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.