What is True Christian Baptism?

When were you baptized?

Doesn’t that seem like a simple question?

And yet, in my pastoral experience, baptism is the second most complicated and emotionally charged experience I get to work through with new church members.

Fundamental but Potentially Perplexing

Baptism is one of the core identifying marks of a Christian. Jesus Christ gave His disciples (i.e. Christians) two ordinances (or sacraments) – baptism and the Lord’s Supper (or communion). These two signs serve as the Christ-instituted distinguishing marks of Christian discipleship (Matthew 26:26-29, 28:18-20; Luke 22:14-20).

But, who should be baptized? Some say only adult Christians. Some say professing believers at any age. Some say adult Christians and their infant children.

Where should someone be baptized? Many people have been baptized in a church baptistry, a formal place within a church building designated for performing baptisms. Many others have been baptized outdoors, in lakes, ponds, rivers, oceans, and even swimming pools. Still, others were baptized in some creative way, using a livestock trough or another repurposed container.

Who should perform the baptism? Throughout history, most Christians were baptized by an officially recognized minister. Recently, it has become more common for non-commissioned Christians to perform baptisms, though this is still far from the norm.

Should anyone ever get “re-baptized”? Many Evangelicals – especially in the fading Bible-belt of southern America – testify to having been baptized multiple times. It is quite common for me (I pastor a rural church in East Texas) to hear someone describe their experiences of having been “baptized” once as a youngster and again at some later point in life, often as part of something they call “rededication.”

As I said, baptism can become a complicated matter when you’re talking with someone about their own experience and trying to square that with the teaching from Scripture. So, I won’t try to answer every possible question about baptism here. Instead, I’d like to offer what I think are four indispensable elements of biblical baptism.

Some Useful Information

The reader will be helped by checking to see if all four of these elements were present at their own experience of baptism. If so, then I believe it was probably a true, biblical, Christ-honoring baptism. If one or more of these elements are/were missing, then I advise the reader to bring the matter to the attention of his/her pastor(s) or elder(s). He/They will be very happy to talk and think through this with you.

Whether you believe your baptism was true or not, you would probably do well to write out a brief assessment of your baptism experience, confirming that each element was present, or noting what was missing. Such a thoughtful exercise would likely benefit the reader greatly.

The reader will also be helped by knowing that various churches and denominations disagree about how to best answer the question: What is true baptism? I am a Baptist with strong ecclesiological convictions, which are largely built upon what I believe the Bible teaches about baptism and the Lord’s Supper. That said, I sincerely believe my description below is in submission to Scripture, which is the ultimate authority and arbiter of truth.

Let’s first look at the Bible’s teaching on baptism, and then I’ll base my four indispensable elements on what we learn from Scripture.

A Biblical Foundation

When Jesus commissioned His followers (i.e. Christians) to be His witnesses, from the time He ascended to the Father’s side until He returned at last, Jesus told them what to do. He told them to preach the message of the gospel and to make disciples of those who responded with faith and repentance. Those new disciples were to be baptized and catechized (they were to learn the teachings of Christ) by those who were already among the group. And Jesus’ disciples did what Jesus told them.

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we read Jesus’ commissioning charge. Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations [or peoples], baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18–20).

Luke recorded a similar commission from Jesus, which must have been given soon after the other. At the beginning of Acts, Luke tells us what Jesus said right before He ascended to the right hand of the Father. Jesus said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Just then, Jesus was “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).

Then, the disciples waited. They waited for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit and for that moment when they would begin carrying out the mission Jesus had left for them. And the day of Pentecost came soon after.

The Apostle Peter stood out as the disciples’ representative when he preached the gospel to those gathered in Jerusalem on that day when the Holy Spirit came, giving the disciples boldness and power to bear witness to Christ.

Many heard Peter’s message, and some believed. Some in the crowd responded by saying, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). They were asking, “What must we do to become Christ’s disciples, beneficiaries of God’s grace in Christ?”

Peter 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” (Acts 2:38). Repentance and belief are two sides of the same biblical coin (as demonstrated by verse 41, cited below), and Peter called sinners to respond with humility and hope in order to be saved from their sin and the due penalty thereof.

But Peter also exhorted them to “be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ.” This was clearly the outward and public display of repentance and belief, which are less immediately observable.

We are told, “those who received [Peter’s] word [i.e. those who believed] were baptized, and there were added [to the small existing group of disciples] that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). And all the disciples, both the old and the new, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts. 2:42).

Thus the disciples’ activity and teaching demonstrate the apostolic and biblical understanding of what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do. The combination of these passages constructs for us a solid foundation, upon which we may build a definition of true (i.e. biblical) baptism.

Four Indispensable Elements of Baptism

I am calling these elements of baptism indispensable because I believe that the removal of any of them will almost certainly indicate a redefinition of baptism, which would be a loss of biblical baptism. In other words, if one or more elements are missing in your “baptism” experience, it is very likely that whatever you did experience was not true baptism.

One, true baptism occurs after a person has been converted.

The biblical command to be baptized is only for those who are professing faith in Jesus Christ. Both in Jesus’ commission and in Peter’s exhortation, only “disciples” or “repenting and believing” ones are to be baptized. Such a one may turn out to be a false confessor later on in life, but strong efforts should be made to ensure that baptism is being offered only to those who at least appear to be believing the gospel and turning from sin.

My Presbyterian brethren and others may argue that the baptism command is also “for [the] children” of believers since children are mentioned in the passage I cited above (Acts 2:39). However, the reader will note that it is “the promise” of salvation through Christ and not the command to “be baptized” that is extended to “your children” and also to “all who are far off” (Acts 2:39).

If anyone was “baptized” before they were converted, then such a “baptism” was not true.

Only a post-conversion baptism can be a true baptism.

Two, true baptism is performed in the name of Jesus Christ, who is the apex of God’s revelation and the focal point of the gospel.

The biblical observance of baptism necessarily associates the one being baptized (the baptizee) with Jesus Christ. This is not merely a verbal formula, contra the views of some in the Church of Christ, but a much fuller identification with the God of the Bible and the person by whom God offers salvation to sinners like us.

In Jesus’ commission, He says new disciples are to be baptized “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). And Peter exhorts his hearers to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38). The teaching of Scripture, on the whole, is that baptism is inextricably connected with the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and the gospel of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.

If someone was “baptized” in association with any non-Christian religion, any false gospel, or any message or group that denies an essential doctrine of historic Christianity, then such a “baptism” was not true.

Only a baptism associated with the biblical gospel, the biblical God, and the biblical Savior can be a true baptism.

Three, true baptism is experienced as a conscious act (both on the part of the one being baptized and on the part of those observing) of publicly confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

The biblical command to be baptized is necessarily connected with a conscious, public profession of faith and a conscious, public affirmation of that profession. Those who are being baptized are consciously and publicly making their belief in Christ known to watching world. And those who are observing and celebrating baptism are consciously and publicly affirming that the one being baptized is (so far as they can tell) one of them.

This element of true baptism leans into the reality that baptism cannot be observed alone. No one can (biblically) baptize him or herself. Baptism is something you do and something you have done to you, simultaneously. Furthermore, both the baptizee and the baptizer (as well as other observing Christians) must be conscious participants.

Biblically and historically, the normal context for true baptism is the local church. Only in recent years has this normative practice been neglected. The readiest way to demonstrate this is by the fact that most Evangelical churches still today have some new church members join by the act of baptism. In many churches, this is a holdover practice from a time now past, without much (if any) teaching or intentionality. New converts joining a church’s membership by being baptized was the common practice of most Evangelical churches.

If someone was “baptized” in hopes that he or she would eventually become a Christian, or if someone was “baptized” when he or she did not understand the basic meaning of baptism (as a public profession of Christian faith and discipleship), then such a “baptism” is not likely true.

Only a conscious Christian can be baptized as a public affirmation from at least one other conscious Christian.

Four, true baptism is performed by the use of water; normally a good bit of it.

The word βαπτιζω or baptidzō (translated “I baptize”), which serves as the root of all other New Testament words related to the act of baptism, carries with it the concept of cleansing, immersing, and washing. Furthermore, the descriptions we have of baptisms in the Bible (particularly the baptisms of Jesus and of the Ethiopian official) seem to indicate full immersion.

In addition to these initial points, the biblical imagery of being associated in or by baptism with Christ’s death and burial is only portrayed by submerging someone underwater and then drawing them back out again (Romans 6:1-4). The imagery fails to be depicted by merely pouring water over a person or only partially dipping him or her into some water.

I believe baptism should be carried out by fully immersing the baptizee, but I am not arguing here that immersion itself is an indispensable element of true baptism, because I can easily imagine some circumstances when larger quantities of water may be inaccessible. In such a situation, I believe a true baptism may still occur, but it would be disordered.

If someone was “baptized” without water at all, then such a “baptism” is likely not true. If someone was baptized by some other method than full immersion, then it’s worth asking more questions.

The question of what constitutes a true baptism is probably not a great concern among most churchgoers, but it should be. Baptism is one of the clearest commands Jesus ever gave His disciples, and every Christian should eagerly want to obey their Savior and King.

I hope this article will be useful for the reader to assess his or her own experience. I strongly advise the reader to bring specific questions about personal experience to his or her pastor(s) or elder(s). The local church is designed by Christ to be the community in which we work through such things.

I also hope that many will experience true baptism, not simply to check off a ceremonial checkbox, but as a conscious act of obedience to Christ, in whom sinners become heirs of all the blessings of God.


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