The bad alternatives to baptism

I know that baptism is a touchy subject, but it’s not going away. I teach a “Basics ” class at least once a year (hopefully more). The issue is going to keep reoccurring. What makes the Christian Church different is that we are trying to tie ourselves as close as we can to the principles and practices of the New Testament church. Most denominations demand that you be baptized in one of their affiliated churches by one of their affiliated ministers. The Baptist church requires that you be immersed each time you transfer membership.  They affiliate baptism with membership in a local church. We only ask that before you become a member of our church, you be immersed somewhere at sometime in the name of Jesus.

We can’t sweep the issue of immersion under the rug. Baptism needs to be taught, but if not addressed properly, baptism (which is meant to be a source of unity) can easily devolve into disunity.

The problem is all the baggage behind the issue of baptism. Baptism itself is one of the most straight forward rites within the New Testament. We know more about how the New Testament church performed baptism than we do about communion. It’s very easy to demonstrate in scripture the “how”, “who”, and “purpose” of baptism. I’ve used examples of this in my other entry, Immersion for the Sprinkled. There are a plethora more in the New Testament.

The problem comes in what a person has to confess when they confess that the New Testament church immersed believers. If they were sprinkled as a baby they have to confess that the traditions of their childhood faith and their parent’s faith do not line up with Scripture. They have to confess that at least in this instance, someone they trusted as an expert in the ways of God (priest, reverend, etc.)  was wrong. They have to decide if they have fully obeyed Jesus’ commands. Baptism started off as an act of repentance and still is one today. Repentance means “to turn around” and/or “to change one’s mind”. That is a difficult process.

Whenever we do not do something just as God has instructed, bad things happen. It’s important to teach accurately about baptism as Priscilla and Aquila did for Apolos because the alternatives have negative consequences. Let’s consider the process of salavtion used by other denominations.

Have you ever been to a Baptist or Evangelical revival? Not all of them go the same way, but at least in my experience, they go something like this: You have an emotionally charged worship time and then an emotionally charged sermon (I’m okay with heavy emotion when used responsibly. What should we be more emotional about than Jesus?). Then the guy up front asks for everyone to bow their head and close their eyes. He then asks those who wish to make a decision for Jesus to raise their hand while everyone’s eyes are closed. Already we are on bad footing because Jesus says:

8 “I tell you, whoever publicly acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man will also acknowledge before the angels of God. 9 But whoever disowns me before others will be disowned before the angels of God.  (Luke 12:8-9)

Then the leader asks for those with their hands raised to say a prayer with him. In the South we call it “The Sinner’s Prayer”. The prayer varies from person to person but they all have these two elements:1) Lord , I am a sinner, 2) please send Jesus into my heart. It’s not a bad prayer. It just isn’t in Scripture. We see no one doing such a thing in response to the Gospel. So what happens next?

The youth or adult who attended the revival and made a decision goes home and goes to bed. They get up the next morning to the same life, the same temptations, the same bad habits, the same problems. They get up and they wonder if the prayer stuck. They wonder if they really did make a lifelong decision for Jesus or if it was just all the emotionalism of the revival.

Whenever I meet someone who tells me that they were save by “The Sinner’s Prayer” or something like it, I ask, “How many times did you have to pray it?” Someday a person is going to reply, “once”, but so far that day has not come. The normative experience is that a person prays for Jesus to come into their heart. They do good for a while and then they go back to sin. They conclude that the first prayer did not stick and so they pray it again. They continue this cycle until they feel that something has permanently changed.

I was immersed when I was 10 years old. I don’t remember all the feelings that I had at that time. I know that in large part I got baptized because I wanted to follow Jesus like my Dad followed Jesus. I believe that my faith has grown a lot since I was 10. But I never had to question if I made a decision to follow Jesus on that day. I know that I did because I chose to be baptized.

I look at baptism in a lot of ways like a marriage. Sometimes my wife and I fight (not too often), but I never get up in the morning and wonder if I made a lifelong commitment to her and if she made one to me. Marriage has turned out to be quite a bit different than I thought it was going to be, but I know that on May 27th 2006 I committed my life to her. It is the same with baptism.

One of the alternatives that is used to baptism is “The Alter Call”. This is much like “The Sinner’s Prayer,” but more intense. The individual comes down to the front of the church and tries to “pray through” with the help of others. Through weeping and begging they ask Jesus to come into their heart. Their confirmation is some sort of spiritual experience, an inner peace, a vision, speaking in tongues, etcetera. The experience varies from person to person.

There is something insidious about the whole event. We worship the God who loves us so intensely that he sent his son to die for us. Jesus loved us so much that one lifetime was not good enough to spend with us. He has prepared a dwelling place for us where we will live with him for eternity. The poor wretched soul, responds to the gospel as those believers in Acts 2:37 with “what shall I do”. The answer they get is, “Pray and hope God will eventually accept you.”

We do not wait for God to turn His love towards us. He is waiting for us to turn to him. “Alter Calls” make God the reluctant groom.

Now about sprinkling. All denominations (as far as I know) do not believe in practice that sprinkling is enough. Take Catholics for example. They sprinkle (or pour) infants. But you do not fully become a part of the church until you go through a confirmation class. Confirmation is supposed to be the point when the believer confirms that they are a follower of Jesus. It’s supposed to be a choice of faith, but rarely does it end up that way in practice.

In practice, a person can be sprinkled by their parent’s choice and take confirmation classes at their instance and never make a decision to follow Jesus.

Again, I am not suggesting that those who have responded to Jesus through “The Sinner’s Prayer”, “Alter Calls”, or “Confirmation” cannot be saved. I am not even suggesting that the spiritual experiences that they have are not real. I am suggesting that when we substitute Biblical practice with expedient, traditional, or otherwise manmade practices we put people at a disadvantage. In other word’s there are those who have been saved despite “The Sinner’s Prayer”, “Alter Calls”, and “Confirmation” not because of them. Or to put it another way, God has redeemed (bought back) these rites not ordained these rites.

I want to teach the word of God faithfully and give all every advantage possible toward salvation. Here in lies the problem. Teaching on baptism has been seen as threatening. People are afraid of the topic. The topic is entrenched in good and bad experiences and relationships. It’s a sore spot and needs to be approached with extraordinary tenderness.

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