Growing up in a conservative Christian home I had a “Timothian” education: I was acquainted with the sacred writings from childhood (2 Tim. 3:15). I have no doubts as to the benefits of my upbringing. Like the Jews of old, any child raised in a believing home has a definite spiritual advantage. Attending worship, partaking of communion, contributing to the church, and witnessing baptism were as normal to me as a Saturday evening baseball game (maybe even more so). So it came as no surprise to me when, at nine years old, I started feeling the urge to be baptized. After questioning my parents about whether I was capable, and talking to our minister, I made the decision. To my parent’s credit, and our minister, they both took the time to talk with me about the seriousness of this decision. But, being more mature than some my age (at least I thought I was) and knowing the Biblical teaching about baptism, I was determined. The next day I went around to others at school excitedly telling them about my experience. I knew I had done the right thing.
Yet, a couple of years later, I began to question the validity of my baptism. Had I really done it for the “right reasons”? Did I believe exactly what I was supposed to believe in that moment? Had I truly repented? I was genuinely concerned that, if I couldn’t answer these questions adequately, God was simply waiting to send me to hell on some misfiled paperwork. These thoughts led me down the aisle to be “re-baptized” (as many refer to it, although I would question its use). It felt good—this time I had done it right.
It was only a few years later that I began to question my baptism once again. For the first time in my life as a young teenager, I became personally aware of sin. While I previously knew sin on paper, its reality faced me when I was caught in a cycle of sexual lust. I knew I had sinned, and in my mind, hadn’t really repented; therefore I needed to be baptized once again. Dad was somewhat concerned, knowing this was my third go at this (a charm perhaps?) and wisely made me write down what my understanding was at that moment about baptism, sin, and salvation. I wish I had kept that slip of paper. Afterwards I went down into the “watery grave” once again. Checkmate.
At this point you may be wondering what was wrong with me; or you may see certain similarities in your walk of faith. This is a deeply personal story for me, and one that I have reflected on for many years. For most of my life I was embarrassed to admit that I was baptized three times. I wondered what was wrong with me. My wife never experienced this type of agonizing self-doubt. Upon her initial baptism, she was assured of her salvation and never questioned that moment (as far as I know). So, why was it that I, and others within the church of Christ, sometimes question our salvation after we have made such a monumental decision as baptism?
Let me begin by saying that I pray you give me mercy in my response. I can only speak to my personal experience and struggles and don’t presume this is the normative standard for Christians. I also want to say that I don’t blame my parents, my minster, or the church. They all laid a foundation for my future spiritual growth that I am immensely grateful for. While, as you will see, I don’t believe I had a proper picture of certain orthodox Christian teachings, that doesn’t mean I lay the burden of responsibility at the feet of the church. I simply pray this will begin a discussion on developing the proper emphasis in our teaching where it is needed. That being said, reflecting on my multi-baptismal discipleship there are certain elements which, I believe, led me down this path.
First, I remember having a faith, not so much in the power of Jesus, but in the power of baptism itself. Again, from a young child I remember hearing teaching on the importance of baptism, certain false teachings regarding baptism, and the proper place of the practice within salvation. To this day, there is no doubt in my mind that I understood the purpose of baptism. But, if you read over my initial story once again, you may notice that I didn’t mention Jesus. Not once. Nothing about atonement, Calvary, or the resurrection. It isn’t that I hadn’t heard these doctrines before (I’m sure I had) but rather they weren’t essential, nor personal, in my mind. I also realize that in no way (again I am speaking from my personal experience) could I conceive of the nature of sin, the teaching of the atonement, or the hope of the resurrection at such a young age (not in a substantive, saving way). This misdirection, I believe, led me to question my salvation when I later was caught in actual sin. While I realize we tend to reorient history in view of our maturity, I can confidently say that I had no true faith in the confession I made at my initial baptism: that Jesus was the Son of God.
I recently realized this misunderstanding may be more pervasive in the church when, after teaching on Colossians 2:11-12, I was accused of teaching false doctrine. During the class, I emphasized that baptism had no power apart from the grace of God and the faith of man; that baptism was simply a response of faith to God’s working in Jesus (as per the text). Afterwards, a dear sister approached me saying that she saw no difference in what I was teaching and what her denominational friends taught (she didn’t mean this in a complimentary way mind you). I must say, I would have been thrilled if this were true (although I knew it most likely wasn’t because I knew the history of the denomination of which she spoke). Yet, clear scriptural teaching was considered false because of her misunderstanding about baptism’s place and power.
Secondly, my focus was on my perfect perception of doctrine rather than my perfection in Christ. While my convictions about the scriptural teaching on baptism often run counter to many of my denominational friends, I find that an overemphasis on baptism is just as dangerous as an under emphasis. My perceptions of God were skewed. Instead of seeing God as a loving creator, desperately trying to save humanity from his wrath, I envisioned an angry father who couldn’t wait to come home and kick the dog. That is, I was in fear, not of the God of scripture who was lovingly angered over my sin, but one who couldn’t wait to condemn me if I got a single scripture/belief wrong. Again, I’m not sure where these beliefs came from, but they were present. Please don’t misunderstand me: I believe that proper doctrinal belief is essential and important (1 Tim. 4:16). Yet, if we maximize the importance of comprehending a particular practice (baptism), and minimize the importance of trusting a particular person (Jesus), we may discover more people who struggle with their assurance in salvation. The reality is we are saved, not because we are perfect, but because he is. And, while we are called to grow and mature in our doctrinal comprehension as Christians, a penitent faith driven heart in the atoning work of Christ at Calvary, and in his resurrection, is the only scriptural prerequisite for baptism (Rom. 10:9-10).
There is much more that could be said about this subject, and I don’t assume that my experience is the only one. There are precautions I do believe we should take as the church to make sure we are teaching the Biblical truth regarding baptism. We must be careful, even in our concern for proper religious practice, to not make good things ultimate things. We must see baptism, not as the end of salvation, but the means through which God saves us by his grace through faith in him.
I hope that none of my friends on the left will abuse this article for their purposes and say that I don’t believe baptism is important—because I do. I pray that my friends on the right won’t misconstrue this as an attack on the scriptural teaching regarding this practice—because it isn’t. Maybe that is asking too much. This is simply a personal confession, in hope that it will bring greater clarity to a beautiful, biblical Christian experience.