Six Questions About Baptism

by Matthew W. Bassford

This lesson was prompted by a series of questions passed to me by one of the young people in the congregation.  They are all very thoughtful, and they are all on the subject of baptism. I think publicly exploring the topic is important.  Others may be grappling with the same questions, and baptism is truly a topic that can make an eternal difference in our lives.  Every human being with the necessary mental capacity absolutely must understand Biblical teaching on baptism and what they should do about it. 

"How Does Jesus Dying on the Cross Tie Into Baptism?"

The first of the questions I got on the card was "How does Jesus dying on the cross tie into baptism?"  If we want to understand this, we have to start with THE PURPOSE OF JESUS' DEATH.  One of the best explanations of that purpose anywhere in the Bible appears in Isaiah 53:4-12.  In addition to being extremely beautiful, this text is very revealing.  We already know that Jesus suffered greatly during His arrest, trial, and judicial murder.  This tells us why.  It wasn't because of sins that He had done.  Quite the contrary!  It was because of the sins that we had done.

The wages of sin is death.  Because we have sinned, death is what we deserve, not merely the death of our bodies, but the death of our souls.  However, Jesus on the cross presented Himself as an offering for the guilt of our sins.  When God looked on the suffering of His Son, His sense of perfect justice was satisfied.  Jesus paid the penalty in our place, so that we can live through Him.

However, that answer only raises another question.  Who are the "we" and the "us" who are given salvation and life through the death of Jesus?  Is that salvation automatically for everybody?  Is it only for a limited few who have been selected by God?  Or do people themselves choose whether they will be saved?  In reality, the answer to those questions is kind of "all of the above", and we see this in JESUS' APPEAL TO THE WEARY.  Look here at Matthew 11:28-30.  Let's go through these three elements one at a time.  Salvation is universal in that it is offered to everybody.  God doesn't look at anybody and say, "You're not good enough to be saved."  That's certainly heartening.  I'd hate to believe in the God of the Calvinists, whom they think decided whether I could be saved or not before the world began!   We're more than the puppets of God's will.

However, God's will has a role in the process too.  As Jesus expands His message, we see that only a subset of the human race is going to find rest for their souls.  It consists only of those who take His yoke upon them and learn from Him.  In other words, if we want salvation, we have to understand God's will and obey it.  Salvation is on His terms, not ours.

Here too, though, it's true that our salvation is simultaneously up to God and up to us.  He offers us life on His terms, but it's up to us to accept or decline that offer.  God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, but He knows that most men will refuse.

Putting all that together, then, God makes His salvation available to everyone, but we only claim that salvation when we fulfill His conditions.  Whether we do that or not is our decision.

It's beyond important, then, for us to understand GOD'S TERMS.  What is it that God wants us to do if we want to be saved?  For those who aren't already Christians, the Bible identifies only a few actions that will lead to salvation.  They are belief in Jesus, repentance, confession of Jesus as Lord, and baptism.  There are passages that we could examine with regard to all of these steps, but I was asked specifically about baptism, so let's look at baptism!  There are many passages that could serve here, but Acts 22:16 is one of the clearest.  The point is plainly evident on the face of the text.  Baptism washes away sins.  Rather than being a bath for the flesh, it's a bath for the spirit.  Baptism is how we call on the name of the Lord.  In the words of 1 Peter 3, it is the way we make our appeal for a good conscience.  As with any of the preconditions for salvation, unless we are baptized, we cannot be saved from our sins.

In sum, then, the answer to the question is this:  Jesus died on the cross so we could be forgiven.  However, if we want forgiveness, there are certain conditions that we must fulfill, and baptism is one of those conditions.  Until and unless we are baptized, we have no spiritual connection with the cross of Christ.

Questions About Age

I want to look at two more questions that concern the relationship between age and baptism.  The first of these questions asks, "WHY DOES THE BIBLE ONLY GIVE EXAMPLES OF ADULTS BEING BAPTIZED?"  Before I get to the answer, though, I want to spend some time talking about how much I like the question.  I believe that there is no such thing as a dumb question — after all, if you don't know, how will you learn unless you ask?  However, I also believe that there is such a thing as a smart question, and this is one of those.  It shows that the question-asker is not only thinking about baptism, but also about the authority principles that underlie our teaching on the subject.  He is a young person, somebody who by his own self-understanding is not an adult.  If we only have examples of adults being baptized in the Bible, is there authority for baptizing somebody who wants to be baptized but isn't an adult yet?

That's a great question, but I think there's an issue with it.  Merely asking it skews any possible answer in a way that leads us to overlook one of the most important elements of the first-century pattern of baptism.  To illustrate this central element, I want to read several passages back-to-back-to-back.  They are Acts 2:41, Acts 8:34-36, Acts 16:33, and Acts 19:4-5. 

There are actually many other baptism passages that make exactly the same point, and the point is that in the New Testament, people are baptized into Christ just as soon as they realize they need to be baptized.  There were 3000 baptized on the day of Pentecost, and it must have been a job to get all those folks in the water by sundown!  The eunuch is baptized in the middle of the very first conversation he ever has about Jesus.  The jailer is baptized immediately, that same hour of the night.  The Ephesians are baptized as soon as they learn the truth about Jesus.  Why weren't any of these people baptized as teenagers?  Because none of them had the opportunity to hear the gospel as teenagers.  However, as soon as they heard and understood what they should do, they did it.  That understanding is the significant thing about all those people, not their age.  As a result, we are much less concerned with age than with understanding.  Anybody who understands and wishes to respond to the gospel should be baptized, regardless of age.

Similarly, the questioner wanted to know, "DO YOU KNOW THE YOUNGEST PERSON EVER TO BE BAPTIZED?"  Biblically speaking, the answer is probably Timothy in Acts 16:1-2.  We know that even a decade after this event, when Paul writes 1 and 2 Timothy, he still refers to Timothy as a young man, which I read as meaning under the age of 30, so this early in the story, Timothy may well have been in his teens.  I don't think we can establish with any degree of certainty that any other Christian in the New Testament was younger when baptized.

In my own experience, I've seen some young people be baptized very young.  However, I can't really hold them up as examples because I don't know why they did what they did.  Maybe they did it for the right reasons; maybe they didn't, and it's not really my place to judge anyway.

What I can do, though, is talk about my own obedience to the gospel.  I was baptized in the summer of 1990 when I was 11 years old.  It was a Sunday evening, and the regular preacher was out of town.  One of the men of the congregation was preaching in his absence.  He had only become a Christian a year or two before, so this was probably the first sermon that he ever preached. 

That evening, he chose Matthew's account of the crucifixion for his text.  I'd been going to church all my life, so this was a very familiar story to me, but that night, it resonated with me in a way that it never had before.  For the first time, I felt on a soul-deep level wonder and awe at the sacrifice of Jesus.  I was overwhelmed by what He had done for me and for everyone.  I had not been thinking about being baptized, but I decided right then and there that I didn't want to live for myself anymore.  Instead, I determined that I wanted to offer that life to Jesus, so when the invitation was extended, much to the astonishment of my parents, I came forward and was baptized.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer here.  All of us know that children develop into adults at different rates.  I can remember other boys in my class who sprouted muscles, facial hair, and acne when I still basically had the physique of Marky.  The same is true of mental and spiritual development.  Some kids get there when they're 11, like I did, or even earlier.  Lauren was baptized when she was 10.  Sometimes, it doesn't click for young people until they're 14, 16, or even later.  All of those are fine.  What matters is not when we understand and obey the gospel, but that we do.

Knowledge and Baptism

In light of the previous discussion, it's entirely appropriate for us to wrap things up with three final questions that concern knowledge and baptism.  First, our questioner wants to know, "ARE THERE THINGS I SHOULD KNOW BEFORE BEING BAPTIZED?"  The short answer here is probably, "Yes, but less than you think."  Look, for example, at Matthew 28:18-20.  In addition to being many other things, this text gives us Jesus' recipe for discipleship.  He tells His apostles to go and make disciples, then tells them how to do it.  You make a disciple first by baptizing them, then teaching them. 

This, of course is a question of emphasis rather than absolute order.  We never see anyone who is completely ignorant being baptized in Scripture.  However, we do see people being baptized very, very quickly, often much more quickly than we would be comfortable with.  Consider, for instance, the example of the Philippian jailer.  This is a man who is almost certainly a Gentile, a native of a city that has a miniscule Jewish population and significant anti-Jewish prejudice.  He's not identified as a God-fearer, much less a proselyte.  And yet, after he asks what he must do to be saved, he is baptized into Christ that same hour of the night.  His belief is not in question, but he simply hasn't had the chance to learn very much.  However, rather than enrolling him in a 24-week correspondence course, Paul gets the man in the water.  Other than the essentials, the Biblical order does seem to be "Baptize first, then teach."

I've thought a great deal about this issue, at least in part because I was baptized so young.  Unquestionably, I understand far more about discipleship than I did then, but I've concluded that I knew enough.  I believed that Jesus was the Son of God.  I knew that I wasn't living for Him then and needed to change.  I knew that baptism was for forgiveness of sins.  I didn't have to be able to write a sermon on those things.  I just had to know why I was doing what I was doing. 

Similarly, the next question on the card I got was, "ARE THERE CONSEQUENCES, AND WHAT ARE THEY, FOR BEING BAPTIZED WITHOUT THE RIGHT REASON?"  Again, I like this question.  It shows that the questioner is taking things as seriously as they should.  I believe, though, that the Bible offers us an elegant answer to it in Matthew 6:1-4.  Even though baptism isn't the subject of the text, the principle here clearly applies to baptism.  As with obedience to any other command of God, there are two main categories of reasons why we might obey.  First, we might obey to please men.  I suspect this happens all the time.  There are definitely those who ask to be baptized so they get to be the center of attention, to get their parents off their backs, or even to fulfill the requirements of their church.  In all of those cases, the goal is to be noticed by men.  On the other hand, though, you have those who ask to be baptized because they believe the gospel and want to obey it.  Their goal is to find favor with God.

In both of these cases, Jesus wants us to understand, we can only expect to get the reward that we're seeking.  If you want to get baptized to make people happy, you'll get your reward in full from them, but you certainly won't get anything from God.  On the other hand, if you come forward for the Lord's sake and not anybody else's, God will know that about you too, and regardless of how anyone else reacts, He will bless you.  It's true that my parents were overjoyed when I was baptized.  We even all went out to Dairy Queen for sundaes after services that night, and when your mother is as nutty about healthy eating as mine was, that is a big deal!  We never did that.  However, when I got up off that pew, I know for certain that I had not devoted one second's thought to considering how my parents might react.  I did what I did for God, and I believe that I got what I was looking for too.

Our final question for the morning is the ever-popular, "HOW DO I KNOW WHEN I'M READY?"  I tell you, friends:  I sat and stared at my monitor for a looong time before I came up with an answer to this one.  My initial reflex was to reply with what I always tell my kids when they ask about baptism, probably the same thing everybody says, which is, "You'll know when you're ready."  However, I decided that it was a really lame answer, and anybody with the guts to ask the preacher to preach on baptism deserved better than that! 

Ultimately, I settled on 2 Corinthians 5:17 as the cornerstone of my answer.  You are ready to be baptized when you can ask yourself, "Do I want to become a new creature?" and from the depths of your heart, you answer "Yes."  I think this is a useful test in two different ways.  First, it weeds out those who are too young or otherwise too mentally undeveloped to understand the question.  If I were to ask Marky if he wanted to become a new creature, it's true that he would probably say "Yes!" but that's only because he would think I was talking about transforming into a tiger.  Neither he nor even Zoë would understand that I meant becoming a new person inside with the same outside, and they're both a long way away from grasping the necessity and significance for such a change.   Similarly, there are plenty who could fathom the question but would answer it "No!"  They like being their same old sinful selves!  Obviously, they shouldn't be baptized either.

However, if we hear the question, understand it, and answer "Yes" within ourselves, that, I think, is the point at which we're ready to be baptized.  It shows that we understand what it means to be, in the words of Paul, "in Christ".  In Christ, we can be spiritually reborn.  In Christ, we can leave all the sins that were part of the old us behind forever in the waters of baptism.  In Christ, we can exchange a life of meaninglessness and futility for a life of meaning and hope and joy.  Best of all, in Christ we can have Christ in a way that those who reject the gospel can never know.