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.

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  1. Following Christ means that one is obedient, with or without understanding. Many of God’s commands in the Old Testament were obeyed that were probably not understood. Obedience without understanding takes more faith in the one giving the command than one seeking understanding before obeying. Being baptized was my first step in following my Lord and Savior. His command was all I needed. As His child, He knows my mortal mind is a little slow to understand, but my will is to please Him. Therefore, I have decided to follow Him in obedience. Then He will guide me into knowledge of His purpose as I study His word. Namaan the leper, Gideon, the Israelite army at the wall around Jerico, and the blind man that Jesus sent to wash his eyes in the pool of Siloam all acted upon their trust in God’s command. What they did may not have made much sense to them, and didn’t directly cause the outcome, but they acted in faith, which was the purpose of God’s command. Praise God for His devine wisdom.

  2. Can you clarify something for me? It sounds like you are insinuating that belief in baptismal regeneration is required for salvation. In other words, I need to be baptized and believe that baptism is a means of grace in order to truly receive salvation. I hope I am misreading you because if I am right you have just condemned a whole lot of bible-believing Christians to hell; many of whom have overwhelming evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts.

    • I am not “insinuating” anything, but I am saying that the Bible specifically says that regeneration by the Holy Spirit (the transition from spiritual death to spiritual life) occurs in the moment of Christian baptism. This is not the same as “baptismal regeneration,” a term that usually implies that there is some kind of power in the baptismal act itself. This is not the point. The Bible simply says that this work of the Spirit occurs IN BAPTISM (Col. 2:12, e.g.). Whether people who have been baptized without this Biblical understanding “truly receive salvation” is something only God knows. Please read what I say about this in another essay, .

  3. Jack,

    Thank you for your words on baptism and for always interacting with your bloggers. I would agree with most of your logic here, but your logic raises one question to me. Must all believers understand all the facts of baptism to have obtained a valid baptism? Your position seems a little extreme. For example, is my baptism not valid since when i was never taught or even understood that I received the Holy Spirit in Baptism? I was raised in the CofC and was baptized for the “remission of sins,” but honestly I had never really been taught about God’s Spirit (at least I don’t remember anyone saying or preaching on this subject, in fact, most discouraged us in the CofC to downplay ‘the Holy Spirit” largely in reaction to Pentecostalism). Moreover, in many ways, I was baptized the first time around age 13 because I was scared to ‘go to to hell’ mainly. However, in college i experienced a true conversion to Christ in my heart after deeply searching for truth from the ‘ground up’ (i.e. is what my parents taught me true, does God exist, is Christ savior, etc). I felt like I was following Jesus primarily because I knew who he was and I loved him— not just because I didn’t want to go to hell. I decided to be rebaptized somewhere around 22. Thus, how does my situation differ from say that of the Baptist? Both of us had faith when we approached baptism (I would argue saving faith), but perhaps both of us did not have a perfect understanding of what the purpose of baptism. Why does one need to to have a ‘perfect understanding’ of baptism to have had a valid baptism, especially when it was a faith-baptism? Now, learning about baptism for the remission of the sins and then teaching otherwise moving forward is one thing. But I would argue that one does not have to be rebaptized for the remission of sins if their baptism was done in faith out of obedience to Christ—even after he or she has learned the full purpose of baptism (remission of sins, receiving Spirit). Now, I think the new understanding of baptism would definitely cause one to reconsider their baptism (and I would encourage it), but to draw a line in the sand seems to be making to sharp of a dividing line. Thoughts on this line of thought? Thanks. In Christ, Mark

    • I don’t know where you got the idea that I or anyone else is saying that one has to have “all the facts on baptism” or a “perfect understanding” of baptism before it can be valid. That is the very idea I am trying to refute. My view is summed up in Col. 2:12, which says that we are buried and raised with Christ in baptism “through faith in the working of God.” I see baptism as valid as long as one believes that God is working therein, even if this is a very general belief. It seems to me that believing that by being baptized God is saving you from hell is a kind of “faith in the working of God.”

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