“There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4-6, ESV)
How many times should the Christian be baptized? The biblical answer is that there is but “one baptism,” and therefore by necessary inference every Christian is to receive holy baptism but once. As a sacrament of initiation into the covenant of grace it is to be administered but once. “But,” someone might object, “what about someone who is baptized as an infant but doesn’t come to a personal faith in Christ until much later in life? Since she can’t remember her infant baptism, and since she had no conscious personal faith when she was baptized as an infant, shouldn’t she be rebaptized as an adult? Or what about the person who was immersed as a teenager but who wanders away from the faith into a sinful lifestyle, only to return to Christ and the church later in life? Should such a person be rebaptized?” The biblical and historic Christian answer to these questions is, “No; baptism remains objectively valid even if the baptized person neglects to fulfill his/her baptismal obligations.”
The practice of rebaptism is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of baptism. As a sign and seal of God’s covenant of grace in Christ, baptism points to what God has done for us sinners through Christ. It signifies and seals forgiveness of sins and renewal by the Holy Spirit. It is primarily about what God promises to do for us believers, not primarily about our response to God’s promise of grace. But for rebaptizers, baptism is erroneously understood to mean “I have decided to follow Jesus!” For them it is primarily about our response, our “decision” to follow and confess Christ. For them it is primarily about what we do for God, not what God graciously does for us. What this means is that the consistent rebaptism position is inherently man-centered, while the “one baptism” position is God-centered.
The problem for the rebaptizers is that God’s promise stands, even if that promise is neglected or rejected. Of course, this does not mean that everyone who is properly baptized is automatically saved. Without a response of personal repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, baptism stands not as a sign of salvation, but as a sign and warning of the flood of God’s judgment which will deluge the covenant breaker on judgment day, just as the waters of the flood of Noah’s day overwhelmed the wicked who refused to take refuge in the ark (see First Peter 3:18-22). Baptism offers no comfort or hope to the persistently impenitent and unbelieving. Nevertheless, while life remains one’s baptism continues to serve as a constant witness and reminder of God’s objective gospel promise to forgive and cleanse from sin all who repent and believe the good news.
While many of our Baptist brothers and sisters who came into the Baptist faith from a paedobaptist (“infant baptizing”) background are sincerely convinced that they are simply obeying Scripture by being rebaptized, what they don’t realize is that by the action of getting rebaptized they are actually calling God’s gospel promises of grace into question. When we get rebaptized it is as if we are saying to God, “Lord, you can’t really be relied upon to keep your promise of grace unless we first ‘help’ you do so by our decision for Christ. We must take the initiative first, and then your grace will follow. You cannot be taken at your Word.” Again, I know that this is not the intention of my Baptist brothers and sisters when they submit to rebaptism, but whether they realize it or not their actions in getting rebaptized do in fact call God’s covenant faithfulness and promises of grace into question and have the effect of blaspheming His character. (I say this as one who regrettably got “rebaptized” twice as a young man during a period of spiritual confusion and searching.)
But what about the one who is baptized as a baby but doesn’t darken the door of a church until much later in life? Or what about the lapsed Christian who wanders for many years in a lifestyle of sin and unbelief before returning to Christ and His church? From a biblical and reformed perspective we would say that they don’t need to be rebaptized; rather we would say that the grace signified in their baptism has finally “kicked in”, so any “rebaptism” would be redundant. They received the sign of the promise of grace in their baptism when they were younger, but now (perhaps much later on) they receive the actual grace which was signified and sealed to them in their baptism many years earlier. For them their baptism is a comfort because it indicates that even in their wandering years God had not forgotten His promise of grace.
The theologians of the Westminster Assembly wisely addressed this matter of what might be called “delayed efficacy” in Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 28, section 6:
“The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.” (Scripture Proofs listed in the OPC book of doctrinal standards: John 3:5, 8; Romans 6:3-6; Galatians 3:27; First Peter 3:21; Acts 2:38, 41)
When the Jews living in Old Testament times lapsed into idolatry and covenant breaking, they didn’t need to get re-circumcised (as if such were possible). Instead, they needed to “circumcise their hearts” by repenting and returning to a life of faith and obedience to Yahweh, the God of Israel (for example, see Leviticus 26:40-45 and Deuteronomy 30:1-10). Likewise, what the lapsed, wandering or “backsliding” Christian needs in this new covenant age is not rebaptism. Instead, he needs to repent, return to Christ (whose arms of grace are always opened wide to the prodigal who returns – Luke 15:11-32), and return to the fellowship of the church. (The fruits of such repentance and return would include, among other things, becoming a responsible member of a faithful local church and receiving anew the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.) Baptism summons the lapsed Christian home to Christ and His church. There is room at the Lord’s Table for the lapsed believer who repents and returns!
Dear reader, if you are a lapsed or wandering believer, your baptism summons you home to Christ. Won’t you come home to the Savior?
For an interesting video showing that infant baptism was the universal practice of the early church I recommend the following from the confessional Lutheran website “Worldview Everlasting”:
(Disclaimer: Obviously as confessional Presbyterians we would take exception to some of the Lutheran notions promoted by Rev. Fisk in this video, such as belief in head-for-head baptismal regeneration, the notion that baptism actually works forgiveness of sins rather than being a sign and seal of forgiveness, etc. Nevertheless, there is much in this video that Reformed Christians would agree with.)