In the April 12, 2006, issue of USA Today, I read that “statistics find Americans slowly drifting away from the ancient baptismal ritual.” The article contends that a major Baptist denomination “has seen its rate of baptism fall about 35% from 1972 to 1985.” Then the article went on to say that “the rate stalled for the next 20 years, even though Baptists are pledged to heed the Bible’s ‘great commission’ in Matthew 28:19-20: ‘Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ ”
USA Today added that another large denomination grew “from nearly 1.8 million in 1980 to nearly 2.8 million in 2004. But the total number of baptisms by immersion in water . . . has hovered from around 175,000 to 200,000 yearly.”
With these trends in view, the article’s writer asked, “If baptism is the door into a faith, where did all those people go?”
Yes, where did all the people go? Apparently fewer are going into the waters of baptism. It’s a growing reality in the world of Christendom that baptism is both ignored and misunderstood—a misunderstanding that I can personally relate to.
A FOG OF CONFUSION
I was born into a family that attended a church that practiced infant baptism. As a result, I was sprinkled as a baby. At age 12, following extended catechism classes, I was re-sprinkled as confirmation of that earlier sprinkling. After high school, however, I found myself wandering aimlessly both personally and spiritually. A well-meaning friend encouraged me to become a Christian as the solution for the drifting that was marking out my life. I assumed that, given my church upbringing, I was already a Christian. He explained, however, that I needed to come to church with him and talk to the pastor after the service. I did. The pastor’s counsel? “In 2 weeks we will baptize you, and you will be a Christian.” Unfortunately, that event of baptism—one of immersion—did not result in my life being changed.
When I was in my twenties, after I at last heard a clear explanation of what it means to enter the family of God, I received Christ as my Lord and Savior. After trusting Christ, I was told that, once again, I needed to be baptized. But this time it was as a public testimony of my profession of faith in Christ. So, I was baptized by immersion yet again.
I look back over those events with very mixed emotions. After two sprinklings and two immersions, believe me when I say that I understand people’s confusion on the matter of water baptism, what it represents, and what it accomplishes. I’m pretty sure many other folks have a story similar to mine in which the matter of baptism is surrounded by a thick fog of confusion.
AN IMPORTANT DISCUSSION
Some might say that baptism is insignificant— an ancient ritual without any modern relevance. But I disagree. The level of confusion surrounding the subject merely amplifies the need for a careful understanding of the issue, if for no other reason than that Jesus Himself made it an issue:
When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him (Mt. 3:16).
[Jesus said], “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19).
Yes, Christ’s example and words lift up baptism as an important matter that needs to be carefully thought through and discussed. But where do we begin?
Perhaps the best place to start is by trying to reconstruct the setting in which Jesus’ audience heard what He said about baptism. Though the events of the Gospels are recorded in the New Testament, Jesus’ audience was made up of people who were still living in a period of Old Testament culture and national law. Therefore, we must begin with what people understood baptism to mean in their time if we are to grasp the framework in which they would have heard and understood Jesus’ command to baptize.