The concept of baptism is firmly rooted in Biblical theology. The idea of making public, visually symbolic action that affirms to all present that a person has died to a past life and is now a new creation in Christ is fundamental to the Christian experience. Yet, despite its foundational position, baptism has been a source of much contention throughout the history of the church and theological positions regarding baptism and its significance have varied considerably. One area of contention revolves around the concept of re-baptism of people who have previously been baptized as infants. Re-baptism is thus closely connected to the contentions over the necessity and efficacy of infant baptism. What is re-baptism and what are the theological beliefs that support those who engage in this practice?
Baptism is a practice that is accepted throughout Christendom and which is practiced throughout the pages of the New Testament as a sign of turning from a way of sin and through death to self signifying new life in Jesus Christ. When John the Baptist saw Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized by him he warned them that the act of baptism meant nothing unless it was accompanied by a spirit of repentance from sin.
“Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).
Baptism involves an attitude while engaging in the activity which will then show itself in the way in which a person conducts his or her life afterward. While baptism is never spoken of as being the cause of a person’s salvation, the action is to reflect a heart that has trusted in Christ for salvation and thus has made a determination to live by faith in such a way that fruit will result from that faith. Such an understanding challenges those who engage in the practice of infant baptism since it is difficult to grasp how an infant would be able to engage in repentance from sin or produce the kind of fruit that should be produced by those who have saving faith. Despite this fact, infant baptism arose relatively early in the history of the church in order to deal with original sin transmitted from the parent to the infant and as a substitute for circumcision in order to bring the infant into the community of faith. Baptism in this understanding is necessary for an individual to share in the benefits of being a part of the church and through this action to ensure that the person receives salvation in Christ. In contrast, those who affirm re-baptism insist that each individual must make a conscious choice to accept salvation in Christ and that baptism is the public means by which the choice is declared. The Apostle Paul wrote of the way of salvation.
“because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God is raised from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).
Salvation is thus a product of understanding the Lordship of Jesus Christ and being able to articulate this publicly.
In addition, it requires an ability to conceptualize the significance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is by this action that a person deals with the effects of original sin and how it has impacted that individual as he or she has lived a life of rebellion against God and brings that individual into the community of faith. This action cannot be done by others on behalf of an individual and this signifies that a person must have come to the point in his or her life where rational thought can occur. When such an individual is cut to the heart and understands the necessity of repentance from sin then that person becomes a candidate for baptism.
“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Peter’s statement was in response to sorrow for sin.
The people listening to Peter consciously asked what they needed to do, which indicates the ability to communicate rationally and seek direction. In addition, it indicates past sin which needs to be turned away from and a past life that needs to be rejected. Re-baptism is the act by which a person who has previously been baptized as an infant will be baptized again, but this time while having the conscious ability to do what those who were listening to Peter were able to do. Baptism is the means by which a person is able to follow the example put forth by Jesus Christ and to come into a relationship with the Holy Spirit in a similar manner to that experienced by Jesus at his baptism.
“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;” (Matthew 3:16).
While Jesus had been dedicated in the temple as an infant, his baptism involved a different stage in his life and ministry.
It was at his baptism, a public declaration of his trust in the Father, that Jesus encountered the Holy Spirit in a manner that enabled him to start his public ministry. He was empowered uniquely as he publicly declared his faith in the Father and it is this same public declaration which those who affirm re-baptism is necessary for an individual to live out the Christian faith on the earth.
Baptism is thus seen not merely as a means of incorporating a person into the community of faith, but more importantly as a means by which a person steps out in faith and incorporates the power of the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill God’s calling upon his or her life. Such an action can only be done by one old enough to make such a rational choice and anyone baptized as an infant would need to be re-baptized as a result. The desire to be baptized is thus seen as an indicator of true faith.
“And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he replied, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God’” (Acts 8:36, 37).
Baptism follows saving faith and that can only be a product of a person who is old enough to repent from sin and believe in Christ.
While infant baptism can be a manner of bringing a child to Christ and affirming the desire of the parents and the community that such a child should eventually choose Christ and be saved, it does not replace baptism following conversion. Re-baptism is thus an acknowledgment that a person has come to saving faith and is making a public declaration of faith in such a manner that he or she will incorporate the power of the Holy Spirit in order to live out a life that is directed by God and reflects his will.