What’s in the Water?: Baptism as a Sign of Addition (Part 3)

Article
06.11.2021

EDITOR’S NOTE: 9Marks is not just a ministry for credobaptist churches. We exist to serve paedobaptist churches, too. Nonetheless, we recognize that most of our readers are probably credobaptists. So we though it might be helpful to demonstrate how to teach those churches about baptism.

What follows is how one pastor began to teach his church. Even if you don’t agree on every single point, as we ourselves may not, we think you’ll find much useful material here. 

This is the third part in a three-part series. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

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A certain headline recently caught my attention: “Utah monolith: Helicopter crew discovers mysterious metal monolith deep in the desert.” What was this all about?

Sure enough, way out in the desert, a few scientists discovered a triangular structure of polished metal. Its clean edges rose out of the ground some ten feet. Clearly, it didn’t belong there, but where was it from? As if from another world entirely, that triangular structure proved that someone was up to something.

That’s kind of like what the church is in the world. It’s a picture of a similarly beautiful and otherworldly structure. Here’s how Luke describes it:

Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41–47)

The church is a mysterious monolith in the desert of this world. Its crisp edges are unmistakable, distinct, and visible to anyone with eyes to see. Baptism is no small part of that. In fact, as the sign of the new covenant, we could say that baptism makes the church visible. Baptism is the shape of the church.

In the last post, we focused on the invisible things to which baptism points. In this post, I want us to focus on the visible things baptism both calls us to and creates. We’ll explore what the Bible teaches, and then we’ll make a few applications for how we approach baptism.

HOW IS BAPTISM A SIGN OF ADDITION?

One of the Bible’s first and simplest lessons about the local church is a math lesson.

Notice the order here: “Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:41–42). The Word led to baptism, which led to a defined worshiping community, and as people were baptized, they were “added” to that community. That’s what Luke is teaching us.

What does this addition involve, and what does baptism have to do with it? And who’s counting anyway? Apparently, there were two parties keeping track of who was added to the church. Understanding who they are and why they counted will help us with the sign of baptism.

Through baptism, we are “counted” by the church.

Besides the Lord himself, the church is the first party keeping track of souls. We know why we count our money. We know why we count the heads of our kids when we get in the van. What does it mean for the church to count us when we’re baptized?

With this question, I’m about to assault with the Bible the idea that baptism is merely an individual decision. We decide where we go to eat. We decide where to shop for clothes. We decide what kind of shampoo we’ll use. But when it comes to identifying with Christ, it’s bigger and deeper than that—and this is good news.

Consider this thought experiment. You might have the last name Smith, but if things took the normal course, you were born into a specific Smith family. Intuitively, you didn’t pit the broad truth that you belonged to the Smith family against the narrower truth that you belonged to your mom and dad and siblings. They’re both true at the same time, and they were true the second you were born. In fact, how you came to know you belonged to the broader Smith family is through your identification with a particular Smith family. The illustration will break down eventually, but I trust you’re tracking with me.

Here are four things the church does when it baptizes someone.

First, when we are baptized, we are counted in.

The portrait God gives us in Acts 2 doesn’t describe a loose affiliation of floating Christians. It describes a committed family. Luke did that on purpose. When local churches made disciples and counted them in through baptism, they did so in obedience to Jesus. When Jesus said, “I will build my church,” he gave us the “keys of the kingdom.” In other words, he gave us the authority to preach his gospel and make disciples, and the responsibility to keep careful track of the disciples we make (16:18–19; 18:15–20). “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:18–20). Baptism isn’t just a decision for the person who wants to be baptized. It involves a decision on the part of a church to go public with a person together.

Second, having been counted in, we are now counted on.

A baptized Christian should be treated as an indispensable member of a local church. We don’t just baptize one another into Christ, but into his body (Gal. 3:27, 28; cf. 1Cor. 12:13). This speaks of our broad, yet invisible identification with God’s people at all times and in all places. But once we start reading the New Testament letters, we begin to realize that this invisible truth always touched down with visible local church commitments. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus: “There is one body and one Spirit . . . one baptism” (Eph. 4:4, 5). Paul wrote about that universal truth in order to ground his practical command for an actual church to bear with one another in love and build each other up as a local body (4:2, 15, 16). The imagery of a body involves real-life coherence and interdependence. “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:21, 22). Indispensable! In other words, we make disciples, we baptize them, and then we count on them.

Third, in baptism, we also become accountable.

We say to one another, “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:2–4).

This accountability goes further than mere exhortations. After all, what happens when we stop living consistently with our baptism? Our brothers and sisters call us to repent. And in the sad occasions when professing Christians persist in sin, their brothers and sisters “tell it to the church.” If that doesn’t win the wayward back, then the church treats him or her like an unbeliever (Matt. 18:15–20). Here’s what this means: when a church goes public with someone through baptism, it must also be willing to go public with that person through church discipline if necessary.

Fourth, in baptism we are accounted for.

After churches were planted, elders were appointed (Acts 14:23). That’s why we get commands like Hebrews 13:17: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account.” When we get added to the church, we get real-life shepherds who watch over our souls and will give an account for us to God. This doesn’t mean they need to know everything about us. Only the Lord keeps that kind of a watch over us. But it does mean that our churches are led and fed by godly elders who have God’s heart for God’s people. Baptism means that we aren’t just on God’s books, but we are on the books of a local church and its leaders.

Here’s what all this means: baptism isn’t just a private, individual thing. Yes, it’s deeply personal, but it’s also deeply familial. And that’s part of God’s good plan for us. Baptism puts you and a local church on public record that you belong to Christ.

And when we go on record together, someone else starts counting, too.

Through baptism, we are counted by the world.

In this section, I want to assault with the Bible the idea that we can baptize someone without disclosing the costs or discerning that they know what they are getting themselves into.

When a person gets baptized, generally speaking, lots of people are happy about it. Heaven rejoices whenever a sinner repents (Lk. 15:7). But some are mad about it. We already looked at the church meeting, eating, praying, and teaching in Acts 2. What happened next? Their teaching about the resurrection became an annoyance and some believers got arrested (Acts 3:1–3)—just as Jesus said (Jn. 15:20).

But I wonder: how did the mad people know who to rough up? Well, they kept track of who belonged to the church. For example, “Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church” (Acts 12:1). Paul, before he was converted, “persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it” (Gal. 1:13; cf. 1Cor. 15:9). He sought letters from religious officials “so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2).

What animated this hostility toward the church? Paul tells us: “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them” (Acts 26:9, 10).

Occasionally, I will hear someone say something like this: “We need a compelling reason not to baptize someone.” That sounds right, but it’s mistaken. It seems better to say the opposite: we need a compelling reason to baptize someone. It’s true that the baptisms we witness in the book of Acts closely follow conversion. But they are also, each of them, publicly credible and immediately verifiable. That is, they were dramatic, attended with signs, save one; they were from a non-Christian to a Christian context; and they were costly in that persecution was assumed. One conversion happened to a jailer responsible for guarding Christians! Baptism itself tested one’s faith.

This is consistent with Jesus’ teaching on what it means to be a Christian. When Jesus called people to follow him, he fully disclosed what to expect: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Mk. 16:24, 25). Or: “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Mt. 8:22). Or: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Mt. 10:37). Indeed, we are saved by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8). It requires a miracle of God. But it’s a miracle that moves us (Eph. 2:10). Saving faith follows Jesus. There’s no contradiction here.

Here’s what this means for baptism. If we are to make disciples and then baptize the disciples we make, how do we know when we’ve got a disciple? I suggest to you that Jesus has told us what to look for. In particular, we should be on the lookout for a resolve to follow Jesus whatever the cost. That’s important to remember, since baptism puts them on record not only with the church, but with the world.

GETTING CONSISTENT

Now it’s time to press this teaching into a more consistent practice of baptism for local churches. After reflecting on baptism, our church recently made two big changes.

First, baptism and church membership go together.

Baptism and a church’s membership process should be tightly linked in at least two ways.

First, since baptism is Jesus’ membership process, any other processes we create around it should support and account for baptism. We should keep this sign on the sidelines. Consider this question: what does it take to start a church? Do we need a building or programs or spreadsheets? No, Jesus made it much simpler than that. We just need the preaching of the gospel, some water, and some bread and wine—yes, juice is just fine. That water part is Jesus’ membership material because baptism is the church’s front door.

What does this mean for your church? It means that when someone comes to you for baptism, your church should shepherd them through a membership class in which baptism functions as the last step. In other words, when they are baptized, they will at that moment become a member—counted in, counted on, accountable, and accounted for. Of course, when someone comes to you having been baptized as a believer at another gospel-preaching church, then you should acknowledge that baptism for your purposes of membership.

Second, baptism is a sign that engages the whole membership. Baptism isn’t something the congregation watches a pastor do to a new Christian. Sure, it will be led by a trusted leader or pastor, but it’s ultimately an act of the whole church. It’s something we do together. The keys of the kingdom are given to the church, which means there are three consciences that need to be satisfied in baptism: the conscience of the one being baptized, the conscience of the one baptizing, and the conscience of the congregation. How does this happen? Normally,  baptismal candidates would share their testimony with an elder or a group of elders, so that they can present the person to the church they are baptized. This happens so that the church together can welcome this person into membership with joy and without hesitation.

Second, baptism assumes a certain level of maturity.

When is a person old enough to be baptized? This is an important question to engage as a church in love for its children. We may intuit that a three-year old is too young to fully understand the truth and demands of the gospel. Can a three-year old be genuinely converted? Yes, I suppose. But can a congregation be confident enough to affirm that salvation publicly and hold them to all that it involves? I believe the answer to that question is no. But if not three-years old, then what age are we talking about?

Let’s slow down and consider what children are like. Children are dependent. They’re dependent on their parents for food, for decisions, and for their ideas. Children are changeable. That is, they’re flexible, exploratory, and unsettled. Children are also untested. Parents have to impose consequences on children because they’re naturally shielded from the consequences of their decisions. All of this is right and good and God’s plan for children.

Can children who are dependent, changeable, and untested be converted? Emphatically, yes. Absolutely. But is it easy for them and for us to discern whether they are converted so that we are willing to give them the one-time sign of eternal safety with God? Should we, for our part, put them on the line for all that Jesus calls us to? Each church will have to answer that question for themselves. For our part, we’ve decided patience is the most loving thing for our young people.

You might be wondering: well, exactly how patient? At what age would you baptize a child? There’s no silver-bullet answer for this. But here are some of the the questions we asked ourselves as elders:

  • When does it usually become naturally evident not to mom and dad or even the pastor but to the church that this person is truly converted?
  • When would it be natural for a young person to deal directly with the church and not through their parents?
  • Since we should never baptize someone whom we would not be willing to discipline, when would that typically seem right or even reasonable?
  • We want our young people to understand what they are doing and remember it forever, so when is someone typically old enough for that to be the case?
  • To return to our thinking on childhood, when do we normally see a clear move from dependence to independence, from instability to stability, from untested to tested?

We never landed on a defined age. We think the mid- to late-teens is about right. That said, we are eager to talk with anyone about their soul at any time, but normally will only move forward with baptism around that time.

Does this conform to the Scriptural pattern? That’s the most important question. We believe it does. At the risk of lengthening an already long post, here’s why. Jesus welcomed children to himself, but that famous episode served as a lesson for his disciples and all of us in humility (Mk. 10:13–16; cf. 9:33–37; 10:32–34). When Jesus called someone by name, it was an adult. When Jesus healed, it was on account of an adult’s faith. In other words, Jesus welcomed children to be around him, but we shouldn’t overstate what the implications of what he taught. In the book of Acts, baptism and conversion are closely tied together—as they should be. But all of the examples we have are of publicly credible and immediately verifiable conversions. The explicit baptisms we have are also all adults. When disciples are mentioned, we only read about “men and women.”

Here’s the point: at best, the New Testament is inconclusive on the age of baptism. We cannot be dogmatic about this. But there does seem to be a pattern that favors adulthood or, as we say, the years approaching adulthood. Adulthood came much younger in the first century. Our own practice is what we might call “a biblically informed judgment call.”

It helped our elders to realize that in historical and international perspective, the common practice is to baptize between 16 and the early 20s. As one of many examples, Charles Spurgeon believed his children were converted quite young, but baptized his boys when they turned 18. In foreign lands where persecution is normal, that’s about the age that churches and families are willing to baptize. The American South after 1900—and especially after 1950—is somewhat peculiar for baptizing children so young. We would be wise to make a connection between this practice and the problem of nominal Christianity in our day and age.

A WORD TO CHILDREN, A WORD TO PARENTS, AND A PRAYER

What does this mean for children who have been baptized at a fairly young age, perhaps as young as six-years old, who are not members? First of all, if you’re walking with Christ, there’s no reason to doubt the legitimacy of your baptism. Second, as a loving concession, pastors should be okay with lag-time between some baptisms and some church memberships.

What does this mean for parents? First and foremost, you should shepherd your children and disciple them in the Word. But I would also offer you this word of caution: avoid offering your child the kind of overt assurances that are the church’s responsibility to offer.

What if your child wants to be baptized? Well, perhaps say what I say to my own kids: “I am so glad you’ve asked about baptism. That’s a sign the Lord is at work in you. If you’re confessing Christ, then keep believing. That’s exactly what a Christian does. As with many things in life, let’s wait on baptism until you’re a bit older. It seems best to our church’s elders for us to wait, so let’s trust them with that. But more importantly, let’s trust God. We want your baptism to be clear and meaningful and memorable for you—and for our whole church family. Until then, remember that Jesus welcomed children to him, and he welcomes you with open arms. Come to him, believe in him, and don’t stop.”

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