Baptism or Magic?

Some Christians today treat baptism like magic. Magic is generally understood as the practice of beliefs and rituals which are said to manipulate supernatural forces or otherwise influence the spiritual realm. Although the content of what Christians believe is obviously very different from pagan sorcery, the way some of them think about and treat baptism seems to be very similar.

For some Christians, baptism is (rightly) understood as an essential step that one must take to be saved. The Bible teaches the necessity of baptism in many places (Acts 2:38; Mark 16:16; Galatians 3:26-27, etc.). For some Christians, to “be saved” means that a person must become sufficiently convinced of the Bible’s teachings about the steps of salvation, culminating in the act of being baptized. As long as they follow the right steps, their sins will be forgiven and they are added to the church. It seems to be assumed that if we follow the right steps and perform the right rituals (including baptism) then we can influence the spiritual realm (i.e. God) to respond to our acts in a particular way (i.e. forgiveness of sins and salvation).

While on the surface, this might appear to be very similar to what the New Testament teaches about the importance of baptism for salvation, this understanding is actually much closer to what is going on when people engage in practicing sorcery.

The Key Distinction

One of the key differences between magic and baptism is that magic is about performing essential steps in order to satisfy the desires of the practitioner. When baptism is overly simplified into a mere step of salvation that we perform in order to improve our spiritual condition and destiny, this is more akin to magic. Biblical baptism, on the other hand, is simply faithful. It is the ultimate surrender of ourselves to the will of God. Magic is performed to satisfy our own desires, while baptism is the ultimate surrender of our desires.

Similar to magic, it can be rightly said that baptism is an essential ritual that must be performed. But biblical baptism is so much more than just a ritual we must perform in order to obtain salvation.  Notice what Paul says about baptism in Romans 6.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

Romans 6:1-4

If baptism is rightly taught as an essential step of salvation, but disassociated with the radical change that Paul attaches to it in Romans 6 (putting to death the “old man” and rising to walk in “newness of life”), we’re no longer teaching the same kind of baptism. Simply practicing baptism as an end point of righteousness in itself misses the point. If we reduce “being baptized” into little more than a cultural expectation in our churches, all while continuing to live in a way that prioritizes our own wants and desires, we’re not practicing biblical baptism. If, in practice, our lives are no different than the way of live practiced by the rest of our society– the way of life that was supposed to have been buried at our baptism, we’re not practicing the same kind of baptism we read about in Scripture.

What Makes Biblical Baptism Significant

At the heart of the meaning of baptism is the astonishing claim that all divisions and sectarian groupings to which we once aligned ourselves are broken down. We now have one new identity in Christ. Or as Paul put it,

For as many of our as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:27-28

If we are committed to biblical baptism, how is that so many Christians keep dividing? Why do we find it so important to align ourselves with various political groupings and social movements? Why do we become so affixed on the issues that divide our society into different teams? Why do we so often use the pronoun “us” to refer to “us” as Americans, or “us” as conservatives, or “us” as progressives, rather than primarily thinking of “us” as Christians? Unless, of course, we have replaced biblical baptism with something more akin to a magic ritual.

In baptism, we are moved from death to life. In Colossians 2, our entrance into the waters of baptism is connected with Jesus’ entrance into death on the cross.

In him you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism., in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to an open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

Colossians 2:11-15

If we are committed to biblical baptism, how can we keep living with little or no distinction between us and the world? How can we keep pretending like the rulers and authorities still have power? Unless, of course, we have replaced biblical baptism with something more akin to a magic ritual.

When Paul reflected on his baptism, he was able to say,

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

If we practice biblical baptism, why have do so many insist on doing things their preferred way? When it comes to the local church, why do so many have the attitude where “if you don’t’ do things my way, I’m just going to go somewhere else”? What happened to self-sacrifice? Could it be that we have replaced biblical baptism with something more akin to magic?

When addressing the problem of church divisions in Corinth, Paul wrote:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made with to drink of one Spirit.

1 Corinthians 12:12-13

If we practice biblical baptism, how can we be okay with division in the church? How can we be okay with insisting on practices that we know others find problematic? How can we be okay with a portion of the body being absent, just so we can have our way? Unless, of course, we have replaced biblical baptism with something more akin to magic.

If we were “buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), why do so many live like we’re afraid of being buried one day? Haven’t we already died? Haven’t we already been buried? Unless, of course, we’ve exchanged biblical baptism for something more akin to magic.

The book of Acts continually connects Christian baptism with repentance.

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

Acts 2:38

If we practice biblical baptism, why does it seem like some Christians haven’t changed the overall direction of their life? Why do some Christians not live like Jesus really is the Lord of this world, and He really is coming back? Unless, of course, we’ve replaced biblical baptism with something more akin to magic.

Yes, baptism is an essential “step of salvation.” But baptism is so much more than just a spiritual ritual. Baptism is about living a radically new and different kind of life, the kind of life that is loyal to the way of Jesus. When we remember our baptism, it should be so much more than just a reassuring thought of “yes, I’ve obeyed the gospel, so now I can go to heaven when I die.” It should be a memory that reminds us that are crucified with Christ, today and forevermore.