Why We Sometimes Baptize On the Spot

Posted by Pastor J.D. on September 25, 2012
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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 improve upon 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 ignore the Bible. I sometimes wonder if the majority of theological problems come from a pride in our theories that keeps us from submitting ourselves to other biblical data.

We must be diligent to make sure, as the Apostolic community did (Acts 8:36), 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) is the sincerity of that confession or confirm that it has led to life change before we baptize. The apostles did not do this, and nor should we. While baptism ought never to be disconnected from a life of discipleship, it is given to those who, on face value, make a credible profession of faith.

Here’s a question to ponder: Biblically, 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.”

Pastor J.D.

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J.D. Greear is pastor of The Summit Church, in Raleigh-Durham, NC and author of Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (2011) and Stop Asking Jesus into Your Heart: How to Know for Sure You Are Saved (2013). More

12 responses to Why We Sometimes Baptize On the Spot

  1. If we are going to follow the Biblical pattern to a T, don’t we have to encourage our members to spontaneously baptize the people they lead to Jesus in the nearest body of water?

  2. Chad: I think that is right. And that would be an incredible thing, wouldn’t it? Assuming we are equipping our members to do the work of ministry (Eph 4:12) – specifically to be disciples who make disciples (Matt 28:18-20)…

  3. I agree, more pastors/churches need to have spontaneous baptisms. It has never sat well with me that we wait months/years between belief and baptism. I think the Apostles would be aghast at that practice. Belief was punctuated by baptism, we cannot get past that in the book of Acts. You believed, **sploosh**, you were dunked!

    The problem with waiting, that I see, is it de-emphasizes the importance of baptism. Believers don’t always want to “make and appointment” for the baptism. So they put it on the back-burner, and who knows when they’ll get it done. In my own case between belief and baptism was YEARS. I think St. Peter would likely fall over in a dead faint at that.

    No one in the early sermons of Acts took a “class”. They heard the Word and **sploosh**! So the classes irritate me. I understand the idea behind it, but the importance of baptism should be preached from the pulpit, not given a “special class”, in my opinion.

    In short, it’s too easy to put off, and if pastors insist on making baptism appointments and taking classes, then more people will be put off by it, making baptism just another errand on the “to do” list, between buying a gallon of milk and picking up the dry cleaning, when in reality, it is a COMMITMENT to follow the Living God!

    ~~Becka

  4. Solid argument… I’ll definitely be keeping this as a resource to refer back to when the issue of how churches should approach baptism comes up.
    Thanks so much, JD
    -Austin

  5. Hi JD,

    Can you point me to

    1) Verses that say baptism is merely symbolic, rather than efficacious? Every verse I see seems to suggest otherwise: “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21), as one example. The plain meaning of this is that water baptism (corresponding to the flood of Noah) is the proximate means of our regeneration–as in, God has chosen baptism to be the means by which original sin is washed from us and the righteousness of Christ given to us.

    2) Early Church fathers that say baptism is symbolic? Again, they seem pretty unanimous, at least from what I have read, that water baptism is efficacious for regeneration.

    “And when we come to refute them [i.e. those heretics], we shall show in its fitting-place, that this class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God, and thus to a renunciation of the whole [Christian] faith. (St. Irenaeus, 2nd century, Against Heresies, I.21)

    Irenaeus was the Christian fighter against the heresy of Gnosticism in the 2nd century; he is clear, along with others at this time, that it is heresy to say water baptism does not effect regeneration. Here is a whole host of other early Church fathers on the matter:

    http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/06/the-church-fathers-on-baptismal-regeneration/

    Best,
    J

  6. So do you believe that it is important to take into consideration the historical and theological background and context of a book of the Bible (Timothy, for instance)? If so, I’m having a little difficulty with your claims about 1 Timothy 3:1-5 and why only men should be church elders. Is your evidence that the author doesn’t say “he/she” but only “he” in referring to the church elder? Or “a man of one woman”?

  7. Hopefully, everyone leaving comments heard this weekend’s message, better yet is listening to the entire series, and even better yet was in one of the services this past weekend and experienced the presence and power of God that moved people to follow Jesus in baptism. WOW!

    This is one of the best series I’ve ever heard! The message this weekend was anointed, spot on, and culturally relevant.

    I applaud not only spontaneous baptism, but PUBLIC baptism during PRIME TIME corporate worship. Unfortunately, many churches have determined it is too logistically challenging to celebrate baptism during PRIME TIME worship. This is tragic and leads to spiritual death of these churches.

    It was exciting to see people lining up to be counseled and then baptized. I was at Summit Cary where 49 people were baptized in 1 day which I suspect is more than in all the previous year. As I witnessed all the counseling, praying, logistics of changing clothes, lining up, waiting, etc – in order to be spontaneously baptized in public it was obvious it was a genuine move of GOD and not man.

    I was prompted to specifically pray that the first baptism following the invitation would occur ASAP as a witness to those who still needed to move. God had me praying, “as soon as the first one comes up out of the water let 10 more immediately move. Move! Move! Move!”

    I celebrate God’s provision for spontaneous baptism and am blessed and humbled to be apart of a church God can trust with so many people following Jesus in baptism.

    God isn’t trusting Summit Church because of baptism (spontaneous or not). He is trusting Summit because Summit is responsibly strategic in discipling people to be Gospel-centered and to live sent. Summit knows baptism is not a statistic, but rather a sign of a starting point. As much as I applaud Summit for spontaneous and public baptisms, I also applaud Summit for publicly sending people out during PRIME TIME worship! Not just once or twice per year but nearly every weekend.

    Well done Summit! God is in you and using you! Keep up the good work!

  8. My two cents:

    I love, love, love, love, LOVE our frequent and public baptisms!

    It encourages my soul and drives me to envision my friends and family in those pools one day!

  9. Hi Pastor JD,

    I like your comments on scriptural baptism. I am a lay person in a mission church in a small military community. I am looking for an example (template) of “diagnostic questions” to ask someone who comes forward during invitation for baptism and/or wanting to become a member of our church. Thank you for your ministorial support and God Bless!

  10. Hi Pastor JD,

    My husband and I have been attending Summit Cary since early June. Both of our families have a church of Christ heritage. My husband, as I am reading this to him, says that our church heritage has been influenced by Ariminian thought. My question is, is there a time that baptism doesn’t happen immediately/spontaneously at Summit? (Other than for the reason you mention above.) And if so, why does that happen? As we have struggled with leaving behind heritage in pursuit of Christ, we are asking questions now that we accepted, independently and together, for many years. We are thankful for Summit and eager to learn!

  11. Very interesting subject, thank you for posting.

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  1. Believing the Baptized: Spontaneous Baptism and True Faith | Everyday Religion - March 3, 2014

    [...] writes on this very topic in 2012, stating that spontaneous baptism is actually more biblical (Why We Sometimes Baptize on the Spot, 2012). Many pastors and lay people have taken up the issue, debating whether spontaneous baptisms as [...]

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