When Is a Baptism Valid?

by Matthew Bassford

Seven or eight years ago, I got a call from a brother in St. Louis who asked me to study with his mother.  I set up the study and began, as I usually do, by asking her questions about her religious background.  She explained that she had been brought up in a denominational church but hadn't been religiously active during her adult life.

I then asked her if she considered herself a Christian.  "Yes," she replied.

"Why?" I asked.

 "Back when I was 13 years old," she explained, "I kept getting in a lot of fights.  I knew fighting was wrong, so I asked the pastor at church to baptize me so that God would forgive me for my fighting." 

"Well, OK," I answered.

That was my first encounter as a preacher with a question that comes up with some regularity.  I believe, as do most/all who are associated with the churches of Christ, that the immersion of a believer in water is necessary for forgiveness of sins.  Through the years, I've learned that most people in the religious world don't agree with me on this point.  Maybe they don't think baptism has to be immersion.  Maybe they think that salvation occurs before baptism, so that baptism is more a pledge of church membership.  I've studied with people with all of these beliefs, and I have some idea of how to proceed in each case.

However, this doesn't give us any insight into how to handle people who have had nothing to do with any churches of Christ, yet assert that they've already been baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  Strange though it may seem to many Christians (particularly those who haven't done much study with outsiders), these people certainly exist.  There are other churches out there that immerse believers so that their sins will be washed away.  Many such churches are part of the complex and confusing world of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement, but there are others that aren't.

It's also true that the conviction that baptism is necessary for forgiveness of sins can come from an indvidual's own consideration of the Bible rather than the teachings of any particular church.  In the book Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, David Bercot describes a Bible class in his youth when he argued that John 3 showed the necessity of water baptism for salvation, only to be shut down by his teacher.  Though I've never encountered it myself, I have no trouble imagining a scenario where the baptizer thinks he's baptizing the baptizee into the Baptist church, but the baptizee thinks he's being baptized for the forgiveness of his sins. 

How do we handle this?  What's the correct response to somebody who says, "I'm a Christian because I've been baptized for the forgiveness of sins," though they were not baptized under the auspices of a church of Christ?  Do we accept them as a brother or a sister (contingent, of course, on their commitment to following the truth), or do we demand that they be immersed again?

As always, this is an investigation that has to start with the Scripture.  The Bible has quite a bit to say about baptism.  Acts 2:38 reveals that it is for the forgiveness of sins and must be preceded by repentance.  Acts 8:13 links belief and baptism.  A little later down, Acts 8:38 demonstrates that baptism requires immersion. 

However, the Bible doesn't say anything about who has to be doing the baptizing.  In the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, Jesus commands His disciples to go and baptize.  However, nowhere do we find an instruction for those who wish to be baptized to make sure that the one baptizing them is a faithful disciple, or even a disciple at all. 

Baptism is effective because the power of Christ and the faith of the baptizee, not because of the baptizer.  Otherwise, if I were to find out that the man who baptized me was some kind of monstrous hypocrite, I would have to get re-immersed by someone with better spiritual standing.  Thankfully, what matters is my conscience, not his.

If the intent and the conscience of the one being baptized are what matter within the context of the churches of Christ, they are what matter outside of that context too.  When someone comes to me and says, "I was baptized in a denominational church for the forgiveness of my sins," their understanding of their salvation is no different than mine, and to argue otherwise is subtly and poisonously denominational. 

I believe that I belong to a congregation that is right with God.  However, what makes us right with God is not the fact that the sign on the front of the building says "church of Christ".  It is that we teach and practice the truth.  If we kept the sign and abandoned the truth, the sign would not save us.  Nor would it be wrong for us to put some other Scriptural designation on the sign so long as we kept the truth.

Similarly, though I believe that the water in our baptistery is effective for salvation, I also believe that there's nothing magical about that particular container of water.  The water in a swimming pool, a lake, or a bathtub would be equally effective.  In all cases, baptism derives its power from the blood of Christ, and the power of that blood is the same everywhere.  It does not become powerless to save within the precincts of a denominational church building, so long as the heart of the believer is right.

Unless I have very good reason ("I only got baptized to make my mom happy."), I cannot question the salvation of anyone who claims to have been baptized for the forgiveness of sins.  That's true whether they were baptized by me, a close friend of mine, a complete stranger, or someone whom I think is not a Christian at all.  Provided that they are committed to walking in the light, I must accept that baptized believer into fellowship.  If I do anything else, I set aside the word of God for the sake of the traditions of men.  I prove that I have fallen victim to precisely the denominational outlook that I claim to reject.