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Commentary: Baptism and conversion

Commentary: Baptism and conversion

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: Baptism and conversion

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | Oct. 1, 2009 {1083}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

One of the persistent theological and pastoral concerns of the church is the relationship between baptism and conversion. The question is, what is the connection between the church’s public act of baptizing with water and a believer’s experience of hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, believing, repenting and receiving an inner assurance that she or he is a child of God?

The fact is that conversion does not always occur at baptism. It may occur before baptism and is the occasion for seeking baptism; or it may occur after baptism, especially if one were baptized as a child. This fact motivates many to depreciate baptism, saying the conversion of the heart is the only thing that matters.

Cuban Methodists are baptized near Havana. Photo courtesy of The Methodist Church in Cuba. File photo #09-1113. Originally accompanied e-Review Florida UMNS #0981, 03/10/09.

Depreciating the value of baptism is a mistake. Baptism is a dominical command: the Lord Jesus Christ commanded his apostles to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). The apostles were faithful to the Lord’s command. On the Day of Pentecost, after Peter had proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he instructed those who were “cut to the heart” to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2: 37-38). The writings of the apostles in the New Testament emphasize strongly that baptism is the beginning of the Christian life and the permanent source of the Christian’s identity.

It is not appropriate to depreciate either baptism or evangelical experience. Instead, we should understand the integral relationship between them.

The place to begin is to understand why baptism is essential. First, baptism is a public declaration of faith in Jesus Christ. Not all conversions are public. They may occur in the secrecy of one’s room. Unless one declares one’s faith publicly, it will never become the defining mark of one’s identity among people in the world.

Moreover, baptism locates a person in the community of faith. Baptism is not merely personal; it is also communal. When it happens, one becomes a member of the body of Christ. For this reason, the church does not consider persons’ witness to their experience of God’s grace in their lives as “professions of faith” unless there is also baptism or a reaffirmation of the vows of baptism. Because Jesus Christ has a body, we are not in him until we are also in his body, regardless of our precious experiences of God’s grace.

Furthermore, baptism is a sacrament. It is God’s own means for communicating God’s grace to us. By this, the church means that God’s grace is given to us through baptism to become a member of the body of Christ in the world. By this, the church also means that baptism communicates the nature of the relationship between God and us. When a believer is baptized, what is communicated is that one’s faith is a gift of God bestowed by the initiative, purpose and energy of the Holy Spirit. Unless one is baptized, she or he is likely to put the focus on her or his own awakening or commitment rather than on her or his response to God’s Spirit. This means that conversion — whenever or however it occurs — is always a response to God’s action. Baptism is like a continual teacher in the life of the church that, throughout our lives, we are dependant upon God’s grace and that we must ever be seeking it in our growth toward union with God.

Baptismal font at Hans Egedes Church in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Ib Rasmussen/Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo #09-1307.

We can never place too much emphasis upon baptism in our preaching and teaching. When I was a pastor of a local congregation, I rarely preached without at least mentioning baptism. It was not unusual for someone to come to me and say, “Since you say that baptism is so important, I want to be baptized because I have never been baptized.” Then I could arrange to have a deep conversation with that person about her or his faith in Christ, membership in the church and the cost of discipleship.

Emphasizing baptism does not mean depreciating personal experience of the light and power of God’s presence in one’s life. Regardless of when we are baptized, our personal experience is always, in God’s purposeful plan, a baptismal experience. It is either the awakening that leads to baptism or the appropriation of the divine presence given in baptism. Our preaching and teaching, which should emphasize baptism, should also press for the manifestation of the grace given in baptism in our personal appropriation of it.

Sometimes John Wesley seems to be minimizing baptism in his emphasis upon an experience of justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ or the inward assurance of this justification. Yet Wesley was not alone in his pressing for personal experience. The great church father Gregory of Nyssa said baptism is “mere water” if we have not claimed the gift of a new birth by faith. Neither would depreciate the sacrament. Each was urging and guiding us to claim the meaning and the promise of the sacrament as the gift of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Spirit’s action in our lives, which requires the response of our free will.

While baptism and conversion may seem to be different or even opposites, the truth is that they are integrally connected. A high doctrine of baptism embraces an evangelical emphasis upon the personal experience of faith in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, and a strong emphasis upon evangelical experience requires a high doctrine of baptism in order to rightly order our love for God in the context of God’s grace, which comes before our experiential response and situates us in the body of Christ for our nurture, witness to the world and continuing growth in grace.
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.