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Repentance, Reform & Baptism

Over the past few days I have been doing some thinking about baptism. I come from a Reformed/Presbyterian background and spent the first 20-some years of my life in churches that practiced infant baptism (the Protestant flavor of it). Of course these churches also practice adult baptism when an unbaptized person becomes a believer. Several years ago my wife and I moved to a new town and, because of a lack of Reformed alternatives in town, began to attend Baptist churches. Needless to say, these churches practice adult baptism. I have had exposure, then, to both of the predominant modes of Protestant baptism and feel that I have a pretty good understanding of each of them.

One thing I am not clear on is the role of repentance in baptism when it comes to baptizing adults (even in the Reformed system). Allow me to explain.

In the Reformed churches, baptism is not as easily achieved as in the Evangelical churches. This would be a typical chain of events in a Reformed church if an unbaptized person were to become a believer.

  • Person becomes a Christian.
  • Attends Catechism or Profession of Faith classes for several weeks and months.
  • Indicates an interest in being baptized and making a public profession of faith.
  • Presents himself before the elders for an interview where they can determine whether or not he is truly a believer.
  • Assuming he is approved by the elders, he then simultaneously professes his faith and is baptized.
  • At this point he is considered a member and may also partake of the Lord’s Supper.

In the evangelical churches the process is quite different. There is some variance but I believe this is typical:

  • Person becomes a Christian.
  • He is now eligible to participate in the Lord’s Supper.
  • He indicates a desire to be baptized.
  • Presents himself before the elders or pastor for a short interview where they ensure he knows what baptism means and that he professes Christ.
  • He is baptized.
  • After baptism he is eligible for membership. Some churches will allow someone who was baptized as an infant to have membership, but the majority will not.

In the Evangelical churches baptism is regarded as something one should do with almost no knowledge of what it is all about. It is a first step of obedience once one has made a profession of faith. Those who later wish to be rebaptized saying that they didn’t even know what they were doing at the time (something I have heard several times) are missing the point. While baptism is generally a prerequisite for church membership, it often is not for partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

A striking difference between the two systems is the necessity of showing true repentance and a changed life before baptism may be performed. In many Reformed churches several months may elapse between the time a person becomes a believer and his subsequent baptism while classes are completed and so on. During this time it will usually become quite obvious whether or not that person has truly become a believer. While professing to be a Christian is easy enough to do, displaying the fruits of the Spirit and showing a life of repentance is more difficult. On the other hand, in evangelical churches people are urged to be baptized almost immediately after professing Christ. There may not have been time for these people to begin to show whether they made a true conversion and whether they have begun to reform their behavior.

Let’s consider a few short examples:

1) A pastor meets someone in a restaurant one evening and their talk turns to what they believe. The pastor shares his testimony and some verses of Scripture with the other man who is convicted of his sin. He prays then and there, asking God to forgive him and placing his faith in Him. He asks to be baptized the next Sunday.

2) A pastor meets someone in a restaurant one evening and their talk turns to what they believe. The pastor shares his testimony and some verses of Scripture with the other man who is convicted of his sin. He prays then and there, asking God to forgive him and placing his faith in Him. He asks to be baptized the next Sunday. As they continue talking, the pastor finds out that this man is a practicing homosexual.

3) A pastor meets a couple in a restaurant one evening and their talk turns to what they believe. The pastor shares his testimony and some verses of Scripture with the couple who are convicted of their sin. They pray then and there, asking God to forgive them and placing their faith in Him. They ask to be baptized the next Sunday. As they continue to talk, the pastor finds out that they couple is living together, though they are not married.

In any of these cases, should the people be baptized the next Sunday?

In the Reformed churches they would generally not be baptized. The instruction they received in the time leading up to their baptism would likely either convict them of their sinful lifestyles or would harden them and drive them out of the church. Failing this, the elders would bar them from baptism until they repented of their sin.

In the evangelical churches these people may well be baptized (I have seen examples of this in evangelical churches). The church would not expect new Christians to show repentance and changed lives in so short a time and would baptize them on the basis of their confession, not on the basis of ongoing “proof” of the genuineness of their confession.

So here is the big question: are repentance and reform necessary prerequisites to baptism? Should people who live blatantly unchristian lifestyles be barred from baptism until they repent and reform?

I will have to put a lot more thought into this one, but initially I believe that the church should protect baptism. Rather than baptizing anyone who asks, it seems that the church should try to ensure that the people are genuinely Christian before performing baptisms. Repentance is as much an expression of faith as baptism is and should be treated equally (at the very least).