Why does God want believers to be baptized? Well, actions matters, just as words matter.
* The requirement to be baptized forces another requirement — confession. I can have something like faith and keep it a secret. But when I confess my faith to others, wonderful things happen.
First, I admit my faith to myself. I make a decision: my faith matters enough that I’m willing to admit it to the church. That’s a big deal because faith too weak to be admitted is faith too weak to matter.
Second, when I admit my faith to the church, my relationship to the church changes. I go from being a visitor to family. From outside the body to inside. Of course, these things happen when I’m baptized, but confession and baptism cannot be separated. I confess so I can be baptized. I’m baptized because I confessed. It’s the confession that starts the process at the human level. Before then, my faith is between me and God only — and not much of a faith. Not really.
Third, when I confess, the church knows to baptize me. They may botch the ceremony by teaching bad baptismal theology or by not using enough water. But the church invites me to bring my faith to fruition by taking a simple, easy action based on my confession.
Fourth, this forces the church to decide whether to accept me for baptism. I know some find this idea horrifying, but in fact churches sometimes delay baptism for someone too young to understand or who has not yet learned enough about Jesus to understand the meaning of the ritual.
In the Churches of Christ, these decisions are usually made by the preacher, under the elders’ oversight. In traditional Baptist Churches, this is done democratically. Other denominations have their own processes. Regardless of how well we like the chosen process, the fact is that baptism is only for those who understand enough to have a genuine faith — and the church is irresponsible if it baptizes people it knows do not meet this standard.
Of course, properly taught, baptism is no simple, easy action at all! Baptism is into the death of Christ and into his body and into his Kingdom. It’s a pledge to live a different kind of life by different values. No, baptism should be scary because Christianity done right is scary.
Now, can you confess without being baptized? Yes, if you don’t understand God’s intentions regarding baptism. And it happens every day, because of some bad theology that’s crept into some teaching by many Christians. But it’s not the design.
Can I be saved without baptism? Well, yes, if the church botches its instructions to me. God won’t damn me for that any more than I’d have the right to divorce my wife because the wedding certificate was improperly signed.
Imagine that two devout Christians get married, with the preacher, bridesmaids, the whole works. They later have two children. Ten years later, the husband discovers that the preacher forgot to sign the wedding certificate. A lawyer tells him that his marriage is legally invalid (wouldn’t be true in Alabama, but assume it’s true wherever you live). Would it be sin for the man to abandon his “wife” and children, and then go marry a pretty young thing?
Well, to a heartless legalist, the man would be leaving a relationship of fornication and entering into the holy estate of matrimony. But most people would see it as God surely would — as sin. He made a commitment, and he needs to keep it. Even though the ceremony was done wrong, he’s bound to his commitment.
Nor can he abandon his children because the ceremony was wrong. You see, the commitment is vastly more important than the rite.
It’s not a perfect analogy, but hopefully it shows the danger of treating baptism in a legalistic fashion. (Amazing that some argue from marriage that the legalities of baptism matter more than the commitment! That’s upside down.) What really matters is the commitment made and the resulting relationship. He’s confessed his love for his bride and declared his intention to be married to her. She did the same. Technically right or not, in their hearts, they are married, and in God’s eyes, they became bound to each other.
No, he cannot leave and marry the pretty young thing. In fact, to do so would be a grave sin.
The normal case
And so, yes, baptism matters. Indeed, baptism is normally, by design, the moment when faith is confessed, commitment is made, the body is joined, and the Kingdom is entered — all by the power of God, due to the faith of the convert. This is when the Spirit is received. Normally.
A defective baptism does the same thing. Obviously, botching the baptism is a serious mistake by the church, but for the convert, it works well enough. God does not damn because a Baptist minister baptizes a convert to obey an ordinance because of salvation already received — all in a Baptist baptistery in a Baptist church.
The baptism takes, and the mistake is not all that serious in the grand scheme of things. You know, we tend to exaggerate how terrible these things are because we’ve been debating the topic for over a century. And debates distort the importance of the issue under consideration.
(My oldest son used to debate in high school. He learned that to win, he had to “prove” that his opponent’s position on DDT, EPA emission standards, or whatever would inevitably result in nuclear holocaust! We in the Churches of Christ tend to debate at about that level. That’s why we sometimes teach that every mistake damns. That’s how people try to win debates — at a high school level.)