I buried my ninety-seven-year-old grandmother this week. I didn’t get to say goodbye while she was still living. As she lay in her casket, the struggle finally out of her body, I placed my hand on hers and told her, one last time, I loved her. Her last words to me, to her family, to friends, were read in her testimony and favorite poem at her funeral service. The gist of her message was simple yet profound, and it characterized her life: love Jesus, love others, and teach them to do the same.
Last words hold weight. The power of a loved one’s goodbye causes us to clutch and preserve their words. Jesus knew this when he saved his most important instruction as his farewell message to his followers before he departed for heaven. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me,” he said. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18-19, emphasis mine).
So what importance streams under these words? If you’re already a Christian, you presumably understand about loving Jesus. But even if you aren’t, you understand love isn’t enough if it doesn’t compel you to do something for another: to devote yourself, to pledge loyalty, to make a promise, a vow, commit. And you probably also know commitment doesn’t mean much if you never make it known. In John 14:15, Jesus told his followers, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” And in his final words, one way Jesus teaches—actually commands—his followers to highlight their love and devotion to him, is through baptism. Whether you’re new to faith, a faith veteran, or standing on the fringe of contemplation, this topic raises numerous questions. What does it mean? Is baptism necessary to my salvation? and Why should I do it?
What Is Baptism?
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.—Romans 6:3
The word baptism means “to immerse,” or “to dip in water.” And this is literally what transpires: a person is dipped under a pool or body of water and raised to the surface. Seem simple? It is. But its symbolism drips with meaning and color and life. ClarifyingChristianity.com paints a vivid picture: “. . . ‘baptize’ is a transliteration of the original Greek word (baptizo) . . . [which] comes from the root word (bapto), a term used in the first century for immersing a garment first into bleach and then into dye, both cleansing and changing the color of the cloth.”
Like the washing and dying of the cloth, baptism depicts a person’s sin-cleansing, life-coloring choice to turn away from sin and turn to Jesus. Although the cloth is fundamentally the same, it is now also fundamentally changed. A closer look at the picture reveals even more: water immersion is a symbol of Jesus’s death and burial for our sins. As one breaks through the water’s surface, he reveals the final stroke of God’s masterwork: the reality of a God so powerful even death cannot defeat him. Eugene Peterson describes this picture in The Message translation of Romans 6:3b-6,
When we went under the water, we left the old country of sin behind; when we came up out of the water, we entered into the new country of grace—a new life in a new land! When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus; when we are raised up out of the water, it is like the resurrection of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the Cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call!
If I Don’t Get Baptized, Does that Mean I’m Not Saved?
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.—Ephesians 2:8
The short answer is, “No.” Baptism cannot and does not make you a Christian. Only Jesus can do that. Kondo Simfuke, pastor of Mission Point Community Church in Warsaw, Indiana, parallels the symbolism of baptism to a wedding certificate or a diploma. He illustrates that both are symbols of what you’ve already accomplished. Just as a wedding certificate doesn’t make you married and a diploma doesn’t make you educated, baptism does not make you forgiven of your sin and rescued from death. Your forgiveness and salvation were made possible when Jesus died on the cross.
However, the long answer is a little more complicated. First century Christians might have had a hard time imagining a person being “Christian” apart from baptism, as it was intricately entwined in the conversion process. Jesus said to “make disciples and baptize them,” which followers took literally as a packaged instruction. To risk equating it in simple, modern terms, it might be like turning on a lamp without a light bulb: it doesn’t make much sense. Additionally, a majority of Christians may view baptism as more than symbolic. Many hold it as a literal initiation into the body of Christ; a spiritual soul-dye. We’ll uncover more of the “long answer” in the following sections.
If I Don’t Need to Get Baptized to be Saved, Why Should I Do It?
Some of us are Jews, and others are Gentiles. Some of us are slaves, and others are free. But God’s Spirit baptized each of us and made us part of the body of Christ. —1 Corinthians 12:13a, CEV
I met Jesus on my backyard swing set when I was three, but I wrestled through 23 years of questions before I was baptized. I knew I was forgiven and free, and I knew my salvation wasn’t dependent on baptism. I used this and my aversion to public attention to rationalize away the need for ceremony. But it was as if I had fallen in love with a man I promised to spend the rest of my life with, and never arranged the public marriage ceremony. I never invited witnesses to stand beside me and promise to hold me accountable in my relationship. I’d never welcomed anyone to my after-party celebration. I was in a serious relationship with Jesus, but I’d never actually committed to take on his name, which identified me as a part of his family.
Following Jesus can be tough. Profile the lives of the men and women in the Bible and discover their common bond: trouble, pain, questions. You’ll also discover the common thread of a God who is always present and always makes good on his promises. Part of the support he provides is through our Christian communities. We need people to buoy us through turbulent waters by praying for us, reminding us of what God has done in our past, and pointing us toward grace and truth. Likewise, what good is joy and progress if it isn’t shared? We need people to help us throw a really good party, and according to Luke 15:10, baptism is a reason for even the angels to party: “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Most importantly, we should be baptized because God commands it.
Can I be Baptized More than Once?
Baptism is traditionally a one-time event. Discussion surrounding second baptisms is highly debated, as one’s position on the matter can have serious theological implications. Some denominations outwardly reject second baptisms because they may question the validity of the first baptism. For instance, if one was baptized into the Baptist church and later in the Catholic Church, the rebaptism may suggest that the first wasn’t legitimate. Others take issue with infant baptism versus adult baptism, claiming an infant’s inability to make a conscious choice to follow and obey God delegitimizes the rite. And these are just a few of the disputes. Regardless, there are still many reasons—from rededication to symbolism to meaning-seeking—that people choose to double dip.
Some denominations practice infant baptism, or “christening.” This is a much-debated topic in the Christian community, because the Bible doesn’t specifically chronicle a case of infant baptism, nor does it explicitly ban its practice. If you were baptized as an infant, how you interpret what the Bible details about baptism might determine whether you feel re-baptism is appropriate.
Erica was baptized as an infant. Now in her twenties, she says she doesn’t feel the need to be re-baptized. “Infant baptism is symbolic of the fact that we are completely helpless, and yet still receive grace.” Ruth feels similarly, “Once baptized, always baptized,” she says. “Just because I do not remember it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I was sealed as God’s own. I can always claim my baptism and rededicate my life to God without another baptism.”
Melanie flips Ruth’s scenario, describing her own infant baptism as more of a “baby dedication” and her high school baptism as “a physical symbol of my affirmation of faith; a symbol that my sins were buried with Christ and I was raised to walk in newness of life.”
Many great men and women of faith stand on both sides of this debate and are still used effectively by God.
Symbolism and Rededication
Many people choose re-baptism when they more fully comprehend the symbolism behind baptism and/or when they become more intentional about their commitment to God.
Patrick was baptized as an infant, but chose re-baptism later in life as his faith matured and he felt the dramatic impact of a God-surrendered heart. “When I really gave myself to following Christ (as a young man),” says Patrick, “I decided to be baptized anew.”
Jeff, baptized at age 3, chose re-baptism this summer, years after what he considers his official conversion at age 20. “This was the first time I was submerged. The first time I understood the symbolism behind the act. The first time I understood what being a follower of Christ meant. And the first time it was in front of a church family who cheered me on when I came up [out of the water]. . . . The first two times, in my mind, might as well have never happened.”
Anna was baptized when she was 8-years-old. Now 27, she says she would consider another baptism to reaffirm her covenant with God, “I think it’s a neat symbol to share with brothers and sisters.”
Amber was also baptized at a young age and didn’t feel the need to have a new ceremony, but later changed her mind. “I. . . swore I would never get baptized again,” she said at her recent adult baptism service. In her painful, but beautiful testimony of abuse and abandon, she told the congregation, “I’m in love with Jesus and I want to serve him and share him with others.”
Others, like Sharon, might seek a more meaningful experience. Sharon was baptized as a teenager, but she says, “I had always wanted to be baptized in the open water as Jesus did. I was baptized a second time, in the open water, at a revival.”
In our desire for symbolism and meaning, it’s important to not romanticize our expectations of what our experience should feel like. While there is nothing magical about being baptized, many believe God’s grace is, in a sense, bodily passed on to us through the act. Some people report feeling “new” and “clean” or even “tingly and excited” after the act, while others say they felt “normal.” After my baptism, I felt like the same old me, only soggier, colder, and humbled. However, I had peace knowing I had taken a huge step of obedience toward God.
Sharon claims her experience as a rededication and adds a very important point about our motivation behind baptism, “God knows our hearts,” she says. If you’re considering re-baptism, reflect on why you were baptized in the first place. Was it out of your obedience and a desire to please God, or did someone—your parents, your friends, your church—pressure you into it? Obedience should be driven by love, not obligation. And remember, as much as baptism seems like it is about you, ultimately it’s about what God did for you. Focusing on this phenomenon can turn what feels like a public dunk tank into something very powerful and meaningful. Pure motivations honor God more than our methods.
I’m a New Christian, When Should I Get Baptized?
Philip told him the Good News about Jesus. As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. —Acts 8:35b-38, NLT
Jesus’s teachings marry salvation with baptism. A quick flip through the book of Acts, which is an account of the first Christians and the rapid expansion of the church, displays numerous accounts of salvation followed immediately by baptism. One of the most striking illustrations is of the Ethiopian eunuch:
After Jesus rose to heaven, he sent his spirit to help his followers carry out his final instructions (Acts 2:1-4). The spirit guided them—sometimes giving specific instructions—as they told others about Jesus. In Acts 8, the spirit instructs Philip, one of Jesus’s 12 disciples to “Go south, down the desert road that runs from Jerusalem to Gaza” (26). There he meets a powerful eunuch, the treasurer of Ethiopia, who is returning from a trip to Jerusalem.
As the eunuch travels in his carriage, Philip hears him read aloud a prophecy from the book of Isaiah, which describes the death of Jesus. Philip asks the eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (30). The eunuch asks, “Was Isaiah talking about himself or someone else?” (34b). Philip explains the passage to him and shares God’s message of forgiveness and redemption. As they continue down the road, the eunuch spots some water and asks, “Why can’t I be baptized?” and they go down to the water where Philip baptizes him on the spot (26-38).
The eunuch never saw Philip after that because he was whisked away by the Holy Spirit to share God’s message in other places. But I imagine Philip’s lasts words to him echoed Jesus’s and my grandmother’s: Love God, love others, and teach them to do the same.