In an earlier post, we looked at the re-conversion of Congressman Gresham Barrett at NewSpring’s membership class, then to “prove to everybody how serious [he] was,” he got baptized again. It’s a curious thing that a Baptist church would let this happen.
I understand that Baptists don’t accept some baptisms as being valid in the first place (infant baptism, for example), so some second baptisms are, according to their teaching, actually first baptisms. What’s notable about the Barrett testimony is that his first baptism had been done by the book. Because he was baptized in a mainline Southern Baptist church, we know his pastors would have been satisfied that he was a believer and was old enough to understand what he was doing. As far as we can tell, there was no defect in how that baptism was administered.
What we have here is a perfect Baptist baptism needing to be repeated and improved upon in another Baptist church.
That’s what makes this interesting.
To justify Mr. Barrett’s rebaptism, NewSpring has to redefine baptism in such a way as to make it simultaneously meaningless and complicated. I’ll explain why, but first let me say that the point of this series is not to criticize Mr. Barrett, who is trying to follow Christ according to the teaching of his pastors. My criticism is of the pastors who let him and others take an action that diminishes the very act they’re celebrating.
To review briefly, Mr. Barrett thought that he needed to be converted because his first conversion wasn’t real enough. He was apparently induced to doubt the efficacy and sincerity of his original salvation and baptism. Barrett’s uncertainty about his salvation and baptism isn’t unique. Here’s the account of a NewSpringer in 2011 explaining why she got baptized there for a third time:
My husband and I were joining a church [years ago] so I did get baptized within that church, b/c that was the thing to do and that was how I could join, I thought I was saved. I did believe in Jesus..but had I TRULY claimed Him as my Savior was I living my life for Him? I thought so but over the years AFTER that baptism I started understanding it more and my relationship with Him Grew, I rely on Him, I praise Him in the Good and the Bad, I talk to Him, My faith is in Him, I Thank Him for Saving Me! Many many times after that baptism I would pray during invitation for Him to take over I would pray to be saved. WHY did I always feel the need to pray that over and over. Maybe I wasn’t 100% sure? Could that be? …
I LOVE Christ and my faith is in Him..so what was wrong? I realized Sunday that I was Baptized as a “Wet Sinner.” I truly believe that Jesus Christ is my Savior but I don’t think I believed or fully understood that till AFTER I got baptized the first time. …
This time we Know without a Doubt our steps were taken in the right order.
If you do a search for NewSpring and “baptized again,” you’ll find that this is common. I’ve heard first-hand testimonies of young people who decided to get rebaptized at NewSpring because they understood it better. Although NewSpring says that there is “no need” for someone who was immersed after salvation to be baptized again, it doesn’t prohibit it. How many of their reported baptisms are rebaptisms, they don’t say. Nor do they probably keep track, given that there appears to be nothing on their baptism registration form to indicate whether this is a second or third baptism.
To avoid complicating the issue, let’s leave the question of infant baptism aside and focus on reasons Baptists are getting rebaptized at NewSpring. They seem to boil down to five main motives, all of which can be seen in or inferred from the Barrett testimony.
- I want the world to know anew that I’m taking a stand for Jesus.
- I didn’t understand baptism properly the first time.
- My old church didn’t believe the same thing about baptism as my new church.
- I didn’t really mean it the first time.
- I’m not sure I was really saved the first time.
These are important concerns, so we’ll take each one in turn and consider whether each one warrants rebaptism.
Should you get rebaptized if you want to demonstrate to the world that you’re serious about Jesus? No.
Because baptism is usually done in public, there is something to the claim that it represents a public identification with Christ, however that’s a symptom of baptism, not its primary purpose. If it were, many of the baptisms we see in the New Testament were unnecessarily defective. Instead of performing his baptisms in full view of the religious authorities in Jerusalem, John the Baptist was to be found in the wilderness, which required those seeking baptism to leave populated places to perform the rite in relative obscurity. Except for the day the Pharisees visited, the only people witnessing the baptisms were others who were also being baptized. Baptism wasn’t a witnessing tool.
Similarly, the Ethiopian in Acts 8 was baptized by Philip at the side of a desert road. We meet the Ethiopian as he was sitting in his chariot, so, besides Philip and the chariot driver inferred from verse 38, we don’t have a record of anyone else being around to witness this. Even the 3,000 baptisms in Acts 2 were less public than a mass event like that might seem. We read that the multitude of the audience was comprised of foreigners visiting from “every nation under heaven.” Although some would have been local Jerusalem residents who stayed in place, we assume that many of these visitors returned to their home countries where there would have been no other witnesses to their baptism.
If the value of our baptism were to be measured by its audience, we would always need to re-do it. Maybe we could set a trigger so that when, say, 200 new people join the church, older members go through the baptismal tank again to demonstrate their faithfulness to their brothers and sisters. How would they know who’s serious about the Lord otherwise? What about when a couple adds a child to their family? We’d need a rule that, when a child reaches five years old, the parents get baptized again as an example for that child.
The other problem is that we’d get better value for our baptism if we do it in a big church rather than a small one, though even the really big churches perform the ceremony quickly in swimming pools set up in the parking lots out back. Of course, if you’re a wide receiver with good NFL prospects, you can get baptized on center stage, or even mid-field at Death Valley.
Unfortunately, when baptism is reduced to just a public announcement, baptism will have a different value depending on the audience. The person in the church of 100 will have a less-effective baptism than a Clemson football star at a megachurch. Rebaptisms will be necessary because the first baptism will never have reached enough, or the right, people.
To the extent that an audience is important for baptism, the only eyes that matter are God’s. When Jesus was baptized, he wasn’t greeted by a group of cheering and clapping volunteers; he was greeted by the voice of his Father, who was well pleased.
Now I Understand
Should you get rebaptized if you understand baptism better now than you did the first time? No.
When not emphasizing the going public reason for baptism, Noble promotes baptism as an act of obedience that must be performed quickly and without a lot of thought. If full understanding was required, the mass-baptism events that NewSpring and Elevation (and many others) plan wouldn’t be possible. In those events, people usually come to church not knowing that a baptism is even planned, and are persuaded to join the masses in the rite. A few years ago, I marveled at Noble’s ability to convince a thousand people to be baptized after less than four minutes of preaching on the topic. NewSpring’s biggest baptisms are not designed to be meaningful.
Yet, people know that there must be some meaning, and they want to be assured that their head and heart were in the right place when they went under the water. This is one of the ironies of obedience-driven baptism. Because the virtue in obedience comes from an exercise of free will (especially contrasted with the passivity in infant baptism), we want to be able to look back at our free decision and know that we made it for the right reasons, and not under compulsion or deception.
Understanding spiritual things (or anything, really) is not something that happens all at once, and it’s never static. We can forget and lose understanding (like high school algebra), or persist at something and deepen our understanding. This is what struck me last year when listening to the testimony of a young adult who testified that she had been rebaptized at NewSpring because she understood it better now than she had a few years ago at her parents’ church. I was happy for her new confidence, but, so long as she keeps walking with Christ, her understanding of baptism will probably grow even more. I know more about baptism than I did last year, and certainly more than I did when I was her age, yet my understanding is nowhere near to being able to say that I know it well or enough. I hope to understand it more tomorrow, and more next year, as I hope my young friend will.
Should we get rebaptized when our understanding grows? How much more knowledge ought to trigger a repeat?
The problem with linking the blessing of baptism to our knowledge is that, like audiences, knowledge can be great or small, so we establish a hierarchy of baptisms that will motivate us to go back for a better dose. Are we to say that the baptism of someone who is mentally infirm is less effective and contains less blessing than the baptism of a genius? Would we refuse to baptize a mentally disabled person because we weren’t sure he or she really understood what was happening?
How much understanding does one need to have to qualify for baptism? That’s not an idle question, because we see in the case of rebaptisms that pastors are retroactively judging that earlier baptisms were invalid because of insufficient knowledge.
How can I have any confidence that my current baptism – be it my first or 21st – was based on enough understanding? All it would take is my current pastor preaching about baptism in a way I hadn’t considered before, and I’ll find myself needing to get it right again. I really ought to have a standing order that I get baptized every time the church opens the pool so that I can get it right. Until next time, at least.
This is untenable, yet it’s what’s preached and practiced, and it’s part of why so many people think they need to improve their obedience.
It’s also unnecessary, as we can see in Scripture. John Calvin points to Jesus’ disciples as examples of a massive change in faith and belief that didn’t require rebaptism.
If ignorance [of the meaning of baptism] vitiates a former [baptism], and requires [it] to be corrected by a second baptism, the apostles should have been rebaptized [with the Ephesians of John’s baptism in Acts 19], since for more than three full years after their baptism they had scarcely received any slender portion of purer doctrine. Then so numerous being the acts of ignorance which by the mercy of God are daily corrected in us, what rivers would suffice for so many repeated baptisms? (Institutes, Ch 15, 18)
We didn’t invent baptism; God did. He commands it and tells us how to do it, and it’s really pretty simple. If we trust that God has thought about it, that’s all that matters. Now, there are certainly blessings that come to us as we learn what baptism means, but what God thinks of it ought always trump what we think of it. If we can trust the Scriptural formula – by a minister, using water, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit – we can trust that our baptism worked, even though our minds might not have.
Should you get rebaptized if your old church didn’t understand or practice baptism properly? No.
Assuming your old church was a Christian church, which would include Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, your baptism does not depend on the beliefs of the church or the pastor who administered it. (With the caveat that the church’s practices required the formula mentioned above.) The reason is the same as for the previous point: it’s God’s understanding of baptism that matters, not yours, and not your pastor’s.
Given the choice, you ought to find a church led by a pastor who preaches solid doctrine, and baptizes accordingly. But, if we’re asking this question, we’re assuming that once you either didn’t have that choice, or your own understanding hadn’t developed sufficiently to warn you that your church and pastor were in error. Was your baptism tainted by a bad church or a bad pastor?
No, because the pastor was acting in obedience to God, and so long as he was obedient, your baptism stands. Let’s say that you were married by a preacher who, while you were on your honeymoon, announced that he’d been having an affair and was divorcing his wife. Do you need to hurry back and find someone else to conduct your wedding? Of course not, because the preacher was simply acting as an officer of the State (we’ll leave out the spiritual dimension for simplicity’s sake), which has established the laws and procedures that determine what steps need to be taken to make you married. The State doesn’t really care about the personal morality of the person who signs your documents, just that he or she follows the formula properly.
In the same way, the doctrine and morality of the pastor or church that baptized you is as relevant to you (for them, it’s more serious) as the marital status of your wedding celebrant is to the State, so long as they followed the formula. This was something that the Protestant Reformers had to answer pretty quickly–what to do with new Protestant believers who had been baptized in the Catholic Church? Almost without exception, the Reformers accepted Catholic baptisms as valid because they recognized Rome as a legitimate Christian church. Corrupt and deceived, yes, but Christian at its core, nonetheless.
Their Biblical warrant was in the Old Testament, where we see the priests who led the nation of Israel move over time from faithfulness to apostasy. At times, the sign and seal of circumcision was being administered by priests who weren’t even believers, yet when revival came, God’s people did not have to repeat their circumcision. Arguing that baptism is a New Testament continuation and widening of the sign of circumcision (see Col 2:11-12, for example), the Reformers treated it the same way. If circumcision by apostate priests marked people as being in God’s family in the Old Testament, baptism by apostate priests and churches in their own time worked the same way, and didn’t need to be repeated.
Baptism is an act ordained by God, though implemented by human hands. It’s God’s purity, not those hands’ purity, that matters.
Now I Mean It
Should you get rebaptized if you didn’t really mean it last time, but now you do? No.
This is a similar issue to the problem of a lack of understanding we dealt with earlier, though dealing more with emotions and feelings than with beliefs and understanding. The issue is whether our actions are properly connected to our faith. Are we doing this out of faith, or just as an external action because we were told to? The problem is that if we look back and see our faith as lacking or wavering, we will want to do it again, this time with stronger faith.
The problem is that, if we’re growing in sanctification, we should always want to improve on what we did yesterday. Assuming that our faith is not static, we’ll have times when it wavers, after which we might look to baptism to reconfirm our faith. We’ll also have times when our faith grows by leaps and bounds, from which vantage point we’ll clearly see the relative spiritual immaturity that lead us to our last baptism. In either case – strong and weak faith –, we might think we have cause to be baptized again.
Because our faith wavers, we can’t use it to judge the value or effectiveness of baptism, otherwise we’d need baptism every week. Not only does faith waver, we can’t even be sure that we once had faith in the first place. Look, for example, at the two testimonies you read earlier. Rebaptism came after they doubted whether they initially had the faith that they thought baptism required.
It’s a common problem, and one that Martin Luther addressed at some length in a letter he wrote to two pastors who asked him about rebaptism. The letter, titled Concerning Rebaptism in collections of Luther’s writings, addresses the argument that Mark 16:16, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” requires belief before baptism. Because we do not have certainty of our own faith, let alone that of others’, we can’t use that verse as a warrant for believer’s baptism. If we do, we must expect infinite rebaptisms. Here’s Luther:
The baptized one who receives or grounds his baptism on his faith … is not sure of his own faith. I would compare the man who lets himself be rebaptized with the man who broods and has scruples because perhaps he did not believe as a child. So when next day the devil comes, his heart is filled with scruples and he says, Ah, now for the first time I feel I have the right faith, yesterday I don’t think I truly believed. So I need to be baptized a third time, the second baptism not being of any avail. You think the devil can’t do such things? You had better get to know him better. He can do worse than that, dear friend. He can go on and cast doubt on the third, and the fourth and so on incessantly (as he indeed has in mind to do), just as he has done with me and many in the matter of confession. …Just because we sought to rely on our confession, as those to be baptized now want to rely on their faith. What is the end result? Baptizing without end would result. All this is nonsense. Neither the baptizer nor the baptized can base baptism on a certain faith.
It’s the same point that Calvin made. Once you allow for a second baptism, you have to prepare for the thousandth, or watch the rivers run dry from overuse. Our faith is too subjectively uncertain and shifting for us to meet the standards of certain belief required by Mark 16, as the two witnesses at the beginning of the post well understand.
What is the connection between faith and baptism, then? When we lean on Scripture, and its author, we have a certain foundation for our baptism. Here’s Luther’s pastoral advice:
If an adult wants to be baptized and says, “Sir, I want to be baptized,” you ask, “Do you believe?” … as we daily ask those to be baptized. Then he will not blurt out and say, “Yes, I intend to move mountains by my faith.” Instead he will say, “Yes, Sir, I do believe, but I do not build on this my faith. It might be too weak or uncertain. I want to be baptized because it is God’s command that I should be, and on the strength of this command I dare to be baptized. In time my faith may become what it may. If I am baptized on his bidding I know for certain that I am baptized. Were I to be baptized on my own faith, I might tomorrow find myself unbaptized, if faith failed me, or I became worried that I might not yesterday have had the faith rightly. But now that doesn’t affect me. God and his command may be attacked, but I am certain enough that I have been baptized on his Word. My faith and I make this venture. If I believe, this baptism is of value to me. If I do not believe, it is not of value. But baptism in itself is not therefore wrong or uncertain, is not a matter of venture, but is as sure as are the Word and command of God.”
Our faith is uncertain. Baptism, because it’s God’s, is always certain. If our faith is defective, we fix our faith, not our baptism. We can pray, as did Luther, “God grant that whether my faith today be certain or uncertain, or I think that I believe and am certain, nothing is lacking in baptism. Always something is lacking in faith.”
Now I’m Saved
Should you get rebaptized if you doubt your salvation the first time? No.
Or even, should you get rebaptized if you’re sure you weren’t saved the first time. Again, no.
We can’t even require that your pastor be sure of your salvation before baptizing you. Paul tells us in 1 Cor 2:11 that only God knows a person’s thoughts. As Luther points out, Mark 16 doesn’t say, “Whoever says he believes…” If we required either the recipient or the pastor to be sure of salvation, we could never baptize anyone.
Take the two NewSpring examples from earlier. Though each doubts now that he or she was saved before attending NewSpring, their previous pastors were satisfied that they were believers, especially for Barrett’s Baptist baptism. If they were wrong once, how do they know they’re right now? If they tricked a pastor once with their faith, how does Perry Noble know he is not also being deceived now?
This is the inherent weakness with believer’s baptism. How can we be sure that someone is a believer? We can’t, as Mr. Barrett attests, and as Perry Noble confirms with his retelling of Barrett’s story. The only thing we can be certain of is the act of baptism itself and of God’s command that it be done.
We can’t prove believe before baptism, so it cannot be required. Here, at length, is Luther again:
Were we to follow their reasoning [that belief must precede baptism] we would have to be baptizing all of the time. For I would take the verse, “Whoever believes,” with me and whenever I find a Christian who has fallen or is without faith, I would say that this man is without faith, so his baptism is fruitless; he must be baptized again. If he falls a second time, I would again say, see, he has not faith, there must be something wrong about his first baptism. He will have to be baptized a third time, and so on and on. As often as he falls or there is doubt about his faith, I will say, he doesn’t believe, his baptism is defective. In short, he will have to be baptized over again so often that he never again falls or is without faith, if he is to do justice to the verse, “Whoever believes.” Tell me, what Christian will then ever be sufficiently baptized or consider that his baptism is completed? But verily baptism can be correct and sufficient even if the Christian falls from faith or sins a thousand times a year. It is enough that he rights himself and becomes faithful, without having to be rebaptized each time. Then why should not the first baptism be sufficient and proper if a person truly becomes a believing Christian? Since there is no difference in baptism whether lack of faith precedes or follows, baptism doesn’t depend on faith.
Luther uses the example of a couple who go through a sham wedding to acquire the legal benefits of marriage, even though they have no plans to live together as man and wife. If, two years later, the couple fall in love, do they need to be married again? No, because the original loveless [faithless] wedding was sufficient in its form to effect the reality of the marriage. If it took two years for the couple to discover the full benefits of marriage, that’s not the wedding’s fault. The couple adds love to the wedding, not a new wedding to new love. Taking that a step further, ought we not require new weddings for couples who rediscover love after a rocky patch? No, because the original marriage remains legal and in full effect independent of the couple’s love. Love doesn’t exist for the sake of weddings, but weddings for the sake of love. Here, Luther develops the analogy:
It is not enough to claim they were baptized without faith, therefore they should be rebaptized. Some reason is needed. You say it is not a proper baptism. What does it matter, if it is still a baptism? It was a correct baptism in itself, regardless of whether it was received rightly…. If a thing is in itself correct you do not have to repeat it even though it was not correctly received….
When ten years after baptism faith appears, what then is the need of a second baptism, if baptism was correctly administered in all respects? For now he believes, as baptism requires. For faith doesn’t exist for the sake of baptism, but baptism for the sake of faith. When faith comes, baptism is complete. A second baptism is not necessary.
Baptism, rightly understood, is simple and powerful precisely because its author is God, not us. When we become partners or leaders in the process, we mess it up so much that rebaptism is essential.
At the end of Mr. Barrett’s testimony, he said this:
We all want religion to be simple. We want it to be neat. We want to be able to say, “I came to know Jesus Christ as my personal savior at 10 or 12 and I was baptized and I’ve lived a great life, and I’ve had a personal relationship with him ever since,” but it’s not that way. It’s messy. And a lot of times people have even messier voyages–messier versions or journeys–than I do. But I know it’s not all about me. It’s not about works. It’s not about earthly things. It’s not about who we are or what we are, or me, me, I, I. It’s about knowing Jesus Christ. It’s about being a son of God. It’s about being obedient, no matter what the outcome is.
The irony is that his pastor had painted baptism in such as a way as to make it terribly complicated and confusing. We see that with the other testimony cited above, as well. Instead of simply trusting that their first baptism was sufficient for God, they both were put into such doubt that they needed a do-over. And though Mr. Barrett says it’s not all about him or his works, when it came to baptism, it was all about him and his works. Was it done right? Did he believe the right things? Was it done in the right sequence? This is not to pick on Mr. Barrett, but his pastors had convinced him that he had performed the work improperly the first time.
Instead of letting him be rebaptised and guaranteeing that he’ll have future doubts about his 2011 baptism, his pastors should have taught him about the beauty and benefits of baptism, which were his the very first time he went under the water. The baptism that’s taught in Scripture is as dependable and secure as the God who commands it.
In that, there’s rest and simplicity.