BY JAMES COFFIN
EW CHRISTIAN RITUALS have the rich symbolism,
the memory-making potential, and the witness opportunity of baptism by immersion.
Yet I fear that this doctrine may become dangerously diluted in the Seventh-day
No, we haven’t opted for sprinkling or pouring. And to my
knowledge no infants are involved. Nevertheless, I suggest we’re losing sight
of baptism’s true significance, and our clouded understanding is demonstrated
by the way some routinely rebaptize. Let me illustrate:
- A few years ago an evangelist planned a series of evangelistic
meetings and held a preparation rally for all who had volunteered to help. At
the conclusion of the rally the evangelist made an appeal for rebaptism. Many
responded—elders, deacons, Sabbath school leaders, youth leaders. The purpose
of the meeting was to inspire and instruct those who already were sufficiently
committed that they had volunteered as helpers. Yet apparently as a matter of
routine, they were invited to be rebaptized.
- Recently a young pastor visited my congregation to baptize
a youth with whom he’d studied elsewhere. I asked him to make a brief appeal
after the baptism, which he did, beautifully. In keeping with current practice,
he appealed to those “interested in either baptism or rebaptism.”
- I well remember attending the baptism of a number of Adventist
college students. Since I’d only recently arrived at my pastorate, I wasn’t
well acquainted with the 19-year-old girl from my church who was being baptized.
“I think it can often be more meaningful when you wait until
you’re a little older, as you have, before going through the rite of baptism,”
I told her before the service. “Now you can enter into the experience more fully
and with deeper understanding.”
“Actually,” she responded somewhat sheepishly, “this will
be the fourth time I’ve been baptized.”
Four times baptized—and just 19 years old.
No Biblical Precedent
The New Testament recounts no stories of people being rebaptized
because their relationship with God had become less than ideal. There is no
record of rebaptism as a reinitiation rite for reclaimed backsliders. Yet even
then such reclaimed backsliders must have existed.
The other apostles didn’t require that Peter be rebaptized
because he denied his Lord. We often invite people to be rebaptized these days,
however, simply because they haven’t had as close a walk with the Lord or as
good a prayer life as they might like.
The absence of a biblical precedent for rebaptism to signify
a recommitment to Christ is significant. While the Bible’s silence doesn’t preclude
the practice, it should indicate the wisdom of caution. Moreover, the context
of Jesus’ response to Peter’s request at the Last Supper to have his whole body
washed (John 13:6-10) implies that baptism isn’t a repetitive ritual for ongoing
Both Ellen G. White and the Adventist Church Manual advocate
rebaptism in certain circumstances. However, neither contain justification for
the wholesale approach to rebaptism that’s becoming widespread in the Adventist
Rebaptism, if practiced at all, should be in only the most
rare circumstances. I don’t recommend an open invitation for rebaptism. Further,
I believe any move in that direction should be initiated by the individual,
not prompted by pressure from a persuasive speaker. We need to consider seriously
the long-term impact of our current course of action.
The Big Problem
In the overwhelming majority of cases, people seek rebaptism
because they feel their behavior has made them unacceptable to God. Perhaps
they’ve committed a major sin. Or they’ve persisted in committing little sins.
They’ve turned their back on God and become indifferent. But whatever their
sense of inadequacy and estrangement, they feel they can be reinstated in God’s
grace only if they go back to square one.
Such a belief fails to appreciate fully the magnitude of
sin, the magnitude of God’s grace, and the nature and meaning of baptism.
Baptism doesn’t supernaturally transform a person. There’s
nothing mystical or magical about the water or about the immersion itself. Baptism
is a ritual, a symbol, a role play. I’m not saying that baptism doesn’t make
a difference. It certainly does. To the degree that a person gets into the spirit
of the role play, the life is affected.
Rituals create memories, and memories influence both self-concept
and behavior. When tempted, many a person has found strength to resist by looking
back to a wedding, a baptism, an ordination. These rituals are based on the
law of “impression through expression.” The public expression of one’s desire
to remain true to a calling, to honor a marriage vow, to accept Jesus as Saviour
and Lord—all of these make a difference.
Despite the beauty of the ceremony and the impact of the
ritual of baptism on our resolve, we go into the water as sinners, unworthy
of God’s grace, and come out of the water as sinners still unworthy of God’s
grace. Yet God grants us His grace. And it’s sufficient to cover our great inadequacy.
Baptism is an expression of our desire and commitment. But
we don’t literally bury the old sinful self in baptism (see Rom. 6:4). We do
it figuratively. We go through a role play to remind ourselves, and to demonstrate
to the world, what our desire is. And we accept by faith that God will treat
us as if that desire were already a reality. We then rise from the water, seeking
daily to give substance to what we have claimed by faith.
Big Sins Versus Little Sins
Advocates of rebaptism may unwittingly assume that our daily
peccadillos don’t seriously jeopardize our standing with God, but sins of major
magnitude do. God winks at little sins. Big sins or ongoing sins require serious
action. Thus, to show how terribly sorry we are, we must be rebaptized.
But how do I know if my sin or indifference is of sufficient
magnitude to necessitate rebaptism? I don’t. Then why not play it safe? If in
doubt, go ahead and be rebaptized. But this pattern of thought soon initiates
the very cycle that led my young parishioner to be baptized four times before
her twentieth birthday.
It works like this: After hearing a stirring preacher tell
of the need to shun impure thoughts, a youth recalls some of the lurid and lustful
imaginings he has entertained. When the preacher makes a call for rebaptism,
the youth feels he must respond. He knows how sinful he is.
But despite his rebaptism, the lust doesn’t magically vanish.
In fact, a year or two later, in a moment of extreme temptation, he acts on
the lust. Now, if he needed to be rebaptized for having lusted, he certainly
needs to be rebaptized for having
fornicated. And should he ever commit an
even more grievous sin—according to his hierarchy of grievousness—or if he falls
again to the same temptation, he may automatically assume that yet another baptism
is the only avenue to grace.
Ironically, instead of providing peace of mind, rebaptism
ultimately robs people of spiritual certainty and hope. The first baptism is
an unqualified celebration of God’s grace and forgiveness. Subsequent baptisms
carry the subtle and insidious suggestion that there are limits to God’s grace
Further, the person who is baptized multiple times must
inevitably wonder, Just how long is God going to put up with my unacceptable
behavior? How many times is He going to tolerate my need for rebaptism? If my
last grievous sin necessitated rebaptism, this latest one certainly would call
Have We Forgotten?
Scripture makes it clear: “If we confess our sins, he is
faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”
(1 John 1:9).*
“My dear children, I write this to you so that you will
not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our
defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 2:1, 2).
“Whoever comes to me, I will never drive away” (John 6:37).
The Bible doesn’t say that these promises apply only in
the case of mild to moderate sins, but that big sins call for more dramatic
action. Sin is sin. Grace is grace. Grace is always available. And grace is
always the only means of salvation.
There are certainly times when public confession is warranted,
times when the course of life needs major adjustment, times when wrongs need
to be put right, times for new beginnings. But there are other avenues than
rebaptism to achieve these goals.
Let’s bring back the testimony meeting to provide an appropriate
opportunity for public confession. Let’s revive the old-fashioned altar call
for recommitment to Christ. Let’s reeducate concerning the role of foot washing
as a symbol of cleansing. Let’s create opportunities for new beginnings.
And let’s reserve for baptism the special significance that
our Saviour Himself placed on it.
*All Scripture quotations are from the New International
James Coffin is senior pastor of the Markham
Woods Seventh-day Adventist Church in Longwood, Florida.