Given the nature of the Gospel with its focus on the grace of God displayed through the death of Jesus and the general teaching of the Apostle Paul that ceremonies such as circumcision were of no value in themselves, it would be very strange if Jesus had made it obligatory that a water ceremony be performed – that it was absolutely essential for those being made disciples to be baptised. Of course repentance and faith are demanded by God but these are matters of the heart or the mind not matters of ceremony. And the giving of the Spirit, though often mentioned in Acts in association with baptism (e.g. Acts: 2: 38; 8: 14 – 17; 9: 17, 18; 10: 44 – 48; 19: 1 – 6) is the gift of God given independently of any ceremony, though the gift may precede or follow the ceremony as these passages record. The ceremony does not have any value in itself. It does not make us any more or any less worthy before God.
It was however and can still be a very helpful custom but it is not mandatory. Probably, originally, the custom involved a complete immersion in water. Probably, originally, I believe, it was only undergone by “adults”. It was probably always associated, in principle, with a person repenting, radically changing their orientation towards God and when Jesus is in focus, radically changing their orientation towards him, as the one whom God had sent. Its value was that it was a sign that the person had been washed from their sins and had entered into a new life with God their Father.
It may be argued that many baptismal ceremonies carried out today do not truly reflect the water ceremony practised in the New Testament. Does this matter? Not necessarily. If what the custom is meant to signify and what people understand by it is in line with the truths of the Gospel, the ceremony can be a blessing not only for the person involved but also for many who witness the ceremony. It doesn’t really matter what the actual ceremony is like, whether a full immersion, pouring or sprinkling is involved or whether those baptised are young children or adults, as long as it is genuinely helpful and not misleading and provided it isn’t claimed that it is like New Testament water baptism if it isn’t. We must however guard against any custom that conveys false ideas, such as, that to become a child of God a person has to be baptised, that only when a person is baptised does he or she receive the Holy Spirit, or that the ceremony brings about some mystical experience.
There is a tendency in each of us to place too much value on ceremonies. We must resist that temptation and invest in Christ himself rather than in any ceremony about him. Though you may have found a ceremony to be personally very valuable no ceremony is mandatory. The commands we find in the New Testament relate to loving God, loving the brothers and sisters and caring for all. Understanding literal water baptism as essential for entrance into the kingdom of God and believing that there was a command from Jesus to perform the ceremony, were mistakes made by some living after the New Testament period – mistakes probably brought about partly because of their love of ceremony and their love for authority. We have perpetuated some of their errors.
Baptism in no way leads to one’s justification before God. It does not make anyone righteous. It does not make anyone a child of God. It does not in any way guarantee the giving of the Spirit. It does not provide any reason for having confidence about one’s salvation. It can be an exceedingly helpful custom but in the end it doesn’t really matter if you have been baptised or not. As with Paul’s comments about circumcision, are you baptised? That is all right. Have you never been baptised? That is all right as well. Rather than focus on baptism, in the words of Paul, we should glory only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 6: 14). His death for us is the ground for all of God’s blessings to us. Praise to him who died for us.