Christian faith asks questions, seeks understanding, both because God is always greater than our ideas of God, and because the public world that faith inhabits confronts it with challenges and contradictions that cannot be ignored. It is my hope to offer some information and insights in response to questions about God, the Bible and faith, that will add to the conversation without offering set, absolute answers. Please feel free to communicate any additional questions or your own experiences, comments, responses and insights as they relate to the questions taken up here.
In a recent conversation, a question arose around the topic of Baptism. More specifically, the question touched on the issue of possible re-baptism, and whether or not such an action would incur God’s displeasure and potentially judgment.
First and foremost, we should consider our Lutheran understanding of the sacrament of Baptism. Baptism is one of the two sacraments celebrated by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). A sacrament is a physical sign of an unseen promise that uses an earthly element, in this case water, joined with God’s Word. Baptism is one of the ways God’s grace (forgiveness, life and salvation) are given to us. Baptism, whether as an infant, child or adult, is conducted only once, typically in the presence of the worshiping community during a regular liturgy. This one-time gift from God provides the benefits of forgiveness of sins, redemption from death and the devil, and the promise of eternal salvation.
While re-baptism is strongly opposed by the Lutheran confessional documents, there exist certain rare occasions where indulging a possible re-baptism may present themselves. Most often, this occurs after an emergency baptism has been requested and/or performed after delivery of a child in a life-threatening state of being. At such times, any baptized Christian may perform an emergency baptism that has the full power and effect as if performed by a clergyperson. Thus, there is no need for re-baptism.
Whenever an individual inquires about being baptized, it is important, for the sake of good order, for the church to determine first the intent of the request, and second, whether or not there exists any evidence of a prior baptism being performed. This is to dispel any notion that baptism is something that can either be undone or is something that needs periodical renewal or refreshing. If baptism is not remembered or recalled by an individual, it does not render the baptism invalid or ineffective.
In other circumstances, such as a Christian pilgrim touring the Holy Land desiring a baptism at a related holy site, a re-baptism should be strongly discouraged, if not outright prohibited. While one may “wade in the water” of such a place as a tangible reminder of their baptism, willfully participating in an actual re-baptism suggests a belief that the first baptism was somehow flawed, insincere, incomplete or ineffective, that God was in some fashion, made incapable of acting. Thus, the second baptism becomes more a “magic” spell or an act of self-satisfaction for the sake of belief.
While I cannot presume to know the mind of God, from my current state of faith, I do not believe that God would choose to reject one of God’s own creatures over the possibility of having been baptized more than once. It is possible, through some oversight, that a re-baptism would take place. In such cases, I trust God to truly know the hearts and minds of the participants and witnesses, and to be the merciful God that has been revealed to us through Jesus Christ and the Holy Scriptures. Much more can be said about baptism, our Lutheran understanding of it, and some of the other Christian perspectives, but we will have to leave that to another conversation, at another time.
May God continue to bless us with a sure and questioning faith!
(for additional reading, consider reviewing Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms, and the Book of Concord)