The normal (Christian) journey of faith
Chapter 5: Baptism
The mark of entry to the Christian faith is baptism so it will be something you will want to consider early in your life as a Christian. Sadly and most unfortunately it is a very difficult subject to write about because there are so many different ideas as to what baptism is, who should be baptized, who should do the baptizing and what it means when it is done. Some say that there is no salvation without baptism; some, at the other extreme, say it is only our declaration of loyalty to the Lord and mark of entry to the church. Some baptize babies as soon after birth as possible to make sure they are in the visible, earthly, gathering of those identified with Christ; others say that baptism is the sign of faith and therefore should only be administered to those of adult believing faith. Some demand that those who baptize be in a unbroken chain by the laying on of hands from the first apostles; others are happy that anybody be the baptizer. There is a wide difference of opinion about where the gift of the Holy Spirit fits into the scenario: is it only given at baptism, is it the only truly significant part of the whole thing, or what?
I cannot write about it without tending to give you my views on the subject – good or bad. They may, or may not, be appropriate for your situation according to where you live and the culture of your local church or fellowship. I will try to be evenhanded, honest.
The best place to start is the Bible and, in this case, the Acts of the Apostles with its stories of what happened in the very early days of the church. There we shall see what the apostles thought it was all about and how it should be used and they are more likely to be right than anyone else!
Obviously the first place to start is the event that followed Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. Peter told those who responded positively to what he said, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In response:
“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day”.
We hear next of baptism in the work of Philip in Samaria, where the new believers were baptized but did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John visited the area, prayed for them and laid their hands on them.
By now we may well be thinking that apostles are necessary, and only they can ensure that the gift of the Holy Spirit accompanies the baptism and that this is the only way one can receive the Spirit. But in the very next incident recorded Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch himself and there is no mention of the Holy Spirit at all, yet the Ethiopian “goes on his way rejoicing” and strong tradition has it that he started the Ethiopian church, so he was not deficient in any way in his appreciation of the Triune God.
Paul comes next. He was baptized by Ananias, but only after he had received the Holy Spirit. Exactly the same order, first the gift of the Holy Spirit and then baptism is evident after Peter spoke to Cornelius and his friends; the matter of interest this time being that they are not Jews.
And so the story goes on. There is no set pattern that is the same every single time. The meaning for us is quite clear: there is no single set pattern that has to be adhered to every single time. We are at liberty to fit in to the culture in which we find ourselves, acting in a way that is appropriate for our situation, keeping the essential ingredients of what should be.
On a purely practical point: where does the water go? Some sprinkle it on the head only, some expect the candidate to be standing in water but not to go completely under the surface while their head is wetted, others insist on putting the whole body under the water. There are good arguments all ways. But in the light of the variety of practice evident in the stories in the book of Acts this must surely be a matter of no great importance.
Perhaps the point at which that advice is hardest to keep is in the matter of whether a baby should be baptized – christened as it is often called – or whether baptism should be reserved for the older believer who understands for him or herself what is involved. Part of the answer must lie in the difference between the more traditional societies where there is a strong corporate nature to life, expressed in the strength of the family bond and the tendency for son to follow father in the same trade, and the modern Western cultures which are much more individualistic in their thinking and where son or daughter are much more likely to take up a totally different trade or occupation than the parent. In the former the baptism of a new member of the family makes reasonable sense because of the assumption that as parent so child. In the latter it makes no sense that I can see!
It seems to me that the Biblical pattern associates baptism with the beginning of the Christian life and the gift of the Holy Spirit very closely. It doesn’t matter which comes first provided all three are present. It doesn’t matter who does the baptizing; there is no special efficacy in the action of the person involved.
Baptism has two aspects to it: one for the person being baptized and the other on the part of the Lord God himself. For the person involved it is a declaration of commitment, an identification with the Lord’s people and a statement of loyalty to them but above all to the Lord himself.
For the Lord it is a declaration that the person is now in covenant relationship with him, that he or she has been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, and is now one of His people: as Peter put it “As you come to him, the living Stone —rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
What a magnificent idea! A living stone, part of a Spiritual house, a priest in that house and able to offer acceptable sacrifices to the living God. Wow!
It is to me a source of mystery that so many people are so reluctant to go forward for baptism after their conversion. To be sure many churches make a hash of it, either associating it too closely with church membership involving the capacity to vote in church meetings and therefore denying it to young people until they are ‘voting age’; or at the other extreme baptizing babes who can have no idea whatsoever of the glories they are supposed to be entering into.
Don’t be one of the reluctant! If at all possible, unless hindered by physical disability or prevented by a strongly antagonistic society, be baptized. The other really tricky question is whether if you have been baptized as a baby or a child without personal faith you should be baptized again on coming to true and full faith. That, I think, has to be left entirely up to you or the person under consideration.
Be happy and confident in yourself that you have done as the Lord said should be done when he told the apostles “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”.
Be baptized, be taught, obey.