There's a simple, but profound understanding that I came to realize many years ago, regarding the practice of water baptism specifically, and "baptism" in general:
It starts with the Protest-ant Reform-ation, which was an attempt to protest and reform problems within the Roman Catholic institutional "church."
The Protest-ant doctrine of "Believer's Baptism" is a pendulum swung to the opposite extreme, in reaction to the long standing opposite error of the Roman Catholic Church (infant baptism per parents' confession of faith, etc.)
This needs a re-examination of the scriptures and a re-think. Let's dub it, not "Infant Baptism," and not "Believer's Baptism," but "Discipler's Baptism."
The "Great Commission" that we often recite from Matt 28:19 is not this:
"[All you nations] come and get discipled, and get baptized..."That is what the "backwards church" believes (and they hope that the "nations" will come to their "church").
It is this:
"Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them..." ("...into the name..." in this case)The bottom line is that the "command" given by Jesus is fundamentally given to the "disciplER" to "baptize." The command is not fundamentally given to the disciplEE to "get baptized". In most of contemporary christian "protestant" christendom, the clergyman goes up to the pulpit once or twice a year and brow-beats the laity about how they should "get baptized" in water "in obedience" to Christ's "command." This is putting the cart before the horse, besides being carnal and short-sighted.
If I am making disciples, I know who they are, and I know (to the best of my discernment) when they are believers. It is now my responsibility to say to them, "It is time for you to be baptized in water. Let's set a day and time."
The Protestant clergy would typically say, "I don't know who you are or where you stand out there, but if you are a believer, then you need to obey the Lord's command and get baptized in water."
The contemporary "protestant" church has it backwards: The people being discipled are brow-beaten and lectured into "obedience to the command," while the disciplers are content to "make themselves available." What should happen is that the disciplERs should act "in obedience to the command", and it is the disciplEEs who should "make themselves available" to them to do so.
The command is given to the disciplER to "baptize". It is the disciplER who must "act" "in obedience" by immersing the disciple. In the case of water baptism, it is the disciplER who is demonstrating an "outward sign of an inward change" (that he recognizes on the part of the disciplEE), to reframe the popular saying, when he immerses the disciplEE in water. If the discipler claims the conversion of an individual, and that individual is not "immersed," who is negligent? It is the disciplER doing the disciplING (or who should be doing the disciplING), not the disciplEE being disciplED by the disciplER.
In water baptism, the disciple does not immerse himself in water, nor does he get himself up out of the water. Part of the demonstration is to show how Jesus did all the work for us. It is a demonstration about how the disciple gets "buried" and cannot save himself or raise himself up. The discipler (representative "type" of Christ) does that, because it is Jesus who raises us up. The disciplEE just agrees and submits. The baptizEE believes that the baptizER is going to raise him up out of the water that he agrees to be "buried" in and raised up from.
Note that the one being baptized in water still must have faith. He must still believe. This is not going back to the Roman Catholic tradition of infant baptism, where the infant has no clue what is going on, and does not believe a thing. It is the responsibility of the one doing the baptizing to discern that the one being baptized in water is a believer, and submission to being baptized in water by the one being baptized in water is an act of faith on his part, as well.
At this point it is important to keep in mind that "baptism" is a broader term with a deeper meaning for us than just "water baptism." The original words "baptize/baptism" are generic, secular terms that mean "immerse/immersion." We are "immersed" in many ways other than in water as Christians: into the name, into forgiveness of sins, into his death, immersed in the Holy Spirit, and so on. Ironically, it is only in water that we do not stay "immersed" in. In fact, we are only briefly dipped in water, not really "immersed," or else we would drown in a few minutes. Water baptism is only a type and representation of the things we are really immersed in, which we stay immersed in. Yet water baptism is identified with Christian conversion. So water baptism, as valid and profound as it is, cannot itself be thought of as causing any lasting change in the one being converted. The lasting change happens when one is immersed into Christ (not water).
How does this change happen? It starts with Jesus, making disciples, who make disciples, who make disciples, and this process keeps repeating. The original work is that of Jesus, then Jesus working through his disciples, and that process keeps repeating. It is not the responsibility of the unbelieving or the unbaptized, other than to agree, believe, and submit. Yes, there is a point of conversion, and water baptism signifies this and is identified with it. But it is not just conversion. It is discipleship. Jesus did not tell us to make converts. He told us to make disciples. Having been immersed into Christ (not water), the disciplEE is immersed into his death. He is immersed into his name. He is immersed into forgiveness of sins. He should also be immersed in the Holy Spirit and power. There are some things he should do on his own initiative, like immerse himself in God's Word, and immerse himself in the fellowship of like-minded believers. But mostly he is being immersed by that which is not of himself.
Even in Acts 2:38, if you examine its original rendering, it is και βαπτισθητω εκαστος υμων ("kai baptistheto ekastos umon"), where the verb is "third person, passive, imperative," grammatically, literally reading "...and let-be-immersed, each of you..." (although Acts 2:38 does not mention or refer to water.) Or, for example, in a case where water baptism is explicitly referred to, the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40) didn't say "Here's water. I have decided that I want to get baptized." He said, "Here's water. What is preventing me from being baptized?" This is in harmony with the fact that it was Philip who needed to act in obedience to the great commission that was given to him. So it was Philip's responsibility to baptize the Ethiopian eunuch in water, not the Ethiopian eunuch's responsibility to "get baptized" in water.
Of course, what is prevalent today is a substitute sacrament of conversion, which is the "sinner's prayer." This leads to the error of "recitational regeneration," for those who believe that you must recite the "sinner's prayer," and that the "sinner's prayer" is what converts you (or is at least an essential or pivotal part of the conversion process).
One more thing to be aware of are teachings circulating around about traditional, historical, Jewish water baptisms, having to do with ceremonial washing/immersion/cleansing. While it is true that water baptism as a rite was nothing new at the time of Jesus, it is also true that Jesus changes everything, pointing to a New Covenant that obsoletes the Old Covenant and all its practices, and if all its practices, then all of the Jewish traditions that go along with it as well.
"Water baptism" for Christians should be thought of holistically. It is not just "immerse in water," and it is not an "either-or" proposition, meaning "either" water "or" something else. It is not either "get baptized in water," or "get baptized into Christ." The former is strongly identified with the latter. The spiritual can exist without the physical, and the physical is meaningless without the spiritual, just like the spirit can exist apart from one's body, and a dead body is meaningless without the spirit.
It is the same way with the Lord's Supper. The wine is identified with the blood, which is for the release from sins. The bread is identified with the body, which is for the release from afflictions. Wine and bread do not accomplish anything in of themselves, nor do they magically change into blood and flesh; furthermore, the release from sins and afflictions is an established fact that we accept by faith apart from the wine and the bread or the partaking of it. However, we identify the partaking of the Lord's Supper with the release from sins and afflictions. We remember. We recognize. We are forgiven. We are healed. Likewise, with water baptism, we die, are buried with Christ, and are raised with him. We are immersed into Christ. However, the point that we die, are buried, and are raised with Christ, immersed into him, is truth that is accepted on faith alone, regardless of whether we actually are water baptized or not.
I grant this work to the public domain.