Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Should We Baptize Upon Profession?

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?” 

No membership class.  No onlookers are mentioned.  No period of seeing whether or not this Ethiopian was serious about his profession.  All that we have in this context is a gospel explanation by Philip, a chariot driver, and “some water”.  Therefore, churches ought to follow Philip and baptize people upon profession.  Right?!?! 

Not so fast. 

I’ve had to think through this question in recent days.  First I’ve had to think of it because I believe that there are many people within our churches that have said a prayer, given a few correct answers, and then took a bath at church.  Upon this bath they are now told that they members of the church.  Within the Southern Baptist community that means something.  It means that we as a church are standing behind your profession and as it were saying to the Lord, “We believe this person is a disciple of Jesus”. 

Yet as the days, and months, and years pass this church-bather is no longer faithfully following Christ.  This is a problem.  As Mark Dever has rightly noted, “Uninvolved members confuse both real members and non-Christians about what it means to be a Christian”.  Therefore, many churches agree with Dever that we need to,

…guard carefully the front door and open the back door.  In other words, make it more difficult to join, on the one hand, and make it easier to be excluded on the other.  Remember—the path to life is narrow, not broad.  Doing this, I believe, will help churches to recover their divinely intended distinction from the world.  (What is a Healthy Church, 105)

Doesn’t this seem to fly in the face of the practice of the New Testament church?  Does it seem that Philip was making it “difficult to join” in the life of the Ethiopian eunuch? 

That is the conundrum that I find myself dealing with.  While I fundamentally agree with Dever, I cannot help but consider the early church practice.  And I know our tendency to make the pendulum swing from one extreme to another.  In our effort to curb careless baptisms and spiked churched membership numbers I do not want to be equally guilty of withholding baptism from someone that knows Christ and legitimately desires to follow Him in this ordinance.  So which is it?  Do I baptize upon profession as it seems to have been the practice in the early church?  Or do I follow the wisdom of Dever and others within church history?

Context is Key

The truth is that I do not have to pit one against the other.  We need to consider the context of the early church compared to that in America.  Here you can profess Christ with very little ramifications.  Saying “Jesus is Lord” can be very empty rhetoric. Those words are not fruit of conversion. They can, in our context, just be an empty profession. 

In America (especially in the South) people will get baptized just to please their dear old grandmother.  That is not the case in other contexts.  Where persecution is ever present, as it was in the New Testament, saying “Jesus is Lord” is tantamount to saying, “I’m identifying with Jesus—take all my worldly goods and lop off my head if you must, but I’m following Him”. 

That’s not our context.

Our context is probably closer to that of John the Baptist in Matthew 3 when he called the Pharisees and Sadducees to “bear fruit in keeping with repentance”.  In contexts where false professions seem to be running rampant, or when it’s beneficial to profess Christ, it is necessary that we be very cautious about not giving someone false security. 

My solution

Be very faithful in preaching the gospel as Philip did to the Ethiopian.  Be certain that the people that say, “I want to be baptized” really know what that means.  Not only that they know baptism doesn’t save you but also that they understand Who does save you.  Make sure that they can articulate the gospel and that their life is showing a different trajectory as it concerns sin and the beauty of Christ. 

You don’t need to see a shiny and polished life to proceed with baptism.  What you do need to see is that the profession comes with a changed trajectory.  If you see evidence of that and they can decently articulate the gospel then I believe we ought to believe their profession and proceed with baptism.  Love calls us to “believe all things”.  We ought to lean towards believing a profession rather than dismissing it. 

Yet, we also must remember that even with the apostles unbelievers were baptized (see the case of Simon the Magician).  Keep the back door open.  The more faithful a church is in proclaiming the self-denying gospel and the more a church practices biblical church discipline the less that church will have to worry about false professions.  But they still happen.  And no amount of caution will prevent that. 


  1. Grace comes before faith.

    Our profession is not what matters. That is weak and tainted with self-motive.

    God's promises to us are what is important and He makes those to us when we can'
    we can't do anything for ourselves.

    We baptize immediately...and when faith comes, baptism is complete.

    1. I agree that grace comes before faith. But I believe it is presumption to assume that God's promises apply to one without faith. I believe the Scriptures teach that baptism ought to come after faith. But that's why I'm a Baptist and you are a Lutheran, eh?

    2. Mike,

      Realizing that we have different theologies, I beg to differ that the Scriptures teach faith before Baptism.

      In Matthew 28, Jesus says, "go...baptize and teach...". Notice the order.

      And in Acts 2:38 (or 3:28) It says that in Baptism we receive the Holy Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. If one already has faith, then they already have the Holy Spirit. Methinks, since "faith is a gift of God".

      We do believe that God can certainly save people apart from Baptism...but we also believe (since Jesus commanded it) that He can certainly save those who are Baptized.

      Gotta run, Mike. (dr's appt.)

    3. Concerning Matthew 28 you left out something. Go therefore AND MAKE DISCIPLES...so it's Go...Make Disciples...Baptize...and teach. Notice the order.

      Don't forget the word "Repent" and be baptized in Acts 2:38. How would an infant repent? Now, again that verse doesn't disprove the argument of infant baptism. Truth be told it has nothing to do with it since his audience is adults.

      Have a good dr's appointment. I hope all goes well.

  2. Thanks for the good word. I too have wrestled with this issue and came to the same conclusion as you -- that the "cost" associated with baptism is much different now in the US than it was in New Testament times.
    I have joked that there should be a "mandatory waiting period" between a profession of faith and baptism. It's a scary thing to rush people thru baptism (which many view as guaranteeing salvation) when there is no evidence that they're really saved.

  3. Mike, this is an important discussion to have. Many just follow in their rut without giving it a thought. Like you and Rick, I have also wrestled with this issue. Unlike you two, I came to a different conclusion.

    First, let me say that I agree with you and Mark Dever that we should "…guard carefully the front door and open the back door…" even though our practical application might look different. Second, I would expect we agree in more ways than we disagree. We are looking for professions/conversions that we believe are genuine before baptizing a person.

    I suppose where I disagree most is that "context is key." In contrast, I would say that command, precept and example are key. Not only Philip and the eunuch, but all the baptismal accounts in Acts share a surprising consistency -- believers professed Christ and were then baptized, without delays. Paul seems to be a possible exception. But when the Lord sent Ananias to tell him what to do, he was immediately baptized. Baptism identifies us with Christ, and the believer should not postpone that identity (Romans 6, e.g.). Baptism is a command of God to the convert/new believer (e.g. Acts 2:38; 10:48). It is a command to the church (Matt. 28:18-20). Should we delay obeying God's commands?


  4. This seems to be one of those circumstances where we allow the pragmatic considerations to override the Scriptural considerations. We see one thing in the Bible but have a hard time making it work in practice so we make something up. The same goes with "church membership". We don't see it in the Bible but we can't figure out how to do accountability and discipline without it so we canonize an extra-biblical tradition.

  5. Everybody's talking about context, but what about context w.r.t. Philip & the Ethiopian? The Ethiopian had faith in the God of Israel (he was a "God-fearer"), and was reading the scriptures. He wasn't a "blank slate" or a pagan or an agnostic. He had a knowledge of God's work in the past, and Philip proclaimed the good news of Jesus, the fulfillment of God's promises. How does this change the conversation?

  6. It might change the conversation were Philip and the eunuch the only relevant scriptures. But what about the Philippian jailer, the Corinthians, and the Ephesians, who were all baptized when they believed? Interesting to, to me, is that Philip did not allow the very recent bad experience with Simon in Samaria cause him to modify his method.

  7. 1) The essence of the Gospel is easily articulated in one short sentence ... so

    2) It is perfectly fine for Deacons, Elders, Pastors and whoever to examine and even question in minute detail the testimony of a candidate for Baptism ... but

    3) None of these fine Christian folks ought to be in the "business" of putting Church membership before the serving of their God in a matter of the call of one chosen by God ... because

    4) As history proves time and again God will take his "business" elsewhere. You don't have to believe me ... read your Bible.

  8. Greetings Mike,

    I see some muddied water here and would like to offer the following observations.

    1) The biblical accounts have the true gospel preached to the hearer. The response is a response to the true gospel, as opposed to today's possible response to the youth pastor mud wrestling with the worship director. Men such as Dever - if they are offering the *true* gospel to their hearers - should have no problem baptizing somebody after profession. The apostles had no problem, why should Dever?

    2) An "uninvolved member", as Dever labels them, is uninvolved in the church to precisely the same degree as all the other members of his church are collectively uninvolved in his life. For the church to blame somebody for something that the church causes is hypocrisy. Until we understand this - and our presuppositions that allow us to have "uninvolved members" right in our very midst - we are in deep trouble.

    Ditch any idea that causes a delay in baptism after a profession that is a result in hearing the gospel. Take it from somebody who knows the results of such thinking. It took four Reformed churches a total of two years to baptize me and allow me the Lord's supper, and a host of other ills that went along with all this, incuding being suspected as an unbeliever.

    "Do I baptize upon profession as it seems to have been the practice in the early church? Or do I follow the wisdom of Dever and others within church history?" I'd go with the bible over Dever. It's that simple.

  9. Some have used John’s baptism and his confrontation with the Pharisees as a basis to make sure that we only baptize those who “bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” I find this to be in error. First, the baptism of repentance by John is not the same as the baptism of the new covenant. They are two separate baptisms. Second, read carefully Luke’s account of John’s baptism and you will find that he described the crowds as being a brood of vipers (3:7) and they also need to bear fruit in keeping with repentance (3:8). The crowd (3:10) asked John what then shall they do to repent showing that they believed his statement was not just for the Pharisees, but for them as well. It wasn’t just the Pharisees that John chastised. The text says that “all the people were baptized” (3:21). So it seems John baptized people without checking on their fruit. Third, John’s role in the greater Kingdom of God was not one of a shepherd of a flock living among the people but of a prophet living in the wilderness making proclamations.

    I would further argue that it is plausible that John did baptize the Pharisees, but I won’t die on that hill.

    I have a question … What is the Biblical basis for looking for fruit that extends beyond a profession of faith? I see none. Perhaps we just need to tighten up the "professor's" understanding of a confession of faith. When I say confession of faith, I am looking for someone who
    a) conveys an understanding of the tenets of the Gospel
    b) an understanding of the ramifications of what that may look like in their life as well (Lordship).
    c) an willingness to be grafted into the local church body (member of the body in which Christ is the head).

    I agree with the comment above mine, "I'd go with the bible over Dever."



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