Here’s the setup. A man is sitting in church, listening to the preacher preach a sermon about Jesus. This man’s conscience is pricked by the word of God. He believes Jesus to be the Son of God and because of his belief he also repents of his sins and confesses his faith in Jesus before all who are present. As they make their way to the creek to baptize this man, a tree limb breaks, falls on the man and kills him. Are you saying that this man is lost? If baptism is essential to salvation, then you would be saying that this man would be lost forever in a Devil’s Hell because he died before he was baptized.
Through the years, variations of this story have been told. Some have the man coming to faith in Jesus while lying in a hospital bed, too sick to be baptized. Others have the man hunkered down in a fox hole with no water in sight. But the common thread to all these stories is this, “What happens to a person who believes in Jesus but dies before he is baptized?
This is a fair question and I am happy to answer it.
First of all, note that the appeal is to emotion, and not Scripture. The proverbial “falling tree limb” is merely a heart-tugging scenario in which a man dies before he is baptized. Then the emotive appeal is, “Surely you wouldn’t say that this good man would be lost just because he wasn’t baptized, would you?
Whether they realize it or not, those who pose this “falling tree limb” scenario are forced to answer the same heart-tugging dilemma, just at another point. For instance, allow me to tell the story. “What if a man is sitting under a tree, hearing a preacher preach a sermon about Jesus and this man is almost ready to believe. He is moved by what he has heard thus far and is almost ready to believe in Jesus when a tree limb falls on his head and kills him. Uh, oh! Same dilemma, just at a different point. What if I were to then say, “You mean to tell me just because he died before he believed in Jesus that this man would be lost?
You see, here’s the bottom line. Emotions don’t determine truth. Feelings are deceptive (Prov. 14:12; Prov. 28:26; Jer. 17:9). However the word of God is absolute and is always right (Psalm 33:4; John 17:17). To answer this question, one must consult God’s word, not one’s feelings. If a man dying before baptism is proof that baptism is not essential for salvation, then a man dying before he has faith in Jesus is proof that belief in Jesus is not essential for salvation. If not, why not?
This proverbial question must be answered with a “What does the Bible say?” If the Bible affirms that faith in Jesus is necessary in order to be saved (and it does John 8:24), then it is necessary. It doesn’t matter what heart-tugging scenario I can imagine, my scenario cannot change this truth. Likewise, if the Bible affirms that baptism is necessary in order to be saved (and it does Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38, etc.), then it is necessary. It doesn’t matter what heart-tugging scenario I can imagine, my scenario cannot change this truth.
We can speculate and muse about what God might or might not do in such situations. We might wonder if he would take one’s motives into consideration. We might wonder if he would exercise some sort of divine prerogative and make an exception for such cases, but all that would be is speculation and musings. What we need is not guess work, especially when discussing something as important as salvation; what we need is a “thus saith the Lord!” (1 Peter 4:11).
Having said all that, what should a person do who learns he needs to be baptized to obey the Lord and receive the remission of sins (Acts 2:38)? He should act with urgency! He should not delay in his obedience. He shouldn’t schedule a time to be baptized when grandma and granddad can be present to watch. He should act immediately! One who comprehends what it means to be in sin, wouldn’t wait for a more convenient time, but would immediately, at the “same hour of the night”, be baptized (Acts 16:33).