Will Campbell tells the story of the day he was baptized in the East Fork River in Amite County, Mississippi. They baptized outdoors and his parents had ordered some baptismal clothes from the Sears & Roebuck catalog to make sure that Will would look good when he went under. Will’s brother, Joe, was a bit of a skeptic. Joe stood up on the creek bank and watched the preacher baptize two or three other people. As he watched, he got more and more concerned for Will’s safety, so he slid down that muddy bank and grabbed Will, saying, “Will, dear God, don’t let them do this to you. A fellow could get killed doing this.” Will responded, “It took me thirty years to recognize that was precisely the point.”
A few years ago a man opened the morning paper to find his name mistakenly printed in the obituary column. Can you imagine the shock of finding your name in the obituary? Greatly disturbed, he went to the newspaper office and complained to the editor: “This is terrible! Your error will cause me no end of embarrassment and may even mean a loss of business. How could you do such a thing?” The editor expressed regrets, but the man remained angry and unreasonable. Finally the editor said in disgust: “Cheer up, fellow. I’ll put your name in the birth column tomorrow and give you a fresh start!”
And that is exactly what happens to us at our baptism. We go from the obituary column to the birth column. We were dead to sin but are once again made alive!
Baptism in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) takes water, lots of water. Disciples practice baptism by immersion because it mirrors New Testament practice and teaching. In addition, we see baptism as a powerful symbol of our Christian faith. It recalls Jesus’ own baptism. It acts out and recalls the dying of Christ on the cross. It reminds us of the emerging new life that we have in Christ. Disciples typically are baptized when they can express, as a personal choice their desire to become part of the Church. 99% of all churches require baptism to be a part of the Church. Hillside Christian Church requires baptism as a prerequisite for membership into this congregation. Somewhere, at sometime, in some fashion, you had to have been baptized. We call it “believer’s baptism.” What 99% of all Churches are saying is that baptism is essential to salvation. JOH 3:5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.” (NIV)
Remember the old Western movies? A frequent scene was where the cowboys round up some cattle. The animals are first chased and lassoed — then they are held down and branded. The hot branding iron is applied and the identifying mark is seared into its hide. From then on, even though the animal might wander off, the distinctive brand on its side will indicate to whom it rightly belongs — it belongs to its owner. That is what Baptism does for us: it brands us, it marks us — it binds us to Christ. It tells all the world that we are Christians, that we belong to Christ.
Then the criminal said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:39-43) Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” How can he do that? This man hasn’t been baptized. This man hasn’t lived a good life. This man didn’t even go to church. However, Jesus grants him salvation! “…today you will be with me in paradise.”
From the very onset after Jesus’ departure, the Church stressed baptism. The process had always been “confession, repentance, baptism and then the gift of the Holy Spirit.” At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a Roman. He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Acts 10:5-16 NIV) Peter: He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” “Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
ACT 10:48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. Peter has to get this straightened out. Paul even has difficulty at Corinth over the issue of baptism. What about the believers before Christ? (1Corinthians 10:1-2) For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers, that our forefathers were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.
What does all of this mean? God is probably far more merciful that we even realize. We believe in “death bed” confessions. Like the thief on the cross. It is possible to be saved moments before we die. I am far more comfortable with the man who confesses and dies without baptism, than the man who confesses and goes on living without baptism. However, the Church has to be faithful to its calling. The Church must preach and teach baptism. That is scripture. Jesus said it best, (Matthew 28:19-20) Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
The only exception I find in the Bible to baptism is what we call a “death bed confession.” Just like the thief on the cross next to Jesus, if we at the last moment accept Jesus into our lives and do not have the opportunity to be baptized, God welcomes the sinner with grace. Otherwise, baptism is essential for salvation in Christ.