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When should a believer be baptized?

 

All of us agree on the importance of baptism following the new birth, but recently there has been some controversy regarding when that should take place. Some church leaders are comfortable with a fast-track approach for baptism, while others prefer a more deliberate approach. Let’s take a look at biblical and historical precedent.

In the early church there were three groups of Christians. First, of course, were the Jews. In fact, the early church was entirely Jewish at her inception, and these Jews were well trained religiously.

Ancient religious traditions were scrupulously passed along in their homes and synagogues; Hebrew sons literally learned to read from the Scriptures, and large portions of Scripture were committed to memory. So, when a Jew accepted Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world, there was little need for training before or after baptism; they were already very well taught in the Scriptures and could be baptized very soon after their conversion to Christ.

A second group of Christians in the early church were God fearers,¹ such as the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8), Cornelius the Roman centurion (Acts 10), and Lydia (Acts 16) the successful merchant woman from Thyatira. These people loved God and had a very high regard for the Hebrew Scriptures.

In fact, the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from the great “Suffering Servant” passage in Isaiah 53 when Philip encountered him in the desert as he was returning to his homeland from Jerusalem. And, like the well-trained Jews, these God fearers who accepted Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world had little need for further training before or after baptism; they were already devout and well taught in the Scriptures, and so they could also be baptized immediately upon their conversion to Christ.

The third group of Christians in that early era was completely different; they were the Gentiles from pagan backgrounds. They had little, if any, understanding of monotheism and the fundamental nature of God, let alone the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Hebrew Scriptures. As you might guess, these Gentile converts needed all kinds of careful training when they came to know Jesus as Savior and Lord.

We have few illustrations in the New Testament of pagan converts who were baptized, but as the Christian movement began to gain in its momentum the early church fathers had to face the question of when to baptize these new Gentile converts who had come out of a pagan background.

Significantly, it appears that this third group of believers was not necessarily baptized immediately upon conversion. For example, an early church manual, the Didache, compiled just after the turn of the first century, addressed the spiritual training of such new converts, and those church fathers were emphatic that baptism and training were to be inextricably connected for Christian converts who came from pagan backgrounds.

Question: Is there some wisdom here for us today as we witness people who do not have a Christian frame of reference become Christ-followers? Yes. New believers who fall into this third category need significant instruction in the Christian faith plus a true understanding of what baptism means.

In due time, they should be baptized, of course. And, when they are, it will be a cause for great celebration. But we are making a great mistake if we spontaneously baptize people who fit into this third category; and we can’t justify it by citing New Testament texts that applied only to the first two groups mentioned above.

There is, however, a biblical exception to this. But, if properly understood, even here there is a good explanation. In the book of Acts (16:25ff), we have the story of a Philippian jailor who was converted and baptized soon thereafter, and yet he came from a pagan, Gentile background.

There were two good reasons, however, why he needed to be baptized soon after his conversion even though he had very little biblical knowledge or background. First, the Apostle Paul had to leave town quickly due to heavy persecution (and a desire to take the gospel west). Second, Paul led him to faith in Jesus Christ and helped start the church in Philippi. You can be certain, however, that before he left town Paul taught this man and his family the fundamentals of the gospel.

Furthermore, no doubt, Paul made provisions for other people within that newly established church (like Lydia?) to mentor him properly. Moreover, Paul left Dr. Luke behind² from his entourage to disciple this Philippian jailor, as well as other new converts, upon his departure.

So, getting back to our original question: When should a Christ-follower be baptized? It all depends upon the following issues. 1) Does the person know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord (ruler/master)? 2) Does the person’s request for baptism stem from a desire to be obedient to this divine command rather than simply a response to hype and/or pressure from others? 3) Has the new convert been properly trained to understand some of the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith, including the significance of baptism?

When these questions are properly resolved, baptism only needs to occur once in your life and it becomes a rich and meaningful experience as the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ become actualized by way of outward testimony in the life of a new believer.

 

¹ These God fearers were restricted from officially becoming a part of the Jewish community because of certain laws related to things like Sabbath observance, kosher foods, circumcision, and regulations about what was considered “clean and unclean.”

² The “We section” stops after Acts 16, and does not pick back up again until Acts 20.