Both of my kids were baptized last year. Needless to say, I was thrilled. There is nothing like the feeling that grips your heart when you see your children’s heads go under the water in a baptismal tank—unless it’s seeing them come back up again.
Yet even though it was their choice, neither of them was particularly thrilled about getting baptized. They were shy teens, and baptism was a public spectacle for which they didn’t really see the need. After all, they were Christians. They had grown up in the church. Why did they have to go through this very public sign of a very private decision?
Teens are not the only ones to question the necessity of baptism; it takes plenty of people out of their comfort zones. There are few times in life when we are the center of attention, and baptism happens to be one of them. But just as in the other episodes—birth, marriage, and death—we are taking an important step that will change the rest of our lives, and in this case, our eternal lives as well.
Still, people often wonder whether baptism is really necessary in this day and age. Surely there’s an updated version that doesn’t involve candidates standing in front of a bunch of people dripping wet with their hair plastered to their head and wearing clinging gowns! The answer is No, there is no updated version.
Why get baptized?
All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus’ cousin John whose primary claim to fame was that he baptized lots of people. That’s what earned him the title “John the Baptist.” However, John’s message was about much more than baptism. He called people to repentance, and that repentance was demonstrated by baptism. The Bible says that “people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River” (Matthew 3:5, 6). Thus, the desire for baptism is prompted by repentance, which leads to the confession of sins. If baptism hadn’t been necessary, John could have just preached and then asked for a show of hands. Something about going under water made a difference, and the difference was in what immersion signifies: a public declaration of one’s commitment to follow God’s way of life from that point forward.
Making a public commitment is very different from making a private one, rather like the difference between a couple getting married or just living together. If there were no difference, why would anyone bother with the trouble and expense? Marriage helps to ensure that the participants will take their vows seriously and think very carefully before considering dissolution of their union. Marriage makes the relationship “legal” and declares before the world that these two people are now committed to a lifelong partnership. In a similar way, baptism declares to the world our relationship with Jesus and makes it official.
But baptism is about more than simply making sure we’re serious about Christianity. It’s a symbolic union with Christ, through which we unite ourselves with Christ’s death and resurrection. When we are immersed in the water, we are figuratively joining Christ in the grave—death. When we are raised out of the water, we figuratively join Him in resurrection—life. We walk away from that experience and into a new life with God and fellowship with a body of believers known as “the church.”
The apostle Paul said, “Or 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. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection” (Romans 6:3–5).
Baptism usually coincides with church membership, which is also important. Believers operate best in a “family,” supporting and encouraging each other. Every individual contributes his or her unique gifts and talents, thus creating what Paul called the “body of Christ.” Writing to the Christians in Corinth, he said, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27).
This is why the early Christians were so eager to be baptized. They had heard the good news about salvation, and immediately they wanted to cement their faith in Christ through baptism and become a part of this vibrant community of like-minded people. At Pentecost, 3,000 new believers were baptized!
Which kind of baptism?
Some Christian denominations practice baptism by sprinkling or pouring. However, the only kind of baptism mentioned in the New Testament is immersion. In fact, the Greek word for baptism is baptizo, which means to immerse or submerge. And the New Testament stories make it clear that this is how people were baptized. When Philip met the Ethiopian man riding in a chariot on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza, he told him the good news about Jesus. In response, the Ethiopian said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop, and the Bible says that “then both Philip and the [Ethiopian] went down into the water and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away” (Acts 8:38, 39).
Considering the fact that they were traveling on a desert road, it’s probably safe to assume that both men had water with them for drinking. If sprinkling or pouring had been an acceptable mode of baptism, there would have been no need for them to get out of the chariot at all. But the Bible clearly says that they went down into the water and came up out of the water.
Infants are often baptized by sprinkling because it’s difficult to immerse them. However, infants are much too young to repent of their sins and confess them, which makes them poor baptismal candidates. Not surprisingly, there isn’t a single mention in the Bible of an infant being baptized. Infants can be dedicated to God by their parents, but they should not be baptized until they are old enough to understand the significance of the step they are taking.
Do you have to be baptized to be saved?
While Jesus instructed the apostles to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19); and while He Himself was baptized by John as an example for us, baptism is not a condition of salvation. Belief in God is the only condition for salvation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
For some people, baptism is physically not possible. The most notable example is the thief on the cross (Luke 23:39–43), who could not have been saved if baptism had been a requirement because he would have had no way to climb down off his cross and find someone to baptize him before he died. Yet Jesus assured him that he was saved and that he would spend eternity in “paradise” with Him (Luke 23:43).
Jesus commissioned His disciples to baptize believers (that’s us) and even submitted to baptism Himself at the start of His ministry as an example for us to follow. With such strong direction, as long as we are physically able to be lowered into the water, we would be disobedient to ignore Christ’s call to baptism. A better question than “Do I have to be baptized?” is, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”