It seems that revival work in some portions of the country has been left in no small degree to the management of "revival preachers," many pastors included in the number. It is to be feared that often the pastor has had such special regard to the number he should baptize, as to be quite slack on the question whether the candidates were genuine converts. Perhaps they have regarded it only a candidate's concern whether he has been converted or not. However this may be, it has become sadly true that by some unwarranted means or other, even where revivals have been counted most signal, the churches in some instances have been filling up with unconverted members. Now, as a pastor opens has eyes to this state of things nothing is more reasonable than that he should urge upon the membership the most thorough self-examination and that, in so far as they find themselves living in the neglect of Christian duty, and, by consequence, destitute of religious enjoyment (and, it may be, without hope) urge upon the necessity of seeking God's forgiveness and leading a more spiritual life. In the event of their becoming convinced that they never have experienced a change of heart, we should suppose this very conviction would tend very much to bring them to God with the true cry of the penitent for mercy. Thus we might well expect that, occasionally at least, in the social meetings of the church some one would be heard telling of his having such joy in believing as he has never known before. Suppose, now, the pastor requires of such a person if he knew nothing of this joy in the Lord when he was baptized, and this brother sincerely answers that he did not, shall the pastor proceed to explain to this brother that the baptism he received was of no account, that if he was not a converted person he has never been baptised?
Here we wish to say that in our view such a course would be very inconsistent with the nature of a gospel church and the relation of baptism thereto.
We, as Baptists, believe in a "converted membership" — believe in this strongly. But what is meant by this? That we are to receive no one to membership unless we are certain of his conversion, certain that he belongs to the kingdom of grace? If it means this, then the increase of membership is impossible, for of no one can we have such a certainty. Now what in fact is this matter of legitimate increase? What do we mean by a "converted membership?" What do we mean by "believer's baptism?" We mean first that there is such a thing as one's becoming a new creature, an heir of salvation, a saved person through belief on the Lord Jesus Christ. Second, as to whether this person, that or the other, in a true believer, whether it is a matter of certainty as to his being such a saved person, we must be governed by what we know. Whether therefore, a person should be admitted to baptism must depend upon what we know. Third, now what do we know? What is the most we can know? We can know that the applicant for baptism professes to have a hope in Christ. And when he gives an account of this hope, it may be such that we have a good hope for him as being a true believer in Christ. All that we know, all we can know is this: he has a hope for himself, and we have hope for him as being a saved person. And upon this he is admitted to baptism, is baptized. By submitting to this rite he makes public profession of a saving belief in Christ, and we make a public profession of our confidence in him as being what he professes. And this is all that is meant, or can be meant by "believer's baptism" — all that is meant or can be meant by a "converted membership." It means that no one is to be admitted to baptism without our using the best means at hand to gain an evidence of his being a saved person, with a result in the candidate's favor.
In the matter of baptism the candidate stands as the party to be baptized. He does not do the baptizing. He no more does this than he pardons his own sins — he no more does this than the party that applies to be insured issues his own policy. There is obliged to be another party to do the baptizing. The direction is, "Repent and be baptized." Herein is law both for the candidate and for the administrator. The former must assert his consciousness of having repentance, and the latter must have the evidence that such repentance exists. He has no more right to baptize without this evidence than he has under the civil law to marry a couple without a license, hence the wisdom of having the whole church satisfied as to the evidence. A candidate comes before a church for baptism. He gives an account of the work of grace in his heart — the good hope he has in Christ — and this is all he does. As to whether he is to be baptized or not, he leaves it entirely with the church. If they admit him, the administration of the rite follows as the church's act, done through her appointed minister, and being thus done, it is as genuine a baptism as the forerunner of Christ or either of his apostles ever administered.
Here we must repeat and keep in mind these three points: First, the candidate trusts he has a saving belief in Christ. Second, the church gains an evidence to the same effect on his behalf. Third, the church can not be, nor does she ever pretend to be, certain that such a belief exists. These are the essential conditions of a true gospel baptism in our day as professedly observed by the Baptists.
How stands the case when a person who has thus received baptism, afterward gives up his hope and then gains an evidence of what he considers a sure acceptance of Christ? Suppose that under these new spiritual illuminations he assures his brethren that when he was baptized he only thought he was converted, but that he knows it? What is to be done? If now he is a genuine believer, his heart right with God, what is already done is all that God wants. If one has got into the church without conversion, then the conversion must come afterward, if it comes at all. It is not necessary for a person to be turned out of the church to be converted. There is a trouble when one in the church is without religion — has never been converted; but let him be converted and the trouble ends.
Baptism was to be the safeguard to the purity of the church. Only those who feel assured of their conversion, on whose behalf the church gain the same assurance, are admitted to baptism. Then this baptism was employed by the Holy Spirit to constitute church admittance. Thus baptism is aimed at a converted membership. Baptism declared conversion as the qualification of membership because no one was admitted to the rite without the evidence of having been converted. But if one is baptized upon this profession and evidence without possessing the reality, the only need is that he possess — that he acquire the reality. And if he does not acquire the reality — really becomes possessed of what his baptism declared – what is the need of repeating the declaration?
Baptism is the answer of a good conscience. This means that the conscience of a convert does not allow him to live without declaring Christ to the world. But if one has declared Christ and does not know him, what is the operation of conscience now? Just this: he can not live without knowing Christ as he has professed. He has the lamp, but he must have the oil. He is not to be told that his lamp is good for nothing — that he must throw it away and get another. He must have the oil, the grace of conversion; and if he only has it in time, everything is as right as it can be both for church and heaven.
In baptism one presents himself to the church as free from the bonds of Satan, presents himself as the Lord's free man. If afterward, he finds himself still under the old bonds, what is necessary but to get a discharge from those bonds as soon as possible? This done, his character harmonizes with his profession. What more is needed? When we make a conveyance and afterward find that there is some old incumbrance on it, we hasten — don't sleep, perhaps until that incumbrance is removed. This done, what sense is there in declaring the deed void? It is not so. To do this is to utter a false hood. That old deed is better than any new one that can be made.
[From "Contributions," by P. S. Whitman, Toccoa, GA, in Baptist and Reflector, January, 1890, p. 1.
Baptist History Homepage