We just celebrated Easter. Chances are you celebrated (or heard of people celebrating) with baptisms. Our reasoning for baptizing at Easter is obvious. Amongst other things, it’s easy for people to identify with Christ’s death and resurrection during the season we focus on it most.
It is the best illustration a preacher/teacher can have at his or her disposal. Here’s a flesh and blood example, with a powerful story, of how Jesus has changed things. Splash.
Chad was baptized after he became a Christian because he genuinely realized he was a new creation. He was so excited about it that after I dunked him in the river he shot right up, smiled, and promptly dunked me. You’ve got to love the pure joy people find in Jesus.
Peter grew up in the church but hadn’t been baptized. He “never got around it.” After a chat in a small group he realized that he was in danger of avoiding it, and in more danger of disobeying Jesus. Peter came to this realization on a Wednesday. He was baptized the following Sunday. You’ve got to love it when you see maturity manifesting right in front of you.
I love baptisms. I’d love to see them happen every week. However, I’ve found that equipping people in the journey to baptism can be both overwhelmingly joyous and utterly frustrating.
Some people meet Jesus and can’t wait to obey him in baptism. They’re desperate to identify with him and show others that they’re not who they used to be. They’re a new creation, and they won’t be held back. They’ll even re-baptize you. Thanks Chad.
Other times baptism is the furthest thing from people’s minds. Most of the time (I have found) the people avoiding or resisting baptism aren’t people who’ve just met Jesus, it’s people who “never got around to it” or people who “just haven’t found the right time” or people who “couldn’t do something like that”. Many times they’ve grown up in the church, and for one reason or another, baptism hasn’t been a priority.
There are a number of reasons baptism (and by baptism you can assume I am referring to adult, full emersion baptism) hasn’t been followed through on for a Christian. Here are several I’ve encountered, the myths/misunderstandings that are connected to them, and why those myths/misunderstandings are detrimental to Christian life.
First, a note about infant baptism: “I was baptized as a baby”, is a common statement. Many have joined traditions that embrace adult, full emersion baptism from traditions that do not (Catholic or other traditions who practice infant baptism). They find it hard to let go of what their baptism as a baby says. Many, however, are willing to be baptized finding clear Biblical examples of adult baptism in the New Testament, and no Biblical examples or strong arguments for the sprinkling of babies.
Baptism must be the whole-hearted choice of the believer. Since grace is found through faith alone (not imparted by any human work including infant or adult baptism) we needn’t get our panties in a twist over someone emerging from a different tradition and taking their time to consider baptism carefully. It is a good thing. Some will choose not to, others will choose to.
I’ve found people’s faith deepened greatly by simply having baptism-focused conversations with them. They are challenged either way. It needs to be their choice, but we can certainly share what we feel the truth is concerning the matter.
We could speak more to this, but let’s move on to less complex objections to baptism.
Reasons not to be baptized:
“I’ve never gotten around to it / it was never the right time / I want to hear God tell me to do it.”
Jesus and the first Christians seemed to believe baptism should follow repentance. Phillip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch is a great example of this, and there are many more in Acts. Immediate baptism once repentance is witnessed by another Christian seems to make sense. A life has changed, a turn around has happened. Baptism is a great way to show and remember this.
When is the right time to be baptized? The short answer: if you’re a genuine Jesus follower, as soon as possible. To wish for a voice from heaven telling you to be baptized is a limited understanding of how we hear God. We can hear him through his Word, and his word commands baptism for the believer. We can help people see this, gently.
We must teach people to stand on Scripture. Too many are driven by the wind, and not the ru’ah (“breath of God”, words formed by breath). We must teach that the Scriptures are God’s words to us right now. Encouraging them to pray about it for six months only teaches them to undercut the authority of the Bible in their lives.
Look, if someone tells me that while they were praying God told them to be baptized, I celebrate their tenderness to his calling, and am happy for them. If someone tells me they won’t be baptized because “they don’t feel called to it”, I encourage them to read the Scriptures, and give careful examine their relationship with Jesus and understanding of what following him looks like.
“I want to be baptized, but here are my conditions…”
People might not use these exact words, but it’s what they mean. They want to be baptized outside, they want to be baptized in this way, at this exact time, when they are this old, or when they feel this way.
We have no terms when it comes to following Jesus. We hold no cards. If we entertain this kind of thinking we’re not helping people. If they enter (or continue in) the Christian life with the belief that Jesus-following happens on their terms, they’re in for a future of confusion and hurt. They’re also not really following Jesus.
Remember the story of Naaman, the army commander/leper and the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 5)? Naaman’s heart was proud and hard. Elisha calls for humble obedience in the great warrior, and Naaman rejects the command to wash seven times in the Jordan river. After all, he’s got cleaner rivers back home. Naaman was willing to pay an awful lot of money for his cure, but he wouldn’t humble himself.
Eventually Naaman’s friends help him see straight. He realizes that living with leprosy (a picture of sin-sickness in the grand Biblical narrative) is killing him slowly. He chooses to humble himself, obey God, and is cleansed. Thanks to God leprosy didn’t kill Naaman, but pride almost did.
Did the washing in that river heal him? No. His willingness to obey God in humility did. Elisha set before him God’s conditions for cleansing and wholeness: complete and utter humility and obedience. Elisha rejected Namaan’s attempts of treating God like a vending machine. Remember, it wasn’t about the washing, or ultimately the healing, for that matter… God wanted Naaman’s heart. (For more on the correlation of baptism, washing, sin, pride and humility, check this out.)
When we speak the truth in love, we’ll challenge people. It will get uncomfortable, but it’s better than allowing them to continue on a course of wrong thinking that won’t lead anywhere good. Remember, it’s not about the water, it’s not about the action, it’s about what the water and the action represent. It’s about the heart.
“I don’t feel ready.”
Some may not feel ready because they genuinely aren’t. Some make a firm choice to follow Jesus one day, and everything changes. Others can be on the journey for a number of months or even years. Deciphering whether or not this person has fully entered into the New Covenant with Jesus is crucial. Rushing baptism won’t help. They must be sure.
However, “I don’t feel ready” can also betray a complete misunderstanding of the Gospel. It can mean that someone feels they have to know a certain amount, have acted well enough, or feel they need to achieve some weird level of holiness in order to be worthy of baptism. This is wrong thinking. This is works-based theology, and it’s serious.
They need to know that if they’ve chosen Jesus, they are a new creation, and they are ready to celebrate and depict that through baptism. We can encourage them in and remind them of the great love of God. We can help them see (and their baptism likely won’t be the last time) that they’re not loved by God because of how popular they are, how successful, how much they pray, or how much money they give to charity. When we awake to the reality of God’s overwhelming and overshadowing love we truly come alive.
“I could never stand in front of people and do that.”
Many, if not most people are terrified of talking in front of a crowd. We can be of great comfort to our people in helping them understand we’ll be right their with them. They don’t need to be forced to share a thirty-minute testimony. A simple interview asking a few questions will do.
What they must understand, however, is that showcasing their faith is a vital part of being a Christian. If they’re not willing to stand before a group of loving believers who are cheering them on, how will they be able to stand for Christ elsewhere? Francis Chan says that anxiety surrounding talking in front of a crowd betrays sin in our lives. It means we care more about what people think of us than what Jesus thinks of us.
Baptism emboldens the believer. It can help overcome (in some small way) the fear of man, and will serve people well in future moments when they need to stand for Jesus.
Some wish to be baptized in private. Though there are certainly exceptions like those perhaps in physical danger because of conversion, or others with sever social anxiety, the majority of people need to be taught that Christianity isn’t an individualistic faith. It’s deeply communal. Baptism, like the Lord’s Supper, teaches us that we are one body. This understanding is vital to growth in Christ.
A short list of things baptism teaches and embodies, both to the person being baptized, and the community that witnesses it:
- Grace by faith. Baptism is simply the physical picture of what has occurred in someone’s life.
- Radical obedience to Christ.
- The Community (Church) matters and the Community (Church) cares.
- Identifying with Jesus is a dramatic thing and is not to be taken lightly.
A misunderstanding of baptism may betray in people a misunderstanding of the Gospel itself. A resistance to baptism may betray resistance to Jesus. This does not mean we should aim to conform to baptism even when they don’t want to. Quite the opposite. We need to teach clearly on baptism, which if done correctly, is really just teaching on the Gospel.
If we teach and preach baptism well, particularly when we’re actually baptizing people, we’ll be equipping our communities well. Teaching clearly on baptism can be a wonderful way to help people understand why and how we follow Christ.
What do you think baptism teaches us?