Trinitarian Ministry to Body, Mind, and Soul

A series of articles originally written by Jonathan Stepp, edited by Michael Morrison.

3. Baptism

What is baptism in the light of who Jesus is?

The English word “baptize” comes from the Greek baptizō, which has its root in baptō, meaning “to dip,” “to immerse,” or “to dye.”[1] Think of something like a piece of cloth being immersed in a vat of dye, or a finger dipped in water (Luke 16:24).

Ritual immersions were used in Judaism for proselyte conversion. The Essenes baptized new members. John the Baptizer used baptism in conjunction with repentance. Jesus and his disciples used it for new disciples in the Christian movement.

What is the significance of baptism? One difficulty in this subject is that a physical activity cannot provide a perfect picture of spiritual reality. Any analogy breaks down if we try to press the details too far, so we have to investigate to see what points of similarity were intended, and which are accidental. We will proceed in an inductive way, gathering questions and evidence before drawing conclusions.

  • It is possible that baptism is designed to picture a permanent immersion, but since we cannot survive underwater, the ritual was necessarily temporary. In this case, we should extend the symbolism of immersion, rather than focus on the fact that it was but an instant.
  • Another factor to consider is that for centuries, in many churches, baptisms were administered by sprinkling or pouring. The analogy of immersion, if it was ever intended, was neglected.
  • Baptism is normally administered once, in contrast to the Lord’s Supper, which is repeated many times. Does this frequency have counterparts in the spiritual life, or are the two rites symbolizing the same spiritual reality in different ways?
  • Just because we can think of an analogy that “works” does not mean it was the main point of the rite, or even that it was intended.
  • Jesus had no sins of his own, so why did he seek John’s baptism of repentance? If he did it on our behalf, is it necessary for us to do it, too? Is the meaning of his baptism to be seen in the meaning of ours, or vice versa?
  • The meaning given to baptism by Jews, or by John the Baptist, may not necessarily extend into Christian baptism. It is possible that baptism before the crucifixion pictured one thing, but the ritual was given a new meaning after Jesus’ resurrection.
  • Does baptism symbolize what we do, or what God has done? Can it be both?
  • Does baptism do anything objectively toward our salvation, or is it done for subjective, sociological or psychological reasons? Everyone agrees that it has symbolism, but is that all it has? Can people be saved without it?

Questions abound as to whether it is appropriate to baptize infants, whether baptism must be done by immersion, whether it is necessary for salvation, and what it means. Let us first explore the New Testament, and that will help us see how we join Jesus in his ministry as he baptizes the people we are working with.

Baptismal symbolism in the Bible

Daniel Migliore writes, “The New Testament unfolds the meaning of baptism in many rich images. Each of them is important and complements the others.”[2]

  1. 1 Cor. 6:11 appears to connect baptism with cleansing: “You were washed [apparently alluding to baptism], you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God” (NRSV throughout). Baptism signified the removal of their guilt [justification] and that they had been sanctified, or made holy, set apart for God’s use. The verbs are passive – the focus is on what Christ did, but the context of the verse also includes a person’s response (a change in behavior). Water (either immersion or sprinkling) can picture cleansing.
  2. 1 Peter 3:20-21 says that baptism was prefigured by Noah’s Flood. Baptism “now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” It is not a physical cleansing, but the implication is that it is the removal of spiritual dirt (forgiveness), by which our conscience can be cleared. It is not clear whether the good conscience refers to cleansing from past transgressions, or the basis of a new life. Jesus’ resurrection is associated with the good conscience (a new life), or to the cleansing (justification).
  3. Romans 6:3-4 associates baptism with dying and rising with Christ: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (NRSV).

    When Paul says “buried with him” (rather than died with him), he is probably referring to a person’s descent below the water. A person being baptized acknowledges the ancient Christian confession that “Christ died for us,” that he “died for our sins.” Baptism signifies identification with Jesus’ death, either (from his perspective) that he died for us, or (from our perspective) that our “old self” died with him.

    The symbolism could focus on a) the fact that Jesus did this for us, and we commemorate it, or b) that we acknowledge our need for his death as the solution to our sins as well as believing in what he did. Rising from the water would then correspond to rising with Christ to “a new life.”[3] The focus could be on the fact that Jesus gives us a new identity, that he is the second Adam for all humanity (Romans 5), or on the fact that we are to respond to our new identity with new behavior (Romans 6).
  4. Baptism is not only associated with new life, it is also connected with new birth. Jesus may be referring to baptism when he says that a person must be “born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). Titus 3:5 refers to “the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.” Similarly, Acts 2:38 connects baptism with “the gift of the Holy Spirit.”[4] These images connect baptism with the beginning of Christian life, and that is how the rite has historically been used.
  5. Colossians 2:11-12 connects baptism with an older initiation rite, circumcision: “In him [Christ] also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” We were spiritually circumcised when we were baptized. Verses 13-14 then connect baptism with new life and forgiveness of sins.[5]
  6. 1 Corinthians 10:1-2 connects baptism with the Israelites’ Exodus through the Red Sea: “Our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Paul does not develop the analogy of being “under the cloud” – immersion does not seem to be an accurate word for the Exodus. This was a major event in the formation of the nation – an escape from slavery into becoming a nation under God. In this chapter, Paul uses the analogy to argue for a change in behavior.
  7. Jesus used baptism figuratively in Luke 12:50: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” He told James and John, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized” (Mark 10:39). He was referring to his suffering and death; the meaning of “immersion” is nearly gone, and the meaning of “major life transition” is closer. Our baptism might then be viewed as an imitation death ritual. This figurative meaning could have come from Jewish practices such as proselyte baptism. Crucifixion and resurrection was a pivotal time in Jesus’ life, the end of one life and the beginning of another. Geoffrey Bromiley says that this is “the real baptism of the [New Testament], which makes possible the baptism of our identification with Christ.”[6] He sees the cross as central to the meaning of Christian baptism.

None of the biblical passages is an attempt to explain what baptism means; they all assume that the readers are familiar with the rite, and then use the rite to make another point. Further, the passages make different points. This suggests that baptism has several legitimate meanings, and the New Testament may not give an exhaustive survey of the meaning(s) involved in baptism. We may cautiously explore additional possibilities.

Exploring the symbolism of “immersion”

Let us begin with the image of immersion, and ask how it might be relevant to Jesus and what he is doing in our lives. Some have suggested that before the Son of God became a human being, he was immersed in the life and love of his Father and the Spirit. In this sense, immersion is part of the life of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit do not just live “with” each other, they have always lived and had their being immersed in each others’ existence.[7] This does not mean the obliteration of their distinctive identities as unique persons, any more than the immersion of a cloth into water means that the cloth becomes water. But each divine Person is “soaking” in the others. Their lives are distinct but not separate, and they live in a state of being in which they are immersed in each others’ existence.

When the Son became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14), he immersed himself into humanity and thus into our human nature. In this case, he became what he was immersed in. The Creator became flesh, part of the creation. Although the Son of God was immersed into our sinful nature, he trusted his Father and undid the fall of Adam by continually living as the Father’s trusting Son.

If this symbolism is correct, what might it mean for our human nature? Whenever God enters a place, that place becomes holy. When God appeared in the burning bush, God’s goodness made that place holy. When God’s presence entered the tabernacle in the wilderness, it made that tent a holy place. When Jesus touched a leper, he did not catch the disease – he healed it.

When the Son of God was immersed into humanity, it did not undo his existence in which he is immersed in the life of the Father and the Spirit. Even though the Son lives as a human, he does not stop being divine. By being immersed in human nature, he brings human nature into contact with God. The Bible says that we are in Christ, and Christ is in the Trinity; in Christ we have been brought into the life of the Triune God. His dual immersion (with divinity and with humanity) changes us, bringing us into God.

This is good theology, but is it the meaning of water baptism? The word “immersion” has interesting parallels with Christ, but other details about baptism seem to be left hanging, and if we focus on the word immersion, then we are probably missing out on some lessons conveyed by those other details.

  • The biblical passages about baptism seem to focus on the end of something and the beginning of something else. In most of the verses, baptism marks a transition point. It marks the end of the old self and guilt, not just the new life in fellowship with God.
  • In Romans 6, immersion pictures death and burial, rather than life with God. Our new life is pictured not by immersion, but by rising out of the water.
  • If the ritual pictures something that lasts forever, it would seem permissible to repeat it frequently. But if it marks a decisive transition point, only once would be appropriate.
  • If we focus on “immersion,” and yet administer baptism to infants by sprinkling, then we are reducing the effectiveness of the image. This suggests either that our administration is misleading, or that we are focusing on the wrong part of the symbolism.

Another look at Romans 6

In Romans 6:1-7, Paul uses the imagery of baptism to explain that our sinful nature was put to death in Jesus’ death. In Romans 1-4 Paul points out that humanity’s relationship with God cannot be based on human work or behavior because we are unable to initiate a relationship with God.

In chapter 5, Paul explains how Jesus is the answer to this dilemma. In the same way that Adam took us all down into sin and death, so Jesus has brought righteousness and life. Humanity has a new start, a new foundation, in Jesus. The primary definition of humanity is no longer “fallen in Adam” – it is “restored in Christ.”

Beginning in chapter 6, Paul explains that the gospel does not give us “permission to sin.” Instead, the gospel tells us that the old way of living is dead, and in Christ, there is a new way of living. When we understand that we have been brought into the Triune life, we see that sin should have no role in our life. Our present life should be in harmony with our future life.

Everything Paul says about baptism in Romans 6 is in the language of being united with Christ, being “in” him. Our baptism is in him, our death is a death with him, and our resurrection is a resurrection with him. Baptism signifies being bound up and included in Jesus. We are joined to his baptism – not just his baptism in water at the hands of John, but his baptism on the cross (Luke 12:50), his death and resurrection. Baptism is about what Jesus has done to us and our human nature: he has washed it, crucified it, and resurrected it. He has changed the source and nature of our humanity from Adam to himself. Baptism signifies a change.

Baptism has nothing to do with earning life with God. It is not signifying what we have done – it signifies what Jesus has done for us. Our faith, or our acceptance, is not meritorious. Jesus brought us into his kingdom; all we did is wake up when the Spirit nudged us, and we then realized where Jesus had placed us. We do not celebrate our awakening, our coming to faith, but we celebrate something far more significant: what Jesus and the Spirit have done. We celebrate something done in the past – done objectively by Jesus in crucifixion and resurrection, and subjectively realized by us at a later date. We “catch on” to the truth of what was done for us. Our faith, and our immersion in water, cannot make us children of the Father. Jesus has done that.[8] Our faith implements it in our life.

Baptism is a physical action, an “object lesson” by which we remind ourselves and tell others that Jesus has brought a significant change in our lives: the end of the old Adamic human, and the beginning of a life in Christ, with all that it entails.[9] Bromiley writes, “The action itself is divinely ordained as…a means to present Christ and therefore to fulfill the attesting work of the Spirit. It does not do this by the mere performance of the prescribed rite; it does it in and through its meaning. Nor does it do it alone…it does it in conjunction with the spoken and written word.”[10] The actions are not self-interpreting – they need to be explained by the officiating minister.[11]

Just as Jesus took us into the grave with him, and put to death our Adamic, sinful nature, so also we go down into the “grave” of baptism (if the baptism is done by immersion). Just as Jesus took us up with him in his resurrection, so also we come out of the baptismal waters to symbolize new life.[12]

Baptism is not the cause of salvation – Jesus is. Baptism is a response to salvation. Since humanity has already died and been resurrected in Christ, we go through a ritual reenactment of what has already happened to us by “dying” in the water and coming back up “resurrected” out of the water (or for infants, being washed and cleansed by the water).[13]

Jesus’ baptism

Jesus’ baptism is celebrated by the Eastern Orthodox churches at the Feast of Epiphany. The word “epiphany” means “appearance,” or to reveal something that was hidden. Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God at his baptism (Mark 1:11). Baptism is an epiphany for us, too, in that it announces who we are, that Jesus has made us his own. Before we came to faith, we did not know who we were, but baptism reveals that Jesus is our true identity, that our lives are hidden in him (Col. 3:3). Baptism is a moment when something that has been true all along is portrayed in plain sight for all to see.

John the Baptizer was conducting a baptism of repentance. Jesus had no sin, so why did Jesus seek that baptism? He was acting as the representative of all humanity, and he repented on behalf of all humanity. It’s as if he said, “I’m starting the human race all over again, and we are not going to go down the path we did before. We will be loyal to God rather than taking matters into our own hands.”

Jesus was signifying the fact that all humanity needed to be washed, to be forgiven, and the old approach had to die, and a new approach to life was needed. He was signifying a decisive life transition, a decisive transformation. He did not transition from sinful to sinless, but he transitioned into his time of active ministry. The Spirit descended on him—not that the Spirit was not with him before this, but signifying in a visual way that life is possible only by the Spirit. The Father said, “This is my Son.” He now adds, “All who are included in my Son are also my children.”

Jesus’ baptism did not earn him forgiveness (he did not need it) and it did not earn him his status as the Father’s Son (he already had that). In the same way, our baptism does not earn our forgiveness (we have that already), nor our status as the Father’s children. It portrays something that is true before the baptism occurs. It symbolizes the truth that we have already died and been raised in the death and resurrection of Christ. Our new life, our assurance of eternal life, is made possible by what he went through on the cross and in the tomb.

Why it is commanded

Why does Christ command baptism in water if what it pictures has already taken place? It is to help understand[14] that we need a clean break with the past, and that this has been done not through our efforts or our wisdom – it has been accomplished for us in Christ in his crucifixion and resurrection. All we can do is get in line with what he has already declared us to be.

The water of baptism portrays the truth that Christ has transformed our life. Although infants cannot yet understand this point, the meaning of baptism should be explained as the children grow older (just as young Jewish children are taught as they grow older about the significance of the Passover ceremonies they had participated in as infants). They are to see their identity as a new life in Christ, not an old life in Adam. The decisive turning point in their life has already occurred. They should not believe lies of guilt, fear, and being excluded from God.

This is why Paul uses the imagery of baptism in Romans 6. The readers in Rome are probably not wanting to go out and sin – rather, they are afraid that the gospel of grace will encourage people to sin. Paul is explaining that the symbolism of baptism does not lead to sin. Rather, it is an identification with Christ. Baptism pictures the old way of sin as dead; and the new life is pictured by being in union with Christ.[15] Since our new life is in Christ, our life should not be characterized by sin, because that is not part of Christ.

Baptism reminds us that salvation does not just address the past – it also addresses the future. There is death of the old, but we also need life for the future. We look forward to an eternity in which sin does not exist, and so our new life even in this age should say “death” to sin. Our life today should reflect the kind of life we want in eternity. But this is not achieved by us – it is achieved by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and baptism points us to that fact. The water might also symbolize the need for the Spirit in our new life.[16]

Baptism does not just picture death of the old, nor just picture new life – it pictures both: a decisive turning point, a transformation: the end of the Adamic creation and the start of the new creation,[17] the new humanity, in Christ. In our behavior, we should see ourselves as children of God, people led by the Spirit, united to Christ. Out with the old, and in with the new!

How do we practice the ministry of baptism?

Baptism is generally a public ceremony – it is not done privately. For one thing, our new life in Christ is not a solitary life – it is life in community with other believers. As we picture a person rising to new life, we also picture them coming into a community of people who know they are in Christ.[18]

Another reason for making the ceremony public is that it reminds older believers of their own baptism, and that they have already acknowledged the decisive turning point in their own life. As believers, we all grow throughout our lives in our understanding of what baptism means, just as we are growing in our understanding of all aspects of our life in Jesus.

We see this in Romans 6. Most people in the original audience had already been baptized, yet Paul is trying to deepen their understanding of what they had experienced, and apply the lessons of it in a new way. As we minister to believers throughout their lives, we should occasionally return to the theme of baptism: what it means and how that meaning (transformation in Jesus) has ongoing application in all areas of their lives. One way to do this is to talk about baptism every year on Epiphany Sunday. This is a worship theme built into the Christian calendar to help us return on an annual basis to thinking about how Jesus has identified with us in baptism, and then it can be used to comment on how we acknowledge this identity in our baptism.

We need to continually remind people that they are in Christ, that their identity is in him, and their salvation is assured in him. As we assure believers of this good news, we will be sharing the good news with unbelievers, too.

In some denominations, believers are familiar with baptism as a sign of their own faith. It will take some time for them to adjust their thinking to see it as a witness to Jesus’ work on our behalf. Yes, our response is important, but it is not even possible unless Jesus’ work is already objectively true. People need to hear the meaning again and again, from several angles. The baptism of an infant can be an occasion to help people see that it is not our own faith that we are celebrating, but baptism is a witness to the grace of God.

Re-baptism

Sometimes people ask to be baptized again. We do not encourage this, nor do we forbid it. Some people question whether they “really meant it” or “really knew what they were doing” when they were baptized. This often comes from a legalistic, contractual way of thinking about salvation, in that every detail must be done just right, because its effectiveness depends on what we do and whether we do it properly.

The key issue that needs to be addressed with re-baptism is that baptism is not something we do. Rather, it commemorates something that Jesus has done. Faith is not something we muster up to make the Father love us. Faith is something that Jesus has in his relationship with his Father, and he shares it with us through the Spirit. When we express faith by being baptized, it is not primarily our faith that we are expressing. It is Jesus’ faithfulness, being shared with us in the Spirit, and being expressed in our words and actions. It is a gift (Eph. 2:8-9).

Because no one is perfect, our expression of Jesus’ faith will always be inadequate in some way. If our salvation depended on our own faith, we would never be saved. The validity of our baptism is not based on how well we understand or express the faith that Jesus is sharing with us. Our baptism is valid because of who Jesus is. Jesus is our baptism; he is the one who has brought us out of the old life and into the new.

If believers approach you about being re-baptized because they doubt their faith or fear that they did not properly understand the gospel, then your job is to assure them of who they already are in Jesus. Explain more fully who Jesus is and reassure them of Jesus’ faith and faithfulness. He did his work perfectly, regardless of how poorly we did ours. The truth that baptism pictures is still true, regardless of how poorly we symbolized it or understood it at some point in the past. Remind them that baptism is a picture of grace, not of our performance.[19]

In churches that practice infant baptism, this ceremony is based on three important assumptions:

  1. That at least one of the parents has faith in Christ,
  2. that the child will be raised as a Christian, and
  3. that when these children become old enough to make their own faith decisions (usually around age 13-18), they will go through a confirmation process in which they publicly accept the gospel for themselves.

When these conditions are not fulfilled, re-baptism is sometimes appropriate. For example, there was a young woman who had been baptized as an infant in the Catholic Church. Even though her family went to mass occasionally, she learned nothing about Jesus and her Father in heaven. At age 13 she started a confirmation class but quickly dropped it. Throughout her teen years and into early adulthood, she rejected all religion and lived a very damaging lifestyle. But she was eventually invited to church, learned about Jesus, embraced the gospel, and asked to be baptized.

Because there had never been a moment of confirmation in her life in which she expressed the faith of Jesus for herself, it was appropriate to re-baptize her. If she regarded her baptism as an infant as a meaningful moment in her life, and therefore she did not want to be re-baptized, then that would have been OK, too. But since she wanted to experience baptism, and she had never been confirmed in her baptism as an infant, the pastor agreed to re-baptize her.

We want to help people see that baptism marks the transition between the old life and the new life – achieved objectively by Jesus in his death and resurrection, achieved subjectively by our transition from an old way of thinking and into a new way of thinking. For non-Christians who come to believe during adulthood, baptism is normally done shortly after they come to faith. For people who are baptized in infancy, they are (hopefully) taught the new life from the beginning; their “transition” begins when they are born, continues through confirmation and the rest of their lives. Only if this process has been derailed would it be appropriate to re-baptize them.

A final word about re-baptism. If a person experienced something called “baptism,” but that ceremony had nothing to do with the Trinity, then that person has never been baptized. This would most commonly arise in situations involving non-Christian religions. If a person was dunked in water but it was not in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then it was not a baptism in Christ. Such a person who comes to believe in what Christ has done is not seeking rebaptism – they are seeking Christian baptism for the first time and should be ministered to as a person just coming to faith.

When to baptize

For people who do not yet believe, baptism represents a point of transition towards which we are always praying and encouraging them. We do not want to pressure a person to be baptized. On the other hand, we do not want to neglect the practice of baptism in such a way that nonbelievers might come to faith in Jesus and yet never be encouraged to experience baptism.

When is a person ready to be baptized? For most people, the answer is “when they want to be baptized.”[20] The act of standing in front of other Christians, affirming your faith, and allowing others to immerse you in water does not come naturally. The mere fact that people would want to go through such a ritual is evidence that the people are being drawn by the Spirit to accept the truth of who Christ is for them. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-38) is a good example of this. As soon as the eunuch understood who Jesus is, he wanted to be baptized, so Phillip baptized him.

Since (for adults) baptism shows a transition between our old way of thinking, in which we were blind to Jesus, and our new way of thinking, in which we know and trust him, as soon as this transition point has been reached, as soon as people know that God chose them for salvation in Christ, they are ready for baptism.[21] They may express their understanding in a variety of ways, such as knowing that God loves them, or has adopted them, that they love God, that they want to live forever with Jesus, that they are committed to following Jesus, etc. We do not need to insist on any particular terminology.[22]

Personal choice plays a role in this. An individual may know that Jesus is the Savior, but their fears or other reservations may cause the person to hold back from baptism. In such situations we pray for and work patiently with the people, assuring them that they are loved, that they belong, and they are qualified for the kingdom (Col. 1:12) and ready for baptism. People who believe in Jesus, but are reluctant to be baptized, probably have some wrong thinking that needs to change. Without pressuring or nagging, you can be a great help in reassuring such persons of their relationship with Jesus and thus helping them move towards baptism. In the end, it is up to a person’s own choice as to when to be baptized, and we respect their freedom to make that choice.

Baptism of infants and children

Children represent one group with whom we might have difficulty. Many of us come from a branch of the Protestant tradition in which infants were not baptized. Let us look at the issues involved.

The vast majority of Christians, both in the world today and throughout the history of the church, were baptized as infants. The primary reason that many evangelicals do not practice infant baptism is that they have viewed baptism as a sign of something the person has done, rather than what Jesus has done. People have to be of sound mind to do it. Some denominations are willing to baptize children as young as 5; some prefer to wait until a person is 18 or so. Some are reluctant to baptize anyone who is severely mentally handicapped. The idea is that baptism is your action to express your faith,[23] and you cannot express your own faith until you are old enough.

The struggle then becomes, how do we determine this competency? Is a 4-year old competent? What about a 6-year old? How do we know? How much does an 8-year old have to talk about Jesus in order to be deemed competent? How much does a person have to understand about the Trinity? What about a 19-year old with an IQ of 75? Such people are adults, but can they understand what it means for Jesus to be fully God and fully human? (Can an adult with an IQ of 150 really understand the paradox of humanity and divinity together in one human?)

The theology of grace cuts through the questions posed above. Since salvation is by grace, it seems contradictory to create a standard of competence. That could make salvation sound like a contractual relationship.

Most churches that practice infant baptism explain it in terms of a covenant, as opposed to a contract. They regard salvation as a promissory covenant made by God with humans. This covenant is a statement of relationship: I will be your God and you will be my people. It is established in Jesus and his faithfulness, not in the person or faithfulness of fallen humanity. We do not enter into this relationship by providing our part of the agreement. Rather, Christ makes this covenant with us in himself, and he chose us from before the foundation of the world. Therefore, people are included even before they are born. The baptism of infants bears witness to their inclusion in Christ, and starts them on the journey of growing up to know the truth of their relationship with God.[24]

GCI permits the baptism of infants when the parents want it. The GCI book of ceremonies includes a ceremony for infant baptism. As part of your counsel to the parent(s), you should explain that they are agreeing to raise the baptized child as a Christian and that a time will come, later in the child’s life, when he or she will go through confirmation. Infants are usually baptized by sprinkling or pouring, picturing the cleansing that Christ gives us, although some churches use partial immersion (in warm water) for infants.

What about situations where a child has not been baptized as an infant? In adults, baptism marks a transition point between our old way of thinking and a new way of thinking but this transition has no validity apart from the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, and the ceremony therefore should point to the objective reality in Christ, not the subjective matter of us coming to understand and accept what he has done for us. This can help us resolve the question of when to baptize children who were not baptized as infants.

When we speak to children about baptism, we are not trying to determine whether those children are mentally competent to be baptized. Instead we are telling them the gospel, that God loves them and has already included them in his family. Their old way of thinking, when they were infants, was to not think about Jesus. As they grow up, we help them grow in thinking about Jesus as the one who includes them in God’s life. The baptism of children is not a question of what they understand, but rather of how Jesus is sharing his faith with them and how they want to express that faith. It is an object lesson to convey the truth of what Jesus has done. We generally prefer immersion for children and adults, because it not only pictures cleansing, but also the burial and resurrection of Jesus, and through that, the end of our old life and the beginning of a new life in Christ.

As we work with kids, we want to explain to them who Jesus is and who they are in him. We can explain what baptism is and what it reveals about Jesus and them. We can talk about “when you are baptized” in the same way we talk about other milestones in life, like “when you start school,” “when you become a teenager,” and “when you learn to drive.” As the Spirit leads us, we will also ask them what they think about baptism, and when they think they would like to be baptized.

The answer to the question “when is a child ready to be baptized?” is the same as the answer we gave for adults: when children want to be baptized, they are ready. The only extra element we need to add is “…and when the parents are ready for them to be baptized.” If a 4-year old wants to be baptized, and the parents agree, we can do it. Since the meaning of the baptism is something that Jesus has already done, we are not concerned with whether minimum requirements of competency have been met. Jesus himself is the competency of all human beings to participate in baptism. This Christ-centered reasoning also applies to those who have mental disabilities.

Last, we want to share in the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in this. If my 10-year-old invites a friend from school to come to church for the first time, and that friend happens to see a baptism that day, sees the person as the center of attention, and asks to be baptized, too, I do not go to the parents and say “Jane wants to be baptized, is that okay with you?” Instead I might tell them, “I thought you’d like to know that Jane expressed an interest in what baptism is, and you might want to talk with her about it.” On the other hand, if my daughter has friends that are coming to church with her every week, and I know their parents – even though the parents may not be Christians – and those kids express an interest in baptism, then I might want to follow up on it with their families.

How do we feed Jesus’ sheep in body, mind, and soul through baptism?

Body: Ministry has sometimes been viewed as a “spiritual” activity. This has often meant that ministry is related to the soul and the mind, but the body is irrelevant and almost dispensable. This has even led to heresy, such as the idea that the Son shed his body at his resurrection (or at his ascension) because the body is either unnecessary or evil.

In contrast to such a view of ministry, we have Jesus. He is the Son of God with a (resurrected) human body. Not only does Jesus affirm the value and importance of the creation in his own person, by his own body, he also affirms it by the destiny he reveals for the creation. The universe will not be destroyed, but will be made new and will exist forever (Rev. 21:14). Just as Jesus’ own body has been made new and exists forever, so also all of us, including our bodies, and the whole creation, are being made new in Jesus.

Jesus not only affirms the importance of the body by who he is and what he does, he also affirms its importance by the way in which he does ministry. In baptism, Jesus not only gives himself to us in our minds and souls, he also gives himself to us in our bodies. At baptism we feel the watery grave. We hear the splash of the water. We feel someone take hold of us and we feel ourselves immersed in the death of Christ. Then, we feel ourselves being pulled back up out of death and feel the air. We hear the water splash behind us, and we experience in our muscles and skin the truth that we have been raised up in Christ. Jesus has given us this ceremony to help us understand our death and resurrection in him. It engages the physical senses of our body as well as our minds and souls.

In whatever way you minister, whether it is preaching, serving Communion, evangelizing, discipling, or counseling people, your goal should be to bring the symbolism of baptism into greater fulfillment, in that the person is living the new life in Christ. You want to continually assure people of God’s love for them, that they are accepted in Christ. But if we leave their bodies out of it, they are missing the full experience.

Baptism can be done by immersing the person in water or by pouring the water over the person. In GCI we generally baptize by immersion,[25] but it would not be wrong to pour the water to picture cleansing rather than burial. For example, if you are working with a person who has a strong phobia of being under water, or is confined to a hospital bed, then you might pour water over them instead of immersing them.

A few days before the baptism is to take place, explain to the person being baptized what will happen. They should wear clothes that they do not mind getting wet in: no white t-shirts or dresses that will become see-through after they get wet. They should also bring a big towel and a change of clothes. Explain to the person how you will each stand and what the process will be like. You want them to know what to expect.

When the time comes for the baptism, have the person stand in the water. Water that is waist deep is ideal. You stand next to the person being baptized and have a fellow minister, or friend of the person being baptized, stand on the other side to help.[26] After the words of the ceremony have been spoken, the person being baptized crosses his or her arms across the chest and reaches up with one hand to hold the nose. (This prevents them from throwing out their arms and hitting you accidentally.) The person should then bend at the knees while you and your assistant place your arms behind the person’s back to support the torso. You and your assistant then lower the person into the water as he or she bends at the knees, and you then lift the person back up out of the water.

After the immersion has taken place, let the baptized person put on a towel (often needed for warmth) and step out of the water. You and the other elders of the church (and perhaps significant others, such as the person who was most instrumental in sharing the gospel with them), then lay hands on them and pray for their future as they participate more fully in Jesus’ life and for them to continue to be responsive to the Holy Spirit.[27]

Here is an example of how we might phrase the prayer during the laying on of hands:

Father in heaven, we thank you for our salvation through your Son Jesus Christ and for the pouring out of your Holy Spirit on us. We rejoice with you that (name of the baptized person) has received the Holy Spirit,[28] and believes that you love them and you want them to live with you forever. Jesus, we know that this faith is your gift to this person through the Holy Spirit, and we pray that in the days and years to come you will continue to share your life and knowledge of your Father in such a way that this person will continue to walk in faith, and that the gifts of your Spirit will flow into this person, and through this person, into the lives of those around this person. We pray in your name, Jesus, giving glory to you and the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Mind: The connection between body and mind is powerfully present in baptism. Because we were created as integrated persons, whose bodies, minds, and souls exist in interdependence, what we do with our bodies has a powerful effect on what we think with our minds – and vice versa.

The physical act of being immersed in the water of baptism has – all on its own – a strong effect on a person’s thinking. This is part of the reason Jesus gave us this physical, bodily way of marking the transition into faith. Because this body/mind connection is strong, we should pay attention to the words we say at baptism. These words create certain images and thoughts in the mind of the person being baptized and in the minds of those who watch.

Even so, many people will have trouble recalling the exact words we say – the memory of being immersed will overshadow the memory of the words that were said. However, the images and thoughts created by our words will be reinforced and imprinted on the person’s mind by the fact that they are coupled with the memory-intensifying act of immersion.

In the most practical sense, this means that our words have the chance to create a renewing, assuring, joyful state of mind for the person being baptized, or to create a confused, or even anxious state of mind. That state of mind – whatever it is – will be remembered because the physical experience of the ceremony will imprint it on the person’s mind.

If you were baptized as an adult, think back to your own baptism. What emotions did you experience as you were immersed? What thoughts went through your mind? In what way were your thoughts influenced by the words that were said? You probably cannot remember many of the specific words that were spoken, but you can remember your feelings and thoughts as the ceremony took place. You might have been filled with anxiety if the counseling was filled with questions like “are you really ready? have you really repented? do you really know what you’re doing?” Or you could have had feelings of assurance and forgiveness if that is what the counseling focused on.

At the most basic level, the only words that “must” be spoken at a baptism are the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Christian denominations use these words, and that helps us distinguish Christian baptism from the baptism of other religions.[29]

Beyond these basic words, however, there is a natural desire on our part that a little more should be said. It is an important moment in a person’s life, and it deserves to marked with language that evokes the beauty and assurance of who Jesus is for us. We may ask the person being baptized to speak some words, and we say a little ourselves. Often the person being baptized will be nervous, emotional, and often not accustomed to speaking in public. It is therefore good to ask only questions that require the simple answer “yes.” Some people may want to say more – for example, giving a testimony of what Jesus has done in their lives – and this is a good thing that can be encouraged. Leave it up to the person being baptized how much they would like to say.

If you are ministering in a specific denomination, you should review the denominational instructions, whether for adults (and children who are old enough to speak for themselves) and for infants. The GCI ceremonies are at https://www.gci.org/books/ceremonies-for-pastoral-use/.

Soul: Much of what we need to say about baptizing people’s souls has been said above. No human soul is cut off from God. When the Son of God entered our humanity, he entered our souls and brought our souls into the life that has eternally been his: the life he lives with the Father and the Holy Spirit.

What many human souls lack is assurance. When we serve Jesus’ people by using the water and the word to baptize them in the assurance of their identity in Jesus, then we are ministering in step with the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our words and actions become a reflection of the Spirit’s words and actions, and in this way we help release into the minds and bodies of others the assurance they have in their souls, from Jesus, through his Spirit.

This assurance is the foundational element of human life as it was meant to be lived. The Father created us to live and move and have our being in the wonderful assurance of how loved and accepted we are in his Son. From this assurance flows a happy childhood, happy friendships, happy marriages, and happy work. Jesus said, “this is eternal life: that they may know you [the Father], the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (John 17:3.) Real, eternal, happy life is the life of the Trinity, and therefore our real and happy life is as children of the Father. Baptism assures us that we have left the old life in Adam and are brought into the joy-filled life of G


[1] A. Oepke, “Baptō,” pages 92-94 in Kittel and Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume.

[2] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004), 283.

[3] The fullness of new life comes in the resurrection, and Paul says that we will be raised with Christ, but his focus in this chapter is that we walk in newness of life even now.

[4] Some have concluded that baptism is the mechanism by which a person is born again – that the physical ritual is necessary for the spiritual reality to occur. This is called baptismal regeneration, but the idea conflicts with the biblical teaching of salvation by grace. The error arises when people take allusions as if they were stated with theological precision. We believe that baptism is commanded by Christ, but not as a requirement for salvation.

5 Circumcision was normally done in infancy, and so this verse is often used to argue for the legitimacy of infant baptism. Burial seems to be associated with “putting off the body of the flesh”; raising might then correspond to being given a new body at the resurrection.

[6] Geoffrey Bromiley, “Baptism,” in Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1984), 113.

[7] This is the meaning of the patristic word perichoresis: each member of the Trinity makes space for the other; they indwell one another.

[8] Even when we were “in Adam,” we were rightfully children of God. Jesus redeemed us, but did not pay anyone in particular. He rescued us from a slavery that had no legitimate claim on us. To use modern analogies, he foreclosed the mortgage, or evicted the illegal squatter, to take back what had always been his. He acted to transform a legal reality (true on paper) into a functional one (true in practice). What was objectively true could become subjectively true.

[9] This change occurred objectively at the death and resurrection of Jesus; it occurs for us subjectively when we respond to the Spirit with faith in Christ. When we baptize an infant, it is clear that we are picturing or commemorating what Christ has done, not what the infant has done. When we baptize an adult, Christ should be the focus as well.

[10] Bromiley, “Baptism,” 114.

[11] This does not necessarily have to be done at the time of administration, though a brief explanation is usually appropriate. It is not possible to cover all the symbolism at the time of administration. The person being baptized (or the parents) may be new in the faith and have only a rudimentary understanding of the symbolism; that is acceptable.

[12] This is not a theological statement of when the new life actually begins. For adults, the new life began subjectively when the person came to faith, and that happens before baptism. For infants, the subjective awakening may come much later than the baptism.

[13] Many of the Jewish festivals were re-enactments of what God had done for the Israelites. In the Gentile world, baptisms were also involved in some ritual re-enactments of what their deities had supposedly done; it would be easy for early Christians to understand baptism as a ritual re-enactment. They would expect analogies, not perfect mirrors of every detail.

[14] Similarly, the Old Testament Passover was to remind the Israelites that God had rescued them, not that the people successfully appeased an angry deity by killing lambs. Humans tend to forget, and we need reminders of what God has done. In our fallenness, we tend to forget that we belong to God, that we are forgiven in Christ, that we already participate in eternal life.

For adults, baptism is done after we come to believe in Jesus, so it incidentally signifies that we have come to faith. But it should more importantly point to what we have faith in – the saving effect of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Coming to faith is an important milestone in our life, but it would be meaningless except for the reality of what Jesus did for us. We should use baptism as an opportunity for the gospel, and the gospel is not that we have believed, but that Jesus has done something we can believe in.

[15] There is more to salvation than justification, more than being forgiven. If a verdict of “not guilty” was all there was to salvation, then there would be no logical reason to avoid sin. But salvation also includes being delivered from the bondage of sin, our tendency to sin. It involves a transformation in who we are, and consequently in the way we live.

[16] None of the baptism texts associates water with the Spirit, but other texts do.

[17] The concept of new creation is also a helpful way of seeing the dramatic change that Christ has accomplished for humanity. Salvation is a re-creation. Salvation is not a transaction in which we give God our faith and he gives us life in Christ. Rather, salvation is the re-creation of the human race in Christ. Baptism acknowledges what Jesus has done with our lives. As Andrew Purves says, “The gospel is not a bilateral contract” (The Crucifixion of Ministry, 83.) For salvation as re-creation, see Ted Johnston’s blog at thesurprisinggodblog.gci.org/2009/05/salvation-is-re-creation-not-mere.html.

[18] Sometimes people view baptism simply in its sociological function, as a rite of passage for entrance into the visible church. Yes, it does that, but that is a result; it is far better to focus on the cause: the death and resurrection of Jesus, which makes possible this new community and our membership in it.

[19] Due to formalism in the Anglican Church, Quakers and The Salvation Army rejected baptism, but their lives are just as Christian as other believers. They died with Christ and rose with Christ even if they never pictured it with water. They have pictured it by their life.

[20] Occasionally someone will want baptism for sociological reasons. They may see a friend being baptized, congratulated, being the center of attention, and they may ask to participate in a similar ritual without any awareness of its spiritual meaning. A brief explanation of the meaning may help them make a more meaningful decision. A desire for baptism is valid only if it is accompanied by a desire for Jesus.

[21] Occasionally people want to be baptized for wrong reasons, such as they want to be accepted by a particular social group, or a person of the opposite sex, etc. We can use such situations to explain the gospel in a counseling session.

[22] Even a theologically inaccurate understanding may be acceptable. (Don’t all of us begin with some misunderstandings?) For example, “I want to be baptized so that God will forgive my sins and give me the Holy Spirit.” We may explain that God has already forgiven their sins, and the Spirit is already active in them, but even if they don’t grasp that right away, it is still possible that they have reached a decisive turning point in their life. Growth will come. Baptism pictures the grace of God, not the perfection of our performance or understanding.

[23] This unwittingly implies that you get yourself into Christ.

[24] Baptism is not a guarantee that the child will be a believer in adulthood. Even for adults, baptism is not a guarantee that they will continue to believe. Rather, it is a sign that the person is in Christ. The person will have to choose whether to live in a way that reflects that, or in a way that rejects it.

[25] Immersion requires a volume of water that is large enough for the person’s entire body to be covered. If a baptismal tank is not available, you will need to find a place with a large amount of water, such as a swimming area at a lake or beach, a swimming pool, or even a large tub in someone’s home.

[26] It is possible to baptize someone without having an assistant, but it is more difficult, and there is a greater risk of falling – both for you and the person being baptized. Having someone assist you also helps reinforce the image of community that we seek to convey through the ceremony.

[27] It is important to realize that the Holy Spirit is not absent from the person and then becomes present because of your prayer. The perichoretic nature of the Trinity, and humanity’s existence in the Trinity through the Son, means that the Holy Spirit has been “poured out on all people” (Acts 2:17). Baptism is not the moment when the Spirit is made present because of our words – it signifies that people who have previously not believed in, received, and accepted the Holy Spirit’s presence have begun to accept and receive the truth of how the Spirit has been present in them through Jesus.

[28] We do not say the Spirit arrived only when the baptism was done. The Spirit was already at work in bringing the person to faith.

[29] Even if we decided that Jesus did not mean we had to literally say those exact words, it is a good idea for us to use them so other Christians will recognize and accept the baptisms of the people we baptize.