The Christian church marks its members by baptism. Luke records the historical accounts in Acts while the gospels contain commands to baptize. The epistles reference baptism occasionally—twice in Romans, 10 times in 1 Corinthians, and once in Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter. In the New Testament, baptism is referenced explicitly or implicitly nearly 100 times in Scripture. Yet two difficulties arise for today’s pastor. When should an adult be baptized? What requirements should be made to ascertain whether this person meets the Bible’s requirements? Then, for other reasons, children are difficult. In a society where many people are Christian, their children should be expected to anticipate baptism and full acceptance as fellow believers. Many young children ask for the privilege of Christian baptism.
In the book of Acts, new believers received Christian baptism even the very day that they were converted. On the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were baptized immediately after they believed. Cornelius was baptized on his second birthday. Most remarkably, the Philippian jailer showed his faith through baptism in the middle of the night along with the members of his family. Because of this pattern, some pastors baptize as soon as they hear that a person has believed the gospel.
However, in the first century, conversion would have been strange and costly. Believers often suffered in their family as our Lord predicted (Matt. 10:34-36). They also saw from the very beginning that the best Christians were often incarcerated (Acts 4:3; 5:18), or stoned (7:58-60), or driven from their homes (8:1-4). Not only were they in danger physically, but also the first believers had to leave a system they were familiar with risking rejection, humiliation, and loss of friendships. These scenarios still exist in some places today such as Islamic nations, or certain elite social groups around the world that are dominated by unbelievers. In the cases of children of Christian parents or members of a society where Christianity is common and accepted, the setting of the book of Acts is foreign. The differences should restrain our urge to baptize the same day.
No pastor can stop himself from judging, nor should he. If he accepts all those who simply ask to be baptized, then he is excluding all those do not ask. His test simply requires that someone say, “May I be baptized?” Not all people can (babies) or will (atheists) ask this question, so he has made his judgment. If he accepts all those who profess to believe in Jesus, then that is his test. If he only accepts those who are “serious,” then his judgment is given to all those who can impress him in whatever way he may be inclined. If he requires believers to complete a new members’ class, memorize a catechism, accept the church statement of faith, or wait a prescribed period of time, then he makes his judgments on those bases. But no one who baptizes is free from judgment.
Nor should they strive to be free from discernment since this is a mark of spiritual maturity (Heb. 5:14). Pastors must watch over the souls of their members (Heb. 13:17) which is yet another Biblical command to make righteous judgments. John the Baptist judged those who came to him for baptism.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance;” Matt. 3:7-8
They wanted to be baptized, and he said in effect, “You’re not ready yet.” Each believer should examine himself before joining in the Lord’s Table (1 Cor. 11:27-28), and therefore, pastors should speak to Christians if they know of a sin that may bring God’s judgment on that church member.
If baptism is valuable, then that value is withheld. If baptism is profitable, then that profit is temporarily denied. If baptism “appeals to God for a good conscience” then that conscience is put on hold. Baptism opens great benefits to the believer as well as the church.
- Baptism strengthens the faith of the one who is baptized. This symbol is commanded because it requires a public, bodily response to Christianity. A statement like that cannot easily be forgotten, but rather it will speak repeatedly to the soul, “You have given yourself to Christ.” If it is good to obey the Lord’s command, then blocking someone from obedience to that command is serious.
- Baptism encourages the believers who hear the testimony and watch the new convert. If there were no strength in solidarity, why are Christians commanded to gather together? Universal experience shows that we are pleased when others join in the cause to which we have devoted ourselves.
- Baptism allows the new convert to take part in the blessings of church life. If the Lord’s Table is not important, then why did He leave it for us until the end of the age? If it is important, then it is important for the new believer. A Christian who serves his church is more blessed than the one who does not, yet before baptism teaching, responsibility, authority, and public participation are forbidden since he is not yet united to Christ (that we know of).
- Baptism opens to the local church a new member who can help carry the weights of that assembly. For many smaller churches those weights press down on just a few people.
Requiring someone to wait before baptism places all these benefits out of reach for the present time. Perhaps the benefits need to be withheld because it is not yet clear if the faith is temporary or lasting, but there is a cost incurred when a pastor holds off for the present time. When a young man begins to invest for retirement, he must wait until he has found the right vehicle for those funds, yet at the same time in waiting he loses the benefit that accrues exponentially from investing early.
At the church we planted in Elim, I just made a list of 16 people who were baptized, who later fell away. The church now has about 30 members, so that is a significant portion. What happens to the other Christians when they see people come into baptism lightly and leave the church laughing?
- A general attitude of irreverence may develop where holy things are taken by people with dirty hands and then cast away a short time later. We must not give dogs holy things, and what in the local church is more holy than baptism, the Lord’s Table, and the right hand of fellowship as a brother?
- Church members may learn to distrust the pastor’s discernment and his commitment to a pure church over a large church. Since a true pastor is not driven by numbers, what message does this send to the people? Is the culture known for speaking the truth regardless of the circumstances? If not, then the pastor is in danger of gullibility, a simple-minded approach which Paul and Solomon condemn (1 Cor. 14:20; Pro. 1:22-33).
- Hasty baptism may encourage the sinner to trust in works and ceremony. Every sinner is a natural born legalist who wants to find some physical act on which to place his trust. Without patience, Christian baptism may send people to Satan.
- Hasty baptism may decrease the zeal with which the sinner fights for the Kingdom of Heaven (Matt. 11:12). Why should he give diligence to make his calling and election sure if the pastor is already pretty sure? If he is baptized too quickly, the devotion to Scripture and memory and attendance, may decrease once he has confidence.
Waiting is a fruit of the Spirit of God who is never in a rush. Christianity wants deep roots, lasting foundations, and members who have counted the cost.
Neither side is safe, but a pastor must at least be aware of both sides. Baptism is a sign of faith. Like a road sign it speaks to all who pass by that this person is a believer. So no one should be baptized who does not show signs of life. If the farmer cannot see a blade, he has no confidence that life is there.
Does the new convert understand the gospel? Can he answer the questions, “How did God save you? What does it mean to be a Christian? What verse from the Bible gives you hope that you are God’s child?” Does he speak well of the Cross? Does he speak in shame about his sin?
Working with his understanding, the New Testament offers several lists of virtues that will mark the lives of true Christians.
- The Beatitudes in Matt. 5:3-12
- The Fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:21-22
- The List of Virtues in 2 Pet. 1:5-7
If I cannot see some evidence from these lists in the life of the person who wants to be baptized, then I should wait, and I should tell them explicitly to look for evidence that “the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.” If a man is “in Christ” what might the fruit look like? Eagerness to hear preaching, memorize verses, read the Bible, attend prayer meetings, associate with strong Christians, leave sin, speak humbly about himself, share his faith, join a church, submit to baptism, follow the advice of those who are more mature, separate from false religions, see his own sin before it is brought to his attention, and show interest in the growth of others. Such marks of grace can often be seen most clearly by those nearest to him, so parents, spouse, and employer could be asked if they recognize any of these signs of grace. I have also asked people directly about themselves, “We do not want to discourage you, nor do we want to give you confidence prematurely. Do you see evidence in your own heart that a miracle has happened?”
This kind of judgment is subjective, yet the general principles are objective. They may change in specific applications since there is such a wide diversity among those whom God saves, but the major idea will not change. A person should not be baptized until we have reason to believe that he has obtained genuine saving faith. Though only God will know for sure, we are not absolved from responsibly affirming their testimony.
- May a child be baptized?
Since children are still maturing, they may more easily mistake desire to please their parents, or youthful interest for attention, or the early longing to be adults. Therefore, pastors should look for significant evidence that jejune motives are subservient to a real change of heart. I know a good number of pastors and their wives who gave testimonies and received baptism before 12 years of age and still have not wavered from that testimony decades later. While some churches may choose to safely avoid the dangers of baptizing a false convert by having a general policy of “Only Over 18,” in the case of these young Christians, they would have made them wait for 7-10 years before receiving the very real benefits that come with baptism. Is that really the wisest way to bring children up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord?
Policies help administrators, but we are keeping a greenhouse, an arboretum. Trees differ in glory like stars. Local government is more helpful here than federal.
In general, children should not be baptized until the accumulated weight of parents’, pastors’, and teachers’ testimony combines with their own account of grace to give us hope that, though they are young, they have truly entered at the narrow gate. Judge righteous judgment is our Lord’s command, and an extra Biblical policy seems to be there to make it easier for the leadership, not necessarily more accurate in exercising discernment.
Pastors have a responsibility to baptize only those believers who have a credible profession of faith because they must watch for their souls and guard them from profaning the assembly of the Lord. If a creditor must be paid on the exact day (Pro. 3:27-28), then let us offer the means of grace to all who have the marks of grace without putting them in a holding pattern. Philip baptized many true believers, but one Simon. This principle is abused by too many churches who naively accept the simplest professions. Apparently, these pastors and Christians do not expect the grace of God to make noticeable differences, or else they are in a rush to report decisions. Because of these abuses, patience is the wisest course of action while the pastor watches for fruit that the person not only understands the doctrine, but has experienced real regenerating power. Since each individual is unique, a church policy should be general rather than specific.
Each new baptism is a judgment call gained by listening to their words and watching their lives. The more grace we see, the greater our confidence is in affirming their faith by immersing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.