If you have been in ministry any length of time, you could compile a list for me of people who have offered themselves for baptism, seemed to know all the right answers and evidenced a strong profession of faith. Then, after the baptism, the faith that flamed fizzles fast. Where are they now? Who knows? It is an all-too-common story.
And any genuine minister of the gospel is bothered by that story. Did I fail to examine the candidate for baptism well enough? Should I have done something more? Something different?
One human and understandable response to this unfortunate story is for pastors to do extensive vetting of baptismal candidates, to demand that they demonstrate evidence of conversion before they are allowed to enter the waters. But is this biblically justified? Is this an acceptable biblical pattern?
I would like to examine that question today. Is it biblically acceptable to do extensive vetting and pre-baptismal discipleship? It has become accepted that this is a responsible and necessary preventative to these spiritual flame-outs that we have all seen. I have a problem with it. While I understand the motive, there seems to be little in Scripture to give warrant to the practice.
Baptism, in Acts, was an initial testimony of salvation that immediately followed profession of faith. No classes. Little vetting. When someone professed faith, they were immediately baptized thereafter.
As we debate issues related to baptism, we find that the Scriptures actually say very little about the issue. We have evidence that baptism was performed on believers only, after their profession of faith, as a symbolic picture of salvation, not a saving act of itself. And, of course, the mode of baptism was immersion. But other than that, there is no instruction book on baptism that defines these issues. The best evidence we have is the pattern of baptism in the book of Acts. Let us explore that for a moment.
The Baptismal Pattern in Acts
In Acts, there are seven examples of baptism we can examine. Is there a pattern there? I think there is.
Passage 1: Acts 3:38-41 Pentecost
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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Pentecost was the birthday of the church of Jesus Christ. Peter preached his lengthy sermon, inviting sinners to “save yourselves from this crooked generation.” Look at verse 41. Those who received his word were baptized – immediately. That day. Three thousand souls were saved and baptized. Practically, there can have been very little vetting or pre-baptismal examination being done. There were 120 disciples and 3000 converts. It was a long and glorious day, but one that allowed little time for discipleship classes before baptism.
But the process is simple. Peter proclaimed Christ and gave a powerful invitation to sinners to repent. Those that did were immediately baptized upon their profession in faith.
Passage 2: Acts 8:12-13 Philip in Samaria
But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip.
Some time later, Philip was preaching in Samaria and many believed. The teaching here could not be much more clear. “When they believed” Philip they were baptized. Salvation was followed immediately by baptism.
The story of Simon that begins in verse 13 may be most instructive here. Simon believed and was immediately baptized. Later, he turned out to have impure motives and was confronted rather harshly. But Philip baptized him on his profession and never apologized later when Simon’s heart was revealed.
Passage 3: Acts 8: 37-40 Ethiopian Eunuch
And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
Philip was carried out into the wilderness and met up with the Ethiopian Eunuch. He explained the Scriptures about Jesus. They saw the water and the Eunuch asked if he could be baptized. Philip did. We assume that there was some profession of faith in Christ, but that is not even mentioned in the text.
Passage 4: Acts 9:18 Paul’s Baptism
And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized;
Saul of Tarsus was the terror of the early church. He then had the vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus and was converted. Ananias was not thrilled to be directed by God to go and see this man with the horrid reputation. But he spoke to Saul and then, immediately thereafter baptized him. Don’t you think Ananias might have wanted some proof that Saul’s conversion was not some kind of ruse to draw out Christians for persecution? But when Saul made his profession, he was baptized.
Passage 5: Acts 10:46-48 Cornelius
For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.
There was some initial evidence here of salvation – tongues and a desire to praise God. But many of those I’ve known who did not follow through on their profession gave strong initial evidence of understanding and commitment. Here, Cornelius and the others were immediately baptized upon their profession.
Passage 6: Acts 16:14-15 Lydia
The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
Lydia’s heart was opened by God and then she was baptized. The pattern continues.
Passage 7: Acts 19:3-5 Baptism of John’s Disciples
And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
Again, as soon as these men heard the gospel of Christ and responded, they were baptized in the name of the Lord.
The pattern is consistent in Acts and is not controverted in the Epistles. When one came to faith in Jesus Christ, just about the first they did was look for a place to baptize. There were no discipleship classes that preceded baptism. Candidates for baptism did not have to prove themselves. They simply made a profession of faith in Christ and were immediately thereafter baptized.
Why would we do anything else?
Here are some perspectives on the issue.
1) It is of primary importance that we proclaim the gospel clearly and fully, calling on people to count the cost before they trust Christ.
I believe that one of the reasons for the fizzled faith of so many who profess Chris is the weak gospel that is presented. A church in our town held a VBS and gave a “gospel” invitation that amazed me. One of our families attended and got a letter a week or so later congratulating them that their daughter had “made the big JC her best friend.” If we preach a weak gospel we can expect weak converts. I heard a celebrity give a “gospel presentation” once without even mentioning the Cross. Puh-leeze!
We must proclaim a clear gospel and call people clearly to repent of their sins and commit themselves to Christ, having counted the cost.
2) The only biblical condition on baptism is a valid profession of faith in Christ.
It would be appropriate to ask questions and to make sure that someone understands the gospel, especially younger candidates. But when someone offers a clear profession of faith in the grace of Jesus Christ, a repentance of their sins and a commitment to Christ, it is my duty to baptize them as soon as possible, in obedience to Christ.
3) Baptism is the beginning of discipleship, not the end of a process of discipleship.
Baptism is a public testimony of the act of faith. It is the initial act of discipleship. In fact, it can be argued that by delaying baptism, we are causing people to be disobedient to Scripture and thereby potentially hindering discipleship. Repent, believe and be baptized.
4) Ultimately, it is not my job to separate the wheat from the tares or the sheep from the goats.
We are all grieved by the presence of the tares (Matthew 13:2-30) and the goats (Matthew 25:32-33). But Jesus made it clear in both passages that ultimately it would be he who separated the good from the bad. In fact, Jesus warned to be very careful about pulling up the weeds lest we also pull up the wheat in the process. The church will always have false brethren among it. We can disciple. We can discipline. But we cannot completely purify the earthly church. And, as Jesus warned, we must not allow the process of purification to damage the real believers.
We must not, in our efforts to prevent false conversions, do anything that hinders real believers from following Christ. Better to baptize an occasional false convert than to prevent a true convert from following Christ.
5) Perhaps we err by making baptism an automatic entry into membership in the church.
In pretty much every church I’ve ever been a part of, baptism automatically enters membership. Maybe this practice is a problem. Perhaps we should baptize people into some sort of provisional membership in the church, then put them through some kind of initial discipleship and membership class and then when that is completely, give them fully vested membership.
But baptism should be performed as soon after profession of faith in Christ as is reasonable.
6) Pre-baptismal vetting is not the answer. Biblical discipleship and discipline is.
This restates and emphasizes points I have already made. But the point is important. Once a believer is baptized, he should then be discipled carefully. If he fails in his commitment. A loving and redemptive process of discipline should be applied to him. But all of this seems biblically to follow, not precede baptism.
I realize that I swim against the current tide here. Recent emphases on increased standards for membership and for discipline in churches have led the majority to increase their practices of pre-baptismal examination. I understand the reason for this, but I believe it is contrary to Scripture. The only requirement for baptism, in the Bible, is a clear profession of faith in Jesus Christ. That baptism is the beginning of the discipleship process, not a point along the process.
Could we actually be hindering discipleship in our desire to prevent false conversions and failed baptisms?
Something to talk about!