Baptism and conversion

Should we baptize the unconverted? Does faith precede or follow baptism?

Rex D. Edwards, D. Min., is director of ministerial continuing education for the General Conference Ministerial Association.

The scene is like a clip from a horror movie! A huge oil painting hangs in the well-lighted exhibit hall. It portrays a man standing in the middle of a dingy room, staring vacantly ahead; on the bed next to him lies his wife, dead. Blood drips from the blanket form a red pool on the floor. On the table to the right lies a Bible. The painting carries the inscription: "A Baptist kills his wife." A blowup of a news paper clipping tells where and when the alleged event took place.

I am staring at the anti-religious exhibit in the Museum of the History of Religion, in Leningrad. The Bible and the murderer are there to show the discrepancy between faith and practice in some who profess to believe the Christian gospel.

Another scene—and quite different. At the close of an evangelistic campaign a young couple step into the font of a Seventh-day Adventist church to seek membership by baptism. Before the pas tor pronounces the baptismal formula, he greets them by saying, "How wonderful it is to see a young, upstanding couple join the church. We are so happy that you have chosen to cast your lot with our friendly church." All is hearty goodwill unspoiled by any reference to repentance of sin or the obligations of a regenerate life. One wonders how John the Baptist or the apostle Paul would have addressed them!

We would have little difficulty in deciding that the murderer in the Leningrad picture is an unregenerate church member. But what about the "up standing" young couple? Have they not sinned and fallen short of the glory of God? Did they come to faith before baptism or had they merely given assent to a doctrinal formula? Were they converted and had they experienced regeneration before being buried in the watery grave? Did they come by the One "who has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace" (2 Tim. 1:9, NIV)? Or did they come by some other way?

Conversion before baptism

Baptism is the death of the old man, and the birth of the new. The New Testament refers to salvation as birth or beginning of a new life (John 1:12, 13; 3:3,5; Rom. 6:4; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10; Titus 3:5; James 1:18, 21; 1 Peter 1:3; 2 Peter 1:4; 1 John 3:9). Terms like redemption and justification supplement the description of the salvation experience, in which a person by faith in Jesus Christ passes from darkness to light, from death to life. We are baptized into His death and are like Him separated from sin. Baptism gathers into dramatic focus the passing from the old sinful life to the newness of life in Christ Jesus (see Rom. 6:4). Ellen White writes: "In receiving baptism, the human agent, inspired with new purposes, pledges him self to die to the world and live in obedience to Christ. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost supply the power that makes him victorious in every conflict with the prince of darkness."1

Rites of passage

The pathway of faith could be indicated by a series of theological terms like the following: (1) kerygma, (2) faith, (3) repentance, (4) baptism, (5) Communion, (6) witnessing, (7) sanctification.

These are not to be considered as so many pre-cut steps that can be neatly separated and stacked upon each other. These are not steps in a do-it-yourself plan of salvation. They simply indicate the rites of passage found throughout the New Testament—hearing, faith, baptism, church membership. "Repentance, faith, and baptism are the requisite steps in conversion," wrote Ellen White.2

As a church we proclaim that through personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ a person is born again through the Holy Spirit. Baptism is the dramatic picture of the believer's faith and participation in the death and resurrection of Christ (Rom. 6:4, 5). The outward (baptism) is based on the inward (conversion).

Faith appropriates the act of God's mighty power in Christ when He raised Him from the dead. The power in raising Christ is the guarantee and assurance of the power that regenerates the believer. Faith is necessary to baptism as it is to salvation. Personal faith and baptism are prerequisites of church membership (see Acts 2:37-42). In New Testament times faith preceded baptism—a proof that baptism is not regeneration.

The hallmark of a genuine church

The hallmark of the church is this Spirit-given newness of life, sharing the quality of Christ's character in a spiritual fellowship. "It is a fellowship of redemption—a fellowship that grows out of an experience of being regenerated in Christ Jesus by the power of the Spirit." 3

Without regenerate church members a church lacks the hallmark of genuineness. The members must be in a living relationship with Jesus Christ (see 2 Cor. 3:18). How do we prove our connection with Him? By "conformity to the will of God in our words, our deportment, our character." 4 We are speaking here of the need for inner spiritual change. "The New Testament church is essentially a fellowship. It possesses the marks of true life—spontaneity, growth, experiment, warmth, vitality. The apostles, under standing the nature of the church as a fellowship, [were] careful to keep a personal confession of Christ as the only condition of membership. Inner spiritual changes were implied in confessing Christ, but when these had occurred the believer belonged to the fellowship of the church." 5

But the church is in the workaday world. It is made up of ordinary men and women who have an extraordinary guide and helper in the Holy Spirit. These ordinary people are called to the extraordinary vocation of being saints, people who are available exclusively to their Lord. "At our baptism we pledged our selves to break all connection with Satan and his agencies, and to put heart and mind and soul into the work of extending the kingdom of God." 6

Teaching precedes baptism

Some may argue, Doesn't Jesus in the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19,20) propose that baptism should precede teaching? Hardly so. Neither theology nor exegesis can support such a stand. The Great Commission posits the going, the baptizing, and the teaching in a present continuous tense, and all three are involved in the gospel task. How can discipling take place without teaching and baptizing? Obviously instruction must precede initiation. But teaching does not stop with baptism. It continues in order to build up the convert in the faith. Without subsequent nurture we fall into the unholy trap of "dipping" and "dumping." A disciple is a learner. The church, to which baptism introduces us, is a school in which the children of God are educated for heaven. Discipleship continues to the end of life, so that the Christian can proceed "in all virtue and godliness of living."

But we need to remember that teaching alone does not bring about conversion; conversion is effected by God's grace. We need to be aware of the danger that the catechism process can become so prepositional that the individual does not see Christ, or experience Him, by faith.

Baptism and regenerate church membership

The earliest Anabaptist declaration of faith (1527) presents a clear connection between the believer's baptism and regenerate church membership: "Baptism shall be given to all those who have learned repentance and amendment of life, and who believe truly that their sins are taken away by Christ, and to all those who walk in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and wish to be buried with Him in death, so that they may be resurrected with Him, and to all those who with this significance request it of us and demand it for themselves.... A separation shall be made from the evil and from the wickedness which the devil planted in the world; in this manner, simply that we shall not have fellowship with them and not run with them in the multitude of their abominations." 7

In 1887, more than 350 years later, Ellen White urged a similar standard: "[None] should be buried with Christ by baptism unless they are critically examined whether they have ceased to sin, whether they have fixed moral principles, whether they know what sin is, whether they have moral defilement, which God abhors." 8 In 1889 she cautioned ministers "not to lead down into the water souls who are not converted. The church is becoming composed of men and women who have never realized how sinful sin is." 9

Regenerate church membership is a safeguard to the church against the intrusion of unregenerate lives. Ellen White warns: "The accession of members who have not been renewed in heart and reformed in life is a source of weakness to the church. . . . Some ministers and churches are so desirous of securing an increase of numbers that they do not bear faithful testimony against unchristian habits and practices. Those who accept the truth are not taught that they cannot safely be worldlings in conduct while they are Christians in name. Heretofore they were Satan's subjects; henceforth they are to be subjects of Christ. The life must testify to the change of leaders. Public opinion favors a profession of Christianity. Little self-denial or self-sacrifice is required in order to put on a form of godliness and to have one's name enrolled upon the church book. Hence many join the church without first becoming united to Christ." 10

How shall we then judge baptismal candidacy?

Are we then to judge the candidacy of those who request baptism and church membership? Ellen White states: "There is one thing that we have no right to do, and that is to judge another man's heart or impugn his motives." Then she cautions: "But when a person presents him self as a candidate for church member ship, we are to examine the fruit of his life, and leave the responsibility of his motive with himself. But great care should be exercised in accepting members into the church; for Satan has his specious devices through which he pro poses to crowd false brethren into the church, through whom he can work more successfully to weaken the cause of God." 11

Faith follows baptism?

It is argued, "Since there will always be a gap between profession and practice, should we not set aside the principle of regenerate membership in the interest of bringing as many as possible to baptism so that their attendance at church services and participation in the life and work of the church will produce Christian faith?" Ellen White makes a stern reply: "Too much hasty work is done in adding names to the church roll. Serious defects are seen in the characters of some who join the church. Those who admit them say, We will first get them into the church, and then reform them. But this is a mistake. The very first work to be done is the work of reform. Pray with them, talk with them, but do not allow them to unite with God's people in church relationship until they give decided evidence that the Spirit of God is working on their hearts." 12

Those who defend the notion that faith follows baptism are actually using the same argument as those who defend infant baptism. Witness Oscar Cullmann, for example: "The affirmation of faith that precedes baptism is thus not a constitutive element of the baptismal event incorporating a man into the church of Christ. It is necessarily present only when, as in the earliest times was naturally far more frequent, the situation is one where the person to be baptized is an adult coming over from heathenism or Judaism. Faith after baptism is demanded of all persons baptized; from those adults just named it is demanded also before." 13

Cullmann continues: "Baptism is the starting point of faith. What applies to all must be regarded as fundamental. In the class of individual adults who come over from Judaism or heathenism, we deal with the reverse operation: faith brings them to baptism, and baptism, by which they are received into the community of Christ, leads them to faith. The church into which the baptized person is incorporated in the baptismal act is not only the place where the Holy Spirit completes the miracle but where He awakes faith." 14

Donald M. Baillie, on the other hand, recognizes the difficulty of harmonizing a post-baptism faith with the New Testament: "In the New Testament baptism seems regularly to mean the baptism of grown men and women who have heard the gospel and have received it with personal faith and now take the deliberate conscious step of entering the church of Christ. Whereas in all our churches except in the Baptist tradition the baptism of adults is the exception, and we normally think of baptism as a rite ad ministered to the infant children of Christian parents at an age when they are quite unconscious of themselves. Moreover it may well seem that the deepest New Testament interpretation of the meaning of baptism is relevant only to adult or believer's baptism, and could never have been worked out at all if the writers had been thinking mainly of a rite administered to unconscious infants. Such considerations as these have led the world's most famous living Protestant theologian to raise again the question whether the baptizing of infants can be justified at all, and whether the Baptists are not after all in the right." 15 In spite of this insight, Baillie goes on to propound views similar to Cullmann's.

Baillie's reference to Karl Barth concerns the latter's argument against ascribing to baptism itself the power of regeneration. Earth argues that if the Roman Catholic Church had held the power of baptism to be the efficacy of the work of Jesus Christ they would have been in the right, but that they unfortunately speak of the efficacy of a correctly performed baptism. "The power of this act cannot in its effect be an independent, self-generating power." 16

Notice what Barth says would hap pen to a state church if they were to give up acquiring members by infant baptism: "The folk church could not very well remain as state church or mass church if it were to break with infant baptism. Would not the concern which arises at this point unconsciously then and there take the quite primitive form which Luther at times openly admitted? There would probably no longer be too many baptized persons if they, instead of being brought to baptism, would have to come to baptism.... If things were to be done right the baptismal candidate would cease to be the passive object of baptism and again become the real partner of Jesus Christ, that is, one who freely decides and freely confesses, and on his own behalf testifies to his willingness and readiness." 17

All church bodies agree that members ought to be personal believers. That is, all churches accept the principle of regenerate church membership. But they differ on how and when regeneration takes place.

The churches with sacramentarian views usually hold that regeneration takes place at baptism. They commonly cite Matthew 19:14; John 3:5; and Titus 3:5 in support of their view. An infant is brought into the channel of prevenient divine grace through baptism, and the Christian parents are solemnly commit ted to raise the baptized child "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph. 6:4). The church on its part will endeavor to lead the child into conscious acceptance of its baptismal heritage through teaching, worship, confirmation, Communion, and other means.

Other infant-baptist churches maintain that baptism requires an implied or incipient faith by the infant and a post-baptismal nurture of that faith until it becomes a conscious possession by the baptized person either through education or conversion, or both.

A church that builds on the principle of believer's baptism normally will not preempt the individual's right to personal decision in the matter of faith and baptism. But the church is under obligation to address the gospel to every creature. "For 'Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.' How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?" (Rom. 10:13-15, NIV). When people respond in faith to the proclaimed Word of God and profess it before the church they have met the New Testament prerequisite for baptism. There is nothing in the New Testament to justify the assumption that children born to Christian parents are exempt from responding in like manner.

Individuality versus individualism

An argument put forth against individual believer's baptism is that the church as a collective body cannot allow individuals to decide for themselves.

Joachim Jeremias argues that in order to understand the New Testament "we must radically free ourselves from modern individualistic thinking." 18 He bases his argument on the passages in the New Testament that record that adult baptisms were accompanied by household baptisms (Acts 16:15, 33; 18:8; 1 Cor. 1:16; see Acts 11:14), and upon the Hebrew conception of the family as the unit of religious and social life. "The children were not regarded by the primitive church as isolated units; the house hold was regarded as a unity in the sight of God. The faith of the father represents the household and the faith of the mother embraces also the children." 19

If this were to be made the basis of church membership, would not also the wrong faith or no faith at all on the part of the father make his children unacceptable as members on an individual basis?

The warning of Joachim Jeremias against "modern individualistic thinking" and in favor of family and group conceptions may have at least partial reference to the danger in the emphasis of evangelicalism upon the individualistic experience of salvation. This emphasis may often lead to individualism and separatist movements. But on the other hand a collective experience of salvation appears incongruous from the very nature of the gospel which addresses all persons as sinners, awakens their con science to a sense of guilt, and invites them to accept the forgiveness of God on the basis of Christ's atonement for sin. The Holy Spirit alone can help believers to lay hold on that for which Christ laid hold on them. The purpose of God is the new persons set into the spiritual fellow ship of the church. To this end Christ died and rose again.

We must, therefore, distinguish be tween individuality and individualism. Individuality contributes distinct values to the whole, while individualism disregards collective relationships. We must also distinguish between personal faith and private faith. While faith in Jesus Christ is always personal, it is never private. Beyond the believers' concern for their own life, there must be concern for others.

By regarding baptism from the perspective of personal faith and holy living, we stress its positive meaning. "Those who receive the ordinance of baptism... have become members of the royal family, children of the heavenly King." 20 Through baptism we see the amazing grace of God portrayed in the symbolic participation of the believer in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Let us neither reduce the dignity of the baptismal event to a liturgical interruption nor parade with narcissistic pride our evangelistic successes.

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Rex D. Edwards, D. Min., is director of ministerial continuing education for the General Conference Ministerial Association.

August 1993

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