Why Do We Need Baptism? [Questions That Haunt]

This week’s Questions That Haunt Christianity comes from a young pastor. Sam asks:

I am a young pastor in Chicago with the Evangelical Covenant. I just read your book A Better Atonement and I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve struggled with the doctrine of Original Sin for a long while, but I’ve been thinking about how this, if at all, changes my view of baptism. I don’t believe that original sin is necessary for baptism but as I try to formulate my sacramentology I thought I’d ask if you had any thoughts.

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  • Baptism is necessary, if Christianity is magic.

  • Baptism is necessary only so far as any other Christian symbol or ritual is. Call me unmystical, but I think these rites serve a great purpose of letting us physically enact things we wish to internally believe. It’s a similar reason that we go to church on Sunday, to act out the part we want to live the rest of the week. By pretending to be good or enacting ressurection, we can actually become better and live risen lives. Smile and you become happier, in other words.

  • I think we’ve put SO much focus on *water* baptism that we don’t think about Spirit baptism. We take “baptize in the name of…” and just use it as the formula for water baptism, but what if it really meant to be immersed in the Trinity?

    • Nathan

      THIS ^^^

  • Craig

    If there’s no pressure against baptism, then it’s just a fun and festive social occasion, with added coolness because it’s peculiar, ancient, religious, and ritualistic. But I assume there are considerations that (seem to) weigh against baptism. What are they?

  • Baptism is an opportunity to act out the gospel; to live the death, burial and resurrection that we profess. It begins a renewed life that pledges to live and profess that gospel.

    Is it necessary?

    It’s as necessary as living and professing that gospel is to imitating Christ, who was baptized “to fulfill all righteousness.” In other words, to not leave anything out of being good.

    Baptism is the pledge of a good conscience. It washes away sin. It signifies new birth. It’s a gift from God. (If you doubt that, consider Jesus’s answer to the question of how He performed miracles: He asked whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men. Good things come from good sources.)

    So how do we make God feel when He offers the gift of baptism into the life, death and resurrection of His Son and we say, “Oh, that’s nice; but I’d like something else.”?

    To me, that puts baptism in perspective … rather than just considering it an option about which one can dither its “necessity.”

    • It always amazes me how people can pick and choose dozens of verses to create a “theology” of something – while, of course, ignoring everything else that contradicts their construct. I used to be pretty good at this too.


    • Craig

      Oh come off it Keith. Baptism began as an excuse to wash down the dirty gentiles and barbarians before they joined the community in worship and feasting. It was like the intake routine you find at jails and prisons today. If you’re dirty today just take a hot shower at home–and don’t get all sanctimonious about it.

      • Curtis

        Point taken. So to point of baptism today is no longer to wash the new person, but to perform an intake ritual. Sort of like an initiation ceremony. What is wrong with that?

        • Craig

          Not bad.

    • You nailed it, Keith. People want to pick and choose which parts of Jesus’ practices and teachigns they’ll follow, particuarly when it confonts their non-biblical, non-orthodox holdings of who Jesus is…to them, of course, not Scripture.

      • Curtis

        I can’t think of anyone, Christian or not, who follows Matthew 19:9. Can you?

      • Curtis, Jehovah’s Witnesses enforce Matthew 19:9 quite seriously. They do not recognize divorce outside of this “rule” (which, in my opinion, is pretty ridiculous). And, unlike the Catholic Church and its annulment practice, JW’s leave no wiggle room and have no loophole where Matthew 19:9 is concerned. They employ an inflexible dogmatism that has done far more damage than good, and in many other places beyond just this one passage of Scripture.

        Brad, it seems you claim the Bible to be the sole rule of faith where Christians are concerned; the singular source of what is “orthodoxy.” How did you arrive at this conclusion? How can you validate this claim?

        • Curtis

          Well then, I guess that settles it. Jahovah’s Witnesses are the winners of the “real Christians” contest. The rest of us can either sign up with them or just quit.

          • The funny thing is they (the JWs) would agree with you.

        • “How did you arrive at this conclusion? How can you validate this claim?”

          As a follower of Jesus, I don’t understand how you avoid it? When it comes to orthodoxy, Scripture is the original source document.

          • Brad, you wrote: “When it comes to orthodoxy, Scripture is the original source document.”

            1. What “orthodoxy” are you referring to?

            2. What “Scripture” are you referring to? The Torah and Prophets? The writings of the mid and late first century (such as Paul’s letters, the Gospel narratives, etc.)? Both?

            3. Do you consider Scripture authoritative? If so, why? Says who? And how do you validate the claim?

      • Curtis

        “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.”

        • Hey, you got that from Scripture too…along with every other idea you have about Jesus…even if you should cling to (definitely wouldn’t recommend it and wouldn’t call them orthodox) gnostic Gospels which were inspired by, you guess it, Scripture.

          • Ooo…poor form on my part…put a little G on gnotic gospels above.

          • Curtis

            So when Scripture tells us that righteousness comes from God alone, apart for Scripture, that leaves us in a conundrum, doesn’t it?

  • If Christian Community is necessary (and I believe that it is, but that may be an issue for another time), then Baptism into Christian Community is necessary.

    I believe that I can work on being good, or living a resurrected life, on my own. However, I believe that I will fail. I need to be immersed in a Christian Community who will hold me accountable in order to not continually be turned in on myself.

    As to original sin, it seems to me that the simplistic explanation (that sin is hereditary) is inadequate. It also seems to me to be true that we all fall short of the glory of G-d. If we call that ‘original sin’, then it seems apt to turn to G-d (embodied in the Christian Community) to deal with it. Then, Baptism is how we address ‘original sin’, creating space and opportunity for the community to recognize G-d alive in the world.

    I believe that G-d meets us, somehow, in the mystery of sacramental communal life. I don’t have words to explain how or why ~ I can’t make a rational case for the mystical aspects of our tradition ~ but I can’t dismiss my and others’ experience of the divine in inexplicable ways.

    So, then, I believe that Baptism is necessary. However, at the same time, I don’t believe that our action or inaction will hamstring G-d. G-d’s Grace trumps no baptism.


    • Not just a sacrament, but a rite of passage!

  • Why would baptism be necessary? Yes, the act of baptism (not unlike the Jewish mikveh) can be symbolic or signatory of one’s decision to change their lives and head in a new direction (what some may think of as repentance, or conversion). But necessary? No.

    What consequences would one foresee if baptism wasn’t performed? If we’re talking old-school Christianity and its “salvation” structure, then we’re talking about a god of formulas and rituals. A tribal deity. This begs an honest question: what kind of a god sends a savior whose death alone supposedly redeems/ransoms all humankind from sin, but then requires baptism to cover so-called “original sin?” A fictional god, created by human imagination. An inefficient, formulaic god who, in my eyes, is hardly worthy of mention, to say nothing of “worship.”

  • Kenton

    Short answer: I don’t think it is.

    I once heard someone consider baptism as a “replacement” for circumcision. (I don’t remember who or when, and I don’t think there’s any specific scriptural basis for it.) But here’s a thought: if baptism WERE a replacement for circumcision, and it was offered up as a removal of all the barriers circumcision was raising, does baptism now raise similar barriers? Baptism does not generally cause infection or great amounts of pain, but I do think it creates an “in group” of the baptized and an “out group” of the unbaptized, just like circumcision did in Paul’s day. The way I read Paul, there’s less concerned about the means of separating “us” and “them” (circumcision in Paul’s day) and more about the result of an “us and them” mentality.

    This was driven home to me several years ago when a man in our church with Hindu parents got baptized. His decision was anguishing because he knew that he was risking rejection from his parents, his siblings, and his friends. I think that (as much as the infection and pain) was what was at stake in the circumcision argument in Paul’s day. Paul’s response was to remove the barrier. To the degree that baptism is a barrier it’s just not necessary.

    • I think that someone risking separation from ones friends and family – and potentially death – over something as trivial as baptism is profoundly anti-Christian.

      • Baptism probably meant something entirely different in the first century than it means today. And I’m not sure we will ever – or should – fully recover what it meant.

    • Curtis

      Does baptism have to be public knowledge? I don’t see why a person could not get baptized within a community of believers without telling the person’s family about it, if that is what they want. Assuming they are an adult, the family does not have to know about or approve of every decision an adult makes for themselves.

      • Kenton

        Wow, Curtis, I’ve always thought part of the whole point of baptism is the very fact that it’s public. To me the idea that one tries to hide the fact of their baptism smacks of dishonesty. (Which begs the question, if it’s a baptism of repentance, and dishonesty is excluded from the repentance, just what, exactly, did one repent of?)

  • Tom

    I think we do need baptism, because I believe in the mysticism of Christianity. Our rational minds shaped by the Age of Reason may want to call it “Christian magic” because we can’t rationalize the supernatural. I believe something does happen through baptism, but not soley from baptism. We approach baptism with a heart already opened to jesus Christ, already open to a new birth of the Spirit. While baptism may symbolize that new birth, it also is part of the rebirthing. It’s a wonderful, mystical event and I hope we don’t reduce it to mere ritual, superstition, or worse.

    • J L

      i like this perspective.
      i see difference facets/aspects of baptism. such as the one you mention here.

  • A lot good contributions to the discussion, thanks. The reason I posed the question was because many view sin-washing aspect of baptism as primary in the sacrament. This may be especially true in traditions which encourage infant baptism. I am a proponent of infant baptism but I feel that I have redefine what I mean by “means of grace” if I am to reject the doctrine of original sin.
    So I land here: baptism is a means of grace in so much as it is an initiation into the community. But because of my high sacramentology I suggest that God is behind the scenes doing something in that ritual that is beyond our knowledge. It’s not merely a dedication or a symbol, but a sacrament. Chalk some of it up to the mystery of God. But it isn’t washing away residual sin from Adam or anyone else. As far as necessity of baptism, I think people should do since it’s commanded in my estimation, but I’m not suggesting it’s necessary in a salvation sense.
    I especially like how you put it all Matthew. I’d give you up to $0.04.
    Any objections?

    • Hi Sam. You posed an excellent question. And glad you’re participating in the discussion.

      You wrote: “I suggest that God is behind the scenes doing something in that ritual that is beyond our knowledge.”

      Why do you believe this? I ask this sincerely, not combatively. I often ask people what the source of their beliefs is, the whys, etc. The more I understand what informs a person’s perspective, the better I can offer a valuable response.

      • Sam Pullen

        Great question. I have to first of all say that my tradition and the people who have been instrumental in my formation greatly inform my view on baptism. I was raised Lutheran and I was educated by and pastor in the Covenant denomination. So that means I’m influenced by church tradition. I can’t disregard these things, that would be naive.
        Since I view it as a sacrament I tend to think that God is mysteriously involved and part of it. Jesus himself was baptized and he has commanded to do likewise. It is a religious rite that signifies initiation into the community and the Church and since the Church is a temple for the Holy Spirit I have to believe that the Triune God is in that, doing something. I’m okay with not totally comprehending what is happening in the rite, I’m not all that dogmatic anyhow. Also, I can’t ignore the similar rite of water purification in Jewish temple worship, which perhaps Jesus alludes to in John 7.
        Make sense?

    • Kenton

      “I think people should do since it’s commanded”

      Which links back to the idea of circumcision. Circumcision was also commanded and there wasn’t any ambiguity about it. And yet, Paul wasn’t on the fence. Circumcision was a barrier, and it needed to be abolished.

      Mind you, I’m a big fan of baptism as I argue against its necessity. My own (believer) baptism almost 40 years ago is still profound memory for me, and when I baptized my own son 4 years ago it was also a spiritual highlight of my life. I just recoil at the idea of compulsory baptism. At the point it becomes compulsory, something has gone wrong.

      • Kenton

        I should say, “Circumcision was a barrier, and the necessity of it needed to be abolished.”

      • Where’s the barrier between Jew and Greek in baptism?

        • Kenton

          The way you frame the question implies that the issue is (“was”) specifically Jew and Greek. I take the tact that the issue is more generically “in” group and “out” group, and in Paul’s day that was manifest as Jews=”in” group and Greeks=”out” group.

          (I’m a software developer. It’s my job to see (and solve) problems in the abstract rather than the specific. “In” group could be thought of as a variable that can be set to “Jew”, so that when it is run through the algorithm, it creates the output of Paul’s epistles (Galatians, Romans, Ephesians) , or it can be set to “baptized Christians” to address this issue here.)

  • Kevin Moore

    Any view on baptism that can’t explain the clear biblical tension, as to whether baptism is necessary, is inadequate and incomplete. The only view that I am aware of that does this is The Placebic View.

    • Just did some Googling on “placebic baptism.” I found the arguments to be nothing more than excessive and empty philosophizing, “gnat straining” ad nauseam in fealty to the limiting Biblical confines of an old and burnt out tradition.

  • Curtis

    I suppose you could have a community of believers without having any rituals, like baptism. But I’m not sure what it would look like. And I’m not sure what the point would be. Rituals are one of several ways that communities are built and maintain their cohesion.

    Is baptism necessary? No. But I believe membership in a community is necessary, and baptism is one way that has been developed by Christians to establish and maintain a community. I suppose you could maintain community in other ways, without baptism. But baptism seems to be serving this purpose just fine, so I don’t know why we would want to get rid of it.

  • Kevin Moore


    The Placebic View seems pretty creative to me, if nothing else. Isn’t that what you’re into?

    “I seek to advance that humanity by pursuing Oneness with all that is creative and joyful in the human experience.”

    • Moore,

      You and I clearly view things differently. I find absolutely nothing “creative” in the placebic baptism argument, which leads nowhere; it creates nothing; it waxes philosophic and spins in unimaginative circles upon the same confining platform of old-school Christian tradition.

  • Craig, as a believer, I take scripture seriously. If you, don’t: that’s your choice. But what I said is pretty much just a paraphrase of scripture, with the exception of drawing the conclusion that baptism is a gift from God. I’ll admit that. But I also believe that it’s the conclusion Jesus intends for us to reach.

    I’d be happy to cite those passages if you like. I just didn’t see a lot of that going on here, so I wasn’t sure if it was welcome.

    I’m sorry if that struck you as sanctimonious. I’m a world-class screw-up as well as a believer, and really all I’m trying to do is get over myself and walk as close to Christ as I can.

    Baptism is a great place to begin that walk. God knows is, so I think He’s knows it’s good for us. I think that’s why He gave it to us.

    • Keith, you “take scripture seriously”? Explain “baptism for the dead” (1 Cor. 15:29).

      If you can’t explain that verse objectively, then you must hate “scripture.”

      Ready? Go!

      • Curtis

        The Mormons figured that one out almost two hundred years ago. I don’t happen to agree with them, but they have an objective answer for it.

      • Rob, which part of “go and do likewise” do you really object to?

      • RD

        This was rhetorical, btw…

    • Frank

      This. Plus Jesus was baptized!

  • Kevin Moore

    The Placebic View explains why Paul didn’t correct the Corinthians, as the Corinthians obviously believed that it was necessary.

  • Rob, as I’m sure you know, taking something seriously is not the same as knowing all the answers about it. And “objective” these days seems to be in the eye of the beholder! (Which makes it pretty subjective.)

    Sometimes “I don’t know” is the appropriate answer. If a cryptic phrase is only mentioned once in ancient literature, then its meaning may not be verifiable.

    I can think of several possibilities as to the meaning of “baptism for the dead,” and I’ll bet you can, too. Others have, too, obviously.

    It could mean that someone was baptized on behalf of, or as a proxy for, someone who had already died.

    It could mean that someone was baptized in memory of, or in honor of, someone who had already died.

    It could refer to baptism to nullify dead works, i.e., sins.

    It could be talking about a question of Jewish vs. gentile practices of preparing a dead body, or whether a period of uncleanness was still in effect afterward. (“Baptism” wasn’t a word exclusive to religion back then, of course.)

    So we just don’t know, do we?

    Some of these possibilities make more sense to me than others. But I’m pretty sure we won’t have a certain answer until God discloses it!

  • Brad, I am particularly bad about conveniently forgetting “Sell your possessions and give to the poor.” And ignoring “Do not judge.”

    • Craig

      So don’t let us keep you in willful sin Keith. Go post your possessions now to Craigslist or Ebay–and do it now before you conveniently forget. Don’t make me be your conscience.

    • Aren’t we all…

  • Kevin Moore


    Do you like all that is creative, less intellectual creativity? In as much as The Placebic View is a new solution to a very old paradox that preserves much of what many Christians want to preserve, it is both intellectually satisfying and creative.

    Maybe if you were to dismiss philosophy in a a creative way I would give you a break? Deal?

    • Kevin, here’s the thing: I’m a Christian (often referring to myself as an emergent faith Christian) who outright rejects traditional Christianity (which I consider a gross aberration of the original Jesus movement). As such, any points of philosophy or theology argued within and for that tradition, I also reject as a matter of course.

      That is the number one reason I have no regard for the placebic baptism argument, beside the fact that I find it intellectually unstimulating. Others may find it intellectually stimulating. I simply don’t. Just my own feelings on the matter, nothing more.

  • Craig, I don’t have anything against you. Can we talk about these things without resorting to this level of sarcasm, my friend?

    • Craig

      What is the appropriate response to a “world-class screw up” who wants to discuss “a pledge of good conscience” so as to “take scripture seriously” while voluntarily persisting in what he believes to be sin? I would not be your friend, Keith, if I didn’t point out your absurdity.

      • The appropriate response would be a gracious one.

        • Craig

          I’ll leave graciousness to you R.Jay. Our friend Keith needs a wake up.

  • I’m glad you still consider me a friend, Craig.

  • Gerhard Lohfink talks about the significance of Jesus’ baptism by John taking place in the wilderness, and specifically at the boundary between the wilderness and the promised land, the Jordan River. The physical location jogs a memory for any jewish person, and for anyone who knows the story, that God hears the cry of the poor, delivers us from our place of slavery, and leads us into new life. Christian baptism, then, is a necessary, ritualized practice of collective memory, signifying the grace of God made manifest in the history of Israel, and most fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who himself was baptized, and invites us to live, die, and be resurrected with him in our own baptism. This doesn’t mean that baptism has saving powers, but it is a particular way by which we are welcomed into the community of people who are actively and worshipfully responding to the belief that we have been delivered. Every time a person is baptized into a christian community, the entire community benefits from participation in the ritual of collective memory … so when we ask whether or not baptism is necessary for an individual, I think that is a misleading question; the baptism of an individual is always a communal experience, and it is one that is necessary to the community of people who rely upon our collective memory.

  • Kevin Moore


    Fair enough, brother.

    I would like to point out, however, that The Placebic View does deviate from the traditional view of how we should understand scripture, in a pretty significant way. I would think that a Christian with an Emergent bent would find such a departure attractive. Maybe you should read some of the site’s posts on The Current Paradigm.

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  • Ric Shewell

    This is kind of a nice, slow pitch, question for an ecclesiologist.

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