20 July 2023

Baptism: Get saved, get wet.

BAPTISM 'bæp.tɪz.əm noun. Religious ritual of sprinkling water on a person’s forehead, or immersing them in water, symbolizing purification, regeneration, and admission to Christ Jesus’s church.
[Baptist 'bæp.təst noun, baptizand 'bæp.tɪ.zænd noun, baptismal bæp'tɪz.məl adjective.]

Whenever the ancient Hebrews did something ritually unclean, they had to ritually clean themselves before they went to temple. How they did this was to simply immerse themselves in water, then wait till sundown—after which point they were ritually clean.

Since they were only required to go to temple thrice a year, they really didn’t have to do a whole lot of ritual cleansing. That is, till Pharisees decided every form of worship required people to be ritually clean. So if you went to synagogue—whether daily, or just Friday nights for Sabbath services—you needed to be ritually clean. Gotta wash!

How Pharisees (and today’s Orthodox Jews) did so was to create a מִקְֶֶוה/mikvéh, “collection [of water].” Basically a vat or pool large enough so a person could stand upright underwater. It had to consist of “living water,” by which they meant running water—and because Pharisees were big on loopholes, any kind of running would count. Water could be dripping into it and dripping out of it; that’d count. You stepped into the mikvéh fully clothed, then walked out. Then awaited sundown.

This ritual washing, they called βάπτισμα/váptisma, “immersion.” Yep, it’s where we get our word baptism.

If you were a new Pharisee, your very first baptism would be when you joined the synagogue. And that’s where John the baptist got the idea for his form of baptism: If you were repentant, and wanted to turn from your sins to follow God, start with baptism.

Since Jesus (though he personally had no sins to repent of) submitted to John’s baptism, and instructed his students to baptize any new students, Mt 28.19 baptism has thereby become the rite of Christian initiation. You’ve decided to follow Jesus? Great! Now get baptized in water. Get forgiven. Receive the Holy Spirit. Ac 2.38

There’s another form of baptism, called baptism of the Holy Spirit, which I discuss elsewhere.

Like every sacrament, we Christians get obsessed with doing it “properly,” and believing all the correct things about it. Sacraments, you recall, represent something God’s doing. Not so much us. We do the ritual, but God does the spiritual reality behind it, and that’s the relevant part. Still, you know how self-centered we humans get: “Oh, if you did it that way, it doesn’t count.” As if God’s not gonna embrace a new follower because we used a bottle of water instead of the nearest river.

Dunk or sprinkle?

The technical term for the person getting baptized is the baptizand. The person who does the baptizing is the baptist—not to be confused with the capital-B Baptist movement and various Baptist denominations. John the baptist is not that kind of Baptist. (In fact a lot of that kind of Baptist would insist he get a haircut!)

Christians have all sorts of ways we perform the baptism ritual. The main four styles are these:

  1. ASPERSION: Sprinkle water on the baptizand.
  2. AFFUSION: Pour water over the baptizand’s forehead.
  3. IMMERSION: Put the baptizand in a pool of water, and either partially or fully put them under the water.
  4. SUBMERSION Dunk the baptizand.

According to the Didache, a Christian instruction manual written in the first century, how you baptized was pretty much up to whatever water you had available.

Didache 7.1-4 KWL
1 About baptism. Baptize this way:
After saying all these things first,
baptize into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Mt 28.19
in flowing water.
2 If you have no flowing water, baptize in other water.
If you have no cold water, use warm.
3 If you have neither, pour water onto the head three times,
into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
4 Before baptism, let the baptist, the baptizand, and anyone else who can, fast.
Order the baptizand to fast one or two days before.

As humans will, churches turned these acts done out of necessity, into required traditions: Christians must do it according to their custom, or it doesn’t count as a proper baptism. And if other churches don’t baptize according to the required style, it also doesn’t count as a proper baptism.

I’ve known plenty of churches which demand full-immersion baptism. In which you have to tilt the baptizand backwards into the water. Yeah, it’s an impractical position, because if you’re particularly heavy the baptists might drop you. Or pull a muscle. Plus if you don’t hold your nose, water’s gonna get in your sinus cavity, which stings. But to these churches, it’s profoundly important to get baptized this way. Baptism represents identifying with Christ Jesus’s death, and dying to sin. Ro 6.4-6 They feel it’s necessary to make this obvious by lowering the baptizand into water like you’d lower a body into a grave—then hoisting ’em back up like God intends to resurrect them.

And if you’ve not been baptized their way, by one of the churches they recognize, they’ll insist it was an improper baptism. Doesn’t count. You gotta do it again, and do it right. They’ll officiate.

Here’s the problem: Baptism is a sacrament. It represents something God does. If what we do has to be done in any precise way, don’t you think the apostles would’ve included precise instructions in the scriptures?

Yeah, okay, first-century Pharisees baptized themselves a certain way. And John the baptist baptized people a certain way; probably the same way. And the ancient Christians baptized people a certain way; probably the same way, although the Didache makes it obvious they weren’t sticklers for doing it any specific way; they were pragmatic, and baptized you any which way with what water they had. And since they didn’t demand full-immersion baptism, tipped backwards into the water, lest it not count… what business do we have in legalistically demanding things our way?

Jesus’s church is only meant to run on grace. Not legalism. It’s the only proper way to begin one’s Christian life.

Taking forever to perform a baptism.

As a Christian, you can baptize any new Christian. Really. You don’t have to go to seminary or anything. You just have to be Christian.

Yeah, some churches are gonna be really particular about who does the baptizing, just like they get really particular about who performs marriage ceremonies. If you’re in one of those churches, don’t rock the boat unnecessarily. Make sure your leadership is fine with it if you perform a baptism. Usually the only reasons they won’t be are

  1. they have their doubts about you, or
  2. they have their doubts about the person you wanna baptize.

’Cause the baptizand needs to actually be a new Christian. (As do you.) Needs to really believe in Jesus. Needs to determine to follow him. Truly repents of their previous life and lifestyle. Really means it. Preferably understands a little bit about what they’re getting into (although let’s be honest; how much did any of us understand what we were getting into? But I digress).

So some churches are gonna want the baptizand to take baptism classes. Learn Christianity’s basics. Learn what baptism means. My own church can cover all this stuff within an hour, but the Fundamentalist church I attended as a child required me to take a four-week class. And if you think that’s overdoing it, I’ve known churches with 12-week classes.

If the point of baptism is to embrace new followers, this point becomes less and less obvious the longer it takes to go from confessing Christ, to baptism.

Yet for many a church, the point actually isn’t to embrace new followers. I mean, it’s in there somewhere, but mainly baptism is about purification and regeneration. You (really, God) are washing your sins away. Baptism symbolizes dying to your old way of life, and when you come up out of the water you now have a new life. That starts when you first turn to Jesus, and your baptism represents that first turn to Jesus… so it doesn’t entirely matter when you get baptized, so long that you do it before you’re dead.

In fact, one ancient Christian practice was actually to get baptized on your deathbed, of all places. This way, they figured all your sins would be washed away right before you died, and you could enter God’s presence all clean. Yeah, this idea has serious problems, which is why Christians eventually quit doing it.

But when we look at Acts, we really don’t see any delay between when someone confesses Christ, and gets baptized. Looks like they’re meant to happen right after one another.

Acts 2.37-41 NLT
37 Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?”
38 Peter replied, “Each of you must repent of your sins and turn to God, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 This promise is to you, to your children, and to those far away—all who have been called by the Lord our God.” 40 Then Peter continued preaching for a long time, strongly urging all his listeners, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation!”
41Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
Acts 8.36-38 NLT
36 As they rode along, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look! There’s some water! Why can’t I be baptized?” [37 “You can,” Philip answered, “if you believe with all your heart.” And the eunuch replied, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] 38 He ordered the carriage to stop, and they went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
Acts 9.17-19 NLT
17 So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. 19A Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength.
Acts 10.44-48 NLT
44 Even as Peter was saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who were listening to the message. 45 The Jewish believers who came with Peter were amazed that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles, too. 46 For they heard them speaking in other tongues and praising God.
Then Peter asked, 47 “Can anyone object to their being baptized, now that they have received the Holy Spirit just as we did?” 48 So he gave orders for them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Afterward Cornelius asked him to stay with them for several days.

I mean, beyond some really basic instructions—which you can kinda explain in less than a half hour—what’s the point of delaying things?

Because we wanna first make sure God really saved them? We’re not gonna have our proof of that for a while yet. Not till they start producing the Spirit’s fruit. Sometimes that takes a while. You gonna hold off on baptism till they learn to be patient? Some Christians still haven’t got the hang of that one.

Because we want ’em to learn their catechism first? Look, good theology is important. I’d never say it’s not. But is baptism a form of graduation now that we have our beliefs all sorted out, or is it a representation of God’s grace before we ever got our lives straight? Are our delays in fact stripping baptism of everything it might possibly teach us?

Because we’re saving up all the baptisms for a special occasion? Okay, this one I can sorta understand. Fr’instance some churches like to do all their baptisms on Easter, all at once. Other churches (like mine) borrow another church’s baptismal, so they gotta plan ahead.

But if you wanna be baptized, and your church insists you first need to jump through dozens of hoops, I would say your church doesn’t entirely understand what baptism’s about.