It has always confused me why so many followers of Jesus differ so much in their views on baptism. Some biblical teachings people disagree about make sense to me because some things in the Bible are less readily apparent than others. I have never found teaching on baptism in the Bible to be particularly vague, especially regarding the role it plays in an individual’s salvation.
- After he rose from the dead, Jesus told his apostles in Matthew 28 to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them”. Baptism is part of becoming a disciple.
- In Acts 2 we read about what Peter calls the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”. It is in this context, after he convicts them of their guilt in crucifying the Messiah and they ask what they should do, that he tells them to be baptized “for the forgiveness of your sins”. Through baptism, we receive forgiveness of sins.
- Peter later explains in 1 Peter 3 that baptism is the means by which we make “an appeal to God for a good conscience”. He says it is in this way that “baptism now saves you”. Baptism saves us.
- In Acts 22, Paul recalls his response to the gospel. Ananias told him to “be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” Baptism is how a person calls on the name of the Lord for salvation.
- Paul teaches in Colossians 2 that baptism is like circumcision in that it is “the removal of the body of the flesh”, which is symbolically representative of our sin. He then says that it is baptism “in which you were also raised up with Him through faith”. Baptism does not minimize the importance of faith, rather we are saved through faith when we are baptized.
There are some honest objections to this interpretation of what the Bible says about baptism, and baptism doesn’t always have to divide us when we disagree, at least not completely. I have spoken at length to certain individuals who did not believe baptism was a necessary part of a person’s initial salvation, but who I am persuaded did in fact obtain salvation at their baptism. They believed you ought to be baptized in obedient submission to God after you are saved, that you become saved the moment you believe, then must demonstrate this with baptism. While we disagree about the exact moment an individual is saved, they believe faith and baptism are essential, and so they were baptized.
This led me to consider whether immersion as a submissive faith-driven response would result in forgiveness of sins even if someone did not realize it. How perfect of an understanding must you have when you are baptized? Do Paul’s words in Acts 2 indicate that a person has to be immersed with the intent that in doing so they will receive the forgiveness of sins, or do they simply indicate that the forgiveness of sins is the result? We go too far when we say a person’s baptism won’t count simply because they did not have a perfect understanding.
If it were me, and I was baptized without understanding it was for the forgiveness of sins, I would probably do it again just to make sure. In being baptized again, I would call on the name of the Lord and make an appeal for a clean conscience, the forgiveness of my sins, if that wasn’t the mind-space I had when I was baptized previously. There’s nothing wrong with making sure. 2 Peter 1:10-11 says, “…give diligence to make your calling and election sure”, and while that is in the context of developing faith into a life of love, I think the principle of striving to be “sure” still applies in this context as well.
I was actually baptized when I was nine years old. I had always been taught it was integral to salvation, and that it was for the forgiveness of sins. The person who baptized me had me write down the reasons I was doing so. The first thing on the list was that I thought it would help me treat my younger brother better. (We fought a lot growing up!) A few years later, at 12 or 13 I think, I questioned my motives. It troubled me greatly for a while until one day, in tears, I brought it up to the man who baptized me. His solution was simple. Let’s just drive down to the Little Maumelle River and make sure we get it right. He baptized me again. I don’t know when my sins were forgiven. I suspect it happened when I was baptized at nine, but I’m still glad I made sure.
Regarding this idea of rebaptism, Alexander Campbell wrote, “I know some will say the candidates which they immersed a second time did not rightly understand baptism the first time. Well, I am persuaded they did not understand it the second time; and shall they be baptized a third time!” Campbell himself did not understand the connection between baptism and the forgiveness of sins when he was baptized, and it would seem he decided that in his case, no rebaptism was necessary. [source]
God isn’t looking for a reason to condemn us. He graciously seeks our salvation, and has sacrificed more than we even understand to accomplish it. He does expect us to seek him as well, and to live in obedient faith before him. Baptism is essential. We can be sure of that. I believe each individual must decide for themselves whether to be rebaptized. It is not up to anyone else to judge the legitimacy of your salvation. In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul said to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
I think most of the division on this topic comes not from a lack of biblical clarity on baptism, but from the way that the diverse conclusions people draw concerning salvation, whether from tradition or from the Bible itself, bias the conclusions that they are even willing to entertain regarding baptism. It is right to approach passages on baptism within the context of what the Bible teaches elsewhere. On this particular topic, I believe the straightforward statements regarding baptism warrant straightforward interpretation. As the rest of the Bible contextualizes verses concerning baptism, what is said about baptism ought to contextualize our understanding of what the Bible teaches about salvation. At the same time, our different views here, while very important to discuss, may not always prevent us from being united with one another in our common salvation.
EDIT 12/11/2017: I previously said, “I have spoken at length to certain individuals who did not believe baptism was a necessary part of a person’s initial salvation, but who I am convinced did in fact obtain salvation at their baptism.” I think the word “persuaded” more appropriately state my view here than “convinced” does. This may have been obvious in that I also later say, “If it were me, and I was baptized without understanding it was for the forgiveness of sins, I would probably do it again just to make sure.”