Since I was baptized at the age of eight by my pastor father, I haven’t really lingered on the meaning of baptism as part of my devotional life.
It was a one-time event that marked a spiritual milestone in my life, and over time, I’ve lost some connection to that moment. I considered the significance of baptism as a church ordinance or sacrament only much later when watching other people get baptized.
As a pastor in a faith tradition that practices baptism for believers, I am having an increased number of conversations with people who wonder about their baptisms. I am not alone. The uncertainty of COVID-19 seems to have only multiplied these questions. In their confusion, many sincere believers feel the need to get baptized again to recapture the feeling of being cleansed through the work of Christ.
If we couple the cultural moment with the beginning of a new year when people are considering a deeper commitment to God, this longing increases.
I have talked with many who share this angst. It can lead to some real confusion. Many wonder whether these feelings undermine the legitimacy of their baptism experiences or even their salvation.
In reality, the amount of time since you were baptized doesn’t diminish its significance, and there is no biblical evidence that any genuine believer needs to get baptized more than once. In my own Southern Baptist tradition, a “rededication” of faith does not warrant rebaptism.
However, as a symbol of new birth into eternal life with Christ, I believe the significance of baptism should play a more prominent role in our devotional lives. We can recall the feeling of being baptized without returning to the water by embracing the spiritual exercise of ongoing submersion.
I wear my wedding ring as a daily reminder of my love and commitment for my wife, but I rarely pull out the marriage license. For most of us, our experiences of baptism are more akin to the license. Baptism has become a relic of the past rather than a ring of daily remembrance.
In our stubborn efforts to die daily, we should seek to rise out of the symbolic burial waters of baptism and emerge clean every morning. After all, being “raised to new life in him” means today, not just in the “now and not yet” kingdom of God after we die. If we build our lives on steady diets of prayer and confession, we will find that we need to be refreshed again and again.
This need is not a bad thing—nor does it negate the staying power of God’s salvation. Rather, it is a commentary on our human frailty that we need to be repeatedly reminded of the gospel. Like an infant comes to know its mother while still in the womb, Christians need the embryotic warmth of these same waters to hear the heartbeat of God. This is the image Jesus used to describe the new spiritual life to Nicodemus in the third chapter of John.
After all, it was never about the water. Our tendency is to imagine the baptismal waters grimy after we get out—as if there might be a black sin ring around the top when it is drained. Like escaped convict Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the hillbilly retelling of Homer’s Odyssey, we might cry out, “Well, that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The preacher’s done washed away all my sins and transgressions.”
But Jesus tells a different story when he talks to Nicodemus: “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5–6).
Being born again in Christ is a spiritual event. As German theologian Otto Michel (1903–1993) wrote in a book chapter entitled “Regeneration”:
Here … is a vivid picture which had its setting in Christian baptism and depicts the salvation which, granted to the Church by the Word, can set the individual and the Church in a new existence. … Easter is now presupposed. The Church is sheltered by its steadfast faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This means I don’t have to keep reentering the water repeatedly to be reborn. I have been ushered into a new existence already. After all, how could a person enter again into an old citizenship with death?
Writer Frederick Buechner reflects on how the trip through the water can change a life when his title character Godric has a similar experience:
Many’s the dark and savage night of doubt. Many’s the prayer I haven’t prayed, the friend I’ve hurt, the kindness left undone. But this I know. The Godric that waded out of Jordan soaked and dripping wet that day was not the Godric that went wading in.
Yet the nagging question remains: How do I recapture that freshly baptized fire without returning to the water? Revelation would call it a return to “the love you had at first” (2:4). It is remembering what brought me together with God in the first place. It is an attitude of ongoing submission and submersion.
A life of ongoing submersion means I wake up with the realization and appreciation that without Christ, I would be living in darkness. As I sit up in my bed, I rise to new life in him again. Each moment is a blessing with a purpose.
To appreciate baptism as part of our spiritual formation, we can look back on how it was fought over during the height of the Reformation. Catholics and many of the largest Protestant groups held to a sacramental view that baptism unites the infant or adult in deeper communion with God. Anabaptists, known as part of the Radical Reformers, considered the practice immensely important but noted that water baptism was only nestled between the baptism of the Spirit and the blood—that is, the physical working out of one’s salvation after conversion.
Mennonite and Anabaptist historian Alan Kreider called it a “boundary ritual”—a line that each of us crossed in our spiritual formation on our way toward Christ. For Kreider’s tradition, then, baptism was more than a symbol, but even other viewpoints can appreciate this infusion of meaning.
When we question the legitimacy of our baptism experiences, we are essentially wondering whether we have crossed this boundary. Do we belong to the family of God? In early English Baptist traditions, this question was so important that people were willing to die for the right to belong in this way.
The modern de-emphasis on belonging has helped feed this spiritual crisis. Many converts never seek baptism, and others participate in a baptism outside the umbrella of a local church. Consequently, no physical belonging is tied to the event. Without this tangible anchor, the spiritual meaning also erodes.
Did the act mean anything if there wasn’t a physical family of God waiting to embrace me on the other side? Can I even practice the ordinances if my primary spiritual community is online? These are both very present questions.
Pastor and author Aaron Damiani returned to church father Augustine’s insight defining a sacrament or ordinance as “an outward sign of an inward grace.” Damiani describes living a “sacramental life” by comparing it to a person seeing a train-crossing sign. “You can’t see the train now, but it does exist. And you need to be aware of it.” Even if the action has already passed by, the track is still there.
Looking at the path of baptism through your own life will help you not only recapture its original value but also prevent losing that value in the first place.
If you are personally struggling with this issue or are a faith leader having these same discussions, there are some practical steps you can take.
First, discuss the definition of baptism. What does it mean in your faith tradition? What does the Bible say? It is vital to establish this baseline. An unclear understanding leads to confusion.
Second, consider spiritual goals. In reality, a desire to be re-baptized is only a small part of someone’s larger desire to get closer to God. Remember to emphasize that baptism will not make up for a life devoid of genuine devotion fueled by spiritual disciplines.
Finally, reflect on the person’s spiritual condition during the first baptism. What did the individual (or you) think was happening in that moment? Does it match the earlier definition? Were there unfulfilled expectations because the person believed baptism was all someone needed to do to be a devoted disciple?
In a world marked by uncertainty and constantly moving boundaries, more and more people will wonder about the ritual and symbol of baptism. Even if you were baptized as an infant, you can still reflect on the meaning of this covenant and how your current life as a believer should be marked by the tracks of this past event.
For those struggling to feel closer to God, another baptism may not be the solution you are searching for. But it is good that you are searching. God promises that he is not hard to find for those willing to look.
When I watch others enter the baptistry, I can appreciate that I am already on the other side. Much like the Lord’s Supper, the corporate ordinance of baptism is another act done in remembrance of Christ.