The Scandal and the Wonder
August 1st 2023
I’ve been working on baptism resources lately, and it’s mainly straightforward – Don’t forget to bring them up again. But there are curly issues too, like When is a person ready to be baptised?
There are extreme answers to this. Some denominations say ‘At birth!’ Others, concerned about post-baptism sin, have concluded ‘Just before death!’ You’ve likely narrowed it down somewhat from those extremes, but the question remains.
If we baptise people on their first interest in Jesus, how do we know it isn’t merely a crush? Six weeks later they might be into Buddha or basket-weaving. It’s not a new phenomenon – the Parable of the Sower Mt13 speaks of flash-in-the-pan believers as one of four main types of people who hear the gospel.
But if we delay, how long? For there’s another type (thorny ground) who hang around much longer but in the end are similarly unproductive. And Jesus’ next Parable (The Wheat and Weeds) speaks to the difficulty of discerning which is which anyway.
In the 3rd to 5th centuries, churches enrolled new believers into several years of instruction in faith and morals. Their way of life was closely observed. The final hurdle was to learn the creed and be able to recite it by heart. Then baptism. There’s something admirable about the commitment to intentional discipleship, but there’s something troubling too.
The scandal and wonder of the gospel is that people can be reconciled to God instantaneously. The returning prodigal isn’t required to spend a few years in the workers’ quarters, proving his reformation. He gets the ring of family-belonging five minutes after turning up in rags.
Discipleship is a process, certainly. But it’s at our peril that we shape it (or allow it to be perceived) as a staircase up to acceptance with God and inclusion with his people.
So what’s the choice? Shall we be casual, or die-hard? Lax, or strict? It needn’t be so binary. Why not have a rigorous system for strengthening new believers, but place baptism at the start rather than the end? There’s a new life to learn, but it’s not something we earn. Dallas Willard aptly put it, ‘Grace is not opposed to effort, it’s opposed to earning.’ The Great Omission
When the Ethiopian eunuch says ‘There’s a pool of water – what’s to stop me being baptised?’ Ac8 we don’t see Philip answering ‘Well you’ve only passed the Isaiah exam.’ But neither does the New Testament see disciple-making as dipped-and-done. Baptism has always been an initiation – a start line.
Some will start and then stumble. But the danger of baptising someone who may fall away is vastly outweighed by the danger of withholding baptism because they might. Best, I think, is to baptise all who are willing to follow Jesus … straight into a supportive and disciplined community.
Author: Andrew Turner is Director of Crossover for Australian Baptist Ministries.
Crossover exists to Help Australian Baptists Share Jesus.