Is Baptism Necessary?

To many people, baptism seems like a strange church rite and nothing more. Many people who are somewhat nominal in their church participation skip the baptism of their children. This has surprised two of my church members, who had assumed that they were baptized.

Church bodies don’t agree on what baptism is, and that adds to the confusion. Some regard baptism as a somewhat strange public declaration of faith in Jesus. For this group, faith is what you think about Jesus. Another variation, which concerns me a lot, is to think of baptism as an “ordinance”. It is a law. You must hop through this otherwise pointless hoop and do it correctly to be saved. This sound too much like the situation in the book of Galatians for me. In Galatia, the hoop was circumcision. They believed that you were saved by Jesus and circumcision. Paul lets them know that this careless distortion of the Gospel renders it useless and damns them:

Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

Galatians 5:2-4 (ESV)

How horrible would it be to have baptism, the thing that is supposed to connect you to Jesus, be the thing that keeps you away?

Baptism performs a function. While neither the water, the person, nor the baptizer (i.e. the pastor) really do much. Jesus does something in baptism. Romans 6 says that we are baptized into Jesus’ death. Colossians 2 says that Jesus “circumcises” us by “putting off the body of (our) flesh”. Somehow we become connected to Jesus. Somehow we become a literal part of the body of Christ. That is how we are saved by Jesus’ obedience and death–we are a part of Him. Baptism does this. Actually, Jesus does this through baptism.

Isn’t beginning to trust God’s promise and believe Jesus’ story the moment we are saved? Is baptism irrelevant if this has happened? It is a little confusing. There is no record of Jesus’ original disciples being baptized in His name. In John 20, Jesus breaths on them and they receive the Holy Spirit. I think this is their baptism. In Acts 10:44-48, the Holy Spirit gives a group of newly believing Gentiles the gift of speaking in tongues. They are baptized after this.

While actually pouring or dunking with water in the name of the triune God may not be absolutely necessary, what Jesus normally does in connection with this sacrament is necessary. So why would you not do it? Even stronger, why would you wait if you or your child meet the criteria for baptism.

The criteria is this:

  • If you are mentally capable of understanding the story and promise of Jesus and believe you are qualified.
  • If you are a dependent of a believing adult you qualify.

We all need the connection to Jesus because we all sin–even children. We are all culpable for sin, because we can all die.

I had one scenario in my career as pastor that is not covered in the Bible and wasn’t discussed at the seminary. It happened in the middle of the night, too. A young woman gave birth to a stillborn child. Can you still baptize, do you need to? Many would say no, but I did and not just for the comfort of the parents.

We are not given information about the fate or even the existence of people who die in the womb, either naturally or by abortion. Assuming salvation, damnation, non-existence, or a state of limbo is just that–an assumption. I cling to a rather cryptic passage in 1 Peter:

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.

1 Peter 4:6 (ESV)

The NIV says “now dead”, which is wrong. The immediate referent to this statement is 1 Peter 3:19 which describes Jesus’ “descent into Hell (Sheol)”. (See more this here: The point is that Jesus can do what Jesus does even posthumously. I don’t think Hebrew 9:27 speaks to this at all. Could Jesus do what was necessary without my action? Absolutely. But why not take up the promise of baptism in that case?

If you have been dismissing or delaying your baptism or that of your child, please reconsider. If you believe that Jesus died and rose again for the purpose of paying for our sins and if you believe God’s promise of forgiveness and eternal life through Jesus, then believe also the promise of baptism. Jesus completes the final step for sure.

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