IS REBAPTISM EVER NECESSARY?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, August 16, 2011 at 3:17pm
QUESTION: Is it ever a good idea, or even necessary, for a person to be rebaptized, i.e., baptized a second time?
ANSWER: My approach to this question assumes that sometimes what is considered to be a baptism is indeed a valid baptism, but sometimes it is not. If a person has been baptized once with a valid baptism, there will never be a need for rebaptism.
This is true even if a baptized person has fallen from grace and has now decided to return to the Lord and His church. The Bible itself gives no teaching and no precedent suggesting that a rebaptism is necessary in such a case. The incident that sheds the most light on this issue is the case of Simon the Samaritan sorcerer, in Acts 8:4-24. Verse 13 indicates that Simon had become a true believer and had been validly baptized, as a result of Philip’s preaching and miracles. However, his avarice and ambition led him into serious sin (vv. 17-19). From Peter’s description of his situation (vv. 20-23), it is fair to conclude that he was actually in a fallen-away state, but not without hope. Verse 22 records Peter’s instruction about what Simon must do to be restored to fellowship with God: “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (NASB). There is no reference to any sort of rebaptism; his restoration could be accomplished via repentance and prayer.
This means that the only circumstance that would require a “rebaptism” is a situation in which the person in question was not validly baptized to begin with. This means that it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what constitutes a “valid baptism,” or of what baptism is supposed to be, according to the Bible’s teaching about it. There is general agreement that three criteria must be met for a baptism to be valid. I.e., a valid baptism is one which has been applied in the proper FORM, to a proper SUBJECT, for the proper PURPOSE.
Within Christendom the various approaches to these issues are all over the map. I have my convictions concerning the true Biblical teaching, however; and my explanation here is based upon that.
First, the proper form of baptism is immersion in water. “Immersion” (dunking, dipping) is what the Greek word means. Applying the water via sprinkling or pouring simply does not count as a true baptism. In the case of an individual who has not been immersed, he or she indeed must be “rebaptized.” To be precise, though, this would not actually be a REbaptism, since the first “baptism” (by sprinkling or pouring) was not really a baptism in the first place. The immersion would in fact be the person’s first baptism.
Second, the only proper subject for baptism is an individual (1) who is old enough and mature enough to understand that he or she is a sinner who is lost and needs salvation; (2) who understands that God is providing that salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus; and (3) who is able to obey the gospel as the understood means of receiving this salvation. This means that infant baptism is always invalid. No one who has had water applied in an infant ceremony has been truly baptized; all such persons need to be “rebaptized.” But as in the previous point, the application of water to the infant (whether by sprinkling or by immersion) is not a real baptism at all. Therefore the immersion of an understanding, repentant believer will be the person’s first actual baptism.
(This was the main point of the so-called “Anabaptists” [‘rebaptizers’] at the time of the Reformation. They did not consider themselves to be rebaptizing at all. When they baptized those who had received only “infant baptism,” they considered this to be these folks’ first and only baptism. Thus they did not like to be called “Anabaptists.” And FYI, the Anabaptists did not insist on immersion.)
The third criterion, i.e. the true purpose of baptism, is the most difficult to apply. In my judgment the only consistent understanding of Scripture is that baptism is for salvation. This means, at the very least, that baptism is the point of time when God works the work of salvation in the repentant believer’s heart and life. Certainly anyone who understands this and receives baptism for that purpose will never have to be rebaptized.
But what about an individual who did not have that specific understanding of his or her baptism when the act was performed? What about those who have been taught that the only reason you need to be baptized is “because Jesus commanded it,” or to show others that you are a believer? Does the efficacy of baptism really depend on whether or not the person being baptized has a proper understanding of what is going on?
My conviction is yes. I know that many in Restoration Movement churches routinely accept into membership anyone who has been immersed as a believer (e.g., any Baptist). I am suggesting, though, that this reveals an attitude of disrespect and nonchalance toward the Bible’s own teaching about this subject, plus a serious lack of concern for the convert’s own spiritual status.
My point is that when we are teaching anyone from a Christian background about how to become a Christian AND how to become a member of a NT congregation, we should do two things regarding the subject of baptism. First, we should clearly teach from the Bible what it says about the meaning and result of baptism. Second, if the individual has had any kind of “baptismal” experience in the past, especially involving immersion as an adult, we should counsel that person to recall and examine what was in his or her heart at the time of that immersion. I would not expect or require such a person to give a detailed, Bible-College-level answer to this question. All I would need to hear would be an affirmative answer to this or a similar question: “When you were immersed, did you understand and believe at that time, that God was doing something toward your salvation that you could not do for yourself”? The more a person understands, the better; but no one has to be able to articulate the double cure or even mention the term “forgiveness of sins” for the baptism to be valid.
My conviction is based at least in part on Colossians 2:12, which says that you have “been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God” (NASB). The “working of God” to which Paul is here referring includes Christ’s work of atonement and resurrection (see verse 12b), but it also includes the “working” that he is doing in the act of baptism itself, i.e., the work of salvation. Thus baptism involves salvation for those who are believing that God is working therein.
It is possible for someone to go too far in the direction of “rebaptism,”, e.g., baptizing someone every time that person has a “back-sliding” experience. There are serious reasons to avoid going to an extreme in that direction. On the other hand, I am becoming more and more convinced that there are lots of folks in our churches who have been accepted into membership but who have not been truly baptized and thus who are not really saved, and whose lukewarm discipleship reveals to be the case. We have opened the door to membership to many whose faith-only convictions are destroying the integrity of our congregations; we are immersing many children who are too young to know what is going on beyond the fact that they “really love Jesus.”
If someone comes to me and is troubled in his or her heart about whether or not their original baptism was valid, when viewed under the above criteria, I do not hesitate to recommend that this person be baptized (“again”), for the sake of their own peace of mind if nothing else. I believe we should err on the side of too many “rebaptisms” rather than too few.