So often in church, seminaries, etc., we discuss certain prevalent issues regarding baptism, such as Who?, How? I will not address these here, though they are indeed of great importance for our practice of this step of obedience and discipleship that is baptism.
believer vs. non-believer; infant vs. old-enough to be volitionally and personally willing of conscious decision
in a church building vs. anywhere; by a church leader vs. anyone; “dunking”/immersion vs. sprinkling, etc.]
Recently, I’ve been meeting with some brothers-in-Christ to go through the book of Acts together, specifically to study ecclesiology (study of church) and church planting models and methods and principles. Our goal is to read the stories, narrative, of the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the early church in order to have a fresh, biblical foundation for what God has called us to do: “do church.”
[Church is God’s design and plan for organizing his people in order to bring glory to himself and bring his purposes to fruition.]
Through this study of Acts, the issue of When? to baptize has been at the forefront of our discussion on baptism, especially in regard to ecclesiology and church planting.
As we see in the book of Acts, believers are baptized after they “repent”/”receive/accept the message [good news of Jesus Christ, who is the one hope of salvation for all people]” (Acts 2:38,41). The act of obedience by taking baptism as a believer is immediately after, or in conjunction with, the act of believing-repenting of the individual (Acts 2:38,41, 8:12, 8:35-38, 9:17-18, 10:44-48, 16:14-15, 16:31-34). I am talking about the immediate, or “first-things,” discipleship of the new believer. It is not enough for us to say that a believer should be baptized, or how, or whatever else, if we leave out when they should be baptized. This was the practice of “the new Peter,” the Peter that had the Holy Spirit and would boldly and unashamedly live out his faith. This was not some rash idea or misunderstanding from the apostles, as they had done several times previously. They now had the Holy Spirit as their guide and “Counselor” (John 14:15-31, 16:5-16, Acts 1:4,8, 2:1-4,17-21,33,38). So we see from this context a method of baptism that should be our model. The only question remaining is Why? do “immediate-after-repentance-baptism.” We have the method and model: what is the principle?
Why is the timing of baptism important?
The principle of immediate baptism is based on 1) the nature of God’s salvation and 2) the nature of discipleship.
1) Salvation is a matter of the heart (Proverbs 3:5, 27:19, Matthew 6:21, 22:37, Acts 15:9, Romans 2:15,29, 10:10, II Corinthians 3:2-3, Ephesians 3:17, 6:6, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 10:16). God’s concern is with the heart of the individual: salvation is not earned or attained by working for it, but it is a free, gracious gift of love and mercy from God (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:1-9). In necessary conjunction and balance with this changed heart is the workmanship, masterpiece, the good works of God in and through the believer as well (Ephesians 2:7, 10, Philippians 1:3-6, 2:12-13). God is very clear about true faith naturally working out in a believer’s life in good works, which are the response of a living worship to God for the salvation he has given us, and these are the result of the Holy Spirit in us as believers (Acts 2:38-41, Romans 12:1, Ephesians 2:10). The nature of our salvation means that we will be about good works, we will be about following Christ, as children of God’s love and mercy and grace.
This means that we will be about obeying Christ out of our love for him (John 14:21,23, Romans ). We don’t just sit back in apathy or spiritual gluttony. God desires to use us for his purposes, through the relationship we have with him as his children. We are to be a tree that bears fruit of righteousness (Psalm 1, Proverbs 11:30, Matthew 5:17, John 15:1-17, Galatians 5:22).
2) Discipleship is a dynamic thing, it is a way of characterizing our relationship with God. Our relationship with God as his children leads us to grow more like him, to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, to have the attitude of Christ (Romans 12:2; Philippians 2:5-11). This relationship means we are to be about loving God. Our love of God means we will obey God’s commands (John 14:21,23). By our obedient love of Jesus, we will: believe…repent…be baptized…[all the other commands of Christ]
This is not: “Oh, so you believe. Well, then you need to do some specific things.” God’s desire is for the hearts of people to be changed, not merely their actions (Luke 16:15). If there is bad fruit on the tree, the problem is with the roots not the fruit. If someone sins, the answer is not to just change the deeds of the person to “good.” The tree must have new roots. This is done in gardening and farming by grafting (http://extension.missouri.edu/publications/DisplayPub.aspx?P=G6971) a branch from the tree producing bad fruit because of an endemic problem with that plant into a different tree/plant that is producing good fruit because it has good roots. Spiritually, in the heart of a person, this is done by God’s miraculous work of salvation, of a repentant believer having a changed heart by the work of the Holy Spirit Christ in you: you in Christ (John 15:1-17).
The key to understanding discipleship is understanding it in relationship to salvation. In other words, discipleship is nothing without salvation, because without salvation, discipleship is just doing good or works-based salvation, which is no salvation at all. Discipleship is the fruit of salvation, and the way of those that are saved.
Baptism is the first step of discipleship, according to the practice/method of the early church throughout Acts.
The concern of the fellow believers in the Bible study is “baptizing not true believers.” The tradition and practice of their churches and leaders is to wait until the alleged believer shows for certain that they are a true believer. What this looks like is no or minimal discipleship, so the likelihood of the new believer doing what they are waiting for and growing and maturing is extremely difficult and unlikely. Acts shows that “those that received the message were baptized” (Acts 2:41). No where does the Bible speak of validating and/or verifying the sincerity of a person’s faith in Christ before discipleship. The practice is always: discipleship is the test, measure, of a true faith. This is the whole point of a believer’s works matching their faith: “faith without works is dead” (Hebrews 11, James 2:14-26). Of course, disciples are definitely responsible for what they teach a disciple under them, but the heart is the work of the Holy Spirit, not the disciple-maker.
Disciple-makers should take extremely seriously their responsibility to teach and lead the disciples under them, but they should also understand what is their work and responsibility and what is God’s and not confuse the two. The new believer is immediately asked to act, to love and obey their Savior. Yes, baptism is a sign, a picture of the reality of the heart of a person, dead to sin and raised to new life in Christ: this is the meaning of baptism. The meaning of baptism is the part to be taught to the disciple. The meaning of baptism of the new believer is a teaching of the meaning of their salvation. This is an important part of growth as a believer, understanding their salvation.
The apostles and the early church baptized new believers in immediate connection with their salvation, their believing repentance because it was integral to Jesus’ desire for obedient believers: a changed heart results in changed living. Those that wouldn’t go through with baptism were held back by a lack of true change of heart, lack of true repentance. This is the exact same thing that happens in the context we are in as we study through Acts: one “new believer” gave excuse after excuse for not taking baptism until finally they said, “Maybe I don’t believe.”
The issue for the church in discipling new believers is following the principle of baptism: a test of true faith as the new believer’s first step of obedient love for Christ.