Should Baptism Be Spontaneous?

You see the precedent in Scripture: when the Ethiopian eunuch responds enthusiastically to teaching from Scripture about the good news of Jesus, Philip baptizes him on the spot (Acts 8:36-38). And in Acts 16:32, after the Philippian jailer believes in Jesus in response to Paul and Silas, that same hour they baptize him and his whole household. So there appears to be biblical precedent if not warrant for spontaneous baptisms when someone first professes faith.

Yet complications quickly become apparent in practice. In this video, pastors Darrin Patrick, Mark Dever, and Matt Chandler discuss some of those complications faced by church leaders in obeying the Great Commission. Church context is key, Patrick observes. In an area like St. Louis with heavy Roman Catholic influence, believer’s baptism by immersion is a bold public step of faith. But in much of Dallas, where Chandler pastors, baptism testifies to a history with the church but not necessarily genuine, saving faith. In such areas, Dever warns, we must beware giving false assurance and generating false testimonies to a watching public.

When you’ve watched the video, join the discussion about how church leaders can be mindful of the problems while “aggressively obedient” to Scripture, to borrow Chandler’s phrase. How would you respond to the argument that we’ll see false converts no matter what, so why withhold baptism from someone who’s willing?

  • Michael Earley

    I fully support the idea of spontaneous baptism, but I believe the church should take greater responsibility for followup and making sure the person understands as they live as a Christian what they should be evidencing as fruit of the Spirit and that baptism itself does NOT save. There must be strong preaching of the Gospel, of substitutionary atonement, of a life of repentance.

    • John Carpenter

      Baptism is follow up. Spontaneous baptisms a one of the main pillars of “the ol’ time religion” with it’s many false conversions, producing people who profess conversion, were baptized (probably at an early age) and then show no evidence. As in the comments above, when there is a context of persecution and some Biblical knowledge (as in the NT), then perhaps spontaneous baptisms can be practiced. But without that, it’s a recipe for dispensing assurance of salvation to people who aren’t disciples.

  • John Carpenter

    Some very wise and mature comments from the three leaders, especially Dr. Dever. The one thing I would add, to actually bolster their cautions, is that the command to baptize (Mt. 28:18ff), is to baptize “disciples”. So some attention has to be given to be reasonably sure that the person being baptized is a disciple.

    • Jeff Lindell

      John, the test doesn’t say that one must be disciple first rather, Jesus calls us to make disciples and the initial step he gives us in this process is baptism followed by teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded. When we reverse the process we actually make baptism part of what of the teaching and obedience. However, the text treats them as separate and places baptism first. Thus making disciples begins with baptism.

    • Jeff Lindell

      John, the test doesn’t say that one must be a disciple first rather, Jesus calls us to make disciples and the initial step he gives us in this process is baptism followed by teaching them to obey all that Christ commanded. When we reverse the process we are actually making baptism part of what of the teaching and obedience. However, the text treats them as separate and places baptism first. Thus making disciples begins with baptism.

  • John Oliver

    I posted a comment early that this conversation would have been more interesting if a paedobaptist had been included. My point in such a comment is that the whole understanding of what baptism signifies from that perspective adds a whole different layer to the conversation, and might give some insight into what those early believers thought about baptism vs. how we look at it today in the West. In other words, does the fact of spontaneous baptisms in the new testament shed any light on how they viewed baptism?

    • John Carpenter

      Since the command to baptize (Mt. 28:8ff) is to baptize disciples, infant baptism is not Biblical and a misuse of baptism.

      • John Oliver

        Yes, I certainly understand the credobaptist reading of that text, but either way, how could the early apostle know if those professors were genuine disciples or not? Why did they not have qualms about baptizing immediately? A paedobaptist might just as quickly say that the passage in Matt is describing how disciples are made; first you baptize, then you teach, and then point to the examples in Acts to support that understanding, saying, “see, they baptized, then they taught them.”. They didn’t wait to determine if some inward experience had taken place, or if that experience was genuine, since they didn’t view baptism as an outward sign of an I ward reality. I don’t know if this is what a paedo would say, I’m not one. I just think it would have made for a more enlightening conversation….

        • Bill

          John: “how could the early apostle know if those professors were genuine disciples or not?”

          I don’t think they knew. The pattern seems to be to baptize now, assume those who profess faith and have been baptized are a part of the household of faith, and if it starts to become apparent that unbelief still reigns–then you have church discipline. Paul says that some of the elders would turn out to be wolves (Acts 20:29-30). They were baptized and had been deemed spiritually mature enough to become elders, but in the end their fraud is uncovered and they’re given the boot.

          I don’t think you can institutionalize everything, wrap it up in a nice box and say this or that method will solve the problems. Ministry is messy, facilitated by fallen people, and one of the results is that sometimes a community of believers will falsely identify a convert. But God is the final judge, and the best we can do is look at a person’s confession and lifestyle and encourage them to be obedient to God’s Word (e.g. get baptized).

        • John Carpenter

          As suggested in the video, when in a context in which baptism is costly, even bringing persecution, when a professed convert asks for baptism, that’s a good sign that the conversion is genuine. In the Acts context, the baptisms could indeed bring persecution. In addition, those being baptized already had a great deal of Biblical knowledge prior to conversion, including many of the people in the Acts 2 converts who would have personally seen the Lord Jesus. Whereas, in Corinth, baptism may not have brought persecution and the new converts likely didn’t know much about scripture. So, there, baptisms don’t appear to be spontaneous. Paul says (1 Cor. 1) he preached the gospel to them but rarely baptized, likely indicating that baptisms were performed later. The somewhat obscure passage about “baptism for the dead” (1 Cor. 15) is probably about proxy baptisms for converts who died prior to being baptized.

          In addition, we should begin with the imperative and then turn to the history as examples. The command of the Lord Jesus (Mt. 28:18) is to baptize “disciples”. We make “disciples” and baptize “them”, that is the disciples. Therefore, our goal in baptism is to establish discipleship. If spontaneous baptism — in an environment of persecution and high Biblical knowledge — encourages discipleship, then it is possible. If, in an environment of superficial conversions and “the ol’ time religion”, it is frequently used to bolster a false assurance and thus discourage genuine discipleship, then it should be discouraged.

      • Steve Martin

        The command was NOT to baptize “disciples”. The command was to baptize “ponta ethnae”…”all people”.

        The order was ‘baptize…then ‘teach’.

        Evangelicals turn baptism into an act that ‘we do’.

        God is the One who baptizes. He commanded it. So He is in it. Giving to us His promises which are good and valid no matter how old the person is.

        We LOVE to baptize infants because it gets the order right. God’s grace BEFORE our faith. When faith comes, then baptism is complete.

        • John Carpenter

          Frankly, that’s absurd. To say that the Lord Jesus was telling us to baptize “nations” (ethnic groups) whether or not they are disciples is not a serious argument. The chain of ideas is: (1) makes disciples from all nations, (2) baptize those disciples, (3) teach them all of Jesus’ teachings, etc.

          The Apostolic church did not baptize babies. There is no indication of infant baptism in the NT; the command and precedent is to baptize disciples after they profess faith. We know from the Didache that the church prior to the second century had no idea of baptizing babies.

          • Steve Martin

            The text doesn’t say that, John.

            In Matthew 28, Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them…and teaching them…”

            In Acts 2:39, the text says that “the promise is to you and your children…”

            No where in Scripture is there an age requirement for baptism, or any requirement on OUR part.

            Even repentance is a work that God does.

            • John Carpenter

              We baptize and teach the “disciples”. That is what the passage says. It is nonsensical to suggest that Jesus was telling us to baptize whole “nations” (ethnic groups”) regardless of whether they actually believed and to teach them, even if they didn’t believe. The command is to baptize disciples and EVERY example of baptism in the Bible is of a professed believer.

            • Mark

              Steve Martin is right on this one.

            • Jeff Lindell

              Though no age is specified for baptism in scripture, Acts 2:38 suggests that the children are at least of the age that they can speak since the promise also involves repentance. This passage does not fit very well with the paedobaptist perspective. Often the promise from the paedobaptist perspective that is envisioned here is that of Gen. 17:5. However, the context clearly gives us a different promise: namely the holy spirit. This is clear from 1:4,5; 2:4, the quoted passage from Joel 2 and 2:33. The promise for us and for our children and all who are far off is that if one repents of their sin and is baptized then they will receive forgiveness of sin and the Holy Spirit (cf. 2:37-38). Does not this passage eliminate any encouragement towards infant baptism?

        • Chris Roberts

          The command to baptize comes only after the command to make disciples. This is significant in my own denomination when the role of discipleship has taken such a back seat – the call of the church is not just to go and reach the lost, but to make disciples of the lost, to build them in the faith. Baptism is part of that disciple-making, but a part which only comes after they are disciples. Thus elsewhere the command to individuals is to repent and then to be baptized.

          • Jeff Lindell

            I agree with you Chris, we don’t want discipleship to fall by the way side. The history of the church I pastor was one of significant evangelism. However, all sorts of problems occurred and nearly derailed the church because the teaching component of discipleship was lacking. However, I don’t think we can get from the text that baptism comes after they become disciples. Rather, if I am reading scripture correctly, it seems to me that baptism was meant to be one’s initial confess of faith.

            In Matthew 28, the command to make disciples is followed by two participles both of which describe the command to make disciples. In other words the participles communicate the means by which we make disciples. Thus there are two parts to the discipleship process: first baptism then teaching them to obey all Jesus taught. Certainly there is some evangelistic teaching prior to baptism. That goes without saying. One does not teach unbeliever to obey God’s word since they cannot do so anyway apart from His Spirit.

            Baptism, I believe it meant to be ones public expression of repentance and faith in God. It is for this reason that it comes first in Mt. 28 and it is separated out from what disciples are taught to obey. Note also how Peter describes baptism in 1 Peter 3:21. He refers to it as an appeal to God for good or clear conscience. Thus baptism itself can be (depending on the heart of the person) a genuine expression of repentance and faith in God which as Peter says would then save. Note also what is said in Acts 22:16. The command there is to be baptized and wash away your sins by calling on his name. There we see baptism again associated with calling on the name of Jesus for forgiveness similar to 1 Peter 3:21. The same can be seen for Jesus as well. And what can be made of Acts 2:38 in which faith in not mentioned for the forgiveness of sins? If we understand baptism as ones expression of faith or the moment in which one is calling upon the Lord for forgiveness, then the passage makes good sense.

            What then could be said in conclusion? Rather than leading people into a private prayer of salvation, should we not lead people to make a public prayer to God in baptism?

      • Mark

        John Carpenter, I respect your views. I respect that you think your views and your declaration are Biblical. However, the Reformed brethren at Sinners and Saints Radio (2.0) took your ideologue John MacArthur to school, so to speak, after his Fall 2011 “sermon” decrying the application of the Sacrament of Baptism to Covenant Children as “unbiblical.” Over 10 recordings, they pick MacArthur’s diatribe apart and explain from Scripture why Infant Baptism is Biblical and right. By the way is largely correct and Biblical on other matters of doctrine; why he must be stubborn on this is evidence that sanctification is ongoing.

        • John Carpenter

          Hi Mark,

          So, basically you took apart the teaching of John MacArthur without him being there and declared yourself the winner of the debate (at which he wasn’t present). That’s not convincing to anyone who doesn’t already believe what you believe.
          Your ascription “your ideologue” is just insulting.
          Infant baptism isn’t scriptural as there is not one command to practice it nor is there one model of it being done. After the discovery of The Didache now we know that the early church was NOT practicing infant baptism by the early second century.
          The command to baptize by the Lord Jesus is to baptize “disciples” (Mt. 28:18ff).

      • Scott Smith

        The command is not to “baptize disciples” but to make disciples by going, baptizing and teaching. You are placing the imperative on the verb go, when it is actually not a command to go, but a command to make disciples, the other 3 verbs (go, baptize, and teach) serve to accomplish the actual command given.

  • Taylor Cook

    I agree with John Oliver, having a paedobaptist on the panel would have added a lot. This is an issue that I am still working through and a paedobaptist perspective would have been helpful. That being said, this was a great discussion. Three awesome men of God speaking here. Very helpful video.

    • John Carpenter

      Inasmuch as there are no paedobaptisms in the NT, or commands to practice any, there’s no reason to include that viewpoint

      • Steve Martin

        Who says?

        The Scriptures speak quite clearly about “whole households” being baptized.

        Especially in those days, whole households included babies, little ones…all the up to the grandparents.


        If we look at it that God is the One who is doing the baptizing, then why should we have a problem with the age of the baptized?

        • John Carpenter

          The command to baptize is to baptize “disciples” (Mt. 28:18ff). There is not one example of an infant baptism in scripture. It is simply an argument from silence to assume that every household had to have a baby. Further, we know now from The Didache that the church was not practicing infant baptism by the early second century.

          • John Oliver

            John, it’s not like we just discovered the Didache; we’ve had an English translation since the late 1800s. And aren’t you making an argument from silence in this respect too? Where does the Didache forbid the baptism of infants? That it gives instructions to adult converts says nothing about what you do with infants. But most importantly, how does any of this address the original topic and biblical fact that the Apostles DID baptism immediately, and did not require one or two days of fasting beforehand, as the Didache instructs? Were they just plain wrong, misguided, immature, or did they perhaps look at baptism differently than we do today?

            • John Carpenter

              Hi John Oliver, the arguments for infant baptism were developed prior to the discovery of The Didache and are usually made as if it had not been discovered. All the instructions about baptism in it assume that the person being baptized were of age; for example, the requirement to fast. Further, there is no prohibition against infant baptism because no one was practicing it yet. Anyway, even if it hadn’t been, there is no command to baptize babies nor any example of them doing so in scripture. Infant baptism requires a departure from Sola Scriptura and the regulative principle.

              The command is to baptize disciples (Mt. 28:18ff); it is not a ritual to somehow confer a “covenant” status on someone. Originally, the practice was developed by Jews to mark the conversion of Gentiles to Judaism; John the Baptist applied it to repentant Jews to indicate that they too needed conversion. Never at any time was it applied to someone without the cooperation of their faith.

              As above, in Acts baptisms were spontaneous when the people requesting being baptized (1) could be persecuted for being baptized and (2) had a great deal of Biblical knowledge already. The Apostle Paul does not appear to be practicing spontaneous baptism with the Corinthian church where neither of those factors were in place. The Didache, then, would show that very soon, likely building on the Apostle’s practice (but admittedly becoming too rigid and legalistic), the preparation phase prior to baptism had become standard.

      • Taylor Cook

        The problem is there is no explicit mention of the mode of baptism for any children of believers. There is also nothing in the Bible that says “these Christians had children, and when those children came to faith they were baptized.” There is no specific verse directly supporting either. The reason I believe in infant baptism is because of the metanarrative of Scripture as well as my view of covenant theology. If you don’t, I have no issue with that. We are still brothers in Christ. Paedobaptism is a legitimate view based on Scripture and I believe you should respect it as such even if you don’t agree with it.

        • John Oliver

          Thanks for the response, John. So how do you arrive at the understanding that the Philippian jailer and his household had a “great deal of biblical knowledge”?

  • Steve Martin

    This is for people who wish to seriously consider why God has commanded baptism:

    After you read it, you may think differently about who is the actor in baptism.

    And even if you don’t agree with everything, you’ll have a much greater handle on why we believe as we do regarding baptism.

  • Stacy

    I think there is the other side to consider as well – people who claim to have accepted Christ years ago but have not yet been baptized as this is not necessary for salvation. In these cases it seems baptism is being taken too lightly and I have known several people who have taken this position. So while baptism is not necessary for salvation I have always thought of it as the first step of obedience towards growth and fruitfulness. It was obviously important in Acts and sometimes I feel like we have lost that importance so it is good to see the pastors wrestling with this issue.

  • Steve Martin

    This is also very good and it concerns infant baptism (in the second half of the message):

    It effectively argues in favor of infant baptism, using Holy Scripture to back it up.

  • John Oliver

    Brothers, I certainly didn’t intend my remarks to start a debate over paedo or credo baptism, surely that’s been discussed a time or two before. And there are some pretty heavy hitters on both sides, down the long hall of church history. I simply wished that the paedobaptist perspective had been represented in this discussion. I have learned much from their perspective, and it has helped pry my mind away from my individualistic, experienced-based, western mind-set. And it does strike me that the majority position in the whole span of church history is on the paedo side (not that that proves anything – the early fathers believed lots of wacky things.) But I just wish we could have more charity on this topic. Neither side has a black and white prohibition against the other’s practice, so why do we keep acting like if the other side could just read they’d get it? They are brothers and sisters in the Lord. Why can’t we hold to our position without castigating the other side?

  • Johnny Wheaton

    Spontaneous baptism is the right way to baptism people. Regeneration and understanding the Gospel then baptism,I kind of question that a little bit. All over the book of Acts baptism was spontaneous. But I would like to learn more about regeneration,gospel,baptism the process about it. concerning baptism.I enjoyed the video.

  • Paul ST Jean

    regeneration(which eventually leads to a conversion experience) may happen before during our after a baptism because regeneration is an unconscious act of God.

    • John Carpenter

      There’s not one example of a baptism prior to conversion in the Bible. Further, the command to baptize (Mt. 28:18ff) is to baptize disciples. So baptism is intended by God to be a sign of the work that He has already done in someone’s life that has made that person a disciple.

  • Steven

    I have a couple problems with this discussion:

    First, it is impossible for a baptism to yield “false assurance,” because even the strongest Protestant formulations of baptismal theology reject ‘ex opere operato’ regeneration. The sign always points to the thing signified – the covenant love of the Father, the blood of Christ and the sovereign work of the Spirit – but does not magically bind God to confer the thing signified. In this sense, it is a means *of* grace, not a means *to* grace.

    Further, Baptism, properly understood, will always lead the recipient to look from the water *to Christ*. That is why it functions as an assurance, in all and every case, even for children of believers who may have not yet come to saving faith themselves. To speak of baptism as a “false assurance” to believers “with no fruit” is to *completely* misunderstand baptism, the sacraments generally, and perhaps even salvation as a whole.

    Second, the obsession over the timing of baptism here I find disconcerting. It is certainly true that baptism of converts immediately follows a credible profession of faith (some people wait way, way too long), but the larger point is that regeneration is not tied to the moment of administration. You can wait a week and it’s okay – the person’s soul is not in jeopardy. Only a doctrine of ex opere operato regeneration would create the need to baptize instantaneously.

    I am perpetually mystified when Baptist Protestants end up sounding closer to Rome on these points than their Reformed counterparts.

    • John Carpenter

      Hi, That’s nice theory but those of us who actually deal with people who have received a premature baptism and see that they commonly use it as a basis of false assurance, despite that the rest of their life shows no sign of conversion, know that this isn’t true.

      Further, your theory rests on the assumption that baptism will be “properly understood”. But likely baptism will not be properly understood if it is applied spontaneously, immediately after a supposed conversion.

      Finally, your suggestion that it is Baptists who sound as if they are suggesting ex opere operato when they wait to look for signs of true conversion is the opposite of the case. By waiting to see if the person is a true disciple prior to baptism, we are, in fact, saying that it is not baptism that converts or confers saving grace but that it should be a sign of entering that.

      Baptism is for disciples. The Lord Jesus told us to baptize disciples.

  • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    Baptism should never be spontaneous. We need to plan ahead so that everyone knows what to bring to the accompanying Church picnic.

  • Jeremy

    It seems that if people and churches would do a better job of explaining the Gospel when presenting it to unbelieving people and explaining the cost of following Jesus and the process of sanctification that starts after conversion, THEN we would have a lot less people getting baptized and not living out the Christian life. I’m more willing to take the blame for the church because I doubt most people knew the entire cost of following God because many gospel presentations simply point out the need for a Savior due to sin and by putting your faith in Jesus you can be saved. The process of sanctification and learning to live according to the Holy Spirit instead of according to the flesh is not usually included.
    If we did a better job at preaching the whole gospel to people, we would see far fewer people falling away fro the faith.

    • John Carpenter

      Yes, and that’s what the preparation is for prior to baptism.

  • Tanner Fox

    I believe the phrase “my word is my bond” held more weight in the NT times than it does in our world a couple thousand years later. Our society is full of lies and manipulation even by some who preach the Gospel. Fortunately God is the final judge and the only one who judges the heart perfectly.

    This topic makes me wonder about the four different grounds where seed was tossed in the parable of the sower. Sounds to me like the rocky soil, thorny soil, and the good soil probably all would have been baptized. When speaking of the rocky soil, “(he) at once receives it with joy.” Just that alone would move me to baptize someone if I see the joy of the gospel in them, but after that it says he falls away because of persecution. I think that is especially hard in Florida for me, but really in the United States. How long until we are truly persecuted for our faith?

    Time will tell who remains in the faith and who was never a child of God. Does this means we should wait in order to see who perseveres? I don’t think so. I think it just means as ministers it won’t be simple enough to explain baptism, we will have to explain that along with the the ones who didn’t persevere. Instead of it being a symbol for those people of an inward regeneration, it turned out to be a simple outward cleansing that didn’t last.

  • Jose L. Garcia

    Why we don’t consider the “process” of John the Baptist as the one that we must follow.

    The baptism of John was for repentance of sin (does infants could repent of sin?)

    The article and discussion is about spontaneous baptism, the problem with the Acts’ accounts is that in majority, those conversions/baptism ocurred within jews/proselites, that means, people who are strongly educated in the Law and Profets, so they are greatly knowers of the Scriptures so the baptism is the signal that they acknowledge that all the teaching/profecies they received since infants were accomplished in Christ. This could support that those baptism were spontaneous, they already have a strong biblical understanding.

    Most of all commenters focus on Mathew 28:18, but this is not the only place that records the Great Commission. Read Mark 16:16 “He who believes and is baptized…” faith is required for baptism, this is what the Bible indicates.

    Faith in what, faith in Jesus as the fulfiller of all the prophecies and as the Mesiah, as the reedemer, as the perfect lamb, as the only that could clean all my sins. Jews/proselites knows all those prophecies and types of the OT, they only need to acknowledge Christ as fulfiller and could be baptized spontaneously. All the gentiles, as We on this time, need to know the God eternal purpose, the basics of the christian faith in order to be able to believe, so, maybe an spontaneous baptism is not addequate for today (but which timeframe is addequate, this could be another post/discussion).

  • Daryl Little

    People people…

    The issue of infant baptism wouldn’t change the discussion because the discussion was about new converts, not people raised as believers.

    Both Presbyterian and Baptist folk agree that new converts need to be baptized.
    The discussion wouldn’t be changed (at least not w/ respect to the paedo/credo issue) with Ligon Duncan or R.C. in the mix. They have the same issue to deal with.

    It seems like some of the above posters have an axe to grind, with either paedo or credo baptism.

    Grind it elsewhere, it is irrelevant here.

    • John Oliver

      The reason I suggested that the addition of a paedobaptist might have added to the conversation is because their whole view of baptism is different, whether for a infant or an adult convert. Baptism is saying something different for a paedo than for a credo, so I think it could have a bearing on this topic as well. But you’re right, this is not the place to wage the war over infant or believer’s only baptism.

      • Lucas

        agreed – the whole issue of who and why in realms of baptism is completely changed for paedobaptism. they should have at the very least taken a stance on paedobaptism (saying, “we believe in believer’s baptism only” type thing) before addressing the issue. the issue concerning the 12 yo girl would have changed completely in a context of paedobaptism

  • Jeff Lindell

    I appreciate the wisdom of these men, and view that comes out as they go through. It seems that for us who aren’t of the paedobaptist persuasion, it is a good thing not just to baptize whoever says, “I want to be baptized,” but instead to ask some questions to see if they at least are coming for the right reasons. Sure we may get some who receive the gospel with joy and then wither later, but certainly we don’t need to be foolish.

    At the same time perhaps some teaching needs to follow baptism regarding the assurance of our salvation so that those baptized would know that their fruit is their means of assurance. 1 John is a great book for that. Perhaps what we need to do is offer post baptism classes maybe more than pre-baptism.

  • Lucas

    huge lack of concern for paedobaptism, and this would really change the content of who to baptize and why, at least for those that do practice paedobaptism. really should have at least taken a stance on that issue if not added someone in that takes that stance

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