Spontaneous? Baptism? Appeal?

Tim Brister —  January 10, 2007 — 6 Comments

Last Sunday morning I heard an excellent sermon by my pastor, Dr. Bill Cook. He was sharing a new perspective for a new year, working from Daniel 10. As usual, his exposition was great, but Dr. Cook also said some things that I and other young ministers needed to hear–namely that the ministers we should be learning and following should not necessarily be the coolest or most innovative ministers today, but rather those who have encountered God and experience him in prayer.

With his message still ringing in my ears, I was walking out the door and happened to see a display with the new Outreach magazine. As I picked it up, I looked at the cover which had in bold-faced font, “America’s Most Innovative Churches” and a quote from Craig Groeschel who said, “Our technology initiatives fan the flame . . .” I thought, “How ironic is this to pick up this magazine after hearing such a powerful sermon like that!”

Last year, I didn’t pay much attention to the church growth movement, but after glancing through some of the articles in this issue, it appears that I need to pay attention to what these “movers” and “shakers” are telling us regarding how to do church. I realize that Outreach magazine is a mixed bag of the good and bad, so maybe those of you who are more up on this movement and employ some of the practices in order to be more relevant and effective can help me understand why and how you apply the things Outreach magazine and others like it are advocating.

One of the articles I want to address is called “5 Tips for Baptism Appeal” which highlights Fellowship Church in Grapevine, TX where Ed Young Jr. is pastor. The article begins by mentioning that “nearly 450 people came forward for spontaneous baptism.” In 2006 alone, “Fellowship Church saw 2,312 people spontaneously baptized–many visiting for the first time.”

Now, if I may ask, could anyone tell me what a “spontaneous baptism” is? From what this article infers, people who attend Fellowship Church the first time come forward and are baptized “spontaneously.” Does that mean that people who come forward to be baptized are immediately immersed without counsel, instruction, or commendation from the leadership of the church?

Secondly, the article states that people are spontaneously baptized in order “to start over or recommit” their lives. Is there anywhere in the Bible that says that baptism is “an extreme makeover” or recommitment? Whatever happened to repentance? Whatever happened to good ole’ confession of sin and replacing old sinful hapits with new spiritual disciplines? I guess that is not spontaneous enough. Am I wrong here?

Third, for the life of me I do not understand how a pastor who is called to shepherd his sheep can baptize people who he has no idea are regenerate or understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is evident that many who are spontaneously think that baptism somehow washes away their past and provides some spiritual catalyst for their lives (one lady interviewed said, “Being baptized gave us the opportunity to forget our past and get a fresh start.”). For the 450 who were spontaneously baptized, how many did the leadership of the church know by name? How many could articulate a personal testimony of their salvation experience? How many could bear evidence of any regenerating work of the Holy Spirit? Or does any of that matter anyway?

Finally, the title of the article is really disturbing to me. Baptism appeal? Since when does the commands of Christ have to have an appeal?  Does not the appeal to be baptized come when a sinner is riveted by the grace of God and has their affections changed through the regeneating work of the Spirit such that they desire to follow Christ without having to be enticed, coerced, or manipulated? Is not obedience a natural outworking of the new nature given whereby we live to please God and keep His Word?

Could it be that we have to write articles that speak of “baptism appeal” because we have preached cheap grace from a watered-down gospel to Christianized pagans who know nothing more than to treat a holy ordinance as a spiritual face lift?  Could it be that we have not rightly understood how baptism relates to a confessional and covenantal community of believers and the role of shepherds with their sheep?

I ask these questions because I have recently been teaching the doctrine of believer’s baptism to some folks I had the opportunity to lead to Christ.  I have asked them about the gospel, how one becomes a Christian, the meaning of baptism (and what it does not mean), and seen evidence of God’s grace at work in their lives.  Baptism has been anything but spontaneous, and for my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ, their appeal to baptism, in their own words, has been a desire to be pleasing to Christ and bear the fruit of a genuine lover of God. 

In closing, consider the words of Mark Dever who, as a pastor and shepherd of his sheep, shares his burden, concern, and accountability to God for those whom he leads.  Granted that the immediate context of Dever’s words are related to church membership, I think they are helpful in thinking through the many approaches people are taking today regarding baptism and church membership. In the same manner many churches have become flippant regarding church membership, current attitudes towards baptism will likely have the same result.

[W]hen we do, according to Hebrews 13, we pastors will give an account to God for the souls in our care.  Who are they? . . . For me to allow my local congregation to continue on, with people in membership regularly forsaking assembling together is to be in sin, to lead my congregation into sin, confuse what it means to be a member, and confuse what it means to be a Christian.   . . . All of them will die, many of them without returning to church.  Some of those will be our brothers and sisters in Christ who were in sin.  I fear that many of them will not have been our brothers and sisters in Christ, and so they will slip into a Christ-less eternity, face a good and just God while they are still pleading their own merits for salvation, and fall under God’s deserved penalty forever. . . . Of course there are hypocrites in the church, but they shouldn’t be there with our approval.  We should ourselves be constant repenters and trusters in Christ.  We should not aid unrepenting sinners in their own delusions of being saved. 

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  • This is exactly what I was discussing with a friend yesterday. Many churches within our own SBC are preaching a watered-down gospel. There is no sin or repentance. There is just “accepting Jesus and getting baptized.” These people may never return to church again, but they are walking around thinking that those actions saved them. The gospel is so messed up. It isn’t even the gospel anymore. It’s this other thing completely. This article and all your problems with spontaneous baptism are a good example. This watered-down gospel is in the majority of churches. I’ve even seen it in churches with excellent expository preachers. The pastor is just preaching and letting the other staff run the church. In many cases it’s strategies and programs to get people to church and then baptize them. No one seems to care about salvation, the gospel, discipleship, sanctification, prayer. This watered-down gospel doesn’t say that salvation is costly and may be a road of persecution and suffering. It says that Jesus takes away your problems and erases your past. There are so many unregenerate christians due to this problem. It’s sad. Forget being innovative and clever and having the coolest building with the best sound equipment. Teach people the word so that God can open their hearts and save their souls. This is deeply disturbing to me. In the SBC there is such a push for everyone to get along that I think the intergrity of the gospel is being sacrificed for the sake of unity. If this were the case in the past there would not have been a reformation. Arminius and Pelagius would not have been condemned as heretics. Where do we draw the line between unity and heresy? Should we get along with the Caners or should be condemn them as heretics? Should Saddleback be praised or held accountable… I’m seriously confused… thoughts, opinions, advice, help…

  • I’m with Renee on this one, Timmy. At what point do we stand up and say no more? At what point to we, as reformed christians, decide that the integrity of the gospel is indeed a hill on which to die? After spening Christmas in the First Baptist Church in my hometown and having to endure songs & sermons on how Jesus can enhance your already wonderful life, I’m fed up.

    I have lived my life following the watered-down gospel Renee mentioned. When I truly was challenged (by your website, by the way) to really critically and prayerfully consider calvinism, I realized that I had been wrong. That pill was not hard to swallow. What WAS hard to swallow, however, was the fact that I’ve been taught a different gospel all my life. This is my crisis right now. The people I trusted to teach me have led me astray. I studied under Emir Caner and am so disappointed in him that it hurts my heart. Not to mention the fact that everywhere I turn there are churches asking me to try Jesus and see if He doesn’t enhance my life and my purpose.

    What do I do? Renee and I have discussed this. We live it, we talk it, we teach it. These are great and they will impact those directly involved in our lives. What about these churches, however? What about the SBC that is more concerned with presenting a united front than the correct interpretation of Scriptures? What do we do about a conference that is preaching a man-centered gospel? Do we quietly work behind the scenes praying and hoping for change? Or do we actively create change?

  • Renee and Sarah,

    I understand your frustration, especially when your eyes are first opened to see the theological and ecclesiological errors in local churches where you have served. My first response is brokenness and a renewed commitment to pray for the leadership. It is highly unlikely that they will listen to you or me and be willingly to see or change their practices, especially if the mehods and practices are bringing them “success.” In the county where I grew up, there are over 30 SBC affiliated churches, and I cannot recommend any of them (and it is not because my standards are too high I promise).

    When Bobby Welch did the “Million More” campaign as a goal to get a million more baptisms in a year, it showed just how off the mark we have become as a Convention. I can still remember him in this past year’s annual meeting, saying, “More! More! More!” Now hear me, I am all about seeing people saved and Scripturally baptized (I have committed my life to this), but I do not think Welch or the Young way is the approach we should be taking. The rush and push to the baptismal waters blows right past any pastoral counseling, church commendation, spiritual examination, etc. Some will say that it is not necessary, but it is hard for me to see how such contempoary practices don’t trivialize the ordinance of baptism.

    When churches use the ordinance of baptism for rededications, baptism is trivialized.
    When churches use the ordinance of baptism for “forgetting the past and get a fresh new start,” baptism is trivialized.
    When churches use the ordinance of baptism for anything else other than the personal testimony of a believer’s identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (having trusted in Christ and bore evidence of that), baptism is trivialized.
    When we have campaigns where baptisms push for statistical goals or legitimize a church’s existence, baptism is trivialized.
    When you have members of your church who have been baptized two or three times (or more) in order to “nail down” their salvation or bring them assurance, baptism is trivialized.

    What do I do? I study the matter for myself as much as I can. I want to know what the Bible says. People who practice these methods do want to be asked such questions or be held accountable, but we must hold ourselves accountable as Mark Dever mentioned. I would not be surprised to find Ed Young supporters criticize me of being critical of spontaneous baptisms and making an appeal for it. But no matter how big your church is, how many numbers fill your charts, or how much influence you have with other churches and pastors, you still must build your faith and practice on the Word of God alone.

    Second, I work for reform, first beginning in my own life. I want to make sure that my approach to the issue with humility and for the edification of the church. Bringing up such an issue can make someone think you are trying to be divisive or needlessly critical or unsupportive of God’s work. What we need to help our leaders understand is that we deeply love the Church and want to help our leaders and serve them. While we would have the right thing to say, it we do not say it right, no one would ever hear us. I am still learning this!

    Finally, for change, I would simply begin by asking whomever you are talking to a series of questions. I would seek to understand where they are coming from and why they do what they do. I would ask where they get their precedent for it (from the Scriptures or “that’s what we always done). Sometimes practices and methods are done because that’s just the way they have always done it. Others do it because they read it from magazines such as this and are told that “it works.” People will say that the methods don’t matter as long as the message doesn’t change. Well, the truth is methods do matter.

    Those are my immedaite thoughts. I hope that is helpful. Thanks for the comments, and I share your burden to see our churches healthy and growing and pleasing to Christ our Head.

  • Tim,

    Where is the article on “5 Tips for Baptism Appeal”? I could not find it at Outreach Mag, but must be doing something wrong?

    I would like to read it.

    Thanks, Gary

  • Gary,

    The article is in the Jan/Feb ’07 issue (only in print). I don’t have it with me to give you the page number, but if you are looking for it online, I don’t think it is there. You can pick up a copy of Outreach mag at your local Christian bookstore probably. I would check there. Hope that helps!

  • Ike

    All who love the church must stand together against this man-centered gospel and the focus on “felt needs” instead of God’s glory. We would be better off if we were more concerned with expository preaching and the Spirit’s empowering, and less preoccupied with repackaging the Gospel to make it less offensive or “easier” to understand.
    I would encourage everyone to listen to any and all of Paul Washer sermons. He is a tremendous man of God.

    Listen to “Regeneration and Self Denial”