Baptism: crossing a line

We baptized someone at church on Sunday. It’s a simple act of obedience that takes place at Christian churches all over the world. In fact, it’s so commonplace that perhaps we don’t fully grasp its value, its power.

Now, I realize that there are different ways and traditions of baptism. I’m not here to debate those. Rather, I’d like to offer some thoughts — from a global and a personal perspective — about why baptism is a worthy undertaking for anyone who claims faith in Christ.

Writing for Christianity Today, Nik Ripken, one of the world’s premier experts on Christian persecution, shines a light on the significance of baptism in places like Somalia and Iran, where Islam is the predominant religion. In his piece, Ripken describes the excuses curious Muslims offer when they are caught actively exploring Christianity.

For example, Bible study can be explained as simply research to strengthen arguments for Islam. But Muslims view baptism as the line at which one leaves the Islamic faith and becomes a bona fide member of the Christian community. Baptism is the act that demonstrates the ultimate betrayal of one faith and wholehearted allegiance to another.

Ripken writes, “The local community says that when converts are baptized, they have left Muhammad and joined with Jesus. At baptism, persecution soars because identification with Jesus is real, irrevocable, and forever.”

Baptism, he says, is “the point of no return.”

In my own experience as a pastor, I’ve conducted quite a few baptisms, including a couple re-baptisms in the frigid waters of the Jordan River. At a time in American culture when an increasing number of church plants still struggles to stem the tide of declining baptisms, Ripken’s article challenges me to carefully consider what baptism means.

I was baptized at the age of nine, a few weeks following an unforgettable Sunday night worship service at a small country church in Mississippi. There was nothing special about that service, other than the fact that I sensed the Holy Spirit calling to my heart, “It’s time.” On that moonlit spring night, against the open-door ambiance of chirping crickets and barking frogs, I decided to follow Jesus. Simple but serious, with no fanfare at all.

Did I fully understand the life-changing meaning of my decision? Of course not. I was only nine, after all. But I understood it as best I could and have sought to grow in wisdom and knowledge of the Scriptures in the years that have followed. That decision was my starting point for a personal relationship with Jesus that has impacted every area of my life.

While I was enthusiastic about being baptized, I was more excited about the fact that I had, in that defining moment of my childhood, staked my claim to Jesus as my personal Savior and Lord. That was the news I couldn’t wait to tell my school teacher on Monday. That was the news that instigated a series of joy-filled phone calls to grandparents, aunts, and uncles. That was the news I knew had changed my life, not just in the here-and-now but also in the here-after.

Modern technology, for all its negatives, has afforded many churches the opportunity to effectively share the faith stories of those being baptized. We all come from different backgrounds and experiences. A quick 90-second testimony, shown on big screens before baptism and/or on social media, provides a meaningful way for new believers to tell the difference Jesus has made in their lives. It’s a contemporary way to bear witness of His goodness and saving grace.

Baptism, while not faith’s finish line, is at least the way we publicly make our church families and the watching world aware that we are ‘all in’ for following Jesus.

There are many Christians who for one reason or another have not taken the step of following the Lord through baptism. Some reasons have to do with such practical factors as fear of water, reluctance to disappoint a family member who believes differently, or general anxiety about being the center of attention, if only for a few moments. For some, physical health and mobility concerns become understandable obstacles.

When my grandfather became a believer at the ripe old age of 87 — after much hope and prayer from family members — he was in a fragile state, struggling to breathe and unable to support his body weight without the use of a walker. You can imagine my surprise when he asked me when I’d come back to Mississippi to baptize him. His parting words to me that day: “If I’m going to do this, I’m going all the way!”

For him, baptism wasn’t optional.

Several weeks later I made the trip from Little Rock to preach the message and baptize Pappaw. When it came time for the baptism, a hush fell over the congregation as a couple able-bodied men helped Pappaw make it from the pew to the baptistry, up the steps, and down a second set of steps into the pool of water.

Clunk. Shuffle, shuffle. Clunk. Shuffle, shuffle.

The process of getting him to that point took about five minutes. But in the silence of a waiting crowd of watching worshippers, time seemed to stand still.

I’ll never forget the humility on display from this war veteran who had been fiercely independent and proud all his life. This was not the man I’d always known. Something was undeniably different.

I think back to my own baptism, which my grandfather attended, and marvel at the mysterious ways of God. Never in a million years would I have imagined having the opportunity to lead Pappaw to begin his own spiritual journey. This is a special grace for which I will always be grateful.

Many people have legitimate reasons for delaying or foregoing baptism. Others, however, have only excuses. With the fierce determination and stubborn grit that defines the Greatest Generation, Pappaw managed to raise the bar for acceptable excuses — just as new converts in persecuted places are doing even now.

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