People tend to have either too high a view of baptism or too low a view. Too high, and baptism becomes the way a person is regenerated. You go through the waters and you come out the other side a new person. Too low, and baptism is just an act of obedience. This is what God has said to do, so do it.
A more biblical view is that baptism is the formal response dictated by God to the offer of the gospel. As I’ve written elsewhere,
It might be bad business practice, but it’s quite possible to appeal to someone for a loan and receive it, and then sign the formal papers later. The fact that you haven’t signed an agreement doesn’t affect the money or change the fact that an agreement has been made, but it does mean it hasn’t been formalised. And when you finally do sign on the dotted line, you are, in reality, making the agreement again – formalising the informal one.
Baptism is the formal appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus. You might have informally appealed to him beforehand, but there are proper procedures to go through. That doesn’t mean you are not one with Jesus if you haven’t been baptised. Nor does it mean your sins have not yet been forgiven. What it does mean is that you haven’t formally asked for it yet.
This means, of course, that baptism is far more important than many people today think it is. People can be saved without it. It’s just that we’re not meant to be saved without it.
This view of baptism does not argue for salvation through baptism, but neither does it argue for baptism being merely an add-on to the more important stuff. When the people in Jerusalem heard Peter speak and cried out, “Brothers, what shall we do?”, Peter did not say, “Repeat this prayer after me: Lord Jesus…I confess I am a sinner…please forgive me for my sins…make me one of your children…Thank you…Amen.” No, Peter said,
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38 ESV)
This view of baptism is also the only one that makes sense of people being baptised for the dead.
What’s this about baptising for the dead?
The Biblical writer Paul argues for the resurrection of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15 by saying:
Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead [more literally, baptised for the dead]? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?
(1 Corinthians 15:29 ESV)
His argument is pretty straight-forward: if you don’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, why do people get baptised on behalf of the dead? But every reader of the Bible suddenly pricks up his ears and says, “Eh? What’s all this about baptising people for the dead?”
Lots of explanations have followed. Most agree that “baptised for the dead” is, as the ESV puts it, “baptized on behalf of the dead”, though many point out that there are problems with this reading. Firstly, to suggest that such baptism was done on behalf of non-believers goes against New Testament teaching. Any baptism done for the dead, then, would need to be done for those who professed belief but, for whatever reason, had not been baptised. However, even with this qualification there are still problems.
- If you hold to a high view of baptism, (meaning that you are regenerated when you go through baptismal waters), to have another person baptised in the place another is like putting one cake in the oven and hoping the cake mixture on the bench instead will turn golden brown.
- On the other hand, if you hold a low view of baptism, then the question becomes, why, if the dead person was saved, do you need to have baptism performed on their behalf. It adds nothing.
Because of these problems, there are a significant people who put forward other suggestions. Perhaps “baptised for the dead” means, “people baptised at the behest of those who have now died”, or perhaps it means, “people baptising for the sake of those who are spiritually dead”. Of course, these two suggestions don’t do justice to the many ideas people have had. One commentary suggests there are at least 200 of them! However, I don’t think it’s necessary to canvass other solutions.
How does the middle view work?
The middle view of baptism I expressed above is the only one that makes sense of this riddle. Let me use an illustration.
Suppose a convict appeals against his conviction. He goes through the courts and before his conviction is overturned, he dies. Even though he is dead, his family still wants the courts to formally declare that the man is not guilty. Why? For the sake of his reputation.
Or suppose Sophia, a 10 year old girl is set to be adopted by the Hansen family. She has been living as a daughter to Mr. and Mrs. Hansen and as a sister to their children for years, and she herself is adamant that, formal papers or no, she is a Hansen. Then, tragically, Sophia dies. Her birth family is nowhere to be found and her body is set to become the responsibility of the state. The Hansen family is desperate to formalise Sophia’s adoption, out of love for her, and out of a desire to take responsibility for her body and even to just have her officially included in their family records.
If a person is a believer and dies before they are baptised, they are considered to belong to Christ. However, even though God’s formal process of baptism had not been followed, there are a number of reasons the church might want to formalise their membership in Jesus. For example, they might baptise people on behalf of the dead
- as a witness to those inside and outside the church that the person is forgiven by God;
- to celebrate the person’s oneness with Christ;
- to fulfill the God-ordained requirements of a believer;
- to formalise the inclusion of the person in the Church;
- and so on.
But there is a weakness.
If we hold to this view of baptism, baptising for the dead does not regenerate a person but only formalises their informal response to the gospel and therefore their regeneration. Nor does this view say that baptism for the dead has no purpose, but formalises what has already taken place. But we do have a problem.
Paul argues that to baptise for the dead requires a belief in the resurrection from the dead, otherwise, why bother baptising people in their place. However, in the illustrations aqnd among the reasons above there is not always a requirement that people are raised from the dead. For example, the family of the dead convict does not need to believe that their relative will rise from the dead in order to want the court officially declare him innocent. Neither do the Hansen family need to believe that Sophia will rise from the dead in order to fight for an official adoption even after her death. And the same is true of baptising for the dead in order to witness to the church and the world that a deceased person is forgiven by God, to celebrate their oneness with Christ, to fulfill the God-ordained requirements of a believer, or to formalise the inclusion of a person in the Church. None of these things require a belief that that person will rise from the dead, however, they do make progressively less sense without the hope that believers will be resurrected from the dead when Jesus returns. In fact, perhaps it would be easier to turn it around and say that there is more reason to baptise for the dead where there is a belief that these people still exist and will be resurrected when Jesus returns again.
Did Paul agree with baptising for the dead?
All this being said, there is no indication that Paul approved or disapproved of such a practise. There are some who think that the fact that Paul talked about baptising for the dead in the third person (“people” instead of “we” or “you”) expresses disapproval, but there is no reason to suggest that Paul would be more disapproving using the third person than the second.
What I think we can say from Paul’s use of the third person is that baptising for the dead was not a common practice. In biblical accounts, conversion is almost immediately followed by baptism, and so unbaptised believers would have been few and far between. The fact that Paul speaks about “people” instead of “we” or even “you” indicates that he himself had never been involved in those kind of baptisms. Neither is there any record outside of this one verse that baptising for the dead even existed.
So, did Paul approve of it or not?
In one sense, it really doesn’t matter. It’s clear that a person who believes is expected to be baptised, and that to divorce the two is not a biblical idea. Perhaps a death-bed conversion is the only situation that would result in an unbaptised believer.
Suppose Paul approved of the practice. Even with the middle view of baptism, not baptising for a dead person will not finally effect their salvation. Add to that the fact that the Bible and history around that time says nothing more on the subject, and we are really not in a position to be dogmatic about applying the practice.
On the other hand, suppose Paul disapproved of the practice. There is nothing in history or the Bible that strictly forbids carrying it out and provided that the reasoning and theology behind baptising for the dead is biblical, the worst that could happen is that the churches who practice it would be wasting a bit of time baptising on behalf of the dead rather than watching TV.
One way or the other, it is instructive to consider how such a practice could have developed. Whether Paul approved of the practice or not, if our present understanding of baptism is too high or too low to allow such a development in a church that he planted, it is an indication that we should re-examine our not view because we may well not be viewing baptism quite correctly.