What happens if a person dies before being baptized? Specifically, what if that person made it known that he wants to be baptized and was preparing, then died before his baptism? Such questions are usually asked during a discussion or debate about faith and works. Where do faith and works meet? Can faith justify purely in the moment of acceptance? “And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Or does it always require works? “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).
The Holy Spirit used Abraham as an example for both sides of faith, faith accepted and faith fulfilled. Here was a man who accepted God’s promises.
“And behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, ‘This one shall not be your heir, but one who will come from your own body shall be your heir.’ Then He brought him outside and said, ‘Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness” (Genesis15:4-6).
Abraham accepted God’s promises. This is declared an attribute of righteousness. Our faith must begin with believing God’s promises. The Holy Spirit also reveals that beginnings are not enough. Faith must be fulfilled with works.
“Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.’ And he was called the friend of God” (James 2:21-23).
The Holy Spirit credits Abraham’s offering Isaac as the fulfillment of the scripture’s testimony – Abraham’s belief that he and Sarah would have a child in their old age, and his belief that this child would be the progenitor of a vast multitude.
Abraham accepted these promises approximately fifteen years before Isaac was born. Abraham and Sarah’s response was to have Hagar as a surrogate for Sarah. He was eighty-six when Ishmael was born (cf. Genesis 16:16). It took some time for Abraham’s faith to get sorted out.
Let us return to the hypothetical question; What about the person who wants to be baptized and dies before reaching the water? The answer is found in Abraham offering up Isaac.
“And Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the Angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ So he said, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the lad, or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me’” (Genesis 22:10-12).
Did Abraham succeed in materially killing Isaac? Though he was called to do this, obviously, he did not. The same could be said about the one who dies before reaching the water. Though he prepared to be baptized, he was stopped. However, the sacrifice of Abraham was fulfilled because the Lord said, “you have not withheld your son.” It plainly says; “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac” (Hebrews 11:17). The Lord counted Abraham’s commitment and engagement as sufficient. Could we say that God would not treat in the same manner the soul who was committed and engaged to be baptized, yet was cut off before the baptism was carried out? In such case, the comfort of hope abides.
The moment of receiving God’s promises entails commitment and engagement (works). To commit is to prepare our life for doing whatever needs to be done. This is the beginning of works. It is the work of the mind and heart. It is spiritual in nature. To engage is to move the body in conformity with God’s will. This is where the commitment is proven. It is coming forward to express one’s desire. It is getting a towel. It is going to the location of water. It is waiting for the moment when another lays your body under the water. It is not a free pass to neglect the commandments of God. Otherwise, commitment and engagement would not be real.
Acceptance of an idea, as per agreeing with an argument, has no virtue unless there is commitment and engagement. One might say; “I have heard the command to be baptized, therefore I have no need of being baptized. I already have faith.” It would be like Abraham saying; “I have heard the command to sacrifice, therefore I have no need to sacrifice my only son. I already have faith.” Such a thing would make void the commandment of God. Again, one might say; “My commitment to God is sufficient, therefore I will be baptized because I am saved.” That would be like Abraham saying to God; “I will sacrifice Isaac, because I have already been proven.” Both examples display the attitude of self-vindication, watering down commitment and the need to act. Faith toward God demands that we commit and engage. Our life depends upon it.
What about the responsibility of those who do the baptizing? Typically, a soul makes it known to the church that he or she wants to be baptized. Or an individual might be asked, like Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch. How irresponsible it is to forestall the baptizing in favor of a more convenient time. Things like this have been said: “Let’s wait until all the family can be here.” Is the sentiment of the occasion more important than facilitating a soul’s commitment? How many other inconveniences can we produce? “The water is too cold.” Many of our ancestors chopped through ice to get to the water. What would they have to say about such an excuse? You who are reading can imagine other excuses for convenience. What messages do we give to those who are being baptized and to those who have not yet made ready? We dare not give the message that salvation is subject to our convenience, our fancy, our softness. There will always be a window of time between accepting responsibility and fulfilling it. But we play with salvation when we expand that window to suit ourselves. It is up to us to judge the appropriate time. Let us not be lax with it. Our responsibility is to serve that soul who has made ready. All other things should be set aside in favor of salvation, no matter how inconvenient it may be. It is the grit of serving God.
~ Louis Garbi