Baptism: Essentials and Nonessentials

By Wayne Jackson

There are some very important issues associated with New Testament baptism, and the person who wants to obey God must not neglect these essentials. At the same time, some matters associated with the sacred obligation are in the realm of expediency, hence allow for some flexibility. In this brief study, let us reflect on these categories.

Essentials

Consider the following essential components of New Testament baptism.

Spiritual and mental condition

First, there is the matter of one’s intellectual and spiritual status. One entitled to baptism must be an accountable person who has become a sinner by virtue of the exercise of his individual power of choice. Sin is a transgression of divine law (1 John 3:4); it is an act of disobedience that one chooses to do; no one is born sinful.

This sinful person must be capable of accepting the grace of God by accessing the biblical information regarding the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ. Without faith in the Lord, one simply cannot submit to baptism (Mark 16:16). Further, the believer must be willing to repent of all past sins, i.e., be sorry for his transgressions and entertain the resolution to turn from his disobedient way of life. Repentance must precede biblical baptism (Acts 2:38).

These requisites, of course, exclude the common practice of “infant baptism,” since babies do not yet possess the ability to believe, nor do they need to repent. In infancy, they have committed no sins, hence are not in danger of being lost.

Immersion

The baptismal candidate must be immersed in water. That is what the Greek term baptizo signifies. One is “buried” with Christ in baptism, and is raised from the water to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12). The practices of pouring water upon the candidate’s head, or sprinkling him with water, are innovations that arose in post-apostolic times. There is not the slightest hint of these digressions in the New Testament.

It was centuries before “sprinkling,” as a substitute for immersion, became accepted in the community of “Christendom.” We dealt with this issue in a recent article on our web site (“Does Archaeology Prove that Baptism May Be Administered by Sprinkling?”), and we recommend this discussion to those who are confused about the “mode” of baptism.

Understanding

There must be an understanding of the purpose of baptism, if such is to be valid. On the day of Pentecost, Peter declared that baptism is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38; cf. 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21).

If a comprehension of this aspect of baptism is nonessential, as some allege, why was it included in the divine admonition? Must one understand that Christ’s death was “for remission of sins” (Matthew 26:28)? The identical phrase is employed.

Some contend that the minimum requirement is simply this: One must be baptized to “obey God.” Is there anyone who submits to immersion who does not feel that he or she is “obeying” God in the act? The logical conclusion of this argument would be this — all people who have been immersed are children of God, irrespective of their level of understanding. Few indeed are willing to adopt or defend a consistent position grounded in this premise.

These issues are firm; they are non-negotiable, and those who respect the authority of the New Testament will not quibble with them, nor refuse to submit to the divine pattern.

Nonessentials

On the other hand, some matters connected with baptism are strictly in the realm of opinion, preference, or expediency. Unfortunately, some folks, not understanding this, have formulated restrictions where they ought not have, and dissension has resulted. The careful Bible student will learn to separate the essential from the nonessential.

The Location

Some boast that they were baptized in the Jordan River, “just like Jesus was,” thus suggesting that the material site provides some special sacredness to the occasion.

When I was in Israel some years ago, and our party came to the Jordan, a number of folks stepped forward and requested baptism. A Protestant clergyman immersed them. There had been no immediate previous instruction of which anyone was aware; apparently they had been waiting for this location, thinking that the Jordan was a “sanctified” location.

Others have refused to be immersed in a baptistry; they insisted on “running” water. They were sincere, though misguided.

The Administrator

Some contend that baptism is not valid unless the administrator is a Christian, or maybe even a “minister.” But there are no qualifications placed upon the one who administers the act.

Suppose a person is in a country where there are no known Christians, yet, by studying the New Testament on his own, he learns of his duty to God. Is he to neglect doing the will of the Lord merely because there is no Christian to assist in the act? Of course not. He should ask some kindly person to immerse him.

The issue is what he understands, and what he does — not what someone else may be lacking. If one’s baptism is dependent upon the character of the administrator, he would never know for certain whether his baptism was genuine — for no one knows the heart of another person.

The Posture of the Administrator

There is a new type of baptistry that is designed so that the candidate stands in a narrow pool of water, while the administrator remains outside; the administrator reaches over and immerses the believer. Some have objected to this, but without validity. I once knew of a man who objected to the baptismal administrator wearing wading boots because the water did not actually touch his legs!

The Posture of the Candidate

Must the candidate be standing in order for the baptism to be scriptural? There have been situations where the available water for immersion is so sparse that the candidate is forced to sit in a shallow pool. The administrator lays the person backward until he is immersed, then raises the candidate’s upper torso from the pool, and assists the new Christian to his feet. Was the convert immersed or not?

Many have helped immerse sick people who had to be lowered into the baptistry on a stretcher. Must the candidate be immersed backward, or could he or she be baptized in a forward position? It does not matter as long as it is immersion. The issue is immersion; incidentals are irrelevant.

The Words Spoken

The United Pentecostal people (who believe that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are the same person), insist that all baptisms must be performed in “the name of Jesus only,” i.e., mentioning only the name of Christ when the baptism is performed. This, of course, corresponds to their belief regarding the Godhead.

On the other hand, others equally mistaken will argue that the words, “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” must be audibly pronounced in order for the rite to be scriptural. Neither view is correct.

Passages like Matthew 28:19; Acts 2:38, etc., are not prescribing a spoken formula; rather, they are expressing certain relationships connected with the act. Matthew’s emphasis is upon the convert’s relationship to the divine Godhead into which he enters at the point of his immersion. Acts 2:38 stresses that the ritual is by the Lord’s authority.

Conclusion

It thus is imperative that one be able to distinguish the difference between the essential and nonessential. Such would save souls and prevent dissension. An erroneous idea relative to a “nonessential” matter will not nullify the validity of one’s baptism, but when incidental issues become a point of contention, the Lord is not pleased.

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.