The Scandal and Wonder of Baptism

Andrew Turner


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I have been working on baptism resources lately, and it is mainly straightforward – don’t forget to bring them up again! But there are curly issues too – 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 have likely found some sort of middle ground, but the question remains.

If we baptise people on their first interest in Jesus, how do we know it is not merely a crush? Six weeks later they might be into Buddha or basket-weaving. This is not a new phenomenon – the Parable of the Sower (Matt 13) speaks of flash-in-the-pan believers as one of four main types of people who hear the gospel.

But if we delay, for how long? Other believers may be like seed sown on thorny ground, hanging around much longer yet finding a similarly unfortunate end. 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 recite it by heart. Then, baptism. There is something admirable about the commitment to intentional discipleship. But there is something troubling too.

The scandal and wonder of the gospel is our instantaneous reconciliation to God. The returning prodigal is not required to spend years in the workers’ quarters to prove his reformation. He gets the ring of family belonging immediately after turning up in rags.

Discipleship is certainly a process. But it is at our peril that we shape it or allow its perception as an ascending staircase to acceptance with God and inclusion with his people.

So what is the choice? Shall we be casual or die-hard? Lax or strict? It need not be so binary. Why not keep the rigorous system for strengthening new believers, but place baptism at the start rather than the end? There is a new life to learn, but it is 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?” (Acts 8), we do not see Philip answering, “well you’ve only passed the Isaiah exam.” But the New Testament does not see disciple-making as dipped-and-done either. 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.

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