Q & R: Baptism and the fate of the ‘unprepared’ – Brad Jersak

Question:

If I found myself numb with pain, injured and bleeding in the cold on a cloudy day, having never been baptized for whatever reason(s), and therefore not “OFFICIALLY” in the Body of Christ as I died. Being lifelong mostly homeless, reality itself seemed to communicate to me “authoritatively” that my death and eternal punishment were now imminent? Would I have reason to quiver convulsively in deep and dreadful fear? 

I was once was in the shower room of the emergency room of a Catholic hospital, being washed following an accident where my scalp, which I could see, had been hanging on the side of my face. I really was shaking in fear, and one nurse said to another nurse, “I think he’s cold.” She turned up the already uncomfortably hot water and I was too emotionally traumatized to inform them it was too hot. 

To add a little humor, if I were dying in those circumstances, could I say a few words then spit on myself and confidently count it baptism? Thus, I’m in! But what if I were unconscious?

I know these “unprepared near-death” experiences. At least one verse in the Bible is difficult for people like me: “Whoever believes and is BAPTIZED shall be saved”(Mark 16:16).

Could you cite a few scriptures in your answer? Thank you.

Response:

 This is such a multi-layered question because it addresses issues of baptism, the nature of sacraments, the state of preparedness and the nature of death and the afterlife. Too much to cover here, but I’ll try to get to the bottom of the baptism issue.

First, regarding: the necessity of baptism. On the one hand, baptism (upon confession of faith) was the Christ-prescribed (Matt. 28:18-20) initiation rite for entry into his faith community (the ekklesia – probably poorly translated ‘church’). In the first century, baptism was the way people responded to the gospel invitation. 

“I want to follow Jesus. What do I do?”   
“You confess your faith in Christ using some water.”

That was Jesus’ mandate and the apostles’ practice for joining the Jesus Way. I don’t see any need to change that, avoid that or try to improve on that. It could happen quite spontaneously as you see in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40).

35 Then Philip … starting from this biblical passage [in Isaiah], told him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water.
‘Look!’ said the eunuch. ‘Here is some water! What’s to stop me being baptized?’
38 So he gave orders for the chariot to stop, and both of them went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch together, and he baptized him. 

You’ll see this same kind of immediate response in the story of Cornelius in Acts 10:44-48and the Philippian jailor in Acts 16:29-34). Note that in both cases, the whole household followed suit.

Not much later, still in the first century, Christians thought it necessary to add a period of instruction (catechism) prior to baptism, not to add an extra requirement for salvation, but because some were impulsively getting baptized without knowing what they were getting into, then just as quickly renouncing their faith when the flames of persecution got turned up. Fair enough, I guess.

All of this is apart from the divisive questions of who baptizes, where we’re baptized, how we’re baptized, etc.

All that to say, in the apostolic age, baptism was then what “the altar call” or “the sinner’s prayer” came to be among Evangelical revivalists. The practice of making baptism an almost optional afterthought is a departure from early Christian practice and Jesus’ own instructions.

That said, note well! 

1.    Ultimately, Christ ‘saves us,’ not our faith confession nor our baptism. Our response matters, but let’s not think our salvation is our doing or that getting the rituals right are some heavenly pin code into God’s gated community.

2.    Christian baptism is a mandatory command but not a legalistic threat. What’s the difference? Christ mandated baptism as his chosen method of faith-response. But we are not threatened with exclusion when baptism proves to be impossible. Christ isn’t so petty or legalistic as that.

The classic example is the thief on the cross. 

‘Jesus,’ he went on, ‘remember me when you finally become king.’
‘I’m telling you the truth,’ replied Jesus, ‘you’ll be with me in paradise, this very day’ (Luke 23:42-43). 

Without baptism, Christ declared the thief’s faith sufficient. It would have been a real pickle if our Abba was a small-minded stickler for protocol.

Indeed, in the story of Cornelius, the Holy Spirit apparently even got ahead of herself by rushing ahead of the water-baptism with an outpouring of her grace on the Gentiles. Still, even then Peter thought, “Wow, the Spirit is already baptizing them–quick, let’s catch up! Get some water!”

But wait, didn’t Jesus say, “Go into all the world and announce the message to all creation. Anyone who believes and is baptized will be rescued, but people who don’t believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).

Apart from manuscript issues with the long ending of Mark, yes, the Christian tradition did associate these words with Christ. How we choose to interpret “condemned” will vary, but I don’t see any point in trying to sidestep what Jesus obviously seems to want.

The question is not, what will happen if I can’t be baptized (I repeat: you don’t need to worry!) but rather, how would Jesus have me respond now? His warning is not about the correct application of water but around one’s willingness to follow Jesus on Jesus’ terms. So…

3.    Why not be baptized? I’m frankly puzzled by those who say they “believe in Jesus” and want to identify as “Christian” while at the same time ignoring or wilfully rejecting his first command. How does that work?

“Will you follow me?”
“Yes, I want to follow you!”
“Okay then, first, believe and be baptized.”
“No.” 
“Huh…?”

Luke 6:46 – “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and don’t do what I say?”

Followers or Fans?

So if you want to follow Jesus and you can get baptized, then do.
Jesus called for it. 

And if you are concerned for those who can’t be baptized, don’t worry about them. I’m sure they’ll be fine, just like the penitent thief.

But if you’re still currently conscious, then you can be baptized, so why not? What’s the real problem? For those who think they’re following Christ but simply refuse to be baptized, they might ask themselves, “Am I a follower or just a fan?

It’s possible for us to count the cost of following Jesus and honestly recognize we’re not ready for that commitment. And to those Christ might say, “Okay, I get it. No need to fake it. Just let me know when you’re ready. I’ll have the water ready.”  

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