Southern Baptists have been discussing a Great Commission Resurgence for a couple of years now. One related discussion concerns the relationship of baptism to the Great Commission. Some Baptists at least tacitly downplay the role of baptism and instead cast the Great Commission as simply the advancement of the gospel to all nations. Other Baptists argue that baptism is a crucial component of the Great Commission, and without it, the gospel may indeed be advancing but the Great Commission is not being fulfilled. So who is right? It seems to me that much is hinges upon how we define the Great Commission.
It has been popular since at least the 18th century (and possibly earlier) to refer to Matthew 28:19-20 as the Great Commission:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
In Matthew 28:19-20, part of Jesus’ commission is the command that we baptize new disciples. So if this passage alone is the Great Commission, then there is no doubt that baptism is a necessary component of the Great Commission.
But most missiologists argue that Matthew 28:19-20 is only one of five different articulations of the Great Commission found in the New Testament. Rather than equating the Great Commission with the Matthew passage, these scholars instead argue that the Great Commission is more broadly Jesus’ sending of his followers to preach the gospel to all people. Note the following:
And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
And said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:46-49).
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld” (John 20:20-23).
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Of these other passages, the only one that mentions baptism is Mark 16, which is a disputed passage that many scholars believe is not original to Mark’s Gospel. Even if the Markan account is original, one could make the case that if all of these passages are indeed the Great Commission, then it cannot be argued that baptism is necessary to fulfilling the Great Commission since it is not mentioned in every version.
For my own part, I think both sides are right. I do agree with missiologists that the Great Commission is a broader concept than is found in Matthew 28 alone. The Great Commission is Jesus’ sending of his followers to proclaim the gospel to all nations. But I also believe that Matthew 28 is the fullest account of what it means to proclaim the gospel to all nations, and Matthew’s version makes it clear we are commanded to baptize in the name of the Triune God.
This question is important because Southern Baptists are not just a generic group of missions-minded Christians-we are Baptist Christians. And as Baptist Christians, we believe that New Testament churches are regenerated assemblies of immersed believers. When Baptist Christians spread the gospel to new places, we “do” Matthew 28 because we not only win the lost to Christ, but we baptize those new disciples and then attempt to teach them all things in the same way we honestly believe happened in the earliest New Testament churches.
I do believe there is a sense in which non-baptistic churches are pursuing the Great Commission, broadly speaking-they are preaching the gospel to all men and planting new churches among all the peoples of the earth. But as a Baptist Christian who wants to follow all the commands of my Lord, I also believe that baptistic groups alone are fulfilling the Great Commission in the totality of the way intended by our Lord through the planting of local churches of baptized disciples among all the peoples of the earth.
So what is the application? Well, part of what it means for us as Southern Baptists to embrace a Great Commission Resurgence is a renewed commitment to planting healthy churches in every corner of the globe. As we understand the Scriptures, this means those churches should be assemblies of disciples who have repented of their sin and trusted in Christ alone for their salvation and followed their Lord publicly through the ordinance of believer’s baptism. This is the New Testament way.
Southern Baptists should celebrate how God is working through many Christian groups to spread the gospel to all nations. I even think we should look for ways we can in good conscience cooperate with other Great Commission Christians in spreading the gospel to all people. But we must continue to hold fast to our New Testament commitment to plant churches of baptized disciples who will in turn plant more churches of baptized disciples. To do anything less would be to disobey our Lord’s commands about all that it means to “go therefore.”