Editors’ note: 

Send your theological, biblical, and practical ministry questions to [email protected] along with your full name, city, and state. We’ll pass them along to The Gospel Coalition’s Council members and other friends for an answer we can share.

Lynda M. from Northern Ireland asks,

I was baptized at the age of 13 before I was really walking with the Lord. It came as a result of covering the topic in a youth Bible class after which we were asked if we would like to be baptized, and considering the majority of the class were doing it, I decided to as well. I recall at the time being too embarrassed to even tell my school friends about it, never mind ask them to come.

The Lord really worked in my life at the age of 20, and that’s when I would say he really opened my eyes to what following Jesus was all about. Ideally that’s when I would have been baptized, but obviously I already had been. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on getting baptized for a second time, and if you feel that would be necessary.

We posed the question to Jared Oliphint, regional coordinator and a ThM student at Westminster Theological Seminary. He studied philosophy at Gordon College and earned his MAR at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia in 2005. You can follow him on Twitter. And you can also read the credobaptist answer from Bobby Jamieson.

I would humbly encourage anyone thinking through these issues first to talk to his or her local pastor. These kinds of questions are rarely disconnected from broader ministerial needs in one’s Christian walk, but maybe we can get pointed in the right direction here. How one addresses the question of re-baptism depends on how one understands baptism as a whole. So let’s start where the apostles start—in the Old Testament. We might first ask whether there was meaning behind and precedent to using water as the sign of the new covenant in the New Testament. The first time Scripture uses water as a covenantal sign occurred long before the New Testament era. Recall 1 Peter 3:20-21:

. . . when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . .

God chose water judgment in the form of a flood as the means for separating the covenant mediator (Noah) and his covenant people (his family) from rebellious, non-covenant people. Years later, God used water judgment again as the means for separating the covenant mediator (Moses) and his covenant people (Israel) from rebellious, non-covenant people. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 10:1-2, “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” In both cases above, these Old Testament baptismal events included not only covenant children but also unbelieving covenant members. God brought Noah’s son Ham through the baptismal flood, but Ham’s family line was eventually cursed (Gen. 9:18-27). Likewise, some Israelites who escaped the Egyptians turned out to be unfaithful covenant members (Ex. 32:25f; see also Joshua 3, the second exodus of Israel passing again through waters, this time in the Jordan River under the mediator Joshua. Later the true Joshua, Jesus, would be baptized in the same waters). Fast forward a few centuries and we see another judgment warning from none other than John the Baptist, the Elijah prophet figure, accompanied by water baptism. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). Something new, yet precedented, had happened (Christ’s coming) that demanded a new, yet precedented, covenantal sign of judgment (water baptism). Jesus himself, the fulfillment of Israel, would also pass through the baptismal waters (Matt. 3:13-17) just as Noah, Moses, and Joshua did as typological mediators before him.

Natural Reading

During the beginning of this new covenant era, it would have been expected that anyone—Jews, Gentiles, and, yes, their covenant children—who had faith in the new covenant mediator, Christ, would receive the new covenant sign of baptism. While we’re short on biblical evidence in the form of a verse that says “You shall baptize covenant children” or “You shall only baptize converted adults,” Scripture as a whole may read more naturally if we assume one view over another. Because it would have been expected for adults of every kind to be given the new covenant sign of baptism as they become new covenant members, that is indeed what we see in Acts as the apostles are sent out with the Spirit. But there are also clues in Scripture indicating that new covenant members are not limited to adults who claim a conversion experience. First, the New Testament recorded a unique period in redemptive history. We should not expect or assume every pattern of behavior during that period (for example, adult conversions) to be the exclusive and permanently normative pattern of behavior, unless Scripture indicates that is the case. Second, passages that indicate the baptism of entire households (Acts 16:15, 1 Cor 1:16) do not carry enough evidence on their own to be decisive on this matter. Still, it would be unusual for the biblical authors (1) to assume there were no young children in the households, and (2) if children were assumed to be present, for the biblical authors to be silent on whether children were excluded from the new covenantal sign. There was such an overwhelming precedent from the Old Testament to include children as covenant members of God’s people that a shift on this matter would warrant an extensive and documented explanation. Third, while the parallels between circumcision and baptism may not be enough to bear the full weight of the argument, Colossians 2:11-12 makes a clear connection between the covenant signs:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.

Similar to the judgement element in baptism, circumcision involves a “putting off” and a judgement sign not by water but by knife, typically demonstrated in Christ “putting off” his own body under judgement through his death on the cross. Fourth, there is explicit evidence in 1 Cor. 7:14 of a biological/physical element in new covenant membership: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.” Scripture does not speak of the children of covenant members as unbelievers, nor as outside the new covenant (Acts 2:36-39). The question is not whether the baptism of unbelievers can be prevented, or how accurately we can guess the elect. Both paedobaptists and also credobaptists baptize unbelievers. Paedobaptists baptize infants who may not eventually profess faith and adults whose profession may not be genuine. Credobaptists also baptize those who profess faith but whose profession may not be genuine. We can safely assume that Jesus’ disciple Judas was baptized into the new covenant, with Jesus knowing full well he was an unbeliever.

Not Based on Experience

Coming back to the original question on re-baptism, if we understand the sign of water baptism as a sign of judgment that begins with Noah and his children, continues with Moses, Joshua, and Israel; picks up with John the Baptist and new covenant members; and continues through the church for new covenant members, it is not difficult to see why a second baptism would be as unnecessary as enduring another great flood, re-crossing the Red Sea and Jordan River, or re-signifying yourself as a new covenant member. Confusion on this matter sets in when we identify baptism only as a sign of a believer’s experience of conversion from being outside the covenant to being a new covenant member. (There is also no indication in Scripture that all believers will be able to register a tangible, manifested feeling that temporally corresponds to their conversion from being under wrath to being under grace.) The Westminster Confession of Faith (28.6) is helpful here:

The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.

For those considering a second baptism because of a later, more tangible conversion experience, rest assured that your original baptism, which signifies coming into new covenant membership, is efficacious based not on the strength of your conversion experience, but on the power of God in conferring grace to new covenant members in his own time.