Last week, we started wrapping up this series by answering a series of questions. So, let’s begin today by asking a series of questions (who doesn’t like movie trivia?):
- What was the name of Quint’s boat in Jaws?
- What was the first feature-length animated movie ever?
- In what movie do we find Robert De Niro’s great line: “You talkin’ to me?”
- In what movie did Marlon Brando say, “I could have been a contender?”
- What was the song that Tom Cruise lip-synced to in Risky Business?
- The stage play, Everybody Comes to Rick’s,was made into what 1942 movie?
- What were the dying words of Charles Foster Kane?
Here’s the point: Some questions are trivial (see above). Some are not (see below). There are huge theological and pastoral issues at stake in many of our questions about baptism, and we need to approach them as serious matters, even though, at first glance, they seem rather trivial.
Last week, we discussed two important questions: (1) “Does baptism save?” and (2) “What is accomplished in baptism?” Today, we need to deal with two more closely-related questions: (1) “Is the efficacy of baptism tied to the specific moment of baptism?” and (2) “Should we ever rebaptize someone?”
Question 1: Is the efficacy of baptism tied to that specific moment?
Now, granted, this doesn’t sound like an important question, but it becomes more and more important the more and more you think about it. Lots of people argue against infant baptism because, as I said last week, it seems like nothing actually happens. The child will leave wet, but not “saved.” However, when you baptize an adult, something real takes place (or so it seems). They leave both wet and saved. When they come out of the water, we see that they are a new creation. As pragmatic people interested only in the bottom line, if nothing actually happens in an infant baptism, why spend time doing it? Do we really have time for such trivialities? At least, that is the common perception. But is that perception correct? I would answer, no.
Think back on circumcision. Was the efficacy of circumcision in the act or was it much later? It must be much later because sometimes it had no efficacy at all (Jer. 4:4; Rom. 9:6; Gal. 5:6). And if it didn’t “take,” that must mean it wasn’t efficacious at the moment it happened. And if the efficacy of circumcision wasn’t tied to the moment, we should not expect the efficacy of baptism to be tied to the act either.
Now, again, that is not to say that baptism has no efficacy. When the child professes faith (when they come of age), they can look back and see that God has been at work in their life since the very beginning. Look at all the blessings God pours out on them in their baptism. He sends the Spirit to work in their hearts. He sets them apart as his own special people. He places them into a believing community where God’s people can pray for and nurture them. And he pours out grace upon grace on these little ones. And all of this is gratefully acknowledged when the child makes a profession of faith, a profession that unequivocally proves the efficacy of their baptism, even if that efficacy wasn’t tied to the specific moment of their baptism.
Should we rebaptize someone?
This also is not a trivial question. In fact, it is a question that comes up frequently. And it is ripe with emotion. People who ask to be rebaptized usually have a story of being baptized as an infant, leaving the faith, and then returning. But when they return, they feel like they are coming to Christ for the first time. They will tell you that their original baptism meant nothing, that it was just a show, void of meaning. And they will tell you that, now that they have come to Christ, they want to be rebaptized in obedience to Christ’s command and to disclose their new-found faith. They are adamant about it, and to deny them this privilege (on theological grounds) causes great hurt. Plus, refusing to rebaptize them is useless. If we don’t do it, they will find someone who will.
But is their thinking correct? When they walked away from the church, perhaps for decades, did God walk away from them? You already know the answer: IF they returned to God as an adult, if they were in my office asking to be rebaptized, then it is clear that God had not forsaken them. And if they feel they must be baptized in order to fulfill Jesus’ command, we can point back to their baptism as an infant and tell them, they have already completed all that God requires of them. And all of their subsequent acts of obedience, all of their repentance and all evidence of their faith now, demonstrate that their (infant) baptism was true. In short, even though they had run away from God, and now had come back, their baptism as an infant proved that God never ran away from them. And if that is true, then rebaptism commits three sins. It ridicules God’s promises in our original baptism. It denies that God’s (special) grace was poured out in abundance in our original baptism. And it makes us the center of attention, when baptism should always be focused on God’s love and goodness. (When we come to be rebaptized, we are saying that our repentance and our new profession of faith that we made should be the focal point, instead of looking back at God’s goodness, grace and faithfulness given to us in our original baptism, a faithfulness that has been at work in our life from day one and has now brought us back to God. Bottom line: it is no trivial matter when we usurp God’s glory.)
Now, there is a second scenario where rebaptism is a topic of discussion. In some churches, people are invited to come to Christ and be baptized (immediately). Now, we can debate the wisdom of such an approach, but for the sake of argument, let’s allow it. The problem occurs when some people come forward more than once. They feel that their previous conversion experience and baptism did not take, and so they come forward to do it again. So now, the question is not only, should we rebaptize a person, but how many times should a person be rebaptized before it gets silly? See, I know of a case where the same person came to accept Christ and be baptized forty-seven times! I think that is abominable. So, if we are going to allow a person to be rebaptized, are we going to allow them to be rebaptized over and over again? All that to say, once you open the door for one rebaptism, you may be opening the door to all sorts of abuse.
Now to be perfectly transparent, I think I was baptized twice. I professed Christ in 4th grade when we were in Alabama, but I was not baptized then (though I don’t know why). However, four years later, when I went to join a church in Massachusetts, I was required to be baptized; and so, off to Baptist Pond I went. Years later, my mom told me I had also been baptized as an infant (recently, Dad said he did not remember this, so there is some discrepancy with what actually happened). In any case, had I known then what I know now and had I known then that I had already been baptized and had I the courage as a middle-schooler to confront the leadership of the church, I would have protested loudly and refused to be rebaptized. I would have said that, in my original baptism God claimed me as his own, a point now verified since I was seeking membership in the visible church and since I could point to clear signs of the Spirit’s work in my life. And, I bet, they would have told me either to get in the water or to get out of their church. Nevertheless, I didn’t know what I know now and didn’t even know I had already been baptized, so the whole point is moot. However, I felt I needed to come clean to you and confess that, for the sake of church membership, I became an Anabaptist for a while.
Now, there is an exception to my no rebaptizing rule. If someone was baptized in a non-Christian church (you pick the church), then although water was used, it was not a true baptism and that person should be (re)baptized (although technically, it is only a baptism). However, if it was a Christian church (even if it was very different from our own church), I do not believe we would need to baptize them. If the original baptism was trinitarian (done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), all is well.
Oh, one last point, you don’t find many examples of men in the Old Testament who decided to get re-circumcised when they decided to embrace the faith of Abraham as an adult. No. Baptism, like circumcision, was a one-time thing.
Our Confession is absolutely right: “The sacrament of baptism is to be administered only once to any person.” That is wise and good advice.
We still have a few more questions to go, but we are coming down the home stretch. In the meantime, impress your friends with your new-found wisdom regarding baptism, as well as your knowledge of movie trivia. And while I am sure you got all the answers right to my movie-trivia quiz above, I thought I would supply the answers just in case. See, knowing the right questions and having the right answers are both very helpful. (1) The Orca. (2) Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. (3) Taxi Driver. (4) On the Waterfront. (5) “Old Time Rock and Roll” by Bob Seger. (6) Casablanca. (7) ”Rosebud.” (8) No, we shouldn’t rebaptize anyone because the efficacy of baptism in not tied to the moment the baptism occurred. It has ongoing gracious efficacy.