Two Spiritual Conundrums have been submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life on the subject of baptism. First by a reader named Harshit Anjalika Murmu:
Hello sir, I liked your website very much. I want to ask a question about baptism. As born again Christian I took baptism second time. I want to know are people not in Christ who had taken child baptism? Also I don’t think that taking baptism a certain way will make God love you.
And more recently by a reader named Michael:
Thank you so much for your writing! I’ve been away from Christianity for a long time and learning about Swedenborg’s teachings had been an enlightening experience. One question I’m wrestling with is baptism. Do I need to be baptized? According to Swedenborg is it enough to be born again as you’ve written in another post? Baptism for me right now is definitely not practical, but I want to live these teachings. Thank you so much!
Thanks for bringing up the subject of baptism, which is one of two rituals (the other being the Holy Supper) that Jesus Christ commanded us to observe.
Baptism is a ritual of cleansing. It does not have any magical power by itself. Rather, it is a spiritual and social symbol of:
- Becoming a Christian
- Believing in Jesus Christ and living by his teachings
- Being spiritually reborn by being cleansed from evil and falsity in our heart, mind, and actions.
Let’s take a closer look. Along the way, we’ll answer the questions raised in these two spiritual conundrums.
Baptism: commanded by Jesus Christ
In the final verses of the Gospel of Mathew, Jesus delivers this “Great Commission” to his gathered disciples:
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:18–20, italics added)
Earlier, at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus himself had been baptized by John the Baptist (see Matthew 3:13–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22). When John the Baptist protested that Jesus should be the one baptizing him, Jesus said, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). Jesus saw great significance in baptism, so much so that he wanted to be baptized himself “to fulfill all righteousness”—and of course, to set an example for all of his followers.
Since it was directly commanded by Jesus Christ, every Christian church practices baptism in some form as a ritual in which a person becomes a Christian.
Adult or child baptism?
One of the differences among the various Christian denominations is whether people should be baptized as children or only as adults.
Some churches believe that baptism should take place when a person is old enough to commit his or her life to Jesus. So they practice adult (or teen) baptism rather than infant baptism.
Other churches believe that infants and children of Christian parents should be baptized in order to show that they are to be raised as Christians—and in some Christian belief systems because they think it is necessary to baptize children in order to overcome original sin so that if the child dies he or she will go to heaven rather than to hell.
Just to be clear, I don’t believe there is any such thing as original sin. I believe that every infant and child who dies, whether baptized or not, is raised in heaven and becomes an angel. For more on this, please see:
- Where are my Children who have Died? Will I Ever See Them Again?
- The Faulty Foundations of Faith Alone – Part 2: Original Sin?
Those who hold to adult-only baptism often point to the Bible, where the people getting baptized mostly seem to be adults. But it doesn’t actually say that only adults were baptized. And there are places where it says whole households were baptized, which presumably included the children. For example:
A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.” And she prevailed upon us. (Acts 16:14–15, italics added)
Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became a believer in the Lord, together with all his household; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul became believers and were baptized. (Acts 18:8, italics added)
I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else. (1 Corinthians 1:16, italics added)
There does not seem to be any biblical reason why children as well as adults should not be baptized. However, baptizing adults and baptizing children have somewhat different meanings:
- When adults are baptized, they are committing themselves to becoming Christians and to following Jesus Christ.
- When infants and children are baptized, their parents, godparents, and guardians are committing themselves to raising the children as Christians until are old enough to make their own decision about committing their life to Jesus Christ.
One more thing related to infant baptism:
In Christianity, baptism is a ritual of introduction into the Christian church. In Judaism, from which Christianity originally came, circumcision is the ritual of introduction (for males) into the religion of Judaism.
The New Testament makes it clear that circumcision is no longer required for Christians. So for Christians, both male and female, baptism takes the place of circumcision as a ritual of introduction into the religion. And since circumcision was to be performed when the baby was eight days old (see Genesis 17:9-14; Leviticus 12:3), baptizing infants is a continuation the practice of introducing infants ceremonially into their parents’ religion.
In answer to Harshit Anjalika Murmu’s question, then, biblically speaking, there is a good basis both for infant baptism and for adult baptism. For people who have been baptized as infants or children, there is no need to be re-baptized. They have already been introduced into the Christian Church. However, for those who feel moved by the spirit to be re-baptized as adults when they make their own decision to commit their life to Christ, that is also a fine thing. And of course, adults who were not baptized as children should ideally be baptized when they become Christians.
What if baptism isn’t practical for me?
And yet, in answer to Michael’s question, it is not so much the ritual of baptism but the deeper spiritual reality of baptism that matters most. If for some reason an adult who was never baptized becomes a Christian in his or her own mind and heart, but does not live near a Christian congregation that he or she feels comfortable getting baptized in, the important thing is to live in the spirit of baptism—which we’ll take up later in the article.
I should add, though, that baptism is not an exclusive ritual. If a minister baptizes you, that doesn’t mean you’re getting baptized into that minister’s particular church or sect. Rather, it means that you are getting baptized into Christianity—into the religion that looks to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
If the issue is that there is no church of one’s own denomination nearby, it is perfectly valid to be baptized by a local minister or priest whom you feel comfortable with, and who is willing to baptize you knowing that you are interested in becoming a Christian rather than in joining his or her particular church. Some clergy will do this, and some won’t, depending on their specific denomination and beliefs.
If you wish to be baptized, but live far from a clergyperson who shares your particular Christian faith and beliefs, ask around locally to see if there is a minister or priest in your area who will happily baptize you into the Christian faith and life even if you may have differing views of exactly what that faith and life is.
Baptism: both commanded and recommended
Though baptism is, in the end, only a ritual, and not essential to Christian life and salvation, I would encourage anyone, child or adult, who becomes Christian to get baptized whenever there is an opportunity to do so.
For one thing, Jesus Christ himself commanded baptism as the ritual of introduction into his church, and was himself baptized as an example for all Christians.
For another thing, even though it may seem like it is just an external ritual, there is a reason we humans have our rituals, and are commanded by God to observe certain rituals. Being a Christian in our mind and heart is a good thing. But expressing that commitment through being baptized adds the power of a public, physical action—which brings completion and fullness to our inner commitment. Adults, especially, who feel called into the flock of Jesus Christ often feel a power and an inspiration in being baptized that they may not have expected from something that is “just a ritual.”
If you’ve become a Christian but are uncertain about this baptism thing, I encourage you to find, or make, an opportunity to “take the plunge.”
No, it doesn’t have to be full-immersion. Yet that is how people were baptized in New Testament times. And I believe there is a powerful symbolism in fully immersing one’s body in the cleansing waters as a sign of fully immersing oneself in the Christian faith and life. So if you can find a clergyperson who will give you a full-immersion baptism, so much the better. And if it’s in an actual river rather than in a horse trough, you’re golden!
Why a river?
Because Jesus himself, and the earliest converts to Christianity, were baptized in the Jordan River.
The Jordan River has a special symbolism in the Bible. When the Israelites first entered the Holy Land, they did so by crossing through the miraculously parted Jordan River (see Joshua 3–4). Symbolically, passing through the flowing waters of Jordan in the ritual of baptism represents entering the Holy Land of spiritual life through the living waters of Jesus’ teachings.
Still, I completely agree with Harshit Anjalika Murmu: “I don’t think that taking baptism a certain way will make God love you.” The most important thing is not how we perform the ritual physically, but how we live by it spiritually.
Swedenborg on baptism
Now, in response to Michael’s question, let’s look more specifically at what Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) said about baptism.
Swedenborg considered baptism and the Holy Supper to be the two key “sacraments” that Christians should observe, since they were directly commanded by Jesus Christ himself.
For those who want to read Swedenborg’s own words about baptism, there is a short version and a long version.
- The short version is found in The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine #202–209.
- The long version is found in True Christianity Chapter 12, #667–691
To read them online, just click on the above links for the first section numbers. Then click the “Next” button to continue on to the next section, one after another. For a more contemporary and readable translation of the short version, you can find my own translation, minus the concluding set references to Swedenborg’s Secrets of Heaven, here. Or get it in print form by purchasing a copy of The Heavenly City: A Spiritual Guidebook.
In his longer explanation of baptism in True Christianity, Swedenborg says that baptism has three purposes, or functions. Here is how he describes them:
- The first function of baptism is to bring people into the Christian Church and at the same time to bring them into the company of Christians in the spiritual world.
- The second function of baptism is to allow Christians to know and acknowledge the Lord Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Savior, and to follow him.
- The third function of baptism, and its ultimate purpose, is to lead us to be regenerated.
Being “regenerated,” or in more common Christian terms, being “born again,” is what Michael referred to in his spiritual conundrum as the meaning behind baptism. For more on regeneration, please see:
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
To give you a taste of Swedenborg’s teachings about baptism, here is a passage from Swedenborg’s True Christianity. A few points about this passage:
- True Christianity is addressed specifically to So when he talks about what “people” must believe or do, he’s talking about what Christians must believe and do, not about what Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and so on must believe and do.
- In the last paragraph he uses the example of a traditional Christian baptism. However, that doesn’t mean he’s saying this is how we must perform baptisms.
- If some of his language sounds fancy and philosophical, don’t worry. We’ll unpack his meaning in the rest of this article.
With these things in mind, here is True Christianity #685:
From all that has been said on this topic so far, it is possible to see that the three functions of baptism work together in unity as the first cause, the intermediate cause or means, and the last cause, which is the result and the ultimate purpose of all that went before. The first function is to identify us as a Christian; the second function, which is a consequence of the first, is to allow us to know and acknowledge the Lord as the Redeemer, Regenerator, and Savior; and the third function is to lead us to be regenerated by him. When that happens, we are redeemed and saved.
Since these three functions follow each other and come together in the last, and since angels see all three together as forming one thing, therefore when baptism is performed or read about in the Word [the Bible] or mentioned in conversation, the angels who are present take it to mean regeneration rather than baptism. For example, the Lord’s words, “Those who have believed and have been baptized will be saved, but those who have not believed will be condemned” (Mark 16:16) are taken by angels to mean that those who acknowledge the Lord and are regenerated are saved.
This is also why the Christian churches on earth refer to baptism as the washing of regeneration.
It is important therefore for Christians to know that people who do not believe in the Lord cannot be regenerated, even if they have been baptized. Being baptized but having no faith in the Lord does absolutely nothing for us.
It should be very well known to every Christian that “baptism” includes being purified from evils and regenerated. When a baby is being baptized, the priest draws a cross, as a reminder of the Lord, with one finger on the baby’s forehead and chest, and then turns to the godparents and asks, “Does this child renounce the Devil and all his works? Does this child accept the faith?” The godparents reply on behalf of the child, “Yes indeed.” Renouncing the Devil (meaning evils that come from hell) and having faith in the Lord are the elements that carry us through the process of being regenerated.
Now let’s put all of this in more contemporary terms.
(Note: the rest of this article is an edited version of a talk I originally gave on April 3, 2005.)
Baptism: a ritual of washing
Baptism is based on a ritual that is (I hope!) as old as humanity itself: the act of washing.
Most of us wash ourselves in one way or another every day, and think little of it. Not only do we wash our entire body regularly by bathing or showering, but we wash our hands, face, feet, and other parts of our body whenever they get dirty, or before eating, or when we go to bed at night or get up in the morning. We also wash our clothing, the dishes we use for our meals, our cars, and sometimes even our houses. And then there are all of our other acts of grooming, such as combing, brushing, and cutting our hair, trimming our nails, shaving (some of us, anyway!), and so on. In fact, we put quite a lot of effort into cleaning and caring for our bodies, and making ourselves presentable. It is simply a part of life.
If we stop to think about it, we will quickly realize that life without washing is something we would prefer not to think about.
Lately I’ve been watching the reruns of the old M*A*S*H TV series that ran from 1972 to 1983. In one episode (“The Smell of Music”), the two leading characters, Captain “Hawkeye” Pierce and Captain B. J. Hunnicutt go on a shower strike to protest the French Horn playing of their tentmate, the high-born and sanctimonious Major Charles Emerson Winchester III—who, I must say, is a really bad French Horn player! Hawkeye and B. J. get progressively smellier, until they are barred from entering the mess tent. They are forced to eat at a table outside, where they can’t even stand the smell of each other. Finally, the entire camp forms a mob to hose them down, douse them with soapy water, and give them a scrub. Then they dispatch Charles’s offending French Horn by running it over with a jeep!
Fortunately, most of us don’t go without bathing so long that we become the target of a spontaneous mass demonstration! But there are some unfortunates who either do not or cannot bathe. They generally live on the fringes of society, often outdoors, eating and sleeping separately from the rest of society. And their unwashed condition is an emblem of their position outside of “acceptable” society.
Yes, we take washing for granted . . . until we encounter those who don’t wash. Then we realize that keeping ourselves clean is not only a regular part of life, but a critical one. Not washing has health consequences as well as social ones. The dirtier we get, the more likely we are to contract various diseases that accompany the growing filth.
In short, dirtiness is a hazard both to our social relationships and to our health. And persistent dirtiness is usually a sign that something is seriously wrong with a person.
The spiritual purpose of baptism
This sets the stage for us to understand both the necessity and the power of the sacrament of baptism.
Of course, as a physical act, baptism doesn’t accomplish much. Those who are baptized by full immersion do, I’m sure, come out just a little bit cleaner than they went in. But I’ll bet they take a shower that morning anyway! For those who use only small, symbolic amounts of water, the physical effects of baptism are virtually nil. Well . . . perhaps it produces a few crying babies. But that is soon remedied when the little ones are handed back to their parents.
Clearly, the purpose of baptism is not physical washing.
John the Baptist pointed to a deeper meaning of baptism when he told the people:
I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. (Matthew 3:11)
John introduced people into a new life with the baptism of water, symbolizing repentance from sins in our outward behavior; but he understood that this was only an introduction; the real baptism was a matter of spirit, and of spiritual fire. (See: “What does it Mean to be Baptized with Water, the Holy Spirit, and Fire?”)
What, then, does baptism do for us spiritually?
Let’s put Swedenborg’s three functions of baptism into more contemporary language.
1. Baptism: introduction into the Christian Church
By itself, if we take baptism as a mere ritual, it does very little. But even as a ritual, it does accomplish one thing: it introduces us into the Christian Church.
Baptism is universally recognized by Christians as a sign that a person is a Christian. And though some Christian churches require re-baptism into their own church, many others recognize any Christian baptism. And of course, non-Christians are generally aware that the ritual of baptism is how people publicly identify themselves as Christians.
So the first reason for people who have accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior to get baptized is very simple: it is a widely accepted public sign and symbol that the person is now a Christian.
2. Baptism: knowing and following Jesus Christ
This leads to the second power that baptism carries with it. Once we have become a Christian, we have direct access to the one for whom the Christian church is named: Jesus Christ.
Of course, anyone, of any religion, can read the Gospels and learn from the wisdom of Jesus. But only Christians approach Jesus Christ as “God With Us”—as the unique human presence of the Creator and God of the universe. When we call ourselves Christians, and introduce our infants and children into Christianity through baptism also, we bring ourselves and our children into a broad fellowship of Christians in which we can know, love, and follow our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
3. Baptism: a ritual of spiritual washing
And notice that we are not only to know Jesus Christ, but also to love and follow him.
This leads to the third power of baptism: our spiritual rebirth, or “regeneration.”
It is not enough merely to be called a Christian and to believe in Jesus Christ. Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21).
It is no accident that Jesus chose a ritual of washing to symbolize introduction into the Christian church. But the washing that he wished to lead us toward was not physical washing—as important as that is for our life here on earth—but spiritual washing, which is essential for our life in eternity.
You see, even if there is no such thing as original sin, each one of us does have many inborn tendencies toward selfish and evil thoughts and desires. And each one of us has also indulged in many words and actions that are not right.
In plain terms, we have all said and done things that are wrong and evil. These things are like psychological dirt that clings to our character. If we don’t wash that dirt from our mind and heart, it will keep building up within us until we become odious to the people around us. Even worse, it will cause us to sink into spiritual disease and death.
If we are spiritually filthy, we will never be able to enter the eternal brightness and beauty of heaven. To do that, we must wash ourselves and make ourselves clean through the practice of inner baptism. This baptism involves a lifetime spent cleansing ourselves of all our evil thoughts, desires, and actions, day in and day out. And as Christians, we do this through the power of Jesus Christ working within us.
Through this daily practice of spiritual cleansing symbolized by baptism, we become Christians not only in name, but in spirit and in reality.
This is the true, spiritual meaning and power of baptism. It is the power to make us new creations in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).
For more on how to go about this process of spiritual baptism, please see the articles linked below.
This article is a response to two spiritual conundrums submitted by readers.
For further reading: