Throughout my ministry, there have been several times when I’ve been asked a question like this: “Pastor, I was saved and baptized early in life. After a period of not following the Lord faithfully, I’ve now been seeking to take my walk with Christ more seriously. Should I be baptized again?”
I recently had the opportunity to answer this question again and thought it might be useful to share my thoughts here for the rest of the church to read:
I’ll begin with one theological idea, and then move to an application to your specific situation.
As a matter of theology, no one is ever truly baptized twice. On Wednesday nights, we just recently spent time discussing this verse: “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…” (1 Peter 3:21). Peter’s point here is that baptism is (in normal circumstances) how a person appeals “to God for a good conscience.” That is to say, baptism is the normal way a Christian professes faith in Christ.
Baptism saves, not because water does something magical (that’s what Peter means when he says “not as a removal of dirt from the body”), but because by being baptized, we identify with Christ’s death and resurrection.
For that reason, we should reach the conclusion theologically that a person can be baptized exactly as many times as a person can get saved: once. The same truth is found in Romans 6: if in baptism we are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, that happens only once. For those who believe that salvation can be gained and lost and gained and lost (and so on), multiple baptisms might make sense. But it would not make sense for those who believe that salvation is once for all.
Now, it is certainly the case that some people go through a baptismal ceremony more than once. For instance, I was “baptized” as an infant in the Roman Catholic church, and then baptized “again” when I accepted Christ as a boy. (It is for this reason that there was a group in history called the “Anabaptists,” which means re-baptizers. They came to see the biblical teaching of believer baptism, which means that although they had been baptized as infants, they were then “re-baptized.”)
But although it makes sense to speak of being “baptized again” or “re-baptized,” we understand that if we’re going to be theologically strict with our language, we are truly baptized only once because we reject the validity of that first “baptism.” Anyone who is baptized a second time needs to be willing to say emphatically that he rejects the validity of his first baptism.
This is key: I will ask any person who comes to me asking about being baptized again (and there have been several, and there will undoubtedly be more) this question: was your earlier baptism truly a baptism? Because we don’t believe a person can truly be baptized a second time, any person who undergoes baptism a second time is publicly stating that his first baptism was no baptism at all.
If I could make the question clearer: when you were first baptized, you had made a profession of faith in Christ. You speak of living as a carnal Christian in backsliding and without self-denial. I take you at your word here.
Here is the key question: if you had died during that time, do you believe you would have gone to heaven? Do you believe that you were a carnal Christian, or do you instead believe that you were not a Christian at all?
I cannot answer this question for you. If you had truly believed the gospel during that time, you should have been walking in holiness. But we recognize that backsliding is a real thing: there are genuinely Christians who live unrighteously, even for a length of time, before God graciously brings them to repentance. In many cases, the truth that they have indeed turned back to God is evidence that, despite their sin, they really were children of God (though wayward) all that time.
If you believe that during those years, you were truly a Christian (although disobedient), you should not be baptized again, because you have already been baptized. If you come to believe that you were never truly saved during that time, then you would have to conclude that although you went through a baptismal ceremony, you have never truly been baptized because only believers should be baptized.
That is the central question: do you believe that you were a Christian (though immature) when you were baptized? If so, rejoice: you have been baptized, and praise God for his patience with you in bringing you to your current place of spiritual maturity.
If you instead come to believe that you were not a Christian at all, then there is reason to consider being baptized as a Christian—for the first time.