She lay nearly unmoving atop a railed bed, oxygen attached to her face and a feeding tube snaking into her stomach. She’d once been an energetic young woman, but multiple sclerosis had robbed her of her vitality. I had to put my ear down next to her mouth to hear her words. When I did, I heard her whisper, “Pastor, I’m going to die soon. I want to be baptised.”
But what should be done with someone who can’t be physically immersed in water? The woman almost dead in her hospital bed—did she have to be baptised by immersion in order to be saved? Follow with me . . .
The meaning of baptism
To understand the point and place of baptism, we have to go back to the simple human act of washing. We today are familiar with the concept of minimising germs and thus we’re so accustomed to soap and running hot water that it’s easy for us to assume that people everywhere always understood the importance of cleanliness. But of course, that’s not true. Cleanliness and sanitation, in rural places or in settings of crowded poverty, have been a challenge through most of history and it’s why so many people in the ancient world—and today’s Third World—were and are so often sick.
Many of the regulations in the Old Testament Torah (the first five books of the Bible) had to do with wellness and sanitation, though without ever identifying the reason as pathogenic microorganisms. Lacking knowledge and microscopes, the Old Testament addressed cleanliness in terms of “purity”. Leviticus said that if a person had a “discharge” of potentially diseased bodily fluids, he was ritually “unclean” (not sick or possibly contagious, as we might express it today) until he washed his hands, his body and his clothing (15:11–14).
It was a short step from washing for physical purity to seeing washing as a means to spiritual purity. King David wrote, “I wash my hands in innocence, and go about your altar, Lord, proclaiming aloud your praise and telling of all your wonderful deeds” (Psalm 26:6, 7). In his repentance for the great sin of murdering the husband of his mistress, Bathsheba, David wrote, “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7, italics added). (Hyssop is a pungent, minty herb that provided a clean scent, just as our scented soaps do today.)
Through the centuries these Old Testament passages were made into specific rules and traditions. By the time of Jesus everyone was familiar with washing for spiritual reasons. The Pharisees were scrupulous ceremonial washers and criticised others for not being as strict as they were (Matthew 15:2). So this wasn’t a completely novel concept when Jewish prophet John the Baptist began preaching “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4) at the most remote spot along the Jordan River. The Jewish people who went out to John’s wilderness hideout knew what they were going for. John was employing the Jewish understanding of washing for purity to help his listeners see that God forgives and will save those who truly feel sorry for their sins.
Before and after
Religion and ethnicity weren’t separate ideas for the Jewish people of Christ’s day. A person was born a Jew. But baptism clarified something essential about repentance: that there was a before and an after in the spiritual journey. There is a point at which the sinner becomes saved. Repenting of their sins sets the new believer on a new life and this is followed by a public ceremony in which their sins are symbolically washed away through immersion in water. After that, they would have to make an effort to live the life implied by their baptism, for Jesus said, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8).
Jesus, speaking to the Pharisee Nicodemus, made the puzzling statement that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3, italics added). He clarifies His meaning by referring to the elements of His own baptism: “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (verse 5, italics added). Jesus not only set the example by being baptised Himself! (Mark 1:9). He made baptism a requirement for becoming a Christian. “Go and make disciples of all nations,” He said, “baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). The apostle Peter conveyed the same message: “Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
But is baptism necessary?
Both of these commands make it quite clear that baptism, with its repentance, receiving God’s strength through the Spirit and the public ceremonial washing away of sin, is the starting point for calling oneself a Christian. But is it necessary for salvation? Repentance is, as we’ve seen, the first requirement for baptism, for there is no salvation without repentance. After all, can someone be forgiven for a sinful act without taking responsibility for it?
But it isn’t enough just to feel sorry. Repentance is turning from sin and by faith turning to Christ. The apostle Paul says that in our natural state we are dead in our transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1), from which state we can become “alive with Christ” (Ephesians 2:5). “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith,” he writes, “and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).
As for the water part of baptism, it isn’t the means to salvation but the announcement that repentance and faith have happened. Water alone can’t wash away sin, obviously, but Christ can; and He uses baptism as a symbol of that process. That’s why anyone who wants to be made right with Christ, like my paralysed friend, naturally desires baptism.
I have a friend who immigrated to the United States and after he’d had his residency papers for the required number of years, he applied for citizenship, with the goal of being sworn in as a US citizen. “With my permanent residency, I could just live here and enjoy this country,” he said. “No-one is forcing me to become a citizen. But I love this country so much that for me to stand with other immigrants and publicly vow to be a citizen of the United States completes the process that I began when I first came here. It lets everyone know that I belong here.” He became a citizen because he loved his new country and the ceremony was a public demonstration of that love.
So with baptism. It isn’t the means of salvation—only Jesus Christ can save—but it’s what saved people want to do. Paul went so far as to declare it as one of the things that unites Christians. He said, “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:5, 6).
At least one Bible story suggests that when baptism isn’t possible, Jesus saves anyway. It happened when Jesus was on the cross between two thieves. One thief, with the bit of strength still left in him, uttered a repentant request: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, also near death, quickly answered, “Truly I tell you today*, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42, 43). The repentant thief was never baptised, because at the moment of his repentance, baptism was no longer possible. But Jesus assured the thief that he was saved and that he’d see Him in heaven.
My paralysed friend was never able to be immersed under the water in baptism. It was a physical impossibility. But we performed a substitute ceremony that symbolised baptism for her and she was content. Not long afterwards, she passed away in the confidence that she would rise again at the resurrection, prepared to be with Jesus for eternity.
* The text in the NIV reads, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” However, the ancient Greek language had no punctuation marks. Thus, the comma can appropriately be placed after the word today, and this fits better with the biblical teaching about our human condition in death and the fact that God’s people will only go to heaven at Christ’s second coming. Jesus promised the thief that he would be with Him in paradise someday, not that very day.