why sign

From GOD's perspective, does it make a difference why a person is baptized? Or, does He simply care that the person was baptized, regardless of the reason?

Welcome to part 13 of my biblical baptism series. These posts build on each other. If you need to catch up, here are links to the previous posts:

  1. Introduction
  2. Is Scripture Descriptive or Prescriptive?
  3. Defining 'baptism'
  4. The Baptism of John
  5. Why Was Jesus Baptized?
  6. The Baptism of the Holy Spirit
  7. The Baptism that Jesus Commanded
  8. The Biblical Purpose of Water Baptism
  9. Is Baptism a Public Demonstration?
  10. Harmonizing Grace, Faith and Works
  11. Is Baptism Required?
  12. Is Sprinkling the Same as Baptism?

...

For me, the most challenging question pertaining to baptism is:

"What must a believer understand in order for GOD to accept their baptism?"

In other words, to what extent does their reason for being baptized factor into GOD's acceptance of their baptism?

I have wrestled with this question for quite some time and continue to do so.

Honestly, it's one where my head and heart disagree.

Considering the extremes

In order to illustrate what I perceive to be the tricky nature of this question, let's consider two extremes.

"Canonball!"

 

First, suppose a thirty-year-old man named Ted jumps into the deep end of a swimming pool just for fun, sinking to the bottom.

According to the literal definition of the Greek word that we transliterate "baptize", Ted was baptized. He was immersed, plunged under the water.

Does this "baptism" have anything to do with Jesus, salvation, forgiveness of sins, public profession of faith or anything spiritual in nature at all?

No.

Therefore, does it contain any spiritual value at all?

No.

This is simply a guy having fun, getting wet.

If Ted was not a Christian before jumping in this pool, he's not a Christian afterward.

"I'm just doing what He said."

For the second example, consider Kelly, a 12-year-old girl who has been reading the Bible on her own and she read Jesus' command in Matt. 28:19 that His disciples should be baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Kelly felt convicted in her heart when she read about Jesus dying on the cross for her.

She understands that she's sinned and needs the Savior.

So Kelly decides to be baptized, which she does.

At 12 years old, Kelly doesn't fully understand the significance of her baptism yet.

She doesn't truly get the symbolism of baptism as described in Romans 6.

Does GOD accept Kelly's baptism? Is Kelly a Christian now?

I believe the answer to both questions is yes.

How do we know?

These two hypothetical examples show, in my assessment, that our reason(s) for being immersed in water matters.

The apostle Peter affirmed this when he wrote:

18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
(1 Pet. 3:18-22 NIV)

Right action, right reason

What about the person who is baptized for religious reasons, perhaps even during a church assembly, but not for the specific purpose of having their sins washed away by Jesus' blood?

Biblically speaking, are they a Christian?

Is that person saved? Are their sins forgiven?

When it comes to this question, I'm torn.

Throughout Scripture, we see that GOD's first concern is consistently our heart—our motivation.

Recall that the first and great commandment is to love the LORD with everything we are (see Matt. 22:37-39).

In the aforementioned passage, 1 Pet. 3:18-21, Peter clearly states that GOD is interested in the response of a clear conscience. And our justification comes, not by our works, but by faith (Gal. 2:15-16).

When the remnant of Jews returned from Babylonian and Persian captivity, one of the last messages GOD sent them (prior to the 400-year silence) through the prophet Malachi was a rebuke of their heartless, corrupt attitudes towards Him. 

6 “A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the Lord Almighty.

“It is you priests who show contempt for my name.

“But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’

7 “By offering defiled food on my altar.

“But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’

“By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible. 8 When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty.

9 “Now plead with God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?”—says the Lord Almighty.

10Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. 11 My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty.

12 “But you profane it by saying, ‘The Lord’s table is defiled,’ and, ‘Its food is contemptible.’ 13 And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the Lord Almighty.

When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the Lord. 14Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations.
(Mal. 2:6-14 NIV) 

Therefore, we can never have a "checklist mentality" whereby we seek GOD's approval by completing a series of specific steps without giving our best effort to obey GOD's instructions from a motivation of love in the fear of the LORD.

So, anytime a person approaches baptism with an attitude of anything except loving obedience to GOD's will for them will result in His displeasure and refusal to accept their baptism.

Examples may include being baptized:

  • out of peer pressure (without personal conviction),
  • due to parental (or other adult-related) pressure,
  • as a public profession of faith, or...
  • for the purpose of joining a local assembly of Christians.

Any person being baptized for these reasons alone would, it seems to me, have not submitted to New Testament baptism and would therefore remain in their sins.

We see a similar situation in Acts 19:1-7.

Paul, upon arriving in Ephesus, discovers some people the Scriptures refer to as "disciples" who had been baptized, but hadn't been baptized into Jesus' baptism.

Paul has them baptized, apparently immediately, into Jesus.

By contrast, the most in-depth explanation of the symbolism of baptism is given to us in Rom. 6 because it seems the Christians in Rome didn't fully understand the meaning behind their baptism.

Paul wrote:

3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
(Rom. 6:3 NIV)

After Paul explained the purpose of water baptism, however, he did not instruct these Christians to be re-baptized, indicating GOD's acceptance of their initial baptism.

Conclusion

Ultimately, baptism is a personal decision. Each of us must look within our hearts and recall our baptism and determine whether we feel led to be re-baptized.

But what can we suggest a person needs to understand about baptism in order for GOD to wash their sins clean at the point of immersion?

From my studies, I conclude that a believer should understand the following:

  1. They are currently a sinner, hopelessly guilty before a just and holy GOD who will decide their eternal destiny. If they died now, they would spend eternity in hell.

  2. GOD loves them so much He sent His Son to live a sinless life and die upon the cross to pay their debt.

  3. GOD wants everyone, including them, to be saved. He offers salvation freely by His grace to those who accept the offer.

  4. A person is justified (made innocent before GOD) by faith and not by their works, for no amount of good deeds can undo the sins we've committed. Baptism saves not because of the action or any externals such as the water, but because it connects the faithful believer with Jesus' cleansing blood because GOD said that's how it would work.

  5. Jesus commanded all would-be disciples to be baptized in order to have their sins forgiven. This is GOD's condition for accepting His free gift.

Additionally, I think it is extremely important, but perhaps not essential prior to baptism, that the believer understand the cost of discipleship—that Jesus demands Lordship over their entire life and that after baptism they are no longer in control of their own life's choices. Christ must rule in their hearts.

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Read Part 14 here:

Continue to part 14, "Should I be Re-baptized?"

Tim Harris
Author: Tim Harris

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