A number of years ago, when I was the pastor of a church in Texas, a woman asked me to baptize her. She was practically bedfast. Any time I visited her I had to wait several minutes after I rang the bell to give her time to hobble to the door. The oxygen tank that she dragged behind her had a plastic tube that connected to the plug in her nose.
I said, “Sister, as sick as you are, God will accept you without your having to go through the rite of baptism.”
She replied, “Pastor, if I die in that baptistry, I will be baptized!”
I agreed to baptize her.
The day came, and the deaconesses helped her up the steps (minus the oxygen tank) and down into the baptistry. I steadied her as she walked to the center of the tank, water nearly up to her shoulders. Then I baptized her “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
What followed was amazing. She told me later that as she came up out of the water, she knew something had happened. She had been healed! She lived another three or four years and never needed oxygen again. Her doctor, a Christian, called it “a miracle.” I believe it truly was. God honored her faith and her commitment to participate in the biblical rite of baptism.
Is baptism essential?
However, this experience raises a significant question. Was it appropriate of me to suggest that in her feeble condition God would accept her without being baptized, or is baptism an absolute requirement for anyone to be saved in God’s kingdom regardless of their circumstances?
The simplest answer to this question is that Jesus promised the thief on the cross a place in His kingdom (see Luke 23:39–43), and the thief obviously had no opportunity to be baptized before he died. One might argue that he had been baptized previously, but that’s guesswork, not evidence.
I’m not aware of any “escape clause” in the Bible for people to forego baptism because of illness or other extenuating circumstances. Mark 16:16 says, “ ‘Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,’ ” and Jesus told Nicodemus that “ ‘no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit’ ” (John 3:5).
However, the real answer to this question goes to the heart of what it means to be baptized. The basic issue is this: is baptism an outward symbol—a witness, to the inner transformation the believer has experienced— or does baptism itself confer that transforming grace?
If we say that baptism itself confers transforming grace, then we are making a human activity—what the Bible calls “works”—a requirement for salvation. But Paul was utterly clear that no one is saved by works. In Ephesians 2:8, 9, he said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” We receive God’s saving grace through faith, not by anything we do.
On the other hand, in Romans 6:3, 4, Paul spoke of baptism in a symbolic sense. He said, “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.” A person who is baptized is obviously alive through the whole process. He doesn’t literally die, get buried, and then come back to life. Through baptism, he or she participates symbolically with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.
Thus, baptism is an outward testimony to the inner transformation of our minds and hearts that we receive when we are born again. It’s our confession to the world that we have accepted Jesus as our Savior and that He is now the Lord of our life. It’s our public declaration that we have made a commitment to serve Jesus and obey Him to the best of our ability the rest of our lives.
This is why, throughout history, baptism has been performed publicly, usually in church, but sometimes in a natural setting such as the ocean or a river. Some people have been baptized in swimming pools and even in watering tanks for cattle! And there are nearly always other Christians present to witness the occasion.
Baptism and the church
We humans have numerous ceremonies by which we celebrate important events in our lives: graduations, marriages, baby showers, birthday parties, fiftieth wedding anniversary celebrations, and even funerals at the end of life.
Some of these public events are also a form of transition to a new status in life. This is especially true of graduations and weddings. The graduate receives a diploma that opens up many job opportunities, and the newlyweds receive a marriage license that gives them certain legal rights and binds them to certain legal obligations.
Baptism is also a public event by which we celebrate what Christ has done for us and in us. It’s also a transition to a new way of life. Paul said it best: we are “buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that . . . we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4).
And there’s more. So far as I know, all denominations that practice baptism also make the ceremony the initiation into church membership, and there’s a good biblical reason for that. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul compared the church to the human body with its various members: eyes, nose, and mouth, hands and feet, etc. Each member has certain spiritual gifts, often based on the person’s natural talents, by which he or she is able to serve others. That’s why Paul sometimes spoke of the church as “the body of Christ” (see 1 Corinthians 12:27; Colossians 1:24).
What does this have to do with baptism? In 1 Corinthians 12:13, Paul said that “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body.” The body we are baptized into is “the body of Christ,” the church. So baptism is a ceremony by which we are united with other Christian believers in church fellowship.
Back when I was a pastor, every now and then, someone would say to me, “I want to be baptized, but I don’t want to join the church.” This would be something like saying, “I want a wedding ceremony with the love of my life, but I don’t want to be married,” or, “I want to march down the aisle with my classmates, but I don’t want a diploma.”
The purpose of the church is to provide the people of God with a group of Christian friends who can help them to mature spiritually and emotionally so that they become increasingly happy and useful human beings. Baptism without church fellowship would be like giving birth to a child but refusing to provide him or her with a family in which to grow up.
So is baptism essential?
It is a biblical command, and like all biblical commands, Christians should obey it. While none of us is saved by our works, a deliberate refusal to obey God’s moral principles is called rebellion, and that will cost us our eternal life. In the same way, baptism does not save us, and thus a person whose circumstances do not permit him to be baptized is not thereby forfeiting his eternal life. However, a deliberate refusal to be baptized when there is no impediment to doing so can result in a loss of eternal life.
After all, Jesus died a very public, humiliating death for us. Surely we can make a public testimony of our acceptance of His sacrifice on our behalf!