There’s a comprehensive two-volume reference work called the World Christian Encyclopedia that lists 33,000 (!) different Christian ‘denominations’ (defined as an organized Christian group within a specific country). And it’s probably safe to say that each one of these groups has some unique practice or understanding. One of the bigger areas of diversity is centered on the rite of Baptism. But, perhaps surprisingly, there is virtually total agreement that Baptism MUST be practiced.
What makes this surprising is that Christians agree that Jesus didn’t invent Baptism, and it’s also an undeniable fact that the Bible does not specifically spell out how the practice is to be performed, nor does it provide an explicit theological statement about precisely what it means. In view of such fundamental questions, it is fair to ask: “Then why do we all do it?” The simple answer: “Jesus told us to!”
At His last appearance to His disciples, Jesus commanded:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” (Matthew 28:19)
Only about a week later, when Peter’s Pentecost sermon caused listeners to ask: “What shall we do?” he instructed them “Repent and be Baptized.” (Acts 2:37-38). And over and over we read how the first act of new converts is to be baptized (e.g., Acts 8:36-38, 16:15, 16:33). So, it’s crystal clear that baptism is regarded as the entry rite into being a disciple of Jesus Christ. But is that all that’s involved? Is Baptism just an ‘initiation ritual’ that people are expected to do to make them officially ‘Christians’?
Here’s where Christians become divided in their understandings about Baptism. On one side are the groups that call Baptism an ‘ordinance’ and believe that its significance is as a demonstration of a belief in Jesus Christ and a commitment to a new life. According to this view, Baptism does not affect one’s salvation, other than as a symbol of what has already happened in a believer’s life – a ceremonial act of purification and renewal that is a testimony to one’s personal decision to follow Christ. Consequently, these Christians attach a good deal of importance to just how Baptism is performed, with full-immersion being the standard – and they don’t baptize infants, since babies haven’t the developed mental skills to make such a decision. Baptists are the denomination(s) most closely associated with this view.
The other viewpoint, held by Lutherans along with the vast majority of Christians since ancient times, is that Baptism is a means of grace by which God rescues us from our sins. The Apostle Peter expresses this when he speaks of the way the ark saved Noah and his family from death in the flood and then states: “Baptism which corresponds to this, now saves you…” (1 Peter 3:21) Just as the command to build the ark was the means by which God saved humanity, the command to baptize is the tangible act by which Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross rescues us from our sins.
But, isn’t this all rather academic? Since we Lutherans aren’t worried about what’s in a baby’s mind when we baptize them, why would we care about how an adult understands it? The answer is that we believe that, regardless of how or when it’s done (so long as the water is applied in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), Baptism actually connects the Baptized to the death and resurrection of Christ, so that through it we become dead to sin and alive to Christ. This is not accomplished by any ‘magical’ powers of the ritual itself, but by the promises of God. As an analogy, consider how an adoption certificate can make an ordinary person into the heir of a king. It’s a gift of inestimable value – if claimed – but no use to anyone if ignored or forgotten. Similarly, the baptized person is a true heir to the saving death and resurrection of Jesus – a promise of salvation that God will never withdraw, but which CAN be wasted. Baptism seals a binding promise that assures our salvation if we but accept it in living faith. And, that’s why it’s important to recognize the true value of this incredible gift of grace!
“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 6:4)