Admission of members is…by one of the following actions: a) Upon profession of faith in Jesus Christ and acknowledgement of his Lordship, followed by baptism… ~ Constitution and Bylaws of the church I pastor
Yet it takes time to manifest whether public professions of conversion are real. False professions are made most often by those who are sincere but wrong in their claim to follow Christ. Time—whether a few weeks or a few months—will allow the pastors and others in a congregation to watch and have their initial conclusions confirmed by the continuing discipleship of the one desiring baptism. ~ Mark Dever
“Brothers what shall we do?” 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….” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” ~ Acts 2:37-41
Any serious follower of Jesus no doubt understands that baptism is an important aspect of Christian discipleship. In the Great Commission, Jesus included it as one of three aspects in making disciples, the other two being going and teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded. Baptism at its core symbolizes at least three things: 1) The cleansing of sin affected by the Holy Spirit in a person’s life (Acts 22:16, Titus 3:4-7 with reference back to Ezekiel 36:25-27); 2) Union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection indicating our death to sin, new life in Jesus, and hope of resurrection (Romans 6:1-11, Colossians 2:9-14); and 3) Union with the people of Christ as the body or church of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13, Galatians 3:25-29).
However, I think we often miss one of the greatest aspects of baptism. As noted above in both the constitution from my church (which is similar to many others I have read) and from Mark Dever’s words—we tend to view baptism as an act of obedience to Jesus (which it is) that comes after some other profession of faith (which it shouldn’t).
I believe that when we look at what the Bible and especially the book of Acts says about baptism we find that baptism is not meant to be an act that comes sometimes weeks or even months after a person professes faith in Christ through some other means. Rather, baptism, properly, is part of a person’s conversion experience in Christ that stands as a first and primary profession of faith.
Consider a few things: First, from the teaching of the Great Commission we find the main verb to be make disciples. This is the heart of the life of the church. Before the verb stands one participle which modifies it, and after the verb we find two. Go comes first, a logical placement because you can’t make disciples of all nations if you aren’t first going out to the people. Teach comes last, a call to a lifetime of discipleship, always learning and growing in the ways of Christ. In between is baptize. I think such placement to be quite intentional on the part of our Lord, especially when we consider what the early disciples did in Acts. A person must first be willing to commit to follow Jesus as a disciple before you baptize them but it is the first step of Christian discipleship, contra Dever’s claim that a person’s profession first be confirmed through continuing discipleship.
When we come to Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2, we find Peter giving the Gospel to a large group of people who had gathered around on account of the commotion from the first disciples’ reception of the Holy Spirit. After he finished his message, many fell under conviction and asked Peter what to do. Peter’s answer—if you want to have your sins forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit as well, then repent and be baptized.
Sometimes we get caught up in nitpicking words, phrases, and eises trying to make it sound like Peter did not endorse some form of baptismal salvation or regeneration. Such nitpicking misses the point. Peter was not trying to write a systematic theology but gave an answer that spoke to a true and living faith. Yes, we are saved by grace through faith and not by works (Paul, Ephesians 2) but such faith is manifest through works and not words alone (James, James 2). In the mind as the apostles as they taught, preached, and wrote, faith, repentance, baptism, and receiving the Holy Spirit were all part of the conversion process. Though, as we see in Acts 10:44-48 where a group of Gentiles first received the Spirit and then were baptized, there may not have been a clear and exact order of events.
But…all of these things happened closely together. In Acts 2:38, faith is assumed and not clearly stated. Instead, “repent and be baptized” take on the actions of faith. Repent is a change of mind that results in a change of life. More so, repent is a change in allegiance. A person who was devoted to their sin and the ways of the world hears the Gospel, realizes its truth, and commits to abandon all such ways and follow after Jesus. Baptism is the visible sign of this change of allegiance. To draw on Paul’s description in Romans 6 and elsewhere, to be baptized into Christ means that we are shoving that old sinful self into the grave, trusting in Christ to bear the judgment of God for us, and rising up through Christ into a new life marked by turning and fleeing from sin since we belong to the one who conquered sin.
Thus, throughout the story of Acts, we find coming to faith and being baptized as concurrent events.
In Acts 2, those who “received Peter’s words”—a statement of positive affirmation towards the message—were baptized and “that day,” not a different day but the day of Peter’s preaching, 3000 were added as followers of Jesus.
In Acts 8, we read two accounts of baptism that relate to the preaching of Philip. First in Samaria, Philip preaches and people believe, and they were baptized (8:12), though the Holy Spirit did not come upon them until Peter and John showed up. Then later Philip is going along and meets the eunuch from Ethiopia. He explains the Gospel and as they travel down the road the eunuch points out water and Philip baptizes him.
In Acts 9:1-19, Jesus blinded Paul and sent Ananias to him in order to restore his sight and fill Paul with the Spirit. As soon as Ananias arrived and laid hands on Paul, his sight was restored and before he even took a bite to eat (having gone three days without), Paul was baptized (also see: Acts 22:16 for Paul’s retelling of the events including Ananias’ words, “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized.”).
In Acts 10:34-48, Peter goes to the house of a Gentile named Cornelius and realizes that the Gospel is meant for them as well as the Jews. While Peter talks with them, the Holy Spirit comes upon them and realizing God’s gift to them, Peter commands them to be baptized.
In Acts 16 and 18, we read about Lydia and her household and Crispus and his and how they heard the message and were baptized. And we also see the account of the Philippian jailer who was baptized that night “at once” (18:30-34). They didn’t even wait until daybreak.
Mark Dever goes on to argue that each of these baptisms represented the establishment of a church and therefore are not normative for the practice of an established church. He thinks it more wise to wait and confirm a person’s faith. I would counter that if the Spirit and the apostles thought it important to confirm a person’s testimony through observation before baptism then 1) they would have clearly instructed such, and 2) they would have practiced such. After all, does it not seem that if waiting and confirming was an important step then the most important time for it would be the establishment of a church? After all, a church is most likely to be shaped for years to come by the initial members. A church already established and mature will not be as swayed by someone who ultimately proves to have given a false profession, and they will possess a discipline process to deal with those who walk in unrepentant sin contrary to their baptismal profession.
Instead, the testimony of Scripture is that baptism belongs as the proper response to the gospel—it is a profession of one’s faith in and allegiance to Christ and not an event that should come after a profession. Practically, this means we should seek to perform baptisms as soon as possible after a person hears the Gospel and is moved to repent and follow Jesus.