I got baptized in my Seventh-day Adventist school gymnasium at the tender age of 13. I was overwhelmed by emotion as I made public my decision to follow Jesus in front of my family and friends. I felt forgiven of my sins, right with God, and filled with joy and determination to put my best foot forward as a newly baptized Christian.
But then I failed spectacularly.
Three hours after my Saturday morning baptism, I spotted some friends. After chatting for a few moments, someone had the bright idea of kicking around a soccer ball. One thing led to another, and before we knew it we were having a match. But the fun and games came to a screeching halt when we were castigated by a staff member for breaking a school rule that prohibited playing sports on Saturday.
I couldn’t believe I had plummeted from the spiritual victory of baptism to my first undeniable mistake in less than a day! Wasn’t I supposed to have left this kind of thing behind? Didn’t baptism represent a new, victorious life in Christ? Why was I already sinning? In my own teen way, I had stumbled upon a question many Christians struggle with when it comes to baptism: Do baptized Christians stop sinning?
Is sin a thing of the past?
At first glance, some Bible texts suggest that baptism is supposed to result in a sin-free life. Take Paul’s teaching about baptism in Romans 6:1–14. In verses 1 and 2, he asks, “Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Paul is crystal clear that Christians aren’t supposed to live in sin. If we symbolically die to sin through baptism, then our sinning life should quite literally be a thing of the past—shouldn’t it?
In verses 3 and 4, Paul says, “Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus 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.” In this text Paul doesn’t recommend that we cut down on sinning. He doesn’t say that we should avoid sinning whenever possible. He’s bluntly saying that becoming a Christian means that your life of sin is over. He drives this point home even further in verse 7: “Anyone who has died has been set free from sin.”
He uses equally powerful language in verses 11 and 12: “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore, do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” Sounds pretty clear, doesn’t it? If we are dead to sin, that means it should not be able to affect us. The road to sainthood should be nothing but smooth sailing. Right?
A sad reality
Yet any mature Christian can tell you that expectations of a sinless existence don’t translate very well into real life. I’ve met many loving Christians, many generous Christians, and many wise Christians—but I’ve never met a perfect Christian. The sad reality is that Christians fail—repeatedly—after baptism. First Peter 5:8 warns believers to “be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
New Christians who have taken the bold step of baptism are especially exposed to the snares of Satan. The devil preys on vulnerability, and the post-baptism period can be an especially tender time for those who’ve been born again. Newly baptized Christians may feel spiritually revived and refreshed, but this elation can impart a false sense of security. Character flaws that were thought to be “washed away” can flare up discouragingly. Witnessing bad behavior within the church can be disheartening. Church members who were supportive on the path to baptism may withdraw, mistakenly thinking that newly baptized Christians can now be left to fend for themselves.
All these things can contribute to cracks in the new Christian’s embryonic faith. Indeed, instead of feeling liberated from sin, many new Christians feel besieged by temptation. They may feel like they’re sinning even more than they did before they were baptized! This upsetting reality can cause newly baptized Christians to question the legitimacy of their conversion and baptism. Scary questions can surface, such as, “Am I truly converted?” “Was I right to get baptized?” “Was my baptism the real deal?” “Am I the only one feeling this way?”
a marriage comparison
In a way, getting baptized is a lot like getting married. Just as an engaged couple looks forward to their wedding day with great anticipation, deciding to get baptized is exciting. It’s a huge milestone, a mountaintop experience. Just as soon-to-be-married couples have high expectations for married life, many believers looking forward to baptism dream about what making this public profession of faith will feel like, and they yearn for an ever more fulfilling spiritual walk after baptism.
Like weddings, baptisms are a beautiful celebration of a somber commitment. But the honeymoon period can be painfully short as much for the newly baptized Christian as for the newlyweds. After the big occasion comes and goes, the day-to-day struggle of real life begins. And it’s often harder than expected. Unforeseen challenges arise. Personal tics and weaknesses get in the way of progress. It can sometimes feel as though you are taking one step forward and two steps back.
At times like these it’s helpful to remember that you aren’t alone. Just as couples that have been happily married for decades will readily admit that marriage can be very difficult at times, mature Christians know that they will stumble and fall in their Christian walk. They know that these stumbles will hurt.
It can be comforting to remember that Paul himself was very troubled about his repeated failure to live the holy life in Jesus that he wanted to live. In 2 Corinthians 12:7–9, Paul reveals that not once, not twice, but three times he pleaded with God to remove “a thorn in [his] flesh, a messenger of Satan.” And this from a man who was arguably the greatest evangelist of all time, a man converted by Jesus Christ Himself! But perhaps even more noteworthy is that Paul suffered with this “thorn” all his life, because there’s no indication that God ever removed it.
Paul’s frustration with his human frailty is obvious in Romans 7:14–25. His experience makes clear that even the best of Christians still sometimes sin after they’ve been baptized. In Romans 7:15, Paul agonizes, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” You can virtually see Paul banging his head against the wall in verse 24: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” Happily, there’s hope. The light at the end of the tunnel comes in the very next verse: “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Paul’s words should encourage us. He was honest about his ups and downs as a Christian. He didn’t gloss over the failures that he experienced along the way. In 1 Timothy 1:15 he even called himself the worst of sinners! Paul was the real deal. From his words we can see that despite the sad reality that we as Christians do sin after baptism, there’s hope. Although sin can never be taken lightly, deliverance is always available through Jesus when we fail.
The first step of the journey
Baptism is the start of a journey of faith, not its conclusion. Paul’s experience makes clear that even the best of Christians will fail. However, our new identity in Christ means that we’re forgiven as we confess our sin and walk with Christ (1 John 1:7–9). God gives us faith, which helps us to resist temptation. Through the lifelong process of sanctification, He helps us mature as Christians as we continue the journey that starts with baptism.
Just as a husband and wife remain committed to one another and their marriage vows come what may, we are invited to claim victory over sin on a daily basis as we recommit to God. The Christian life is lived one day at a time. Be reminded, as Romans 6:14 says, that sin is no longer our master after we accept Christ in baptism. We can accept God’s grace for each day. Sin can be overcome, its strangleholds broken. We do have a new life in Christ; we can be more than conquerors.
There are going to be moments when we feel like tearing our hair out as, frustrated like Paul, we call out, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24). When that happens, our Redeemer invites us also to join Paul in saying, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verse 25; emphasis added).