Baptism, plus a thorough preparation for this sacred rite, forms a most integral part of the great gospel commission. Upon this blessed ordinance Christ has inscribed the name of the true and the living God. The Lord has made it the sign of entrance into His fold. Before any individual can ever hope to find a home in the church, before he can pass the threshold and enter into God's spiritual kingdom, the impress of the Lord's name is to be received through this sacred ordinance. So necessary is this, that Christ has made it a positive condition with which all must comply who desire to be acknowledged as members of the Father's family. If God and the Lord Jesus lay so much stress upon this matter, can we consider it of less importance? That is a thought-provoking question, is it not ?
Since this ordinance is of such supreme consequence to one's personal Christian experience, it behooves every evangelist, pastor, or Bible worker to use the utmost care in the preparation of his candidates. With reference to this phase of our evangelical endeavor, we are admonished:
"There is need of a more thorough preparation on the part of candidates for baptism. They are in need of more faithful instruction than has usually been given them. The principles of the Christian life should be made plain, to those who are newly come to the truth."—"Testimonies," Vol. VI, pp. 91, 92.
This divine counsel is practical and to the point. It cannot be regarded as of little value. Those who have just come to the faith should be fully transformed. Candidates should understand very clearly the simple fundamental and foundation principles of the new birth. They should know by real experience what it means to be born again. It should not be mere theory with them. It should be a new life begun. To receive them into church fellowship without some very clear evidence of this change of heart and soul will prove nothing less than tragic in the end.
One of the main fruits born of such an experience is that they know Christ in fact and not merely as a historical personage. They should know Him as a personal, living Saviour, and not simply as a sublime character. They should know Him as their Redeemer, friend, and Elder Brother, and He should not seem to them to be far away. They should know Him in intimate communion and fellowship, which is the "highest honor" that heaven can bestow upon any soul. They should know whether they are saved or not. In this respect they should have the blessed assurance that their sins aye forgiven. On this point, as well as on all others that pertain to their personal relationship to heaven, they should not be left in confusion. There is no reason why they should be, if the work of conversion has been genuine. They should know whether they are really accepted of the Lord, and thus be able to say, "I am His, and He is mine."
Again let it be repeated with all the earnestness at our command, that candidates should not be left in doubt in regard to these vital matters which so definitely concern their individual well-being in spiritual matters. A knowledge of the doctrines alone is not sufficient. They must be carefully led to understand and comprehend the simple essentials of Christian experience and growth, or they are not ready for baptism. Indeed, how many there are today whose names are recorded on the church books, who rest on the seventh day, who believe in the state of the dead, who are loyal to our world-wide missionary program, who faithfully pay their tithe and offerings, etc., but who do not know Jesus in a personal, intimate manner. They know about Him, but they do not know Him. And what does the "Him" stand for? Just this:
How frequently have I talked to individuals in recent years, both old and young, who do not know Jesus in this personal way. To them the Lord is very vague. True, they can tell of the wonderful things which He did, according to the Scriptures, while He was here among men. Theoretically at least they may have accepted Him as the Christ; but to them He is not a real Elder Brother. They just do not know Him. Unless the candidate does know Him in the manner which we have considered, surely he is not ready to follow his Lord in baptism. To the one who is being baptized, the experience, transformation, and fellowship with Christ should be a living reality, not merely a formality of service and acceptance.
This counsel with reference to a genuine conversion and a thorough preparation for baptism is equally applicable to the service of those who labor either in the home bases or in the fields afar. The question should ever be kept in the forefront: Is this individual whom I am about to baptize fully prepared, and thoroughly rooted and grounded in Christ? What kind of member is this I am now bringing into the fold of Christ? Am I bringing in "wood, hay, stubble"? or am I bringing in "gold, silver, precious stones"? Will the one brought in be able to stand firmly amidst the stress, the storm, the crisis, and the fires of persecution which the last days are sure to bring upon the church ? Or will this dear soul, under very little pressure, succumb to the petty trials and afflictions, and drop out under ordinary opposition?
As one seriously and candidly ponders these pertinent questions, it is well to remember that the great apostle very clearly and forcefully taught, in fact, definitely counseled: "Let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon." I Cor. 3:10. To bring in souls fully prepared is glorious; to bring them in only partially prepared is tragic.
So we must conclude that this question of thoroughly fitting men and women for the sacred ordinance of baptism is a highly important feature of our soul-winning endeavor. Its import cannot be lightly estimated, except at the risk of very grave loss. One cannot be too dead in earnest about this, for many a soul has drifted back into the darkness, all because he was not fully grounded on the Rock when he came into the truth.
There is another angle from which we may also properly view this matter. At every Autumn Council the loss in membership in our churches is pressed home to our hearts. Although we thank God for the many being baptized annually into the church, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that our losses are far too heavy. We must not overlook this side of the picture. It is a condition which gives us considerable food for meditation.
Not only at the Autumn Councils do we have this matter brought to our attention, but at the recent General Conference session we were confronted anew with the vivid reality of the problem. The statistician informed the delegates assembled there that at the close of 1939 the church membership stood at 486,670, a net increase during the year of 16,719, or in other words a gain of only 3.56 per cent. For the period since the last session in 1936, the increase was but 15.06 per cent. This all evidences a tremendous loss. It argues strongly of a grave situation. Are we as concerned about it as we should be? Perhaps some reason that we must expect losses. Do not the Scriptures and the writings of the Spirit of prophecy both indicate that there will always be losses ? Granted ! There will always be a measure of loss, but we ought not to remain calm and placid when our losses mount up so high and come so frequently.
Certainly such losses significantly raise the question in regard to how thoroughly candidates have been instructed for the solemn step they take in coming into church fellowship. We fear (and we say it advisedly) that in far too many cases persons are extended the right hand of fellowship before they are ready. They are hurried into church communion, and the result is that our losses are correspondingly large. Let it be solemnly stated, It does not pay to rush folk into the church.
In some instances the new convert has only a meager conception of the message. He has not been given a thorough understanding of the Spirit of prophecy. Indeed, some never hear of this gift until they find themselves within the circles of the church. To them it is completely unknown. This is unfair to them and to the church that receives them. An individual surely has a right to know what he is accepting before he is baptized. This is not the outburst of a fanatical conclusion, nor is it intended as an unkind and destructive criticism. Certainly not ! It is but the expression of a sober truth. It is a condition which needs a remedy.
And that remedy, we profoundly believe, is largely to be found in a more careful and prayerful preparation of the candidates prior to baptism. Let the ministers and Bible workers be certain that the person for whom they labor is of a truth born again, that the Lord is known to him as a personal Saviour, who can save and keep to the uttermost. The counsel of both the Holy Oracles and the Spirit of prophecy is clear upon this subject.
We have reached a time in the expansion of the message when grave care should be given to a more thorough preparation of those who are to follow their blessed Lord through the watery grave to arise and walk in newness of life. If such care can be given, it will very materially reduce our losses and increase our gains. Especially will this be true of the work among the more primitive peoples of earth. On this phase of the question we will center our attention more fully in a subsequent article.