I have been doing ministry in college towns since I was a student at FSU. Each year, I meet students who have had genuine life change and one of the questions they often ask is should they be baptized. Now, this was an easier issue when we lived overseas, but in the US many of these students have already been baptized in some way. So, should they be re-baptized?
The significance of baptism
The first question we need to ask is this: what is the significance of baptism in the first place? Baptism was instituted by Jesus and signifies our union with Him. As a credo-baptist (that is, one who believes baptism is reserved for someone already possessing faith as opposed to an infant), I believe that since this union comes through faith, baptism logically follows as a sign of that union.
The promise of the New Covenant is that all of God’s people would possess the Holy Spirit through our union with Christ as opposed to a small group of Spirit filled believers inside a larger unbelieving body as you see in Old Testament Israel (Jeremiah 31, Romans 9-11). For a more comprehensive explanation of baptism see Tom Schreiner here.
So, let’s take this case by case….
I have never been baptized before
If you have never been baptized in any manner before, then the answer is easy: Yes! Declare your faith publicly and be baptized for the first time.
I was baptized as an infant
At this point, I want to make clear that there is no such thing as re-baptizing. It is relatively new to church history and few have looked kindly on it. It would be helpful to eliminate it as a category altogether. I was baptized as an infant in a great church, but later my study of the Bible and conscience led me to believe that what happened to me as a baby, while significant and special (from what I am told), was not a baptism since I had no faith. So, I was then baptized for the first time.
If you were baptized as an infant and come to the conclusion that it wasn’t a Biblical baptism, I would advise you to be baptized for the first time.
I was baptized as a believer, but I’m not sure I really was a believer
This is the most confusing category. In the vast majority of cases I say no. How do you know you weren’t a believer? How do you know you didn’t just believe the way an 8 year old believes? How do you know what you are experiencing now isn’t the fruit of that first decision? And more importantly, what are you going to do in five years when you have a deeper experience with Christ and have the same dilemma?
I’m concerned that many pastors encourage baptism at this point for two reasons: numbers and experience. They want their numbers to look good and they want the experience of baptism to ‘rub off’ on others. If a pastor doesn’t advise caution, I advise concern.
You should not be baptized unless you can really call it your first baptism. If you knowingly deceived everyone at the time, later worshipped something else or openly denied God, then yes, it’s hard to call you a Christian so be baptized for the first time.
But bad doctrine or falling back into sin after baptism doesn’t make you an unbeliever and doesn’t nullify your baptism. Even Simon the magician wasn’t required to be baptized again after a total perversion of the faith (Acts 8).
Maybe you lacked discipleship, Christian community or a proper understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. In that case, repent. But don’t be re-baptized.
But what if I’m wrong? What if I really wasn’t a believer at the time? This isn’t algebra or Grandma’s eggplant parmesan recipe where the wrong order ruins everything. Faith in Christ is the only ingredient. The criminal on the cross with Christ wasn’t baptized at all, yet went on to paradise. Don’t worry.
I was baptized in a non-Christian church
I don’t see this much, but there are people who were baptized in a Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness church. These churches deny the Trinity and the deity of Christ and for that reason are not Christian. If someone was baptized in these churches, I don’t consider it any more legit than when my kids ‘play baptism’ in the bath tub. Yes, you should be baptized for the first time.
So why does it matter?
It matters because re-baptism isn’t Biblical and creates confusion.
The Bible commands baptism (Acts 2:38) only once. Paul says there is only one baptism (Eph. 4:5). Nowhere in Scripture do any of the New Testament authors even suggest doing it twice. The man who was sleeping with his stepmother in 1 Corinthians 5 was likened to an unbeliever by Paul and ex-communicated. Yet when he repented and Paul commanded the church take him back (2 Cor. 2), there was no talk of re-baptism.
Baptizing over and over undermines the assurance we are given in the Bible and results in confusion. Seeing people re-baptized causes people in the church to doubt their own faith. Tim Challies says, “The validity of our faith is revealed not by the intensity of our first reaction to it, but by our perseverance in it.”
Jesus did give us something to do over and over again as we grow in our faith: the Lord’s supper, not baptism. If you can say it is your first baptism, do it. If you can’t, don’t.