Why We Sometimes Baptize On The Spot

A few times a year we issue an invitation for hearers to be baptized on the spot. The gospel is preached, an invitation is given, and people come, Acts 2 style. We have each baptismal candidate meet with a counselor trained to ask a number of diagnostic questions to ascertain whether the candidate actually understands the gospel and embraces the Lordship of Christ. We end up turning a considerable number of people away, but we baptize a whole lot as well. This past weekend we baptized 180.

Failing to determine whether someone understands their profession of faith before you baptize them is, in my view, recklessly irresponsible. Declaring someone “saved” when they aren’t not only gives them false assurance, it makes them that much more immune to future calls to repent and believe. God help us never to put the excitement of large numbers ahead of the safety of people’s souls. My ego is not worth someone else’s eternity.

For this reason, many pastors require a waiting period between a profession of faith and baptism–attendance at a class, etc.–before they will administer baptism. Some won’t baptize children growing up in their churches until adulthood because only then can they be sure that a sound decision has been made.

I believe this to be a well-intended, but unbiblical and dangerous, solution to the problem.

First, unbiblical: every single baptism we have on record in the New Testament, without exception, is spontaneous and immediate.  John the Baptist invited his hearers to show their repentance by baptism, an invitation received most notably by Jesus himself (Matt 3:13-17, Mark 1:9-11). Peter baptized 3000 on the spot in Acts 2 after one sermon (Acts 2:40-41). Philip baptized the eunuch after their first conversation, (Act 8:36-38), and Ananias baptized Paul “immediately” after meeting him (Acts 9:17-19, cf. 22:16). Paul baptized the Philippian jailor and his household “at once” (Acts 16:31-34).

“But things are different today,” I am told, “we have a culture saturated with easy-believism” (which is true). Furthermore, they say, many things in Acts are exceptional. The early church held all possessions in common (Acts 2:44). They practiced a full variety of sign gifts, struck people dead in church and smote false prophets with blindness. These are not normative for churches today, at least not in the way they were for the early church.

Fair enough. Yet, in each of those things we can see a development in Acts which points toward the normative, a normative firmly established by Paul’s epistles. For example, some of the miraculous signs are dying down by the end of Acts, and Paul even reports leaving a companion sick in Miletus (1 Timothy 4:18). Paul’s instructs the rich in his congregations to be generous and to share, not to turn over all their property to the church like they did in Acts 2 (1 Timothy 6:9-19). In other words, the reason we allow divergence from patterns in Acts is because we see clearer patterns established elsewhere that help us see the distinction between the extraordinary and the normative.

No such development can be demonstrated with baptism, however. Every single instance of baptism, from beginning to end, is immediate. The baptisms toward the end of Acts are as immediate as those at the beginning. The plots on the graph form a straight line, and it’s not hard to see where future points on that line should lie.

Demanding that we delay baptisms to ensure against false professions is to pursue a good objective in an unbiblical manner. Those who do this have allowed concerns over false professions to trump biblical patterns. Whenever we develop a theory from some biblical data that conflicts with other biblical data, that’s a sign our theory has gone wrong. Much of our reasoning from the Bible is deductive: from biblical data we deduce principles (known as theology) that we use to develop ideas not directly addressed in the Bible. This is good and right. The biblical data should always function like a tether, however, showing us when our “theology” has gone mutant. When our theory puts us in conflict with the Bible, we should expand our theory, not curtail the data.

We see examples of mutant theologies everywhere. Some Calvinists hold certain verses of the Bible hostage to a theory they have developed off of other verses. Some Arminians do the same. Rather than broadening their theories, they ignore or explain away certain passages because they don’t fit in their system. Those who tear down gender roles in the Bible take a valid biblical principle (the equality of the sexes) and hold other clear biblical passages hostage to it. Paul’s clear instruction that only men are to be church elders (1 Tim 3:1-5) is abrogated by the biblical idea that the sexes are equal. I’ve had many Presbyterian friends do the same with baptism. They can explain with ruthless logic why the whole trajectory of biblical thought points toward baptizing babies. Yet, such a practice is clearly absent from the New Testament. Rather than re-examining their theories, they ignore the evidence.

Those who condemn immediate baptisms seem, in my view, to do the same. Their theories on how to protect against false conversion stand in clear contrast to the only inspired pictures the Holy Spirit gave us of what baptism is to be and who it should be given to.

And how is this dangerous? God’s patterns are always best. In keeping certain believers from baptism, we have removed from them one of the primary resources God intended to catalyze their maturity. Baptism is the catalyst to spiritual maturity, not the sign of it. Baptism is an important moment that stands as a witness to ourselves and the enemy powers that we belong to Christ. In moments of weakness, when we are under assault from our enemy, we need to be able to retreat back to what was declared over us by Christ in our baptism. We see Paul doing this often in the epistles (Romans 6:1-5–and I paraphrase): “Do you grasp the new reality declared at your baptism? Won’t you live out of that now?” If we have withheld baptism from believing children, have we not robbed them of a great refuge in a time of trial–their solidarity with Christ’s church and his declaration over them?

Furthermore, presenting someone with a choice to be baptized forces them to make a decision. So many sit in our churches each week as consumers, going along with Jesus but never deciding “for” him. Baptism crystalizes the offer they must receive or reject. I grew up in a church that gave a targeted, intentional altar call at the end of every service. While there were many unhelpful side effects of this approach, one thing it did was force people to consider where they stood with Jesus. At the Summit Church, we don’t offer an altar call at the end of every service, but I do believe that, from time to time, a call to immediately respond to the gospel is helpful. I think that’s what you see both John the Baptist and Peter doing with baptism. I have heard many, many stories in the past few weeks of people for whom this moment served exactly that purpose–they were put into a position where they had to decide: “Will I yield to Jesus or will I not?” The offer of baptism crystalizes the decision itself and the act of baptism catalyzes the discipleship to follow. I think this is very biblical.

We should be concerned with people who make false professions of faith in baptism. But we should not protect against that by robbing genuine believers of a resource God intended them to have.

Baptism is, again, not the marker of spiritual maturity, but the sign that faith has begun in the soul. Even in the days of the Apostles converts sometimes fell away from their baptism (e.g., Simon the Magician, Acts 8:9-24). That doesn’t mean something is wrong with the process. We must deal with the apostate as Scripture instructs us.

To add things to biblical patterns is to suppose we are wiser than the Bible and to subject our hearers to potential spiritual ruin. Needless to say, we are not wiser than the Bible, and our plan, no matter how spiritual-sounding, is not superior to God’s plan. We must subject all our ideas, including our well-developed theologies, to the canon of Scripture. When our theology conflicts with biblical data, it’s time to tweak our theories, not explain away the Bible. I sometimes wonder if the majority of theological problems come from a pride in our theories that keeps us from adequately humbling ourselves before the evidence.

We must be diligent to make sure, as Philip did, that our hearers understand the gospel. But we should not unnecessarily delay or encumber their baptism.

To sum up: we should be diligent to ensure that the person being baptized can make a credible confession of faith. In other words, they should be able to articulate the gospel and explain what baptism means and why they want to do it. What we do not need to verify (indeed cannot verify) the sincerity of that confession or confirm that it leads to life change before we baptize them. Neither did the apostles in Acts 2, 8, or 16.

Here’s a question to ponder: Does baptism go with (a) the initial confession of faith or (b) after a proven period in which we verify the reality of that confession (i.e. discipleship)? My contention is that, biblically, it goes with the confession of faith. When you baptize, the reality of the confession of faith is still untested. Someone baptized Simon (Acts 8) and he turned out to be a fraud, but this did not mean that their baptism methodology was flawed.

I’m still learning on this, and open to your thoughts. One of our core principles at the Summit Church is that we are after disciples, not converts. Baptizing them should be part of teaching them “to observe all that he has commanded.”java games download

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  9Comments

  1. Nathan Finn   •  

    JD,

    Thanks for this really thoughtful blog post. I believe it is the most helpful article I’ve yet read arguing for a spontaneous baptism approach. I confess that I’m not on the same page with you on this, but I appreciate you thinking through this and making a thoughtful case for your views from the Scriptures.

    I do want to ask one question. What steps do you take at Summit Church to make sure that newly baptized believers are incorporated into your church’s membership? Or do you believe that baptism and church membership aren’t directly related? In other words, what happens to Jill Smith after she is immersed in a spontaneous baptism service?

    One of my concerns with spontaneous baptism ceremonies is that in at least some cases little emphasis is made upon the centrality of church membership, ongoing discipleship, etc. (I’m not accusing Summit of this at all–I’m just making a general observation.) While I’ll grant that the NT baptisms happened immediately, they also seem in virtually every case to entail public identification with the church, both in its local and universal manifestations. What do you guys do to ensure that baptism isn’t disassociated from church membership?

    Again, I really appreciate your thoughtful post. I look forward to further dialog on this.

    NAF

  2. Scott Bullard   •  

    Love this, J.D. I’m trying to mesh this with Hauerwas’ claim that “marriage is proof that God holds us accountable for decisions we made when we didn’t know what we were doing,” his point being that usually, when we are baptized or get married, we are entering into more than we can ever understand — whether we are 16, 18, or 40. We need to understand that baptism could kill us, in a sense. I.e., “when Jesus calls a man, he bids him come and die.” And yet, we can never be quite sure what we’re getting into, what we’re entering into …

  3. J.D. Greear   •  

    Nathan, great questions, and I appreciate, as usual, your thoughtful and irenic spirit.

    I agree with you that baptism should ALWAYS lead to church membership and should be identified with a local church. The nuance is whether baptism should be the catalyst toward church membership or church membership should be a requirement for baptism (as in, “we won’t baptize you unless you are joining this church today). I see some biblical precedent for the former, but not as much for the latter.

    Joining the church is not specifically mentioned in the baptisms of Acts 2, 8, 9, or 16. It doesn’t specifically say that all 3000 baptized took a covenant oath to the church in Acts 2, though perhaps that is implied by the language in 2:47.

    In fact, establishing the local church’s presence at all in Acts 8 and 16 is pretty dicey, though I think you can do it. But saying that Philip was baptizing the eunuch into First Jerusalem Baptist Church seems to be kind of a stretch to me.

    I’d love to hear you expound more.

  4. Nathan Finn   •  

    JD,

    I actually make a similar distinction to you when it comes to baptism and church membership. I can think of scenarios where I would baptize someone who had no intention of joining my church. But I think those are very rare and unusual scenarios. I’m thinking, for example, of the teenaged convert whose parents won’t let her join the church (I’ve seen this several times). I wouldn’t want her to disobey Christ’s command to be baptized because her parents are in sin.

    So back to the norm. While I would never say, “I baptize you in the name of the Triune God if you agree to enroll in our membership class,” part of the counseling I do prior to one’s baptism is to make clear that the next step is for them to join our church. Baptism leads relatively quickly to church membership.

    Now, to Acts. I suspect we’re actually close on this, if not identical. Though there is a long history of Baptist exegesis arguing otherwise, I absolutely do not think that all 3000 newly baptized believers joined the church in Jerusalem. Many of them were from other places and were in Jerusalem to celebrate Pentecost. So some became part of the Acts 2:42-47 congregation(s?), while others returned to their home cities, presumably to help spread The Way to those regions.

    I think the same applies to the Ethiopian eunuch. I don’t think Philip was out baptizing folks into the Jerusalem Church. I think he was an evangelist and church planter, sent out by the Jerusalem Church, to be sure, but working elsewhere. And at a particular point in redemptive history, the Spirit supernaturally brought Philip into contact with a gentile eunuch who just happened to be reading Isaiah 53. Faith, baptism, Spirit whisks away, etc. I think it is implied, as with Acts 2, that the eunuch returned home to spread The Way. In fact, though it’s not infallible, second century sources tell us the eunuch did just that, becoming the first bishop in Ethiopia.

    So I think you and I are more or less on the same page with baptism and membership. But to return to my earlier question, what are you guys doing to ensure that 180 newly baptized Christ-followers are moving into church membership? Would you baptize someone who was visiting from Portland that weekend? If so, would you try to connect that person to a local church in his town?

    I appreciate this dialog very much, JD.

    NAF

  5. Robert   •  

    This is a good piece and I appreciate the emphasis on making baptism a priority.

    However, we simply cannot say that every instance of baptism in the NT is instantaneous. There are examples of references (cf. 1 Tim 6; 1 Peter 3; etc) to baptism that indicates an evolving method in the practice. The other important qualifier is that not all references to baptism are references to water baptism. Of course the baptism of the Holy Spirit is instantaneous upon justification allowing for sanctification.

    As we know from a study of baptism in the early church (see Ferguson’s text by this name) the practice quickly became more intentional. By the time of Tertullian Christians were often putting off water baptism until either Easter or Pentecost. Also this involved a catchesis for new believers, which arose after many fell away during persecutions.

    Suffice to say, the NT encourages quick baptism but it seems that it doesn’t mean immediate. In the church where I serve we encourage new believers to get baptized as soon as they can, but understand if they delay for a week or two. Throughout the process we talk with the new believer and provide thorough counseling discussions to ensure they understand the significance of their decision. Sometimes immediate baptism leads to easy believism error.

  6. Steve Martin   •  

    The Lord commanded that we baptize. So He is in it. He is the One who actually does the Baptizing. “In the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” His name is attached to it, so His promises are attached to it, so He is in it and doing it. We are just His instruments.

    If you notice Jesus’ command in Matthew 28, it is “baptize and teach…” Baptism comes first in the order.

    None of us are capable of giving the Holy Spirit to anyone. (for those who say that Jesus was talking about ‘spirit Baptism’. But we are capable of baptizing and being baptized.

    Why wait? God’s decision for us is the important one. Not our decisions…for whatever they are worth.

    Thanks.

  7. David Rogers   •  

    I generally agree with the argument in favor of “on the spot” baptisms, though I do not think this necessarily implies encouraging the baptism of children who make a profession of faith. While the NT example appears unanimous with regard to the “on the spot” nature of baptism, there is no clear NT example of children of any age being baptized (at least, if you follow standard Baptist interpretation).

    My reasons for discouraging the baptism of children are too complex for a single blog comment, but I spell them out here:

    http://sbcimpact.org/2008/07/09/semi-infant-baptism-in-baptist-churches/

  8. gary   •  

    Something for Baptists and evangelicals to think about: the Baptist doctrine of the “Age of Accountability” is nowhere to be found in the New Testament.

    Isn’t it strange that God provided a means for the babies and toddlers of his chosen people in the Old Testament to be part of his Covenant promises but is completely silent about the issue in the New Testament?

    Jesus seemed to really love the little children… but he never mentions even once, if the Baptist/evangelical view of salvation is correct, how a Christian parent can be assured that if something dreadful happens to their baby or toddler, that they will see that child again in heaven.

    In the Baptist/evangelical doctrine of adult-only salvation, God leaves our babies and toddlers in spiritual limbo! A Christian parent must pray to God and beg him that little Johnnie “accepts Christ” the very minute he reaches the Age of Accountability, because if something terrible were to happen to him, he would be lost and doomed to eternal hellfire.

    Do you really believe that our loving Lord and Savior would do that to Christian parents??

    Dear Christian parents: bring your little children to Jesus! He wants to save them just as much as he wants to save adults! Bring your babies and toddlers to the waters of Holy Baptism and let Jesus SAVE them!

    The unscriptural “Age of Accountability” is the desperate attempt to plug the “big hole” in the Baptist doctrine of adult-only Salvation/Justification:

    How does Jesus save our babies and toddlers?

    Gary
    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals

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