Back when I worked for a flashy, high production church franchise I had the occasional task of screening spontaneous baptism candidates.

I wasn’t very good at my job, though. I turned a kid away once (don’t tell the pastor!).

Before you start throwing rocks, let me explain.

See, things at the church had been weird for a while. The pastor had gotten bit by the “visionary leader” bug, and Sunday services were getting showier.

You know, all the usual megachurchy stuff. Video screens, a rocking praise band, lighting, stage props, and--cough--billowing smoke machines. Not only that, but the usual expository preaching got replaced with his own book promotion masquerading as sermon series.

I’m not aiming to give an apologetic for the efficacy of baptism per se (others would do a better job at that anyhow), but consider the question of who baptism is for.

During the planning stage of one such series, a small group of executive pastors had decided that an open call for spontaneous baptisms ought to be given to churchgoers at the end of services.

I’m all for baptism – it saves after all – I’m just not for baptisms that place emphasis on the baptizee – rather than the one in whose name we are baptized – especially as it relates to a how-many-salvations-this-week metric. Gag.

Here’s where the spontaneous baptism story comes in.

There I was standing side stage at the end of a service conflicted about the baptism-metric scheme. The praise band had cued up the come-to-Jesus jam when a shy, lanky ten-year-old girl with a guilty look on her face approached me with her dad in tow.

I went through the predetermined checklist and asked if she believed in Jesus as her savior, and she answered yes. I asked why she wanted to get baptized, and as her story unfolded, I learned she'd been baptized a couple of years prior. But she'd been mouthy and dishonest toward her dad during the week and felt guilty. Now she wanted to rededicate her life to the Lord to get back on track somehow.

Everything was perfectly teed up to move the needle on the baptism metric, but I just couldn’t do it. I told her she shouldn't get baptized.

I hope and pray what I said next was of comfort.

I’m not aiming to give an apologetic for the efficacy of baptism per se (others would do a better job at that anyhow), but consider the question of who baptism is for.

Is baptism a believer's gift of obedience to God, or is baptism God's unconditional gift to the sinner? Is it God placing us into a watery grave and bringing us back to life, or a public declaration for how we’ve decided to mend our ways, or a time to show off an amazing backstroke?

What a privilege it was to proclaim to that little girl that baptism was God’s promise of faithfulness to her, not her show of faithfulness to him. She already had the promise she was looking for.

And that’s why I declined to baptize her.

Is baptism a believer's gift of obedience to God, or is baptism God's unconditional gift to the sinner?

But there’s also a story behind the story. For my part, aside from the church production theatrics, I felt conflicted about theological matters. Was anything happening at a Sunday service, or was it just spiritual information transfer packaged in the form of a rock concert?

Did communion, the preached word, and baptism accomplish anything for the congregation, or were we just getting "outward symbols of inward spiritual realities"? And if the Sunday service was merely information transfer and symbols, I couldn't help but think the entire service was based on what we must do. In theological shorthand, law and gospel were intermingled, which inevitably leaves you with law.

Over the course of a couple of years and the law and gospel distinction became a core conviction, the question over the efficacy of the sacraments followed. It wasn't just categories in my head anymore. There was a flesh and blood person standing in front of me in need of comfort and assurance.

When that ten-year-old girl was baptized a few years prior, Jesus had definitively sealed the deal whether she’d been a bad kid that week or not. Now she could look back to her baptism with complete assurance that Jesus held her in both his death and resurrection, that her sins past present and future were forgiven in him, and he would never, ever take those promises away. The same is true for you and me too, you know.

I'd like to think that little side-stage conversation was meaningful for that girl and her father. I guess I'll never know for sure. I did my best to deliver that promise as pastorally and age-appropriately as I was able.

Though I’m not confident in the deliverer of that message, I am confident in the God who saves. Not on account of our promises to him, but on his promises to us.