Teach, Then Baptize?
The logic of our Lord’s final commission is hardly accidental. He told us to make disciples by baptizing and teaching (Matt. 28:19-20). The order is not to teach and then baptize. It is to baptize and then teach. This pattern was also consistently observed in the early church. If you got saved, you got wet. It was just that simple.
However, in many parts of the world, including Ethiopia, new converts are first tested and instructed (sometimes for many months) before they are baptized. “Is he a genuine convert?” is the question posed. “Time will tell,” says the church. But Jesus says plainly that we are to baptize new converts and then teach them. Notice that carefully! Beware of supplanting the language of Jesus with the logic of man. A Christian makes an explicit pledge of commitment to Jesus Christ through the waters of baptism. That, ultimately, is what baptism is all about. It was not in the raising of a hand or the walking of an aisle that the early church saw the public profession of faith. It was in the public act of water baptism. So then, an unbaptized believer is a contradiction in terms. It is as infamous an oxymoron as jumbo shrimp.
But to answer the objection, “How can we be sure that a person’s conversion is genuine?” You can’t! Acts 8 records the story of a man who entered the church and was baptized but was not right in heart. Among those who professed Christ was Simon the magician. His conduct did not match his creed. He had beguiled people. He was merely a surface believer. His counterfeit faith was eventually exposed for all to see. The church cannot be sure that every professing Christian is truly Christ’s.
But when a person is truly converted, a genuine transformation takes place. There is a change of nature, and a change of direction. Above all there is a change of dimension – from darkness to light. Positive Christian discipleship is what we are all called to, but it begins with the obedience of baptism. Of course, baptism cannot save. But it is the mark of being a child of God. As someone has put it, baptism is like a wedding ring, to be worn from one’s wedding day onward and not after a six month probation period!
So I plead: let’s return to the biblical pattern and the example set for us by the early church. Whatever is bogging us down in thoughtless routine should be changed, no matter how traditional and sacrosanct it has become. The Bible knows nothing of a two-tiered system of discipleship, where the leap to baptism is to be brought about by particular knowledge or by an emphasis on some point of doctrine or when everyone can afford a trip to Israel to be baptized in the Jordan River.** What we do find in the book of Acts is that new believers are baptized promptly upon profession of their faith in Christ as Savior and Lord.
I am convinced that, despite all our efforts to apply human logic to the matter of Christian baptism, Jesus has it right and we’ve got it wrong. Let us admit the truth of this situation. It is time for repentance and a turning away from unbiblical ways of going about furthering the Great Commission. If we really believe the words of the Lord Jesus, then surely our practice must change.
** I am not kidding about people who take tours to the Holy Land so that they can be baptized in the Jordan. A convenient baptism site for tour groups has even been established at the southern shore of the Sea of Galilee.
January 19, 2009
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.