Scripture does not specify how much water should be used or how wet the one baptized should become.[36] That baptism ought to be done in the name of the Trinity and that it is an important piece of discipleship for the believer is clear while the specifics concerning mode and method are less clear. Therefore, if there is not sufficient water for immersion present and the believer wants t be baptized another mode of water baptism may be appropriate.

Historically, baptism by immersion has been preferred but not demanded. In the Didache, for instance, running water was preferred. If running water could not be found, standing water was acceptable. If even standing water could not be found the teaching states “pour water thrice upon the head in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[37]

Pastoral Application

Given what has been said concerning the meaning, mode, and recipients of baptism, what should be the practice of the local church? Here two questions arise. First, what are the qualifications for baptism? Second, under what conditions should a person be rebaptized?

A person is eligible for baptism if they have put their faith in Jesus Christ as the Savior of their souls and have turned to him in repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Acts, people were baptized immediately upon believing, often on the same day (Acts 2:40-41, 8:36). When the Ethiopian asked why he should not be baptized, Philip did not ask him to wait until he learned more about the faith but baptized him as soon as water was available. In other words, salvation is the only prerequisite for baptism.

The task of the church when approached by someone for baptism is to enquire about his or her beliefs. Because belief includes a basic level of understanding about the nature of God, the nature of sin, and the nature of salvation, the church should at least have a brief interview with the candidate. If the candidate is a child of one of the members of the church the parents can also testify concerning their child’s faith. If the candidate is a new believer who is considering joining the church through baptism some period of discipleship could be required, for instance, in the form of a “new members” class. Ideally, however, salvation and baptism should be closely linked in time in keeping with the New Testament pattern.

In general, rebaptism should be avoided. Baptism is a one-time event symbolizing a person’s identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. Since salvation only occurs once, so should baptism. However, there are a few instances where rebaptism is appropriate and even desirable.

There is only one instance of rebaptism in the New Testament. While Paul was in Ephesus he found some disciples who had only been baptized with John’s baptism. They had received an incomplete gospel which included the need for repentance but did not mention the Holy Spirit. Paul, on seeing that their faith was lacking, rebaptized them in “the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:1-7). This sets precedent for rebaptism if the initial baptism was invalid or incomplete.

Historically, baptism was considered a trait practiced only by schismatics, those who had formed a sect apart from the broader church.[38] That is not to say that rebaptism did not occur. It was permitted only if one was previously baptized into a heretical sect. In this case, the baptism was not considered rebaptism but the first and only true baptism.[39] Often, baptism was considered invalid if the confession made at baptism was not made in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is important to note here that believer’s baptism is in view here, since the question posed to those seeking to re-enter the Orthodox church who were coming from a heretical sect were question about their initial confession. Also, one of the primary reasons for why rebaptism was not allowed was that it was the decisive moment when the believer renounced Satan and could therefore not be repeated.[40] Again, this implies that believer’s baptism is in view when the early church was considering rebaptism.

So what should a church do if an adult was baptized as an infant and now wants to join the church? Should the believer be asked to be rebaptized or should the first baptism be accepted? There are pitfalls on both sides of the issue. If the church were to rebaptize the believer they would, in essence, be calling the initial baptism invalid. Even if the church really did believe the initial baptism was invalid would rebaptism unduly damage unity of the universal church that baptism was intended to secure? In other words, rebaptism of a believer who had only been baptized as an infant risks violating the principle that baptism should only be performed once and it risks violating unity in the body of Christ.

On the other hand, if the church does not rebaptize the believer it risks preventing him or her from receiving the benefits of believer’s baptism. Given the theological arguments above, a strong case can indeed be made that the initial infant baptism was not a valid baptism. Indeed, it lacks some of the essential elements of baptism, namely, the participati0on of the believer in the dramatization of conversion, the pledge before God of a clear conscience (1 Peter 3:21), and the confession of Christ before the church in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Rebaptism for a believer who had previously been baptized as an infant is appropriate criteria for membership, especially if the candidate desires to be baptized.

If the candidate wants to join the church but does not wish to be rebaptized the issue of conscience comes into play. Now, baptism might not only risk disrupting unity, it also might risk disrupting the believer’s conscience. Even so, since the believer’s baptism is such an integral part of discipleship it would still be appropriate for the church to require baptism. However, there is an interesting third option. In the early church if someone were coming from another sect to join the true church they would first be asked about their baptism. If they were baptized in an orthodox manner, that is in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and they confessed the creeds they would not be baptized. Instead, the elders would lay their hands on them and not perform a second baptism.[41] Perhaps a church could perform a ceremony or initiatory rite whereby the believer made a public confession of Christ before the church, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a way of owning the initial baptism. The benefit of this is that the believer still makes a confession of Christ without their conscience being violated. The power of the symbol of water baptism by immersion, however, is lost.

Baptism may also be appropriate if someone believes that he or she was not really a Christian at the time of the first baptism. Here, pastoral counsel is necessary. If a person approaches the church and declares that they want to be rebaptized the church should ask the person about their initial baptism. If the person responds that they simply did not know what they were doing, that is, understand the full consequences of their actions, but they were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the church should counsel them to continue in the faith and not be rebaptized. The argument here is that baptism can become nothing more than a means of rededication. A Christian journey has many ups and downs but only one beginning and that beginning is marked off by baptism.

However, if having counseled the candidate the church learned that the believer knowingly lied in order to be initially baptized, knows that the confession was false, and knows that at the time they were actively living in rebellion against God, then rebaptism would be appropriate. The initial baptism was invalid, not because of the words which were spoken, but because of the intent of the heart of the individual which was turned against God.


While baptism presents challenges for pastoral ministry it is an invaluable element of what it means to be a follow Jesus. It is a gift which God has given to believers in order to impress upon their minds the nature and certainty of their conversion. In repentance and faith the believer dies to their old self and is raised to life by the power of the resurrection. They are washed, cleansed from their sins. In baptism, the believer acts out this internal reality.


It is has been nearly five years since I wrote this paper and I have had the privilege of serving in pastoral ministry over those years. As a church that requires believer’s baptism for membership we have struggled through some of the challenges stated above. However, in cases where believers have decided to follow God in baptism, either as an initial baptism or as a rebaptism, the event has proved meaningful for both the participant and the church.

We now face a new challenge. Our church has an After School program that reaches a lot of unchurched teenagers in our neighborhood. By the grace of God, several of these middle and high school students have come to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Some do so despite the fact that their families are either ambivalent, or even hostile, to the gospel. One student, a fourteen year old, decided to follow Christ and is interested in being baptized. However, her mother, with whom she lives, is strongly opposed to her being baptized. The question we face is this: Do we baptize this young believer based on her wishes or do we refuse baptism because of the opposition from her mother?

If we baptize, we risk enabling the student in breaking the commandment, “honor your father and your mother.” If we refuse baptism, we risk discouraging the student in her faith. If baptism were required for salvation, the answer would be simple: Get baptized! However, it is not. Also, while it may be ideal for baptism to immediately follow conversion, it does not necessarily need to be. Counseling the girl to wait to be baptized demonstrates to her the importance of obeying her parents, even when we disagree, and gives her opportunity to grow in her faith and knowledge so that when she is baptized, either with the consent of her parents or because that consent is no longer necessary because of her age or station in life, the baptism will have more significance in her life.

[1] James D.G. Dunn, Word Biblical Commentary: Romans 1 – 8. (Dallas: Word, 1988), 311.

[2] Thomas J. Nettles, “Baptist View,” Baptism: Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 32.

[3] Stephen J. England, The One Baptism (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1960), 89.

[4] Jack Cottrell, Baptism: A Biblical Study (Joplin, MO.: College Press, 2002), 18).

[5] Cottrell, 18-20.

[6] England, 85-88.

[7] Oscar S. Brooks, The Drama of Decision: Baptism in the New Testament (Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson, 1987), 67.

[8] Brad Harper and Paul Louis Metzger, Exploring Ecclesiology: An Evangelical and Ecumenical Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: Brazos, 2009), 140.

[9] Brooks, 52.

[10] Brooks, 59-60.

[11] Brooks, 139.

[12] Brooks, 141.

[13] John Piper, Brothers, We are not Professionals (Nashville: Broadman & Holdman, 2002), 131-132.

[14] England, 80. England later goes on to argue that baptism is the “normal” occasion for receiving the Spirit.

[15] Nettles, 33-34.

[16] Robert A. Guelich, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1 – 8:26 (Word: Dallas, 1989), 25.

[17] Nettles, 30.

[18] England, 90-95.

[19] Lars Hartman, “Baptism”, Anchor Bible Dictionary Volume 1, Edited by David Noel Freedman (Doubleday: New York, 1992), 587.

[20] Harper and Metzger, 141.

[21] Nettles, 30.

[22] Hartman, 585.

[23] I first encountered this symbol from Pastor John Dubois of Wyoming Park Bible Fellowship, Grand Rapids, MI.

[24] Space does not allow a full explanation here, though McQuilkin has provided a nice encapsulation of the idea: “Ordinarily … emotional response and understanding – will follow the choice to obey.” J. Robertson McQuilkin, “The Keswick Perspective,” Five Views on Sanctification. Edited by Stanley L. Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 170.

[25] Nettles, 29.

[26] Piper, 130.

[27] Richard L. Pratt, “Reformed View,” Baptism: Understanding Four Views on Baptism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 71.

[28] Nettles, 27.

[29] Piper, 134.

[30] J. Stevenson, A New Eusebius: Documents illustrating the history of the Church AD 337. Revised by W. H. C. Frend (London: SPCK, 1987), 10.

[31] BDAG – Third Edition, “baptizo”

[32] Nettles, 26.

[33] England, 77.

[34] Nettles, 26.

[35]England, 84.

[36] Pratt, 43.

[37] Stevenson, 9-10.

[38] Stuart G. Hall, Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church (London: SPCK, 2005), 81.

[39] Hall, 92.

[40] Hall, 93.

[41] Hall, 117.

Baptisms, Business Meetings, and Busted Knees

“You’re just not that well put together,” the doctor said as he examined my ankle. That was five years ago, a few days after I sprained my ankle. I had been playing volleyball on the grass, came down from an epic spike (that’s how I remember it anyway) and landed on some soft ground. My ankle swelled up, which earned me a trip to the E.R. and got me some new crutches. A few days later, in Petoskey, I went to a specialist who described my joints as “loose” and “sloshy” and expressed surprise that I wasn’t injured more often. Apparently, I’m just not put together well.

I’ve been injury free since… until last Thursday. I was playing Capture the Flag with a bunch of teenagers from my church, planted my foot hard as I attempted a spectacular Madden-worthy juke, at which point my knee just buckled out from under me. For a couple days I couldn’t put weight on it but, now, thankfully, I am on the road to recovery. No permanent damage, I hope.

This past Sunday was quite exciting at our church. During the worship service we had three baptisms, all adult women who wanted to express their faith in a public way before the church. After the worship service, when we normally have a time for discussion, we had our congregation wide business meeting. As per our tradition, every head of every ministry gave a report on his or her ministry. We’re not a big church but we have a lot of involvement from a lot of people so the annual business meeting is always looong, but in the best possible way. Everything we heard was pure gold.

Before the business meeting Pastor John read the following passage from Ephesians 4:

“11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

14 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

On Thursday and Friday I wasn’t able to put any weight on my knee because my supporting ligaments weren’t working. I am prone to injury because my joints are sloshy – because I’m just not that well put together.

But what I saw in our church on Sunday was strength and unity. As each person does his or her work the whole body becomes effective, strong, and mature. On occasions where there has been injury (and we are not immune from injury) it hurts the whole body. But, when we work together with unity of purpose and diversity of function, when we are united by those things we need to be united by (“one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father”) the whole body rejoices. And, even at 12:30, when we are all late for our lunches and our kids were cranky, we were still rejoicing at the goodness and wisdom of God.