Make Disciples or Baptize?

Did Jesus instruct His disciples simply to baptize or to make disciples?  The answer should be clear.  He said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:18).  Yes, baptism is necessary for salvation.  However, the instruction of Jesus was, “Go… make disciples.”

Alan Adams wrote, “In the summer of 1977, I was asked to participate in a camp sponsored by Christians for young people.  I was a high school teacher at the time.  Several counselors, usually preachers, used this occasion to ‘baptize’ a lot of kids, some very young.  There would be special campfire sessions where attention would be focused on particular people.  Then there would be the whispered promises of, ‘She said she would if you will.’  I vividly remember a preacher taking two giggling teenage girls down to the lake, solemnly raising his hand above their heads, quoting Matthew 28:19, and then ‘baptizing’ them.  I was disgusting.  I was also wrong for not speaking up.  Had the preacher baptized a rock that day, it would have had as much meaning as it had to those two immature, untaught, ignorant girls.  Baptism without prior knowledge of its meaning, purpose, result and implication is meaningless” (Adams, What Must I Know To Be Saved?, Part 2, Banner of Truth, August 1995).  Is he correct in his assessment?

Alan Adams suggested that too often our goals are wrong.  He wrote, “There is a ‘dirty little secret’ loose in our land.  Kids who cannot read and write in a proficient way are graduating from school.  People will asked, ‘Have you gotten your diploma?’  The answer will be, ‘Sure, I have my diploma.’  Change the question to: ‘Have you been educated?’  Answer: ‘Well, I have my diploma.’  Response: ‘That’s not my question’… Now what does this have to do with ‘being saved’?… Brethren, we are also failing to ask the right question.  We often hear, ‘Has he been baptized?’… Change the question to ‘Is he a Christian,’ or ‘Has he been saved,’ or ‘Has he been converted?’” (ibid).  He suggests that it is all about the numbers.  “The desired outcome in modern education has everything to do with numbers.  By tinkering with the test scores… and ‘dumbing down’ the curriculum, so-called educators do nothing more than meet an artificially contrived goal… We have ‘outcome based evangelism’ …with many it is about the numbers” (ibid).

What is the motive?  I can think of a few possible reasons. In some cases, it may be a zeal to save souls that caused some to rush people, before they are ready, into baptism.  In some case, it may be about ego.  Let me put another notch in my belt.  In other cases, it may be about money.  Alan Adams wrote, “Numbers are about money.  In education, the receipt of federal funds is based on numbers.  In the church, the receipt of support, airfare to foreign lands, funds for professionals or specialists (e.g. counselors, special designated ministers), meeting appointments and so on, are likewise based on numbers” (ibid).  Is he correct in this assessment?

Do not misunderstand him.  He added, “No doubt about it: Baptism is an essential step unto salvation; one cannot be saved without having finally taken this step.  However, I confidently affirm that if correct and sufficient teaching have taken place relative to the other steps unto salvation, then baptism, the final step, is virtually a given thing” (Adams, What Must I Know To Be Saved?  Part 3, Banner of Truth, September, 1995).

Jesus wants us to make disciples.  Discipleship involves much more than merely being dunked in water (Luke 14:25-33).

What should one understand before baptism?  Here are some things which should be understood: (1) He should have faith in God (Hebrews 11:6).  (2) He should understand that Jesus is the Christ the Son of God (Mark 8:37; Acts 2:36-38).  (3) He should believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus (Mark 16:15-16 cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-3; Romans 6:3-5).  (4) He should be taught the name of Jesus Christ (His authority; how He authorizes is also an important thing to know) and the Kingdom of God (the church).  Philip taught these things prior to baptizing (Acts 8:5, 12).  (5) He should be taught what it means to repent of one’s sins (Acts 2:38; 3:19 cf. Luke 3:7-14; Matthew 12:41; cf Jonah 3:10).  (6) He must confess Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God (Acts 8:37).  (7) He should know that he has a sin problem (Acts 2:36-38; 3:14-15, 19; Roman 3:23).  (8) He should be baptized for the proper purpose, that is: in order to have his sins washed away (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 22:16).  If he was baptized to please a girlfriend, parents, wife or some other, such is the wrong motive.  If he was baptized thinking that he was already saved, such is not New Testament baptism.  Sometimes people are baptized to obey God, without understanding that it is for the remission of sins.  Is this acceptable?  Compare this to one who takes the Lord’s Supper in order to obey God, but does not understand what the bread and cup represent, and does not discern the Lord’s death, while partaking.  (9) He should understand the “mode” of baptism.  Baptize means “to dip.”  When one is baptized, he is buried and raised (Colossians 2:11-13 cf. 3:1-2; Romans 6:3-5).  It is commanded that one be baptized in water (Acts 10:47-48).


“There are examples, in the book of Acts, of seemingly rapid conversions” (Acts 2:41; 8:26-40; 16:13-15; 16:25-34).  No disagreement here.  However, there are still certain things which must be understood.  It does not necessarily take days to teach such.; though it may, depending upon where the person is.  If they do not believe that God exists and that the Bible is the word of God, it may take a great deal of time. If they need help out of their denominational thinking (e.g. Calvinism, Catholicism), it may take some time.

“All these things (the nine points you listed earlier) were not taught on Pentecost” (Acts 2). A couple of these points did not have to be taught (i.e. they already believed in God; they no doubt already understood what repentance meant).  The truth is: we do not know what all was taught on Pentecost.  What we have is an abbreviated record (Acts 2:40).  Alan Adam has written, “It take about two minutes and forty seconds to read Peter’s powerful sermon in Acts 2.  Does anyone seriously believe that one sermon is all that was involved in the conversion of these folks?  For one thing, verse 40 says, ‘with many other words did he testify and exhort.’  And for another thing, the audience was made up of ‘Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven’ (v. 5).  Reckon how much teaching these people had had during their lifetimes?  My grandparents took me ‘to church’ from the time I was a little kid.  Many years later, at the end of a particular sermon, I asked to be baptized.  Did it take one sermon?  No” (Adams, August, 1995).

“Philip did not teach all this to the Ethiopian” (Acts 8).  How do you know?  This same Philip taught the Samaritans about the name of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God before baptizing them (Acts 8:12).  Alan Adams wrote of a preacher who said of the record on the Ethiopian’s conversion, “See, there is no mention of the church anywhere in there.”  Alan Adams replied, “Of course, neither does the passage specifically say that Philip mentioned the subject of baptism, but I know that he did because the eunuch asked, ‘What doth hinder me to be baptized’ (v. 36)” (Adams, September, 1995).  He had to be taught about baptism at the same time.  Moreover, this was not a man who was without belief in God, or in a man-made religion.  He was a Jew, or a Jewish proselyte, who read the Old Testament.  He was a committed worshipper of God, who traveled hundreds of miles to worship.  This is not an atheist.  This is not an agnostic.  This is not a man who must be untaught a false belief system.

“Teach them enough for them to know that they need to be baptized.  You can teach them the rest later.”  It already has been shown that there are things that should be understood before baptism.  This philosophy has led some to be baptized, who will never attend.  It has led some to be baptized on one day, and attend still the denomination, which they have been attending, the next Sunday.  It has led some to be baptized, but continue their life of sin.   One certainly does not need to know everything about every subject in the Bible before he is baptized, I still do not.  However, there are some things one should know and understand before baptism.  Moreover, it does not seem fair to baptize them without them understanding the responsibilities and cost which comes with being a Christian.  Shouldn’t they be allowed to count the cost?  (Luke 14:28-30). It is almost like saying “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”  Or, “Buy this house. I will tell you about your taxes, and home owner association dues and other matters later.”

“What about Matthew 28:19-20?”  It reads, “Go therefore and make disciples (teach KJV) of all nations, baptizing them… teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you…”  Some suggest that this is saying, “Teach them about baptism, baptize them, and then teach them the rest of what Jesus commands.  It is true that teaching should occur before baptism (Acts 8:5, 12) and after baptism (Colossians 3:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:15; Titus 2:4; Hebrews 5:12). However, Matthew 28:19-20 does not mean this.  Moreover, Matthew 28:19-20 is not teaching that some things are not to be taught until after baptism.  The words “baptizing” and “teaching” are present participles.  The Greek present participle expresses action contemporaneous with the action of the main verb, “make disciples.” These words show how a disciple is made.  There is no order of time expressed by these words.  An illustration: “The church showed hospitality to the hurricane victims by feeding, clothing, and providing shelter.”  No chronological order is implied.  Another illustration: “They serviced my car airing up the tires, changing the oil, and topping off the fluids.”  No chronological order is implied.  Alan Adams, “It is interesting the word teach in verse 19, and the word teaching in verse 20 are not translated from the same word.  In verse 19, the Greek word is matheteusate which is the verb form of the word ‘disciple,’… In verse 20, the Greek word is didaskontes which is the word commonly used for teaching or instructing.  So on the surface it’s clear that this passage does not have the teach – then baptize – then teach some more idea… Reach way back and remember one of your grammar lessons.  Now look at the two words “baptizing” (v. 19) and “teaching” (v. 20).  Notice that each has an –ing on the end.  These two words are present participle; they are not verbs.  The main verb is ‘teach (make disciples of).’  Here there is no –ing.  The point of all this is: our job is to ‘make disciples’ out of people.  We ‘make disciples’ by ‘baptizing’ them and ‘teaching them to observe…’  In other words, it is within the same frame of reference that I both baptize and teach a person in order to make him a disciple.  There is not this – then that  – then that idea in this passage; rather it is do this, by doing this and this… No, we don’t teach a person everything in the Bible before he is qualified to be baptized for the remission of sins, but, we must impress upon that person whom we hope to baptize that he is amenable to, obligated to every commandment of the Lord” (ibid).

About Bryan Hodge

I am a minister and missionary to numerous countries around the world.
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