I was scared.
Across the shoulders of my suit coat someone had buckled a couple of thick suspenders attached to a chest-high set of black rubber fisherman’s waders. It was mid-January, and I was standing on the shore of the fast-moving Dosewallips River in western Washington. Fifteen or so men and women, not wearing waders, stood on the banks.
“Watch out for the rocks,” a man said. “They can be kind of slippery. But don’t worry—we’ll fish you out if we have to.” Several others chuckled nervously.
I stepped off the bank into the water, which would have been frozen if it hadn’t been moving. I can’t swim, I reminded myself, and it probably wouldn’t do me any good if I could. Bracing my legs against the stiff current, I waded out until the water was hip height.
Teeth chattering, I grinned at a 15-year-old teen I’ll call Max, and nodded. He was dressed only in jeans and a white T-shirt. He immediately waded out to me and faced the group on the shore. I hurriedly said, “Max, I now baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” and tipped him back into the water.
After Max had lunged back to the surface, sputtering from the shock of the ice water, was he a changed young man? Had the ceremony of baptism transformed him?
No and yes.
No, baptism doesn’t change you.
In the next couple of pages I’ll share with you four reasons why I say that baptism does not change you.
1. Baptism is a response to a spiritual transformation that has already happened inside you. I hadn’t suggested baptism to Max. Instead, he had expressed his wishes to me—and he had specifically asked to be baptized in this river.
On the Day of Pentecost, when the apostle Peter’s powerful preaching introduced thousands of people to Jesus, the Messiah (whom some of those very people had crucified barely a month and a half earlier!), his listeners were convicted in their hearts. “What should we do?” they asked.
Peter replied, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).* So repentance happened first, then baptism. Three thousand already-repentant people were baptized during that revival meeting, and the Christian church was born.
Jesus spoke of this heart-change as the “new birth.” “All have sinned,” Paul reminds us, “and fall short of the glory of God.” “For the wages of sin is death,” he continued, “but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 3:23; 6:23).
How can we experience this spiritual transformation? “If we confess our sins,” Jesus’ friend John assures us, “He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
What else needs to happen inside you before you’re baptized?
2. Baptism needs to be the result of a firm decision you’ve made to follow Jesus. As you prepare for your baptism, you aren’t simply saying, “I vow to be a better and more spiritual person.” By being baptized, you’re saying, “I want to follow Jesus wherever He leads me,” and that includes following His leading when He convicts you of a sin in your life. Spiritual growth happens as you allow the Holy Spirit to change you.
YOU AREN’T SIMPLY SAYING, “I VOW TO BE A BETTER AND MORE SPIRITUAL PERSON.” BY BEING BAPTIZED, YOU’RE SAYING, “I WANT TO FOLLOW JESUS WHEREVER HE LEADS ME.”
One day, not long after Jesus had ascended to heaven, Ethiopia’s secretary of the treasury was riding in a chariot from Jerusalem to Gaza. This man was a devout Jew, heading home after attending a major religious festival, and he was reading aloud from the book of Isaiah. The Holy Spirit urged Philip, one of Christianity’s first deacons, to run alongside the chariot and ask him whether he understood what he was reading. “How can I, unless someone guides me?” the treasurer asked, and he invited Philip to ride with him. The treasurer explained that he was puzzled by Isaiah’s comments about Someone who was “led as a sheep to the slaughter,” Someone who “opened not His mouth” as His life was taken from Him.
Philip took the cue and explained who Jesus was, why He had come, and what had happened to Him. Jesus was the final “puzzle piece” the Ethiopian needed to fit into what he already knew, and he accepted Jesus right then and there as his Lord and Savior. And when he spotted a body of water nearby, he asked, “Is there anything that would hinder me from being baptized?” Philip immediately performed his baptism (Acts 8:26–38).
So before you’re baptized you need to get acquainted with Jesus. The best way is simply to start reading about Him in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Take your time and read all the way through at least one of these books before going elsewhere in the Bible. You’ll discover how much Jesus and His Father love you and what they’ve gone through to offer you eternal life.
There’s a third commitment you need to make before baptism:
3. Baptism begins a lifelong journey of learning more about God and becoming more like Jesus. When Jesus told His disciples to baptize people, He insisted that they surround that ceremony with disciple-making and teaching. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,” He said, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19, 20).
Start immersing yourself in the Bible immediately. I suggest you read a paper Bible rather than an electronic version on a smartphone so that you won’t be tempted to keep checking your e-mail or social media. Try to read entire Bible books straight through rather than bounce around among verses from different parts of the Bible. And make sure you worship weekly with a Bible-believing congregation that has Bible study classes as well as preaching.
Here’s one more change that really needs to start before you’re baptized.
4. Baptism begins a long life of serving other people. When I study with people for baptism, I like to tell them that a baptism isn’t a graduation—it’s a wedding! Nobody waits to do their courting until after they say “I do.”
After His cousin John the Baptist baptized Him in the Jordan River, Jesus stepped out of the water and into a life of serving people—but He had been preparing for that moment even as a 12-year-old, when He told His earthly parents He had to be about His Father’s business (Luke 2:49). During His ministry He healed people, taught them, encouraged them, and showed them what God was like. And He called disciples to follow Him and promised them that because of the Holy Spirit that He would send them, they would do even greater works than He had done! (John 14:12).
I’ve spent several paragraphs telling you why baptism isn’t a magic ceremony that changes you from bad to good. Yet there’s at least one way that Max was changed as I lifted him from that icy current. It had to do with his family and friends who were watching.
Yes, baptism changes you!
Your baptism makes a public statement about whom you’re loyal to—and that helps you stay faithful. When I married Shelley in a college church before family and friends, I sent a strong signal to other young women—and Shelley sent the same signal to other young men. This signal said, “I’m taken. I’m off-limits. I’ve found the person I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
Shelley and I said those “I dos” publicly, and that’s powerful, just as a handshake or a signed document has power. It says, “I’ve promised to be true, and I’ll keep my promise.” I’ve found that many people fondly remember the exact date of their baptism and the friends who attended, and this shared witness motivates them to stay true to Jesus.
In fact, Jesus said that even at baptisms with only a few onlookers—like the dozen or so people on the shore of the Dosewallips River—there’s a large, enthusiastic, invisible audience watching when someone’s baptized. As Jesus finished telling the parable of the lost sheep, He said these thrilling words: “I say to you that likewise there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine just persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7).
Have you felt the Holy Spirit inviting you to be baptized? Ask Him to guide you step-by-step toward this important decision. He loves you and wants to unite with you in this wonderful ceremony.
* All Bible texts quoted in this article are taken from New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.