Baptism Matters

Tim Brister —  April 18, 2007 — 16 Comments

Many of the SBC bloggers (go here, here and here for example) have already jumped on the recent report by LifeWay about the second straight year of decline in baptisms in the SBC (2005 was a drop of 4.18% and 2006 was a drop of 1.89%).  What makes this remarkable is not just the fact that all other statistics in the ACP report were up, but that baptisms went down during the two years where there was the strongest push to baptize more people.  Bobby Welch, president of the SBC during the years 2005-2006, developed a vision to baptize a million people during each year that he was presiding over the convention.  The slogan “Everyone Can! I’m It!” became the driving focus to inspire all Southern Baptists to join in reaching the goal which Welch was convinced would be accomplished.  During his presidential message at last year’s annual meeting in Greensboro, Welch’s theme could be summed up in the thrice-repeated anthem, “More!”   In his outgoing article in SBCLife, Welch writes,

“My quest is to see the Convention do MORE then ever before — MORE going and MORE giving!”  

Coupled with optimism and warning, Welch concluded his presidential address, declaring:

‘I’m it. I may not look like much, and I may not have much. Bless God, this is Jesus calling, and I’m not missing it. I’m coming with what I’ve got, where I am, and I’m doing it now — because everyone can, and I think I’m it.’

“That’s all that needs to be decided by this Convention. The rest is only a distraction. Everyone can, and you’re it. God help you and God help us not to mess this up with this great opportunity of ours.”

Apparently, this “great opportunity of ours” has been messed up.  One reporter has already assessed the impact of the “Everyone Can!” campaign, and Bobby Welch has also seen the handwriting on the wall, providing his reasons why the goal was not achieved.  For whatever reason, not every Southern Baptist thought they were “it” and the battle-cry for more has only resulted in less.  How are we to interpret such a thing? 

I write this on the heels of an excellent discussion that was held today at SBTS on the ordinance of baptism.  Baptist theologians Drs. Greg Wills, Tom Nettles, Russell Moore, and Stephen Wellum held a forum discussion on why baptism matters.  Let me encourage you, especially if you are Southern Baptist, to download the audio when it becomes available.  Students were given an opportunity to ask the panel questions, but time was limited.  My question, which was not asked, had to do specifically with this current efforts to baptize more with the report that in effect we are baptizing less.  While their answers must be reserved for another day, there are a couple of things I would like to mention in passing for consideration.

First, does not setting an arbitrary number for baptizing people make the ordinance of baptism superficial?  I find it really hard to believe that due diligence and careful consideration of the baptismal candidate is somehow overlooked in the rush to baptize as many people as we can.

Second, should there be a separation from the goal of baptizing and the goal of producing disciples?  The Great Commission is not simply to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but making disciples through “teaching them to observe all” that Christ has commanded us.  It seems most appropriate to me that the goal of simply baptizing more misses the heart of the Great Commission and furthermore prevents future baptisms.  This is because those who are not being discipled will not in turn be leading people to Christ, teaching them God’s Word, and developing them into Christ-like messengers of the gospel. 

Third, when it is said that “everything else is a distraction,” does this unfortunate use of words undermine the outworking of Christ’s Church and discharging all her duties to administer the gospel to our world?  Is truth and doctrine a distraction?  Regenerate church membership?  The emphasis of a visible church and church discipline?

Fourth, does not the philosophy of pragmatism to simply do more prove ultimately very harmful to the health of our churches when we see the dogma of “more” as the end-all be-all to our methods and practices?  It is without question that pragmatism rules the day, but does that mean it should go unchecked?

These are just some preliminary matters of baptism that come to my mind.  What will be the direction the SBC takes on baptism in the future?  Will baptism be seen as pragmatic gauge for ministerial success or approached with a robust ecclesiology where it symbolizes much more than a statistic?  Will Southern Baptists take a fresh look at our methods and reasoning regarding why and how we baptize people?  Will the professed church membership continue to outstrip the faithful attendance of God’s people, thereby evidencing a growing unregenerate denomination?  These are questions that must be addressed–questions that will show how much baptism matters.

As I conclude my thoughts, let me suggest that there are things which I wholeheartedly agree with Welch.  Baptists must work together and focus our efforts on the Great Commission.  We need to discharge all efforts to win the lost and see new believers identified with the local church.  We should mourn over our lethargic attempts of the past and renew ourselves for the work before us that God has prepared.  And it is precisely because of this reality that our hearts should be broken, our knees should be hitting the floor, and our mouths readily professing the glorious message of new life in Jesus Christ.  May God so grant us to live a gospel-centered lives as ones “sent” by God so that others would not only pass through the waters of baptism, but be ravished by the realities of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ of which that ordinance so powerfully points.

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  • Sam

    Reading the Welch quotes reminds me of my corporate day job where you are graded based on year over year sales performance. Gotta remember to grow between 15 – 20% annually. Please don’t bother us with the business cycle or exogenous forces (new competitor, interest rate hike, etc.) that would cause a down year.

    Perhaps that is the way to evangelize and conduct a Christ-centered life, but it feels like a CEO telling his team to chase a number. Jesus had twelve apostles. Was that final supper a failure? Should he have had 1 million at the first communion?

    I would agree with the questions you raise. Focus less on the metrics and more on the substance of Christ’s teachings.

  • Sam,

    Coming from the corporate mileau, I see you know exactly what has plagued churches in our day. The CEO/corporate mentality works great for capitalism and big business but is devastating for our churches. You brought up a great point. One would think if Jesus was to change the world he would have chosen more than 12 to start with (and more qualified candidates as well!). Yet such foolishness God has chosen to use, and it has confounded the wise for 2000 years. I have recently been reading David Wells’ book No Place for Truth for class. His analysis is the most piercing work on evangelicalism today, and it is particularly relevant to the apparent flippancy given to the Church’s ordinances.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Scott Morgan


    Did anybody ask the question: Can we invite the Padeobaptist to the Lord’s Table since we don’t recognize them as Baptized and since we don’t recognize their baptism they cannot be added to the visible church according to Acts 2 ? Most Calvinistic Baptist Confession teaches that we can’t from Scripture. Again, I’m growing more and more concerned that Baptist don’t see that this is a huge issue. It’s almost like ” Well we share in the five points of Calvinism surely thats enough”. We differ greatly on subject and mode ! Too many of our Baptist Calvinistic leaders are afraid to touch this isue because it really affects so much with our friendships with the Sprouls and others. When I bring it up a few run straight to Mohler, Dever, Duncan, and Mahanney and say we have bigger fish to fry in the recovery of the gospel. Yes, I agree that we need to recover the gospel but do we really recognize the Presbyterians as a visible church ? It amazes me that men will put Padeobaptist theologians above the Scripture. The early Baptist did not !

  • Scott,

    Thought the question was not asked, it was answered by both Dr. Wellum and Dr. Moore. Dr. Wellum basically gave in a nutshell the outline and argument against infant baptism while addressing the strongest arguments provided for it. His full analysis can be found in his chapter in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ edited by Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006) entitled “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants (97-162). No, that is not a typo either. The chapter is 65 pages long and well documented. You ought to give it a look.

    While the audio is not yet available, you can check out some live-blogging done by some of us at Said @ Southern. The link is here:

  • G. F. McDowell

    Scott, I will ask again. Who do you say the church is? You’ve at least grazed the topic this time. Positively define the church, and meaningful discussion can be had.

  • gavin

    Yeah, I kinda find the whole push for more baptisms a bit weird and random. As you articulated very well, there are several serious problems that can arise from this kind of thinking.

    And the whole “I’m it” mantra. I don’t know, I don’t have much to say other than it just comes off sounding strange.

  • Scott Morgan

    G. F.,

    I’m sorry I didn’t answer your first question the other day because I just saw it. I’m not usually one to say go read somebody and thats my position but in this case it will be a better use of my time to have you read Dr. John Gill( Body of Divinity) A Body of Pratical Divinity Book 2 Of The Nature Of A Gospel Church, The Seat of Public Worship pgs 852-859 . I’m a visible church ” Guy” . Yes, there are Elect ones but I do not hold to a Universal Church view. If you read these short pages then we can talk. If you don’t have Gill let me know and I will let you know where you can find it on line or I will buy you the book. Also, I would reccomend BH Caroll Ecclesia- The Church for a through study on the church and how the word is used. A few thoughts:

    1. Any religious assembly that preaches a false gospel and / or practices a false baptism cannot be recognized as a true NT Church of gospel order. All such assemblies who fundamentally, characteristically and permanently preach a false gospel come under the indictment of Gal. 1:6-9.

    2. Salvation and a profession of faith are undeniably prerequisite to baptism. Salvation is not by means of baptism. True believing disciples are the only proper subjects for baptism. Immersion is the only proper mode of baptism.

    3. Scriptural baptism is absolutely necessary to church constitution,organization and existence, so much so, that where there is no Scriptural baptism there is NO Scriptural church. No baptism, no church. Acts 2( Notice the order: They were not added to the church until baptism and we only recognize immersion as baptism. Matthew 28:18-20 and I could go on. The Padeobaptist have so much explaining to do on Acts 2( Subject and Mode).

    4. there is an intimate and inevitable connection between the true doctrine of salvation and the proper administration of baptism. Scriptural baptism is the representation of and the identification with the Scriptural plan of Salvation.

    5. According to the commands of Christ, the practice of the early churches of the NT, the Epistles of Paul, and the Confessions of Faith of all evangelical religious denominations… baptism as an ordinance, was deliverd to the NT church to be administered by it according to Christ’s commands until He returns.

    6. All the aspects of baptism, (the mode, subject, purpose ) are irrevocably fixed and prescribed by Christ’s example and commands. These are to remain permanent and unchanged.
    ( Six Points taken from the Baptist Standard Bearer Body of Divinity Intro).
    Please read Southern Presbyterian RL Dabney Lectures in Systematic Theology lecture 64 pp 774-775 for the same conclusion NO Baptism means no Church. Some will cry out what about Sproul, Lloyd Jones, Edwards. My answer is what about Acts 2, Matthew 28, Acts 8 etc…. .

    Please read The Collected Writings of JH Thornwell Vol 3 pp 277- 413 Banner of Truth Edition 1974. Presbyterian baptism is founded upon Catholic baptism ! The church that I pastor is a 1689 Confessional church and our own confession supports a Universal Church but I perfer the 1644 on this issue. We are baptizing two former Presbyterians Sunday. Once they have been baptized and have become members then we will serve the Lord’s Supper to them based Acts 2: 40- 47. My email is if you want to engage in brotherly talks. Thanks for your interest.

  • This was a great post, Tim. You thought through the issue really well and I agree with your concerns.

  • Owen,

    Thanks brother. I look forward to conversing with you about this and other SBC matters in the future.

  • Brother Timmy,
    Good post. I cannot wait to hear the audio. One matter I hope is discussed is about the nature of the Holy Spirit, who is the one who must move in a man’s heart (regeneration) for him to be converted. Setting quotas seems so man-centered. We are commanded to go and preach while realizing that “the wind blows where it wills”. I get so tired of hearing of the emphasis on baptisms when I know many reduce conversion to that one physical act. Never mind was the individual actually converted, or just decisioned; and does the local body give too hoots about his growth in grace, or is he just “once saved, always saved”?

    Brother Morgan,
    The foundation (rock) of the church is the confession that Peter gave in Matthew 16: “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” Therefore the church (universal) is made up of all who sincerely and genuinely name the name of Christ, those who proclaim “Jesus is Lord!” The gospel, simply put, is the person and work of Jesus Christ, and all who put their trust in Him are a part of the bride of Christ, the church. I agree with much of what you say, and I cannot for the life of me figure how Paedobaptists come to their conclusions, and I confirm they will have much to answer for, but to say that true believers in Christ are not a part of His body, the Church, appears to me to be a category outside of Christianity. To be in Christ means to be a part of the Church. Now, whether or not I would invite a visiting Presbyterian to the Lord’s table; probably not. But then, I am not a pastor, so I am not faced with that situation.

  • Brother Wayne,

    You are so right to speak of the Holy Spirit in regards to baptism. One of the things Bobby Welch said in his most recent article (“Handwriting on the Wall”) was,

    “We must be realistic–we are not waiting on God, but God is waiting on us.”

    What?! We have tied up the hands of Almighty God? This line of thinking is the same which promulgates the decisional regeneration where God is a beggar, pleading and begging for us to exercise our sovereign will and make the decisive choice to follow Him.

    Here’s the deal: Those who have pushed the “million more” campaign have a lot of explaining to do when so much money was spent on a bus tour and traveling only to see two years of decline in baptisms. So we play the blame game. Blame blogging pastors. Blame the last decade for not seed sowing. Blame this. Blame that. If blame should be accrued to anyone, should it not be God since he is the Author and Finisher of our faith? He did not (or was not able to) meet our expectations.

    Furthermore, you are correct about the difference in a form of eternal security which labels anyone who has “prayed the prayer” or been baptized the idea of “once saved, always saved” without any necessary evidence of regeneration. We are taught by our evangelistic practices to say, “Welcome to the family of God” to someone who has prayed the prayer when we have no idea if that person has truly been born again. There is a world of difference in a biblical view of perseverance of the saints than the “once saved, always saved” view of eternal security, and a large part of that has to do with a view of God’s sovereign work in salvation and in sanctification, principally in which he works by His Holy Spirit to save, sanctify, and perfect His people.

  • Scott Morgan

    Brother Wayne,

    I just got in from a date with my wife. Because it’s late and I want to watch my NASCAR race I will talk to you in lengths about the issue of the Universal/Visible church. I truly believe in a elect body that is so large that no one can number but this is an issue that many of the ” Old Calvinistic Baptists” disagreed with each other on. Please read BH Carroll’s book on the Church which is called Ecclesia. The whole book is a study on the Greek word. I will follow up either tomorrow or when I’m done studying for my sermon for Sunday. My church confession is the 1689 which does support a universal church view but I agree with the 1644 on the church. Something to think about: Does the Universal Church have : Officers, Ordinances, Discipline, and where does this assembly gather weekly? This is just something I want you to ask yourself. I fully believe in an elect people who will be in Christ. Also, please read Dr. John Gill on the Nature of A Gospel Church in his body of divinity. It’s crucial to study this word( Church) by notcing the study that Carroll did. In Carroll’s book you will see the following: The Etymology of the Greek Word Ecclesia, Usage of the Greek word Ecclesia, Its Usage in the Classical Greek, Its Usage in the Septuagint, Its usage in the Apocrypha, and its usage in the NT.

  • Brother Morgan,

    A date with your wife! I can top that. My wife and I just got back from our son’s wedding. I hope you had a nice time. We certainly did. I would enjoy reading what you think about the Ecclesia subject, but we probably should do it off Brother Timmy’s weblog, as that might be considered hijacking the comment string. You can email me at, and in the mean time I will bone up on Carroll and Gill.

    Brother Brister,

    Good job. Keep up the good work. It has gotten to the point in my busy spring that you and Finn are the only two weblogs that I regularly read these days.

    Blessings to all,

    Wayne Hatcher

    There is a spot where spirits blend,
    Where friend holds fellowship with friend,
    Tho’ sundered far; by faith they meet
    Around the common mercy-seat.

  • Brother Hatcher,

    Thanks for your participation. I hope you will find P&P worth your time. God bless you and have a wonderful Lord’s Day tomorrow.


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