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How to Botch a Baptism

Photo of Daniel McCoyDaniel McCoy | Bio

Daniel McCoy

Daniel is happily married to Susanna, and they have 3 daughters and 2 sons. He is the editorial director for Renew.org as well as an online adjunct instructor for Ozark Christian College. He has a bachelor’s in theology (Ozark Christian College), master of arts in apologetics (Veritas International University), and PhD in theology (North-West University, South Africa). He is the general editor of the Popular Handbook of World Religions, author of Mirage: 5 Things People Want From God That Don't Exist, and co-author with Norman Geisler of The Atheist's Fatal Flaw.

I was baptizing a friend of mine who was literally twice my size. That in itself made me nervous. What made things instantly worse was that the moment I got him under, his feet floated up. So now I had to get one half (the half that needs to breathe) back up to the surface without any support from the other half.

I went deeper and heaved him back to the surface, and—all was good. But I learned that it’s possible to botch a baptism. Since then, I’ve seen some baptisms that—although objectively beautiful because of what was happening—were pretty cringey. Accidental awkwardness in where to place the hands. Visible panic because of the water. Rebaptism three seconds later because something didn’t go right the first time.

But those are the baptisms we can look back on and still smile about. Just because something was awkward doesn’t mean it was actually botched.

There is a way to actually botch one. And I think it happens more often than we’d like to admit.

Here’s the problem in short: It is way too easy to baptize somebody into Christ, give them a Bible, wish them well, and then leave them to navigate things from there.

Let’s remind ourselves exactly what’s happening at baptism. This is a new birth. As Paul put it, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4).

Even if a newborn is safely delivered into the world, you will badly botch the new birth by handing the baby a bottle, reminding him to make regular well-baby trips to the doctor, and then leaving him alone. It’s easy to act that way with new Christians: “Here’s a Bible. Make sure you read it, go to church regularly, and be a better person. Congratulations and good luck!”

But getting baptized was never a matter of merely inviting a three-inch tall Jesus to take up residence somewhere in your heart. It’s nothing less than a matter of death and life. It’s a fully immersive transformation of death, burial, and new life.

Because we’re dealing with a newborn Christian, baptism needs to be the cue for serious training.

And this means not just training to lead up to baptism, but rather baptism being the opportunity to invite the new Christian into a discipling relationship (or, if such a relationship is already in place, to take him to the next level).

After baptism is the perfect time to model rhythms of what it looks like to trust and follow Jesus. Or, even better, to learn together what it looks like to trust and follow. Let’s learn how to pray by praying together. Let’s learn how to obey God’s Word by reading the Bible together. Let’s learn how to serve by serving together.

When we don’t walk alongside new Christians in a discipling relationship, we set them up for confusion and disappointment. How many new Christians anticipate baptism meaning a major life change only to feel more guilty after their baptism than they felt before—because the change didn’t seem to take? A year after baptism, a lot of new Christians can even find themselves asking whether they’re actually saved. Why don’t I feel any different?

If they don’t feel any different, we ought to wonder: have they really been discipled? Or have we neglected our newborns?

When it comes to the four steps of Jesus’ Great Commission (go, make disciples, baptize, and teach them to obey), it is possible to be really clear about the baptism part without locating it in the larger context Jesus placed it in: making disciples. Making disciples was always meant to be the what, with going, baptizing, and teaching all fleshing out the how. If we don’t want to botch the baptism, we’ve got to stop being fuzzy and vague about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The all-important process of discipling a new believer takes clarity. Concrete pictures come through inviting the person to join you in discipling rhythms where you learn to trust and follow Jesus together.

As Michael Strickland and Anessa Westbrook put it in their book New Birth,

“Baptism is the normative place where our faith connects with God’s grace and we become new, with a clean slate and a restored relationship with God.”[1]

That’s a stellar description of what baptism means. It’s also a bit intimidating. The language of fragile newness brings into alarming focus the shame it would be to abandon the baby Christian after delivery.

When we don’t walk alongside new Christians in a discipling relationship, we set them up for confusion and disappointment.


[1] Michael Strickland and Anessa Westbrook, New Birth: Conversion and Baptism (Renew.org, 2021), 79.