By Ron Crisp
In 1737 Jonathan Edwards wrote his Narrative of Surprising Conversions. His motive in writing the book was to create a more positive attitude toward the revivals of the Great Awakening.
The work brought Edwards international attention and is, in fact, still being published. Edwards was a saintly pastor and intellectual giant. Even today, his genius is acknowledged by the academic world. He was not, however, the pioneer in this literary genre. That honor goes to the men God inspired to write the Holy Scriptures.
In the Bible conversion accounts are numerous and of great variation. The rich and the poor, the Jew and the Gentile, and women as well as men have their stories told. We read of debased, decadent and even demon-possessed sinners who were transformed. More surprising is the account of respectable and religious people who also learned that "except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish." Scripture even contains the record of false conversions. People like Orpah (Ruth 1:14), Demas and Simon the Sorcerer teach us to examine ourselves in light of Scripture. Finally, we observe that our Lord used parables that illustrated the need and nature of conversion.
Conversions are described in both Testaments. Enoch was apparently converted by the birth of his son. Ruth turned her back on the gods of Moab and found rest under the wings of Jehovah. The real interest of the Queen of the South was not Solomon's gold, but his God (I Kings 10:1). Manasseh has been called the prodigal son of the Old Testament.
In the New Testament we read of a demonized maniac who became a missionary. Doubtless he understood Matthew 12:28-29. But if I cast out devils by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God is come unto you. Or else how can one enter into a strong man's house, and spoil his goods, except he first bind the strong man? and then he will spoil his house. Jesus is the first person in Scripture to perform an exorcism.
The woman at the well left the water pot of sin behind when she discovered the source of living water. Lydia, the seller of purple, had her heart opened by God so that her ears would be open to the gospel. Lydia was highly respectable, while the woman at the well was a scandal to her town. Both, however, needed Christ.
Zacchaeus climbed the sycamore tree to see Jesus. At the call of Christ he joyfully came back down. When Zacchaeus was finished talking, everyone knew that the servant of mammon now had a new Master.
Most striking and most often repeated is the conversion story of Paul. On the Damascus road legalism lost its most sincere advocate, while grace gained its most profound expositor. The persecutor of Christ's gentle flock became a follower of the Good Shepherd.
Most of the conversion stories tell something of the change that followed in the life of the convert. Lydia's open heart caused her to open her home to the missionaries. Ruth helped take the bitterness from Naomi's life. D. L. Moody once said that the world was yet to see what God could do with one man totally devoted to God. Surely he had forgotten about Paul when he made that statement.
We love the biblical narrative of conversions, but as Edwards' book proves, they did not cease to occur with the close of the Biblical canon. Like all true converts, I find my own conversion the most surprising. Have you a conversion story?
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind but now I see."
The Bible student is, of course, aware that Scripture is full of other biographical information. Examples of prayer, giving and Christian witness are common in the Bible. Modern evangelists might do well to consider how many accounts of baptism are found in the New Testament. One could produce quite a narrative of baptisms just from the pages of Scripture. Let us notice a few.
The Holy Spirit's record gets off to a high profile start with the ministry of John the Baptist. His preaching sent shock-waves over the country side. Hearts were changed (Luke 1:16-17). Many were baptized (Matthew 3:5-6). Both civic and religious rulers were roused to attention (Mark 6:20, John 1:19-28).
The first and only of John's baptisms described in detail was our Lord's. At around thirty years of age (Luke 3:21-23), Jesus walked a great distance to be baptized by John the Baptist. Of all baptisms, this was the most amazing. John himself was shocked (Matthew 3:14).
Holy Scripture places great emphasis on Christ's baptism. It is mentioned in all four Gospels. (Christ's birth is only mentioned in two of the Gospels.) Notice the striking events that occurred that day at Jordan: the Savior buried in and coming out of the flood; the mystery of the Holy Trinity most clearly revealed as God the Father spoke of His Son from an open heaven; the Spirit descending and abiding on Christ. This was our Lord's public anointing.
As events proceed, we see both John and the disciples of Christ baptizing. After the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ, the church is baptized with the Holy Spirit. This event was metaphorically described as a baptism. That same day three thousand were literally baptized and added to the church at Jerusalem. This was amazing! Such a display of converting grace manifested the filling with the Spirit received by the disciples that day.
We are told of Paul's baptism. As with the baptism of Christ, the administrator objected but for a different cause (Acts 9:13-19). The account of the Ethiopian eunuch is touching. He could not find Christ in Jerusalem but found him in the desert. So great was his zeal that he could not pass by the first water where he might follow his Lord in baptism (Acts 8:36).
At Philippi, both Lydia and the jailer saw their entire families saved and baptized. This, no doubt, added to their joy. The jailer was near suicide when he was saved. That same night he confessed in baptism that he was now dead to sin and alive unto God through Jesus Christ. Years ago we held a midnight baptizing on a New Year's Eve. I preached on the Philippian jailer and several who had already asked "What must I do to be saved?" confessed in baptism that they now knew the answer.
We who are Gentile by birth should find the baptismal service that occurred in the home of Cornelius of great interest. It caused quite a stir among the Jewish saints, and the Holy Spirit devoted two chapters (Acts 10 and 11) to the event. This baptism revealed that there was qualitatively but one body and one baptism (Ephesians 4:5).
We hope the reader has received a new interest in the conversion and baptismal accounts of Scripture. Careful Bible reading will reveal much more of interest in these two categories and in other areas of biographical record.
We would also encourage the reader to explore the vast field of Christian biographical and autobiographical literature produced since the close of the canon of Scripture. The serious reader may wish to tackle Edwards' Narrative of Surprising Conversions. An easier read is Memories of Sandfield by Bethan Lloyd Jones. I would be sorry to have missed the conversion stories of Mark McCann or Staffordshire Bill.
We also encourage the reading of biographies that tell the story of lives yielded to the Savior. Knowing that our soul is saved, we then need to be challenged to "save our life."
Only what's done for Christ will last."
This is the purpose of our Narrative of Surprising Baptisms. The story of Scriptural baptism is scattered over the pages of untold volumes of church history and biographical work. We have tried to collect many of these accounts and make them accessible to those interested. Doubtless the narrative will grow as we find more of these records.
Our special interest in this Narrative of Surprising Baptisms is to stir up our Baptist people. We trust that a knowledge of what others have experienced for the cause of Christ will lead to a more serious view of churchmanship.
Before we proceed any further in discussing the benefits of studying our narrative, we have a matter that should be addressed. Some may question the use of the "surprising" in connection with baptism.
The reader will have already observed that our title is a "knock-off" from Jonathan Edwards, used for the purpose of rousing attention. We do, however, feel that in the case of Baptist baptism it is appropriately used. Before explaining, let me make some pertinent observations.
Baptists are the only people who, to any extent, have taken interest in preserving and publishing accounts of Scriptural baptism. This seems odd, considering they have never viewed baptism as a sacrament, channel of grace or promise of future grace. Catholics, Protestants and followers of Alexander Campbell write prolifically in defense of their peculiar views yet do not emulate the New Testament writers by producing any real record of individual baptisms. Certainly Jonathan Edwards produced no Narrative of Surprising Baptisms. Even the great Protestant missionary biographies say little on the subject.
Why is this so? What is missing from these baptisms that they are not found surprising or even interesting? The claims for these baptisms are great. Some speak of sins washed away and regeneration effected. Others speak of baptism as a covenant seal and promise. Still the record of such fails to interest historians or readers.
Could it be that these groups are aware that their baptisms little resemble those of the New Testament? Could it be that their baptisms lack the element of "Christian experience" which was always present in the New Testament?1 The element of "surprise" in the New Testament record of baptisms was the change of heart that preceded these baptisms. The eunuch believed with all his heart and left the water rejoicing. The apostle Paul baptized the church with suffering before he became a baptized disciple himself. Ananias and the saints were certainly surprised by the whole affair. The Holy Spirit interrupted Peter's sermon and to the surprise of Peter and his associates, a baptismal service was required. What interest would the baptism of Lydia hold for us if God had not first opened her heart? Who would care to read of the jailer's baptism, had he not first cried, "What must I do to be saved?"
Any record of infant baptisms would read like an immunization record. Campbellites baptize adults but deny the work of the Spirit. Their concept of faith is mere intellectual assent. Their idea of repentance is nothing more than a little personal reformation. Their baptisms are preceded by no confession of Christ that involves an experience of grace. Poor reading this would make!
The New Testament concept of baptism as practiced by Baptists is different. People are not brought to such a baptism; they come. The baptism is no miracle of grace, but the confession that one has occurred. In baptism, new life is professed and the convert willingly identifies with Christ. Such a ceremony is not like a "vaccination," but like a "wedding" where vows are made and love professed.
Many times I have, like Ananias, marveled at what God has done in making someone a candidate for baptism. I would never have guessed that the individual I was baptizing was one of God's elect sheep, had not God's effectual and surprising call identified them as such (I Thessalonians 1:4). My joy was increased as time proved their profession to be real.
I have had the privilege of baptizing my wife and three children. The baptism of my children was not an expected formality, but the celebration of a grace so amazing that it could transform a fleshly descendant into a spiritual brother or sister in Christ. In their baptism I gratefully acknowledged that our Father in heaven had heard the prayers of a father on earth.
The narrative of true baptism is surprising and interesting because it is preceded by a narrative of conversion. The church or minister hears and judges the confession as creditable. The life is seen to have fruit that justifies the claim of conversion. In baptism the local church has now a candidate for membership. The Lord's army has another soldier in uniform (Galatians 3:27). It is a story worth telling.
The story of obedience to God is of course more than just interesting; it is profitable. This is why the Holy Spirit included so much biographical material in the Word of God.
The example of others can stir and provoke us to greater effort in God's service. The price paid by untold multitudes of Christians to follow Christ in baptism and serve him in a Scriptural church is incalculable. Many died, were exiled, or had their children taken. Papal Rome persecuted more of these followers of Christ than did pagan Rome. Even in America, Baptist preachers were jailed, whipped, fined and had their livestock sold to pay the salaries of the Episcopal clergymen. There is the famous case of Obadiah Holmes. He was whipped so savagely that for weeks he slept on his knees and elbows. Others like James Ireland were repeatedly jailed and mistreated.
Let him come hither
One here will constant be
Come wind, come weather."
Baptist churches today often are sad contrasts to these colonial churches. We have money, buildings, seminaries and access to endless spiritual resources. The reality, however, is spiritual poverty and Biblical illiteracy.
Baptist churches today are often characterized by shallow worship, shallow preaching and shallow evangelism. They have no knowledge of their history and minimal knowledge of Scripture. They literally do not know where they came from and are waiting for the next religious fad to see where they are going. Our churches have often competed where they should have cooperated; and many of our pastors do not know gold, silver and precious stones from wood, hay and stubble. The mantra is "build, build, build," yet no one cares whether it is a barn or a temple under construction.
This is really not a surprise. The churches of the New Testament needed constant correction. The entire gospel age is characterized by a "falling away." We were warned of this in God's Word. Look at the apostasy that occurred in early churches after the passing of the Apostles. Baptists have been in America for over two hundred years. But today the founders of these churches would not know them as the same churches.
Apostasy is not new. What concerns us is the exodus of members to other groups where they profess to find better preaching and more serious worship. A very astute Baptist seminary president recently observed that many of our more devoted and better read members are attending Presbyterian churches. It is not that they believe in infant baptism or Presbyterian government. They simply want instructive preaching and reverent worship.
While we sympathize with the plight of these people and applaud their desire for spiritual food, we cannot justify their action. In the Great Commission, those discipled and baptized were to be taught to "observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you." If we have Baptist convictions, we should be in Baptist churches.
Paul spent his ministerial career correcting the churches he had founded. Some sixty years after his ascension, Jesus sent epistles of rebuke and instruction to seven churches in Asia Minor.
I trust that my point is obvious. Weak or disorderly churches are to be strengthened or corrected if possible. We should make every effort to maintain churches of New Testament faith and order. Jesus is the only authority or law-maker in the church. If Scripture teaches believers' immersion, regenerate membership and independent-congregational church government, then we have our orders.
I am not suggesting we stay in Baptist churches regardless of how far they drift. Sometimes our support of truth involves driving farther to church or attending a smaller church where the social network is limited. Serious preachers often hear: "I really appreciate your preaching, but we need to go where our children can find friends, ...etc." The irony is that if everyone who said that had stayed, the "small" church would not be small.
Our support of the truth involves using our influence to support sound doctrine and scriptural church practice. We need to pray that God would raise up laborers for his vineyard. Church members need to insist that candidates for the pastoral office be not only scriptural in doctrine, but "apt to teach." When necessary, we need to be willing to work toward the constitution of new churches.
We would next mention our hope that these examples of Baptist baptism would challenge pedobaptists to take a fresh look at their practice in light of Scripture.
Before we proceed, allow me to clarify our attitude toward evangelicals who are not Baptists. We glory in the cross. Baptists have always held that the local church and baptism are about service, not salvation. Salvation is by grace alone, through Christ alone, and is received by faith alone to the Glory of God alone. Spiritual completion is in Christ (Colossians 2:10). Without guile, we profess to recognize the evidence of saving grace in the lives of those who differ with us over church baptismal practice.
I have no desire to deny the giftedness, learning and spirituality of some ministers I would deem unbaptised. Our own life has been enriched by reading Robert McCheyne, Jonathan Edwards, John Flavel and John Owen.
Neither do I question the sincerity with which some hold what we consider erroneous views. The promise of Christ given in John 16:13, "He shall lead you into all truth," concerns the Apostles and the inspiration of the New Testament. It is not a club to be used on those we differ with.
These things affirmed, we still do not hide our disapproval of things we consider unscriptural. Errant ecclesiology may not be as serious as denying the deity of Christ, but all error has its consequences. Christian love was never intended to be separated from spiritual discernment (Philippians 1:9).
The love that covers a multitude of sins is no cover for error. Love rather dictates that we speak the truth in love.
We would warn our readers in particular about infant baptism. This is a bit of popery the Reformation left unreformed. Like all error, it is no good to anyone but the "god of this world" who uses it in the deception of souls.
Infant baptism is of no benefit to parents. Many parents come away from the ritual with a feeling that their child is now safe or better off. These folks have probably given their child all the religion they themselves have ever possessed.
Our real desire is to reason with pedobaptist parents who truly know Christ. You were never told to bring your child to be baptized. Bring them before the throne of grace, bring them where the gospel is preached, bring them to the place of family prayer, and when needed bring them to the woodshed. You cannot bring them to believe the gospel, but your life can bring them to know that you believe.
Do not tell them of a baptism they do not remember. Tell them to "Repent and be baptized." Should they ask about baptism, tell them "if thou believeth with all thine heart thou mayest" (Acts 8:37).
Do not Christianize them; evangelize them! Beware of telling a lost child that he was sealed in baptism. The only seal that Scripture speaks of is the one believers receive Ephesians 1:13. In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that holy Spirit of promise. What good can come of an unrepentant child being told that he is a covenant child? Consider the words of John the Baptist to the Jews of his day (Matthew 3:9). Would you replicate or encourage your child to replicate their error? God may pass over these "covenant" children and of the stones raise up children unto Abraham.
In the war for your child's soul, do you think that baptism paints a target for grace? Perish such thinking! The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8)
Tell them that Isaac, Aaron, Samuel and David all have children in hell. Remind them that it is not opportunity, but desire that brings one to Christ. The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at the preaching of Jonas; and, behold, a greater than Jonas is here. The queen of the south shall rise up in the judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: for she came from the uttermost parts of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and, behold, a greater than Solomon is here. (Matthew 12:41-42) The presumption of faith in baptized children is presumption indeed.
Infant baptism, furthermore, is of no help to the church. It places the unregenerate in a house intended to be built of "living stones." It tends to blur the distinction between the church and the world. Issues like infant communion are raised. All this makes the true state of unsaved children more difficult to see.
I remember overhearing a Baptist minister relate a conversation he had engaged in with a high-profile Presbyterian minister. The Presbyterian scholar had said to him, "Our children are in the house, where are the children of Baptists, on the porch?" This Baptist preacher was wavering in his convictions and seemed quite disturbed at the idea of our children being on the porch. As I listened, my heart was made sad at such spiritual blindness. Our unregenerate children are not in the house, on the porch, or even in the yard. They are playing on the freeway. Without Christ, young and old, baptized or not, Presbyterian, Baptist or Buddhist are all on the broad road to destruction.
Jesus started the church, infant baptism created the parish. A gospel church is an assembly of baptized believers covenanted together in New Testament faith and order. Not until the error of infant baptism developed could Constantine's "hybrid" come to exist. This union of church and state seems to have been the matter that kept the reformers chained to the error of infant baptism. They could not shake off their dependence on the state. This ended with a blot on their good names. Ulrich Zwingli died in battle wielding the wrong sword. Martin Luther's writings stirred up the peasants. He then encouraged the state in their punishment. Michael Servetus is a sad blot on the great name of John Calvin. Calvin endured persecution and then became a persecutor himself. He was a saintly man, but wrong principles lead to wrong actions. His Geneva was said to be a model, but it looked nothing like anything we find in the New Testament.
I say again that infant baptism benefits no one. The parent, the child, the church or the state; none have anything to gain by its existence.
Perhaps some concerned pedobaptist is stirred by our admonitions, yet remembers that men of spiritual depth and intellectual greatness have defended the practice of pedobaptism. Men like Calvin, Hodge, Dabney, Turretin and Murray were no mental lightweights. How could such men err?
The fact remains that great men can and do err. Great minds perpetuate great blunders. Often the O. J. Simpsons of even the theological world would get the best lawyers. The belief in things like a sacral state will cause any Bible reader to look for supporting proofs rather than for truth alone. Once the course is set men find it hard to break free. Plow around a rock rather than remove it and generations may plow a crooked furrow. The reformers were amazing men, but they were not inspired men.
Allow me to engage in a little friendly sarcasm that I might show how the reformers erred.
"We greatly admire the reformers as we do all who tackle the difficult or seemingly impossible. The Roman Catholics had it easy. They could justify pedobaptism by tradition and papal authority. When the reformers declared "Sola Scriptura" they were left with a dauntingly difficult task. These prodigies of intellect (no sarcasm here) rose to the battle. Infant baptism was defended with great ingenuity. When the New Covenant afforded no help, the Old Covenant was called back into service. Where precept was wanting, good and necessary inferences were drafted to fill in the ranks. As no examples could be found, conjectures were made to serve in their place. (Did Lydia's baby really have red hair?) We all regret to recall that when the evidence failed to convince, the magistrate was at times called to bring additional light to the minds of the stubborn."Sarcasm aside, would not one command, one precept, or one example be worth more than all these labored arguments? John Calvin's defense of infant baptism is much more lengthy than his general exposition of the ordinance. To my mind, the very depth of these discussions and the ingenuity of their arguments betray the fact that their client was not looking very innocent in the eyes of an impartial jury. Great posturing and confident assertions sometimes just mean "we are short of ammunition."
Allow me to draw things to a close by addressing the many sincere pedobaptists who make no claim of being theologians. Have you found infant baptism in your Bible? Do you really understand the arguments for pedobaptism constructed by these giants of intellect? Is your faith in pedobaptism actually an "implicit" faith? You believe what you cannot really see or understand because you trust that your theologians do understand.
I think of the testimony of a Baptist minister who became a Presbyterian and then later returned to Baptist ranks. While in the process of becoming a Presbyterian, his wife was given an intense exposition and defense of infant baptism. Her response was most interesting. She confessed that she was troubled by the fact that one could only find infant baptism in the Bible with the help of a theologian.
My advice to all such is simple. Read the Bible. Read it with an open mind. It has often been observed that where a new convert does this they inevitably become a Baptist. Has the simple reading of the New Testament ever produced a Pedobaptist? For this, professional assistance seems required.
Allow me to add one more bit of advice. After you read your Bible, read our Narrative of Surprising Baptisms. See if these testimonies do not have a New Testament ring to them. These saints had one Lord, and faith and one baptism.
In closing we hope we have provoked thought and study rather than anger. Love should cause us to speak plainly. If some are angry and offended we can only say,
We hew the lines of truth
And let the chips fall where they may."
God bless you.
1 It has been noted that the protestants have little to say about their adult baptisms. Perhaps they are self-conscious about the seeming appearance of practicing two baptisms, each with different prerequisites. The Scripture speaks of "one baptism." (Ephesians 4:5).
Grace Bible Baptist Church
26080 Wax Road
Denham Springs, LA 70726