For a Christian, what is the significance of Baptism? Do you really need to be baptized to go to heaven? Are you not a real Christian until you're baptized? Does baptizing babies count? These are some of the questions I hope to answer in this post. Different denominations have different answers to these questions, so let's look directly at what the Bible says on the subject of Baptism.
What is baptism?
Baptism is a practice which started in the New Testament of the Bible. There are no references to baptism occurring before the book of Matthew. The first person to practice Baptism was named John, who came to be known as "John the Baptist". John was Jesus' older cousin, and would preach to the people of Israel in the desert, where he lived. He wasn't very civilized (he wore rough camel-hair clothes and ate grasshoppers and honey (Matthew 3:4). The Bible says that the people would come out to listen to him preach and he would baptize them in the Jordan river if they repented from their sins. Usually most portrayals of this early baptism show the baptisee wading out into the water, where the baptiser dunks them under water and then brings them back up again.
Nowadays, Baptism can be performed many different ways, and not all denominations agree on the "correct" way. In many Protestant denominations, Baptism is a ceremony that is done when a person first believes in Jesus, and accepts that they are a sinner and need Jesus to save them. This age can vary between approximately 8 years old and up, but it is unique to each individual. In most Protestant denominations, very young children and babies are not baptized because they are not able to realize they are a sinner. Usually a pastor performs the baptism, which in North American churches can happen either outside in a river or lake (depending on location and weather), or inside in a pool or even a hot tub! The ceremony usually is quite simple. The baptisee will get into the water, and then the baptiser will ask them some variant of "Do you believe that Jesus is God, who died on a cross for your sins and rose again?" Sometimes it's more complex, but this is the basic point. When the person says "Yes", then the baptiser will lower them into the water and say "I now baptize you in the name of the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit". Then the baptisee will come back up from the water, and will be congratulated by friends/family/church members who have been watching.
Note that baptism is also sometimes performed with just partial immersion (the water is poured over the baptisee's head, instead of being dunked under the water), or sometimes just by sprinkling water. There is a lot of disagreement over "how" it should be done , but this will be discussed later.
What is the point of baptism?
Now on the surface, baptism does seem a little silly. Why does dunking someone under water such a big deal? The point, I believe, is not the water itself. Romans 6:3-5 explains the symbolism behind Baptism: "Don't you know that all who share in Christ Jesus by being baptized also share in his death? When we were baptized, we died and were buried with Christ. We were baptized so that we would live a new life, as Christ was raised to life by the glory of God the Father. If we shared in Jesus' death by being baptized, we will be raised to life with him.". Being lowered into the water symbolizes "death", and rising out symbolizes "resurrection". The Bible also says "Anyone who belongs to Christ is a new person. The past is forgotten and everything is new.". Baptism is a very good way of demonstrating this, as the person is lowered under and comes out as "a new person". This is a very powerful symbol to the baptisee that their sins are forgiven, and that they can start new and no longer have to be bound to their old sins. They are free to start over, as if they are a new person. As well, it indicates to those watching that the baptisee is starting over, and to forgive anything they may have done in the past and to encourage the baptisee to live right as a Christian from now on.
What if there is no water nearby?
I don't believe it's necessary to actually be physically baptized with water. John the Baptist said "I baptize you with water so that you will give up your sins. But someone more powerful is going to come, and I am not good enough even to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.". This was demonstrated on the day of Pentecost, 40 days after Jesus' resurrection, and is described in Acts chapters 1 and 2. Before Jesus ascended to heaven, he told his disciples "Don't leave Jerusalem yet. Wait here for the Father to give you the Holy Spirit, just as I told you he has promised to do. John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 1:4-5). Then in Acts 2:1-3, it describes this baptism: "On the day of Pentecost, all the Lord's followers were together in one place. Suddenly there was a noise from heaven like the sound of a mighty wind! It filled the house where they were meeting. Then they saw what looked like fiery tongues moving in all directions, and a tongue came and settled on each person there.". This was the baptism that Jesus promised.
Now whenever someone decides to believe in Jesus and accept His death as payment for their sins, they are also given the Holy Spirit (although it is not visible as it was at Pentecost). I believe that this occurs automatically as soon as the person accepts Jesus in their heart. Then the water baptism becomes a symbol to the new believer and to the others who care and support that person. Baptism can be thought of as a wedding ceremony. A wedding ceremony doesn't make the two people love each other - they loved each other before the wedding. However, the wedding is a symbol to all those who care for the two people, as well as to the bride and groom themselves, that they do love each other and commit to staying with each other for the rest of their lives. Similarly, the baptism does not in itself "save" the baptisee - this occurred earlier when the baptisee accepted Jesus' payment for their sins, and decided to follow Him. Many churches I know acknowledge this by having the baptisee go through a small course on baptism before being baptized, just to make sure they are fully aware of what baptism means and are sure they want to commit publicly to following Jesus. Other times, often at youth camps, if someone becomes saved while at the camp sometimes they perform a baptism right away if there is a lake nearby, however, the parents and others may be somewhat disappointed if they were not there to witness it (but I'm sure the happiness of their child accepting Jesus would overcome that disappointment).
Does infant baptism count?
In the Catholic church, babies who are born to Catholic parents are often baptized a few days or weeks after they are born. This is usually done by placing the baby in a tub of water and lightly putting water on their head, or sometimes just sprinkling the baby with water. I do not think this "baptism" is really the right way to do it. Baptism is meant as a symbol of the baptisee's faith and determination to follow Jesus. However, a baby cannot possibly understand anything yet about sin or Jesus, and so it has no meaning. A person is only "saved" when they personally accept Jesus' sacrifice for their sins, and so baptizing a baby does not guarantee that the person will go to heaven when they grow up. So in this sense, I believe infant baptism does not count. It is perhaps good if it indicates the parent's desire to raise the child to believe in God, but the child will need to make their own decision later. At this point, I believe the child should be re-baptized when they can fully understand the meaning of the baptism, as it is a good symbol to encourage them to live for Jesus. So perhaps instead of infant baptism, the practice of infant dedications should be used - the parents pledge to teach their child about God and to raise them in a loving way, but the child is not baptized. This could avoid some confusion where non-Christians say "Oh, I was baptized as a baby, so of course I'm going to heaven." even if they have not personally accepted Jesus.
So if it's just a symbol, why should I bother with baptism?
Although baptism with water is not required for salvation (only baptism with the Holy Spirit is needed), there are still many good reasons for doing it.
- Jesus did it. Jesus was baptized before he started his ministry, as a sign of obedience to God. This is described in Matthew 3:13-17. He went to John the Baptist and asked to be baptized, but John at first protested, saying he was not good enough to baptize Jesus. Jesus then said "For now, this is how it should be, because we must do all that God wants us to do.". John agreed, and when Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove came and landed on Jesus. Then a voice from heaven announced "This is my own dear son, and I am pleased with him.". This shows that God was pleased with Jesus' obedience to be baptized, and so God is similarly pleased when we decide to be baptised.
- Throughout the New Testament, especially in Acts, all the new believers were baptized. A command was given by Jesus to the disciples to "Go to the people of all nations and make them my disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to do everything I have told you." The disciples followed this instruction, and continued the tradition of baptism. By being baptized, you will have something in common with the majority of Christians, as well as a personal memory of a special day and a special commitment that you made to follow Jesus. It's like how a bride and groom never forget their wedding day, and remember the commitment they made to each other at that time.
- It is a public announcement of your faith and your desire to live as Jesus would want you to. We are told to share our faith, and the easiest way to get used to doing this is to first announce your faith to a group of Christians, who already believe the same thing (where there is no risk of embarrassment or rejection). Then they can celebrate your salvation with you, encourage you in hard times, and help instruct you how to live as a Christian. But if you keep it all a secret, they perhaps might not know that you have decided to follow Jesus, and cannot celebrate with you or give instruction on how to grow as a Christian. This is the same reason that a wedding is public - so others can see the commitment the two people are making and celebrate and encourage them in their new life.
What about people who say baptism is necessary to be saved?
As I stated above, it is shown that the only necessary baptism is that of the Holy Spirit. However, many people who still believe physical water baptism is necessary (not just as a symbol) to be saved will quote Jesus as saying "Anyone who believes me and is baptized will be saved. But anyone who refuses to believe me will be condemned." (Mark 16:16). Similarly, they may also quote Acts 2:38: "Peter said, 'Turn back to God! Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins will be forgiven. Then you will be given the Holy Spirit.".
In the first reference, note that Jesus did not say "But anyone who refuses to be baptized will be condemned.", he only said those that do not believe in him are condemned. I believe Jesus is saying that belief is the important thing, and that if you have belief, it is good to be baptized to show it. However, based on the reasons given earlier in this article, I do not believe baptism in itself (or baptism without belief, as in the case of babies) will save someone.
However, the second reference does seem to imply there is an order to things: 1. Turn to God. 2. Get baptized and sins forgiven. 3. Be given the Holy Spirit. This seems to contradict with the idea stated above that the person is given the Holy Spirit the instant they believe, and is baptized later. However, I believe Peter was referring to the baptism with the Holy Spirit, which he had previously experienced just a few hours earlier (this statement was made during his speech at Pentecost). When this happens, the turning to God and asking forgiveness for sins happens first (the sins are forgiven as soon as the person asks), and then later (although perhaps only a few seconds later) they are then filled with the Holy Spirit. I do not believe that Jesus would turn away a person from heaven for not being dunked under some water. Many other times Jesus' only prerequisite for salvation is belief in Himself. He said "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14:6). He did not say "I (and baptism) are the way and the truth and the life.". He didn't even say "I (and good works) are the way and the truth and the life." Nothing else has to be done besides believing in Jesus to obtain salvation. Also, in Acts 10:47, Peter says "These Gentiles have been given the Holy Spirit, just as we have! I am certain that no one would dare stop us from baptizing them.". This shows that the Holy Spirit can be given before physical baptism, and so baptism is not a requirement before the Holy Spirit enters a person.
Does it matter how someone is baptized?
There has been a lot of argument over this between the different denominations over the centuries. Some people are adamant that only full immersion is right, and others believe that sprinkling a few drops of water is okay. Some believe that only an ordained pastor or priest should baptize someone, but others say that anyone who is a believer can baptize someone. These specifics are not really discussed in the Bible, and so there is not really one "right" answer. There are perhaps a few guidelines though, which are hinted at during the practice of baptism in the Bible. These are listed below.
- The person who performs the baptism should be a Christian, and should be more spiritually mature than the person being baptized. It would not seem right that the baptizer should be a newer Christian than the person being baptized. This is the reason John said to Jesus "I ought to be baptized by you. Why have you come to me?". This was an exception though, because otherwise Jesus could not have been baptized by anyone on earth. However, John realized it was abnormal, and I believe it would feel strange to both the baptiser and baptisee if the baptiser was less spiritually mature than the baptisee.
- It should be public. Not public as in right in the middle of the street public, but in a place where there are at least some witnesses. I have seen people baptized at public beaches, but also in smaller more intimate locations with say as few as 20 people. Either way, the main people who will be supporting the baptisee in their new faith should attend - either church members, family, or friends.
- As previously discussed, the baptisee should be old enough to realize the meaning and significance of baptism, and to personally confess their sins and accept Jesus' death as payment. Usually the earliest I've heard of this happening is about 7 or 8 years old, but on rare occasions perhaps it could be earlier.
- The baptism should use water (as is traditional in the New Testament), but the amount needed can vary, as long as it is memorable and significant to the person being baptised. If the baptisee feels it would be more significant to them to be fully immersed in water, then they should do that. Personally, I feel that this offers the largest amount of symbolism (dying/rising again with Christ, becoming a new person, etc.) which may be important to certain people. If for whatever reason, the person cannot or does not want to be fully immersed, then pouring water or sprinkling water is acceptable (say for someone in a wheelchair, or someone with severe water phobia, or whatever).