My father Gnana Bhaktamitran speaking to the church after a baptism (Madurai India)

Wrong practices are often born when good men overreact to other wrong practices. That is how, perhaps, was born the notion that baptism is dispensable.

At the outset, please allow me to confess that I am not a theologian, but how can any Christian escape theology; our lives are worked around growing in the knowledge of God and delighting in Him.

Baptismal regeneration must have been the heresy that led to the error of baptism being treated so lightly. It is fairly easy to prove that baptism is not dispensable. But my fear is that we have perhaps over shot the right position in the matter of baptism out of a genuine desire to avoid the heresy of baptismal regeneration.

I lament the relegation of baptism to the status of a good-to-do option—almost dispensable. I think this is unbiblical.

  • Baptism was the culmination of the conversion experience as we see in the book of Acts and served as an initiation into the church, the people of God.
  • Baptism is a command of Jesus
  • Jesus, our greatest Example, was baptised.

The latter two points are easy to understand and should suffice, even if the first point were not true, to make baptism mandatory in the life of a Christian.

The first point needs some explanation.

The book of Acts speaks of many conversions. Receiving the word, faith, repentance, and baptism in water are mentioned in many of these accounts. If the frequency of mention has any weight, baptism holds a very important place in the conversion stage of an individual.

When the Jews were cut to the heart by Peter’s first sermon on the day of Pentecost and asked what they were to do, Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised every one of you for the remission of your sins and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ) Does this verse teach that baptism is essential for the remission of sins? By looking at this scripture in isolation, it does seem that way, but we must compare scripture with scripture. It becomes obvious that faith, repentance, and submission of one’s self to the Lord are spiritual steps or changes that must precede this external ritual of baptism.

Greek grammarians have pointed out that the sentence ought to read as Repent and be baptised because of the remission of sins. For some reason, no standard translation actually replaces the word ‘and’ with ‘because of’.

However, other Greek grammarians point out that the receiving of the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit pertains to both repentance and baptism equally because of the conjunction ‘and’ (Gk kai) that is usually used to connect two equals.

Whether or not grammarians can ever resolve this problem amicably, this much is obvious that Peter does mention baptism in the context of conversion.

My leanings on this subject do not lie on the side of baptismal regeneration and I can assure you that I do not believe that baptism saves or that the water in the baptistery is holy or anything like that. But I am afraid that we may have undermined the importance of baptism in conversion and strayed away from apostolic practice.

Acts 9:17-19 speaks about Paul’s conversion.

And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized. So when he had received food, he was strengthened. Then Saul spent some days with the disciples at Damascus.

We see that he was baptised immediately. It is interesting that Paul did not even eat before that, in spite of the fact that he had not eaten for a considerable amount of time (vs9). Only after he was baptised did he eat.

Today we do not baptise anyone without, justifiably, being reasonably satisfied that the candidate has been sufficiently taught and has truly believed and repented. But it is worrying that sometimes weeks, months, and years intervene after the candidate has believed.

A look at the way Paul himself narrates this experience is even more interesting.

“Then a certain Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good testimony with all the Jews who dwelt there, came to me; and he stood and said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that same hour I looked up at him. Then he said, ‘The God of our fathers has chosen you that you should know His will, and see the Just One, and hear the voice of His mouth. For you will be His witness to all men of what you have seen and heard. And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’ (Acts 22:12 – 16)

Just because we know that the Bible cannot possibly be telling us that we are saved by baptism, we cannot wish away the fact that baptism is mentioned here in the context of salvation.

I believe that the most natural meaning of this scripture stares us in the face and yet we cannot see it because of preconceived assumptions. We assume that if we conceded that baptism is indeed mentioned in the context of salvation, we would in some way be giving credence to the error of baptismal regeneration.

Then look at: He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16). One brother explained that it was written in the style of “Whoever believes in Jesus and goes to church will be saved,” where it is believing that is important and not the going to church. Perhaps it is written in that fashion. But what if it is written in the style of “Whoever turns to Me and believes in Me will be saved.” At least, we can all agree that baptism has been mentioned in this scripture in the context of salvation.

Baptism is mentioned in the great commission as recorded by Matthew . “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all he nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen. (Matt 28: 18-20)

Amen? We are afraid to even allow our eyes to rest on these scriptures for fear that we would be giving in to the notion of baptismal regeneration. We fear because we know that the error of baptismal regeneration renders to the act of baptism the place that must be reserved for grace, for the sacrifice on the cross, and to the Lord Himself. Only God can save. But I fear that we fear needlessly. I fear that we have not pin-pointed the real error of baptismal regeneration, and in avoiding all that we confuse with it, have moved away from apostolic practice itself.

Let me try to explain what is on my mind with an example. If I owed the government a loan of a million dollars that I could not pay, and a philanthropist offered me a check for the amount and I deposited the check in the bank. Would you say that it was my works in going to the bank that repaid the debt? Was it not the kindness of that individual, who generously paid my debt, the reason for my deliverance? He paid my debt, his kindness paid my debt, my acceptance of the check paid my debt, and my going to the bank paid the debt. All these are true in their context, but the works that I did are not works whereby I can boast (Eph 2:8-9). I have gone to the bank on innumerable occasions. Going to the bank is no great deal. Accepting the check from that person was in fact the most important thing that I did in that example, although I cannot boast about it.

Similarly believing in the Lord Jesus and going through the exercise of repentance has more significance than baptism which is just a dip in the water, like going to the bank, an action that we may do at other times in life. But when the check of a million dollars is in my handbag, the drive to the bank assumes great significance. When the Lord has spoken to my heart and my heart has believed and accepted, the act of baptism becomes significant and worthy of mention in the same breath as faith or repentance. Without faith, a baptism is nothing more than getting wet.

Just because some have erred and assigned to the mere ritual the honour that belongs to the saving grace of God, should we throw the baby with the bathwater?

It has been argued that the new covenant is a spiritual one and concerns the heart, and that we are finished with outward types and rituals. Although this is true to a great degree, we still have the Lord’s table and baptism that were both given to the church through His apostles by the Lord Jesus Himself. Can we take undue liberties with what our Lord has instituted? Should we not endeavour to include these rituals in our churches according to the spirit and practice that we find in the New Testament?

Many of our church practices from Christian orthodoxy seem to assume that baptism flags the beginning of the Christian life. Membership in a local church and the privilege of participating in the Lord’s table are prerogatives of the people of God. Why then do we find these privileges being enjoyed only by those who have professed their faith publicly in baptism? If baptism did not indeed have a place in the process of conversion, would we not be acting presumptuously in denying any child of God a part in the table of the Lord?

In my understanding baptism is an important step in conversion, less significant than faith and repentance but more visible than those. Baptism is a simple act of obedience that closely follows and reflects what is happening in the heart of the individual.

At what point is one saved? From the case of Cornelius’ household, I see that it was possible for the Holy Spirit to come upon them before they were baptised. This to me is a strong point against baptismal regeneration. However, even here, baptism followed immediately.

Incidently, I do not think the Bible tells us at what point we are saved? At what point do we get saving faith. Does it happen in a second or does it take days? Does a person repent after one has this faith or during the process. If one repents after one believes, then is he saved before his repentance is complete? We do not ask these questions. Neither should we ask whether one can be saved without baptism. It is akin to asking if a person can be a Christian and not ever be a part of any local church. The answers to these questions are academic, cannot be answered with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, and totally unnecessary.

Even if one did not connect baptism to the conversion stage the way I do, it is obvious that baptism is a command. Jesus also, who is our role model and example, was baptised. How then can anyone say that baptism is dispensable. How can you have a Christian who has been saved for years who has not been baptised. Can one be sure that all is spiritually well with such a person? Although we may point to the fact that it is God’s grace that saves and that He knows our hearts and so on, it is far more preferable to be as accurate as possible when dealing with matters that pertain to eternity.

Because baptism is a symbol of the inward experience of salvation and also happens about the same time, the Bible uses baptism synonymously with salvation in some places.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Eph 4:4-5)

Or do you not know that as many of us were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)

Ending on a humble note: Luther, Ryrie, Knox, Wesley, Ziegenbalg and a host of others would not subscribe to all that I have written here. I am humbly aware by logical reasoning that I too may be wrong in my understanding of this subject. Every aspect of baptism–the mode, the timing, the teaching that goes with it–has been understood and practiced differently by the people of God. I do not want to conclude therefore that the ritual of immersion is not important or that it may be dispensed with. When any theological concept is studied, we do not doctor our understanding of the doctrine to accommodate the practices of men, whatever be their spiritual stature. The word of God must be our guide, and we do our best in all honesty, though we often seem to see rather dimly. The part that God does in conversion is the part that saves and the part that is always accomplished perfectly. Praise God! Baptism is man’s part and the visible part and the part that many of us if not all of us have understood imperfectly.