Counting Converts

Any church or other ministry that measures success by statistics invites criticism. People may say that it is boasting, or exaggerating, or emphasizing quantity rather than quality. But the early church did not shrink from statistics (Acts 2:41; 4:4). There is a difference, however. Whereas a modern church is likely to equate the number saved to the number who merely make a profession of faith, the early church did not count a convert until he had been baptized and received into the church.


In the Great Commission recorded in Matthew (Matt. 28:18-20), Jesus outlined the strategy the church should use in evangelizing the world. He commanded the church to

  1. go,
  2. teach (literally, "make disciples"),
  3. baptize,
  4. teach the whole counsel of God.

Notice that He considered "baptizing them" so important that He included it in this short list of the church's obligations.

Reciprocal obligations fall on every person who lives on the face of this planet. He must

  1. receive the one sent,
  2. become a disciple,
  3. be baptized,
  4. hear and believe the whole counsel of God.

Practice of the Early Church

The command to be baptized was prominent in the very first sermon preached during the Church Age (Acts 2:38). Often when the Book of Acts reports that people were saved, it adds that they were baptized (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 8:38; 9:18; 10:47; 16:15; 16:33; 18:8; 19:5).

The early church set several precedents that the church today would be wise to follow:

  1. Baptismal formula. Jesus commanded the apostles to baptize converts "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19). The singular name that all three share is God. In other words, they are three persons in one divine being. The name for the Godhead comprising all three is the Trinity. The requirement that the baptizer affirm the Trinity is a dual safeguard.

    1. It sets limits on valid Christian baptism. Any baptism performed by a cult or sect that denies the Trinity is invalid.
    2. It assures the person being baptized that the baptizer is acting not on his own authority, but on God's authority.

  2. Timing of baptism. So far as we know, a convert in the days of the early church was always baptized immediately, or at least as soon as possible. The Ethiopian eunuch was saved while he and Philip were riding in a chariot. Philip stopped and baptized him as soon as they found a place where there was enough water (Acts 8:27-39).

    To delay baptism is unwise, because baptism is a means of grace. Grace is the reward for any step of obedience. Therefore, a person receives grace if he obeys God’s command to be baptized. He receives even more grace as a result of identifying himself with the church and coming under its influence. What kind of grace? Grace to stand firm as a believer, despite persecution and temptation. Putting off baptism gives the devil an opportunity to lead the new convert astray before he attains the benefits. Of course, the church has a right to examine and test the convert's profession of faith, but it should not needlessly dawdle before baptizing him.

  3. Eligibility. The early church baptized only those who were old enough to understand the gospel and to respond in faith (Acts 8:36-7).

Modes of Baptism

Three kinds of baptism have been widely practiced. Most Christian denominations except the Baptists recognize the validity of all three. Baptists employ immersion only.

  1. Affusion. The usual name is "pouring," an ancient method that was common until Reformation times. Water was poured over the head of the recipient as he stood in water or on the ground. It was done once, or it was done thrice as the minister recited the three members of the Trinity.

  2. Aspersion. Aspersion is otherwise known as sprinkling. Many mainline Protestant churches use this method to the virtual exclusion of others and administer it normally to infants. A newborn child in the congregation is brought to the baptismal font, where the minister takes water and sprinkles it over the child's head or face.

  3. Immersion. Immersion is dipping the whole body in water. This is the exclusive mode of baptism in Baptist churches, as well as the exclusive or common mode in various other groups.

    Of all the arguments that have been advanced to deny that the New Testament church used immersion, the only one that is remotely plausible questions how the church on the day of Pentecost could have immersed 3000 people. The answer is that the Jews practiced ritual washings by immersion, and tanks for this purpose, known as mikveh, were plentiful in Jerusalem.

    The antiquity of baptism by immersion is beyond doubt. The oldest Christian writing outside the New Testament is a work called the Didache (that is, "The Teachings," referring to the teachings of the apostles), which some prominent scholars place in the middle of the first century AD. The Didache appears to be a manual for new churches. In a discussion of baptism, it says, "Baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit in living (running) water. But if thou hast not living water, then baptize in other water; and if thou art not able in cold, then in warm. But if thou hast neither, then pour water on the head thrice." The preference for running water shows that the manual expected baptism by immersion, but it is evident that the Didache considered affusion a valid method also if immersion was impossible. What do we Baptists do if a new convert is too weak or sickly to be immersed? We leave him unbaptized. Perhaps we should consider baptizing him by affusion so that he might give public testimony of his faith.

Purposes in Baptism

The main purposes in baptism are two. It is both a test and a testimony.

  1. Test of obedience. In coming to Christ, a person goes through repentance. Under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, he gains a profound new understanding of himself, for the first time seeing himself as a sinner alienated from God. Moreover, he gains a new desire to escape from sin and to live in a manner that God approves.

    After he finds salvation in Christ, God asks him to submit to baptism as a test of whether his repentance has been real. If he truly wants to follow God, he will surely be willing to obey the first command that God lays upon him. He will surely agree to perform a simple rite involving no great cost or inconvenience. To be dunked in water before a crowd of people is a little humiliating, but certainly not difficult or painful.

    If a convert refuses baptism, thereby showing that he fails the test of obedience, he has no right to call himself a Christian, and the church has no obligation to take him into membership. As we have said before, a convert who obeys the command to be baptized positions himself to receive grace.

  2. Testimony of faith. Such a testimony has manifold value.

    1. It keeps the new convert from becoming a secret Christian. It therefore exposes him to all the persecution that will try his faith and, through his steadfastness, bring glory to God. Missionaries in many different cultures have discovered that a convert falls into greater risk of persecution after baptism than after mere assent to the gospel.
    2. It encourages the church. Seeing new converts go under the waters of baptism brings joy to the church and renews its evangelistic zeal.
    3. It strengthens the convert by forcing him to exercise courage, humility, and faith.

    Notice that baptism is a strictly nonverbal testimony of faith. Before baptizing a convert, many churches require him to stand before the congregation and give a verbal testimony of faith, but I myself doubt the wisdom in this. It is better not to tack imagined improvements onto the program of God. The issue at baptism is not willingness to do public speaking, but willingness to be identified with Christ.


As Peter points out in his second epistle, the physical process of baptism has no spiritual value in itself (1 Pet. 3:21). Mere contact between water and skin accomplishes nothing except perhaps to remove dirt. The physical process is significant only in its symbolism, and the symbolism is rich indeed. Baptism by immersion has four distinct meanings.

  1. It pictures the washing away of sin (Acts 22:16). Dipping in water illustrates the convert's cleansing by the blood of Christ.
  2. It pictures identification with Christ's death, burial, and resurrection (Rom. 6:4; Col. 2:12). When a person receives Christ, Christ becomes his substitute in making a full payment for sin (a payment that Christ tendered through His death and burial), and Christ becomes his forerunner in triumphing over the grave (a victory that Christ achieved through His resurrection).
  3. It pictures baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). Upon receiving Christ, the convert is, as it were, drenched with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit comes to indwell him—that is, to live constantly within Him as a source of comfort and counsel—in fulfillment of Jesus' promise to send another like Himself (John 14:16-17, 26). Right at the outset, and at every later moment in the Christian life, the Spirit is also available to fill the believer (Eph. 5:18). To be filled with the Spirit means to be controlled by Him. With His control comes grace for righteous living and power for service (Gal. 5:16-18; Acts 1:8).
  4. It pictures baptism into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:27). The convert is, as it were, submerged in Christ. Through being joined to Christ’s body, he derives the nourishment and sustenance necessary to live forever. Jesus used other metaphors to express the same idea. He is the vine, and we are the branches (John 15:5). We eat of His flesh and drink of His blood (John 6:56). This last saying of Jesus caused many to turn away from Him, but He did not intend it literally, of course, but rather as a figure for our total dependence on Him for life itself.

False Views of Baptism

Three false views are of chief importance.

  1. Infant baptism (pedobaptism). Baptists are so named because their view of baptism sets them apart from most other denominations. The Baptists and their predecessors, the Anabaptists, were the first Christian groups in modern times to insist that baptism should be reserved for believers.

    Baptists first appeared in England about 1600. Anabaptists had been numerous in Western Europe throughout the previous century. The name "Anabaptists" means "rebaptizers," referring to their practice of taking people who had been baptized as infants in an established church and baptizing them again after they had come to faith in Christ. Because the Anabaptists rejected the authority of the established churches, they were mercilessly persecuted and killed and almost exterminated.

    The churches that have sometimes bitterly opposed the Baptists and their allies use various arguments to justify infant baptism. Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans believe that the Spirit's work of regeneration accompanies it. This erroneous theory is known as baptismal regeneration. Presbyterian and Reformed churches, preferring a different rationale, have woven the practice of infant baptism into a special brand of teachings known as covenant theology.

    Here we will content ourselves to consider briefly the covenant view of baptism. Covenant theology asserts that our relationship with God is based ultimately on God's original covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:1-14). In return for his faith, God promised Abraham an abundant progeny and pledged a land as their everlasting habitation. The sign of the covenant was circumcision. Reformed theologians argue that this covenant is still in force and applies to Christians. They say, and correctly so, that we are descendants of Abraham (Rom. 4:11-2). By virtue of his faith he is indeed the spiritual father of all who believe. But they also say, incorrectly, that the land promised to Abraham was only heaven and that the sign of circumcision continues in the form of infant baptism.

    The chief problem in their view of infant baptism is that it has absolutely no support in Scripture. The New Testament nowhere suggests that God introduced baptism of babies as a gentile substitute for circumcision. On the contrary, the New Testament treats baptism as appropriate only for those who have, by their own choice, united themselves with Christ. In the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), Jesus gives baptism as the step that follows becoming a disciple. We naturally infer that baptism is not intended for infants. Surely, if our inference in such an important matter were false, the New Testament elsewhere would clarify Christ's intention. It would state in clear language that infants should be baptized.

    The best that advocates of pedobaptism can do is point to a few occasions when the people who were baptized might have included infants. They claim support especially in the story of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:30–34). Luke records that after hearing the word of the Lord, the jailer "was baptized, he and all his" (v. 33). Pedobaptists argue that his family surely included some infants, or least some children too small to make a meaningful profession of faith. Yet in the context, "all his" stands as an abbreviation for "all his house." The writer pointedly tells us that the apostles offered salvation to "his house" only if they met the requirement to believe (v. 31). He then informs us that "his house" believed (v. 34) after "his house" heard the apostles preach (v. 32). Nothing in the account justifies viewing "his house" as a smaller group than "all his house." Luke, wanting us to rejoice greatly in the power of the gospel on the evening of the earthquake, adds "all" to the phrase merely to reassure us that none in the household failed to believe and be baptized. Therefore, to insist that the apostles baptized some in the jailer’s house who were too young to understand and believe tramples on plain meaning.

    The basis of covenant theology is not Biblical, but historical. In Reformation times, the newly established churches that replaced the Catholic Church were reluctant to let go of infant baptism, because the practice helped to preserve the parish system, the system that allows every local branch of the established church to hold sway over a whole community. By baptizing infants, a parish church can bring each new inhabitant of the parish into membership as soon as he is born. As a result, such a church comes to embrace most of the inhabitants of the community regardless of their spiritual condition, and assures its own preservation as the dominant local religious body. In other words, infant baptism was a ploy to stay in power.

    In its understanding of Old Testament prophecy, covenant theology is a relic of medieval antisemitism. The reformers, as creatures of their own time, did not rise above many cultural attitudes that we now recognize as superstitious or racist. Luther in his old age was outspoken in his contempt for Jews who clung to their heritage. It was impossible for him and men like him to accept a premillennial theology asserting that the Jews as the physical descendants of Abraham still held a special place in the plans of God—that God in fulfillment of His promises to Abraham and the Old Testament prophets intended to save a remnant of the Jews and give them preeminence in Christ's Millennial kingdom.

  2. Salvation by faith plus baptism. This view is the distinctive teaching of the Church of Christ, a strong denomination in the American South. Because the Church of Christ (sometimes known as the Campbellite church) rejects salvation by faith alone, it is properly classified as a heresy rather than as a denomination. It is tragic how this sect has bound men's souls to a doctrine so patently at odds with the true teaching of Scripture. The Bible says that even the plowing of the wicked is sin (Prov. 21:4). No work, not even baptism, can please God unless it proceeds from the influence of the Holy Spirit upon a regenerated heart. In other words, baptism is worthless unless it is preceded by salvation.

    At salvation, the Holy Spirit descends and indwells the believer. If the Campbellites are right, the Holy Spirit cannot descend until a new believer submits to baptism. Yet in the first proclamation of the gospel to gentiles, the Holy Spirit descended as soon as they heard the message. Afterward, at Peter's urging, they were baptized because they had already received the Holy Spirit—in other words, because they were saved (Acts 10:44-48).

    Nevertheless, defenders of Campbellite teaching take refuge in certain favorite texts. We will counter with interpretations consistent with sound doctrine.

    1. Mark 16:16. The writer is not stating that baptism is necessary for salvation. Rather, he is merely assuming that baptism is the usual outward demonstration of true faith. He is taking it for granted that a saved person will be baptized. Notice he declines to say that damnation is the consequence of being unbaptized. He says only, "He that believeth not shall be damned."

    2. John 3:5. There are several orthodox interpretations of this text, all more or less plausible, and none friendly to the notion that salvation requires faith plus baptism. In my view, the best interpretation recognizes that this verse is preliminary to Jesus' question in John 3:10. "Art thou a master of Israel, and knowest not these things?" Jesus is telling Nicodemus that the doctrine of spiritual regeneration is nothing new. It is a doctrine he should know already as a result of his painstaking study of Old Testament revelation. Where does the Old Testament teach that the Kingdom of God is reserved for those who are born again by the Spirit? The only relevant passages are two in Ezekiel: Ezekiel 36:21-38 (especially vs. 24-28), which speaks of God gathering the Jewish people to their land at the beginning of Christ's Millennial kingdom, and Ezekiel 37:1-14 (especially vs. 12-14), which speaks of God raising the saints of Israel from the dead so that they might enter the eternal kingdom of God. The former passage is the one alluded to in John 3:5. It describes spiritual regeneration as a twofold process: first, a sprinkling with clean water to remove the filthiness of sin; and second, a giving of God's Spirit to create a new heart, willing to serve and obey God. These same two steps are described in Titus 3:5 as "the washing of regeneration" and "renewing of the Holy Ghost."

      Does Scripture intend us to equate this washing with physical baptism? No, on the authority of such texts as 1 Peter 3:21 and especially Ephesians 5:26-27, we can say that this washing must be understood metaphorically. It refers to the change that takes place in the heart as a result of believing the gospel. The agency that produces the change is not the material substance known as water, but the Word of God (Eph. 5:26; Rom.10:13-17). The change is called a cleansing because with repentance and faith comes a complete forgiveness of sins.

    3. Romans 6:3-4. Campbellites infer from this text that our identification with Christ's redemptive work depends on water baptism. But Romans 6 must be read in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 10:1-2. In the latter passage Paul obviously does not mean that crossing the sea bed and walking behind the cloud achieved spiritual cleansing. Rather, these acts were pictures of the cleansing available to the Israelites through their participation in the Mosaic covenant. To describe their entry into that covenant, Paul uses the figurative expression, "being baptized into Moses."

      The language in Romans 6 is also suffused with pictorial imagery. Again, man's act has no value in obtaining cleansing from sin, though it be an act of obedience with great value in demonstrating that the heart has been regenerated (or else such obedience would be impossible). As we have seen, the physical side of baptism is merely a picture of spiritual benefits available to the believer through participation in the New Covenant. To describe the believer's entry into all these benefits, Paul uses a figure of speech, "being baptized into Christ," that is similar to the language of 1 Corinthians 10.

  3. Baptism as spectacle. In some of today's megachurches, and even in some smaller churches, baptism has acquired a character that it never had in the past. It has become a means of mass entertainment. The rite is administered in such a way as to capitalize on the possibilities for humor, or even sexual indecency. Needless to say, baptism in this corrupt form is a travesty rather than a testimony.

Further Reading

This lesson appears in Ed Rickard's Primer of the Christian Life: A Detailed Map of the Pilgrim's Road, designed to serve as the textbook for a yearlong course on basic Christianity. For further information, click here.