by Al Maxey

Issue #67a ------- September 6, 2003
In a crisis, the man worth his salt
is the man who meets the needs of the
situation in whatever way is necessary.

--- Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919)


What Would YOU Have Done?
Challenging Cases Involving Immersion

It's no deep, dark secret that baptism is a biblical doctrine and practice that has generated tremendous debate over the centuries. With the possible exception of the Lord's Supper, history has witnessed more dissension among disciples over this practice than virtually any other teaching of Scripture. Is baptism administered via dipping, pouring, sprinkling, or full bodily immersion? Is the medium "still" water (a baptistery) or "living" water (a flowing stream)? Is it baptism in water that is prescribed in the NT writings, or is it the baptism of the Holy Spirit? How much must one understand regarding the spiritual significance of baptism before it is considered valid? May infants be baptized? What specific verbal formula should be uttered by the administrator of baptism? Is baptism an essential element in God's plan of salvation, or is it optional? And what about the doctrine, as practiced by some, of baptism for the dead? These are just a few of the questions that have led to bitter disputes among the people of God.

These are all important, even vital, questions. They are certainly worthy of further study and examination. However, I would like to challenge each of you to do some serious reflection on a scenario that many of us face fairly frequently in our ministries. I would like to hear your thoughts on how one should approach a very real, and extremely critical, life-and-death situation. It involves one who turns to the Lord during the last moments of his or her physical life. A "death bed conversion," if you will. I have been faced with this situation before, and I know of many other ministers who have been also. In some of these cases, full bodily immersion in water is simply no longer an option for the individual. What do you do?!

I have heard some preachers declare, "Well, it's just too bad for them! They had their chance when they were healthy! They waited too long! They will now go straight to hell when they die because they are not physically capable of being immersed in water." But, what if they genuinely believe? What if they have confessed their faith in Christ Jesus and genuinely repented of their sins? What if they long to be immersed? "Too bad!! They had their chance and blew it!!"

Brethren, this is a very real challenge for us who seek to minister to the dying. As the Commander of the Hospital Chaplains Corps for our regional medical center I have faced this several times, and have counseled with several of my Chaplains (there are 20 of them) who have faced it as well. What do we do?! Do we just "write them off" because they waited too long, or is there something we can do for these people; some hope and comfort we can offer? I have struggled with this for years, and am still somewhat conflicted in my own heart and mind as to the best course of action. What I cannot do, however, is "write them off" as a "lost cause." I firmly believe that my Jesus, who extended mercy and grace to a dying criminal on a cross, can also extend mercy to a repentant believer on his death bed. It is unthinkable to me that He wouldn't if that person was truly penitent, and if that repentance and confession stemmed from a genuine faith.

My question, however, deals with baptism. What do we do about immersing such a person, if that person is not physically capable of being immersed, and yet earnestly desires in his heart to comply with our Lord's directive? How do I minister to this person? How would the Lord have me to minister to him? Or, would the Lord say what some of His disciples have said? --- "Write him off!! He waited too long!!" No, I simply cannot accept that. There must be something we can do!

I have said all of that in order to share with you some thoughts from two of my fellow ministers of the gospel here in the Southwest, both of whom I have the utmost love and respect for, and both of whom I have known for years. Each of these men has served faithfully for decades in the Churches of Christ, both have been with their congregations for many, many years, and both also happen to be subscribers to these Reflections. They are highly respected in the Southwest and well-known for their service to the Lord. For obvious reasons, I will not reveal their names or locations. However, both of these men have struggled on various levels with this same dilemma in dealing with the dying, and the place of baptism in that scenario. I would like to share their thoughts and testimony with you, and then solicit your thoughts on how to minister for the Lord to such people. At some point in the near future I would like to share your thoughts (anonymously, of course) on this challenging matter in a special edition of Reflections (which will focus on the presentation of YOUR reflections on this matter and how to deal effectively with it). I think it is something we all need to reflect upon, because many of us will face this situation in our ministries, and we need to be ready with a response to the request of these dying people.

One of the aforementioned ministers wrote to me about six months ago, saying, "I have faced a situation twice in the last few months that I had not encountered in the previous 35 years of ministry. I dealt with both situations as best I could. Twice in the last six months, I have met people who were, quite literally, on their deathbeds. Both individuals eagerly heard the story of Jesus. Both sought the assurance of His grace and forgiveness. Both were physically incapable of being immersed. Because I believe that baptism is an immersion in the name of Jesus, and because I believe that baptism is the expression of our faith sought by God, I found myself in a hard place in dealing with these people. What would you have done if faced with those situations?" I did my best to respond to this brother's question. The following is an excerpt from my email to him (dated March 3, 2003):

Later that day I heard back from this minister, who said, "Thanks for your response. I believe just as you expressed (in fact, I could have written it!). This good brother then went on to describe how he had handled the two situations. In all honesty, I don't know that I would have chosen the same course of action he did, but at the same time I understand his intent and his heart. As previously noted, this is a very, very difficult scenario some of us face at times in our ministry, and knowing what to do is a genuine challenge. Thus, we seek the advice of those trusted brethren willing to do some reflecting along with us. How do we show forth God's grace in such situations? Here is how this beloved brother responded to his own challenge:

Again, would I have performed either of the above two actions? Probably not. But I fully understand why this brother and one of his Elders took the action they did. MY approach would have been (and this is the approach I have taken in similar scenarios) to simply seek to assure the person of God's GRACE, and that we serve a merciful, compassionate God who searches hearts. I believe those who REFUSE to be immersed will be lost. That is my conviction. However, I am equally convicted that those who genuinely DESIRE to demonstrate their faith in immersion, but who are hindered from doing so by circumstances beyond their control, will benefit from a gracious, loving God who searches the intent of one's heart in His passing of judgment. For a much more thorough discussion of this, I refer you to the Maxey-Hughes Debate. I believe you will greatly benefit from that study.

This same point was made most impressively by the other aforementioned minister of the gospel in an email I received just a few hours ago. He has expressed exactly the same sentiments of which I have become convicted over the years. He wrote, in part:

I know many of you who read these Reflections are bound to have some very strong convictions on how best to deal with these deathbed scenarios. Whether you agree or disagree with the convictions or the choices of the two ministers mentioned in this current edition, or with my own views, I would like to hear from you. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Proverbs 27:17). Let's pool our reflections and help one another become better attuned to God's will in this matter so that we can become more effective in our ministry to those in need of His grace. I thank you in advance for your responses.

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