Why We (Sometimes) Baptize On The Spot

We first ran this post in September of 2012, shortly after a weekend service with on-the-spot baptisms.

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 [September 2012] 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.”