Baptism ‘is not dispensable’

BAPTISM IS A WASHING surrounded by prayers and other ritual actions. It initiates a person into both the local Christian fellowship and the world-wide church. Most worship books assume the celebration of baptism at either the Sunday morning service or at another public worship event.

Many questions surround baptism, but the most pressing is why we baptise at all. Put another way: Is baptism dispensable?

Since being a Christian is fundamentally about personal belief in Jesus, why bother with the outward action that merely signifies that belief? “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

Furthermore, in the early church, unbaptised converts who died as martyrs were given Christian funerals in the belief that they were “baptised in their own blood”. No important Medieval or Reformation theologian taught the absolute necessity of baptism. Martin Luther held that God could save an unbaptised person if He so desired (Lectures on Genesis, Chapter 19).

Yet we should not conclude that baptism is optional either because of its outward, tangible nature or because the church does not insist on it absolutely.

To begin with, God uses tangible, sensible things and actions because humans can hardly relate to God otherwise. God saved us by sending a real “flesh and blood” person, Jesus, who not only spoke about God’s love but visibly demonstrated it through outward signs, especially His death on the cross.

The Lutheran theologian Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) wrote: “For just as the Word enters through the ear to strike the heart, so also the rite enters through the eye in order to move the heart” (Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 13).

New Christians need to have their bodies washed so that their hearts know that they have been cleansed from sin and reborn to new life. The eyes of congregation members need to see that event so that their hearts and minds can reclaim their own baptism.

If actions are dispensable because they are outward and tangible, then we would have to ask why Samuel anointed David as Israel’s saviour-king or why Jesus instituted a meal that remembers His death. In the biblical worldview, outward actions are a necessary means for humans to participate in sacred realities.

On the question of necessity, while recognising the possibility that God could save a person without baptism, theologians (like Luther) viewed such a scenario as exceptional. God’s freedom does not nullify God’s command to baptise (Matthew 28:19, Mark 16:16) nor His promise to bestow the Holy Spirit on the recipient of baptism (Acts 2:38). Because it is bound up with God’s saving activity in Christ, baptism is not dispensable.

In the Asian context, where family relationships are important, one perceived reason for omitting or indefinitely delaying baptism is the possibility of family disownment. Many non-Christian families will tolerate a member’s attending Christian worship services, but they will draw the line at baptism. In such cases, ministers may avoid pressing a person to receive baptism.

But baptism has long meant rejection of one kind or another. Before the official recognition of Christianity in the 4th century, many persons suffered ostracism and even death simply because they were baptised Christians.

In the centuries following, many were martyred because their faithfulness to God’s Word and their own baptismal vocation aroused official opposition, e.g. Jan Hus, Balthasar Hubmeier and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Christ calls people to costly discipleship, and faithfully issuing that summons on His behalf is part of the joy and burden of being the Church.

Perhaps ministers should not presume what will transpire after a person from a non-Christian family is baptised. I once attended a conference at which a presenter recounted being ejected from the family home by his mother following his baptism. But he maintained contact with his family, and eventually all of them were baptised – including his mother!

The same Spirit who transformed the persecutor Saul into the apostle Paul can work equally amazing conversions today. But the Church needs to take the risky action that prepares the way for God’s work, namely, by inviting people to receive baptism, even when there is familial opposition.

May we faithfully obey the Lord’s command to baptise so that baptism finds its rightful place in the Sunday worship assembly!

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The Rev Dr. Jeffrey Truscott, Lecturer in Worship and Liturgy at Trinity Theological College, is also the Chaplain of the college.