Self Baptism: Bible Teaching

If the validity of baptism depends upon who the baptizer is, we would effectively have a system of priesthood whereby a man's salvation depends not upon his own understanding of and obedience to God's word, but on another human being. This is quite contrary to the spirit of New Testament Christianity. No brother has any more God-given right to baptize others than any other brother. We have earlier demonstrated that the command to go into all the world preaching and baptizing applies to every one of us; and therefore we each have a mandate to baptize others (Mt. 28:19). If we say that only some have the right to baptize, we are saying that only some have a right to preach. It helps in considering this kind of question to think about the hypothetical case of a man on a desert island with a Bible. He must theoretically be able to come to the knowledge of Christ and be baptized, without the intervention of any other human being. Whilst the desert island case may be hypothetical, the case of men in prison with no right to be visited, or those in such isolated places that they cannot be visited because the would-be baptizers lack funds to do so- these are real life situations. Self baptism is the only option for them. The conclusion of the following study is that we should do all we possibly can to visit, examine and baptize candidates for baptism; but we must recognize that theoretically self-baptism is quite acceptable, and we should recognize the self-baptized as our brethren and sisters (after, of course, ascertaining that they shared our beliefs at the time of baptism).

The New Testament Record

Of the forty or so NT references to baptism, it is significant that there are only two references to the actual process of the baptizer baptizing the convert (John the Baptist and Philip). And there is no condemnation of self baptism. This is not to say that the converts dipped themselves under the water; but the point is, the focus of the narrative is on the fact that the convert was baptized into Christ, rather than on the person who did the baptizing. Even when Peter decided to baptize the first group of Gentile converts, he commanded them to be baptized (Acts 10:48)- he isn't recorded as doing it himself. The NT emphasis is that at baptism, the believer calls upon himself (Gk.) the name of the Lord Jesus- this is a personal act. The man holding your shoulders has no part to play in this. The meaning of baptism depends upon the believer of the Gospel going under water, symbolizing his death with Christ, and coming up out of the water, connecting him with the Lord's resurrection. The person holding his shoulders as this happens is irrelevant to the symbolism.

The Old Testament types of baptism do not feature a 'baptizer':

- The priests washed themselves in the laver; they were not washed by anyone else

- The cleansed leper likewise washed himself

- Naaman dipped himself in Jordan

- Israel crossed the Red Sea with the cloud of water above them, water on either side of them, and with their bodies dripping wet from the pouring rain (so we learn from the Psalms). This is the clearest figure of baptism (1 Cor. 10:2); but there is no 'baptizer' in the type. Indeed, Bullinger comments that " they were all baptized into Moses" can be literally rendered 'they baptized themselves'. The same verb form occurs in Luke 2:5, where Joseph went " to be taxed" , literally 'to enrol himself'. 

However, it ought to be clear enough that we should do all that is humanly possible to avoid cases of self-baptism. Baptism is only valid if there is an acceptable level of knowledge of the Gospel first of all. It is very difficult for a new convert to discern whether he is 'ready' or not; there really needs to be some discussion with a more mature believer to establish whether or not the person does understand or not. For this reason alone we would ask those who are themselves new converts to not baptize their contacts until a more mature brother can be present. This is not because there is any command that a new convert cannot baptize, in the same way as there is no command that baptism must be performed by another believer. I am not insisting on this point- for ultimately, I can't. But baptism is a serious thing, and if someone is baptized without enough knowledge, their eternal salvation is at stake. We therefore ask all of us to accept this and work with each other in mutual submission so that the spiritual house we build is on a sure foundation.

Baptism Into The Body

It should also be remembered that baptism is not only entry into covenant relationship with the Father and His Son; it is also baptism into the body of Christ, i.e. the body of believers (1 Cor. 12:13). This is where self baptism shouldn't be used too liberally. Thus the record in Acts describes baptisms as believers being " added" to the body of believers (Acts 2:41,47); but also as them being " added" (s.w.) to the Lord Jesus (5:14; 11:24). It is therefore appropriate that there are other members of the body of Christ present at the baptism; baptism is entry into relationship with the community of believers, as well as into a personal relationship with Christ.  

One of the many problems at Corinth was that they placed too much significance on the brother who baptized them; those baptized by Paul or by Apollos or Peter formed into different groups. Paul tackles this problem head on by saying that baptism is into Christ, and that the meaning of the baptizer is utterly irrelevant. " Christ sent me not to baptize but to preach the Gospel" (1 Cor. 1:13) is probably hyperbole (i.e. grossly exaggerated language to make a point). The command to preach and baptize as given in the great preaching commission was just one command; preaching-and-baptizing went together. It seems to me that Paul did baptize; but using the figure of hyperbole, he's saying: 'My emphasis is on getting on with the work of preaching the Gospel, the fact I've held the shoulders of many men and women as I pushed them under the water is irrelevant; Christ didn't send me to just do this, but more importantly to preach the Gospel'. And may this be our attitude too.

Going Deeper...

For those who wish, it's possible to go a bit deeper into this issue of self baptism and who baptizes. " For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body" of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). The Spirit seems to be the baptizer. But how? The Lord Jesus baptizes by the Spirit (Jn. 1:33), although He didn't personally hold the shoulders of those He baptized (Jn. 4:2- doubtless to show that who does this is irrelevant). We obeyed the Truth (through baptism) " by the Spirit" (2 Thess. 2:13; 1 Pet. 1:22). This doesn't necessarily mean that the Spirit made us obey the Truth. Rather is the idea that as Christ died and was raised by the Spirit (1 Tim. 3:16; Rom. 1:4), so we go through the same process in baptism, being likewise resurrected (in a figure) by the Spirit (1 Pet. 3:18-21). It is therefore the Spirit which raises us up out of the water, as it raised Christ; the man holding our shoulders is irrelevant. It is therefore through / by the Spirit that we have our hope of salvation (Gal. 5:5). There is only one resurrection, ultimately: that of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 6:14,15). By baptism into Him, we have a part in that. God in this sense resurrected us with Christ (Eph. 2:5,6), we even ascended into heavenly places in Him, as He rose up into the literal Heavens. And this whole process was achieved by the Spirit.  

So " the Spirit" is as it were our baptizer, whether through self baptism or traditional baptism; the Spirit is the power which raises us out of the symbolic grave of baptism and gives us new life. This makes the role of the human 'baptizer' purely incidental. But what does " the Spirit" mean in this context? The Lord Jesus Himself is the life-giving Spirit (1 Cor. 15:45). The Spirit is what quickens us; but consider Jn. 6:63: " It is the Spirit that quickeneth...the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are (what gives) life" . The process of coming alive with Christ by baptism, the raising out of the grave which the water represents, is therefore due to the work of the Lord Jesus through His Spirit and His word. He is " the Lord the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18 RV). At baptism we are born of (or by) water-and-spirit (Jn. 3:5; the Greek implies one act, combining water and spirit). We were washed by baptism " in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God" (1 Cor. 6:11). " He that is joined to the Lord (Jesus) (by baptism) is one spirit (with Him)" (1 Cor. 6:17). We are saved " by the washing (baptism) of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Spirit; which he shed on us abundantly by Jesus Christ" (Tit. 3:5,6).

What all these lofty ideas mean to us in practice needs personal meditation. For much as we may fight shy of any mention of the Spirit's work, the fact is that these verses stand true for us today. In our present context I simply make the point that the Lord Jesus, through His Spirit, is the One who resurrects us out of the water of baptism to new life in Him. It is demeaning to Him, and the work He does, to suggest that the efficacy of this depends upon a human being lifting a man or woman up out of the water. He, not a man, is our Saviour. Therefore self-baptism is valid as much as traditional baptism.

It is Christ, not the actual baptizer, who actually does the moral washing of a person from their sins when they are baptized. Consider these simple parallels within John’s Gospel: 

John 3:5

John 13:8

Unless

If

One is born of water and Spirit

I do not wash you

He cannot enter into the Kingdom

You have no part in me

 Not only does this reflect the crucial importance of baptism; it indicates that it is the Lord Jesus who does the moral washing of a person when they are baptized. Once we accept that, then who performs baptisms becomes irrelevant.