By Nick Brzozowski
Months ago, someone asked if their baptism could be private.
They were nervous. Of course, being dunked in front of a crowd can be intimidating - what if you fall or cough up water?
More recently, someone asked specifically, “Why does baptism have to be public?”
Personally, I love questions like that. To me, questioning the purpose behind the practice is one of the most healthy things we can do as Christians. It helps us to further understand our faith and discover better ways of doing things.
Now, I have to be honest here. Public baptisms was something I have just taken for granted.
Growing up, baptism was always something that happened at church in front of everyone. We would have a “baptism Sunday” every few months or so.
But, I’ve also seen baptisms at Lake Michigan and one in our backyard. So, I don’t think baptisms need to be at a church building, but do they need to be public?
To answer this question, we will want to explore what baptism is and what it does. It's not as simple as it sounds. The meaning and mode of baptism has been debated for thousands of years.
The meaning and mode of baptism has been debated for thousands of years.
Baptism in the Old Testament
We don’t find baptisms until the New Testament. But, theologians will tend to see the practice of baptism to be a replacement for Old Testament practices. Most of the time, you will find the connection between baptism and circumcision, since they both mark the entering of an individual into the people of God.
You could also argue for baptism replacing ceremonial washings. The symbolism is the similar - that we need to be cleansed to enter God’s presence.
We even have New Testament evidence for linking baptism with these practices (circumcision more so). In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul describes the Christian's conversion as a uniting with Christ. He goes on to use circumcision and baptism as pictures to describe putting off your old self (your flesh) and being buried and raised with Christ.
Peter compares baptism and the flood in Genesis. In both cases, water functions as an agent for saving people (1 Peter 3:20-21).
Today, people will tend to see the Old and New Testaments at odds with one another. But, I find beauty is discovering how they complement each other. There are themes that originate in the Old Testament, only to be further developed in the New. God is an artist and history is his canvass.
God is an artist and history is his canvass.
Baptism and Jesus
John had a unique role of preparing the people for Jesus. He started to gather crowds and baptized people. People began to think that he is the messiah who was to come, but he was adamant that Jesus was that guy! He said: “This is the one I meant when I said, ‘A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him, but the reason I came baptizing with water was that he might be revealed to Israel” (John 1:30-31).
John’s baptism was designed to be temporary. When the apostle John writes about John the Baptist, he is leveraging his credibility to further convince people of Jesus' identity.
Later, even Jesus was baptized by John. After protesting that he was not worthy, Jesus insisted that it was necessary. So, John conceded. When Jesus came up out of the water, God spoke from heaven that this was his Son and the Spirit descended on him like a dove (Mark 1:10-11).
From that point, Jesus began his public ministry, gathering his disciples, healing and doing miracles and preaching about the Kingdom of God. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, his disciples, as well as John’s continue to baptize people (John 4:1-2).
By getting baptized himself, Jesus is setting the example for future disciples.
Baptism and the Early Church
In addition to being baptized himself, Jesus directly tells his twelve apostles to baptize new disciples (Matthew 28:18-20).
And throughout the book of Acts, we see people getting baptized all the time.
On Pentecost, ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven, the Holy Spirit fills the Christians and Peter preaches the gospel. “They then that received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:40).
Philip goes to Samaria, preaching the gospel and baptizing men and women “when they believed” (Acts 8:5-13).
Later, Philip was taken to an Ethiopian Eunuch, where he explained the gospel. They were traveling and, when they saw some water, he asked to get baptized (Acts 8:36-38).
Ananias baptized Paul after he received his sight (Acts 9:19).
After the Lord opened her heart to the gospel, Lydia, along with her household, was baptized (Acts 16:15). Later, the Philippians jailer and his household believed in Jesus and were baptized (Acts 16:27-34).
Just as Jesus commanded before he ascended, people were baptized after believing in him.
Does Baptism Save Us?
Throughout church history, there have been two primary debates about baptism:
What does baptism accomplish?
Who should get baptized?
The first debate (what does it accomplish) is the more critical. Does someone need to get baptized to go to heaven? Does baptism save your soul?
People who argue that baptism is necessary for salvation will point to verses like 1 Peter 3:21, which says “and this water symbolized baptism that now saves you…” It seems clear enough from just that. In addition to that, Peter preaches, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Now, because this deals with salvation, this is critical. Christianity is asking one major question: How do you know if you are right with God? If someone does not get baptized, does that mean that they will go to hell?
Here are some reasons baptism is not necessary for salvation:
Jesus told the thief on the cross (who was not going to get baptized) that he would be in Paradise (Luke 23:43).
In 1 Peter 3:21, Paul goes on to clarify that the physical act of baptism isn’t what saves you: “not the removal of dirt from the body.”
As we saw from the quick survey of the early church, people believed in Jesus and were immediately baptized. For Peter to say “repent and be baptized” is similar to a preacher today telling someone to “say this prayer.” Just like baptism, the prayer doesn’t save a person, but it is something that is linked with the experience.
Finally, Paul is clear that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone (Ephesians 2:8-9). No works, including baptism, save us.
The major question Christianity is asking is how to know you are right with God.
Should Infants be Baptized?
On the one hand, you’ve got infant-baptism advocates. They stress that baptism is an initiation into the people of God, just like circumcision was in the Old Testament (which happened at eight days old). They also argue that throughout the book of Acts, we have examples of whole households getting baptized and there must have been an infant in there somewhere.
On the other hand, you’ve got believers-baptism advocates (which I happen to be one). We stress the pattern throughout the book of Acts that people would come to believe and then get baptized. Baptism acted as a profession of faith. It is also linked primarily with a person’s union with Christ, and only secondarily with the church.
A lot more could be said about this, but that is the debate in a very small nutshell.
So….What is Baptism?
Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality, which is that you have been united with Christ.
There are two implications of this union:
You died and rose with Christ. Your old self is dead and you are a new person. This is reflecting in the going down into the water and rising back up.
Your sins are washed clean and you are forgiven.
Baptism is an outward sign of an inward reality.
Three Reasons to Make Your Baptism Public
1. Public Baptisms Strengthen The Church.
Honestly, there may not be anything more exciting in a local church than to witness someone going public with their faith. If you have the opportunity to strengthen the faith of others, go for it.
2. Professions Tend to be Public.
As someone who favors believer’s baptism over infant baptism, I see the place of profession. When people throughout Acts were getting baptized, they were communicating that they had just made the decision to follow Jesus.
3. You Are United With The Church.
A lot of things happen when someone comes to faith to Jesus — forgiven, made new, given the Holy Spirit, given a heavenly inheritance, etc. But, one thing worth celebrating is that you are joining the family of God. Why not do that with the family of God - the Church?
One last thought:
While I don’t think that a private baptism is wrong or loses its essence, I still tend to lean on the side of making it public. So, if you are interested in getting baptized, but terrified of the audience, let’s talk!
If you're interested in getting baptized or would like to know more about this step in your faith, please don't hesitate to reach out to us. You can email Nick at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.