What is Baptism About?
Baptism, as seen throughout the Book of Acts, was something one did as a statement that they had accepted Jesus Christ into their lives, and also it was, in the time of the early Church, a way of asking Jesus to come into their lives by the bestowal of the Holy Spirit into them.
What Baptism Meant To The Early Christians
In his book which has Evangelicals all upset, David Bercot had this to say about Baptism in the early Church, “So it took the wind out of my sails when I discovered that the early Christians universally understood Jesus’ words [in John 3:5] to refer to water baptism…it was the Gnostics who taught differently than the church---saying that humans can’t be reborn or regenerated through water baptism. Irenaeus wrote about them [ie, the Gnostics]: ‘This class of men have been instigated by Satan to a denial of that baptism which is regeneration to God.’ In today’s evangelical church, water baptism is often regarded as a rather insignificant matter, at least in the process of salvation.” [“Will the REAL HERETICS Please Stand Up”, p. 77] Another quote which backs this one up is from Frank Viola’s PAGAN Christianity? Frank had this to say, “Most evangelical Christians believe in and practice believer’s baptism as opposed to infant baptism. Likewise, most Protestants believe and practice baptism by immersion rather than sprinkling. The New Testament as well as early church history stand with both these positions. However, it is typical in most contemporary churches for baptism to be separated from conversion by great lengths of time. Many Christians were saved at one age and baptized at a much later age. In the first century, this was unheard of. In the early church, converts were baptized immediately upon believing…Another writes, ‘At the birth of the church, converts were baptized with little or no delay.’ In the first century, water baptism was the outward confession of a person’s faith [just as it is today]. But more than that, it was the way someone came to the Lord. For this reason, the confession of baptism is vitally linked to the exercise of saving faith. So much so that the New Testament writers often use baptism in place of the word faith and link it to being “saved.” This is because baptism was the early Christian’s initial confession of faith in Christ. In our day, the “sinner’s prayer” has replaced the role of water baptism as the initial confession of faith. Unbelievers are told, ‘Say this prayer after me, accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and you will be saved.’ But nowhere in all the New Testament do we find any person being led to the Lord by a sinner’s prayer… [“PAGAN Christianity” by Frank Viola, pp. 188-189] Does this mean the ‘sinner’s prayer’ doesn’t work, and all those who came to Christ using it, and all who come to Christ using it, are not truly born-again, Holy Spirit indwelt? No it doesn’t. I have seen the evidence of that in some very spiritually alive Christian denominations and churches, and they function using the ‘sinner’s prayer’, and have those who come to Christ, asking him into their lives via that method get baptized at some later date. Is there a valid reason why God is now honoring use of “the sinners prayer” instead of baptism?
God won’t be put in a theological box
Is there historic, even Biblical evidence God bestows his Holy Spirit upon people before they were baptized? David Bercot writes, under the title Were Unbaptized Persons Automatically Damned?, “One thing that particularly impresses me about the early Christians is that they never put God in a box. For example, they always believed that God would do what was loving and just toward pagans who had never had the opportunity to hear about Christ. Likewise, they believed that although baptism was the normal channel of grace and the means of rebirth, God was not necessarily bound by it. For instance, they believed that unbaptized babies who died in infancy could still be saved. [Hmmm, very interesting. Such a belief points to a possibility that the early Christian Church had a different theology about the “unsaved dead.”] It was Augustine, writing centuries later, who taught that all unbaptized infants are damned.” [ibid. p. 81] In Acts chapters 8 through 10 we see Cornelius the Roman Centurion was given the Holy Spirit by God before his baptism. So God can’t be put in a doctrinal box, that is for sure. The ‘Altar Call’ and sinner’s prayer do work. But it wasn’t the way it was done by the apostles and early Church. If you’re trying to “contend for the faith once delivered” as Jude says we ought to contend for, that faith, that system of doctrinal beliefs, even days of worship, was far different from what can be observed within the Gentile Christian churches and evangelical churches of today. Don’t believe me, log onto http://www.unityinchrist.com/history2/index3.htm and read through that research paper I did on the early church. That paper is a paradigm-breaker for sure, just as this article is. Bercot goes on to say, “Interestingly enough, we evangelicals seem to recognize the need for some type of initiation ceremony or rite of passage to mark the Christian rebirth.
Why would we reject the baptismal rebirth?
But strangely enough, we have generally rejected the historical ceremony of the baptismal rebirth and have developed our own social ceremony---the alter call.” [ibid. p. 81] But why would we do that? Is there any historic reason, did something happen to this rite of baptism which made it untenable, unpleasant to contemplate doing? Frank Viola gives us just such a reason, “So when did baptism get separated from receiving Christ? It began in the early second century [probably as part of the early Catholic church]. Certain influential Christians taught that baptism must be preceded by a period of instruction, prayer, and fasting. This trend grew worse in the third century when young converts had to wait three years before they could be baptized. If you were a baptismal candidate in this era, your life was meticulously scrutinized. Baptism became a rigid and embellished ritual that borrowed much from Jewish and Greek culture---elaborate with blessing the water, full disrobing, the uttering of a creed, anointing oil with exorcism, and giving milk and honey to the newly baptized person. It devolved into an act associated with works rather than with faith.” [PAGAN Christianity, p. 190] Now that sounds like Catholicism taking hold of baptism. Boy, I wouldn’t want to go through that ceremony, no sir. Aren’t you glad you don’t live in the period when all this was taking place, the corruption of early New Testament Biblical practices?
So What Did Baptism Represent in the Early Church?
“1. Remission of sins. They believed that water baptism canceled all past sins. For example, Justin Martyr wrote, ‘There is no other way [to obtain God’s promises] than this---to become acquainted with Christ, to be washed in the fountain spoken of by Isaiah for the remission of sins, and for the remainder, to live sinless lives.’ They based their views on baptism and remission of sin on the following Bible passages, among others:
“And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16)
“He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5)
“Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you---not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Pet. 3:21 NAS).
“Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38 NAS)…” [Will the REAL HERETICS Please Stand Up, p. 78]
“2. The New Birth. Based on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, the early Christians also believed water baptism was the channel through which a person was born again. Irenaeus mentioned this in a discussion about baptism, ‘As we are lepers in sin, we are made clean from our old transgressions by means of the sacred water and the invocation of the Lord. We are thus spiritually regenerated as newborn infants, even as the Lord has declared: ‘Except a man be born again through water and the Spirit, he shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ [John 3:5]” [ibid. p. 79] So we see here that the early Christians, of which Irenaeus was most definitely one, believed that Jesus’ words in John 3, verse 5 was a direct reference from Jesus concerning water baptism as the means of asking Jesus into one’s life, and receiving a spiritual rebirth by receiving the Holy Spirit.
“3. Spiritual Illumination. The early Christians believed that the newly-baptized person, after receiving the Holy Spirit, had a clearer vision of spiritual matters, receiving illumination as a child of God and a citizen of His kingdom.” [ibid. p. 79]
Baptism Was Not An Empty Ritual
“In short, baptism in early Christianity was the supernatural rite of initiation by which a new believer passed from being the old man of the flesh to being a newly reborn man of the Spirit. However, please don’t think their practice was some empty ritual. The early Christians didn’t separate baptism from faith and repentance. Baptism wasn’t some magical ritual that could regenerate a person if it wasn’t accompanied by faith and repentance [just as saying the “sinners prayer” isn’t, I might add]. They specifically taught that God was under no necessity to grant forgiveness of sins simply because a person went through the motions of baptism. A faithless person was not reborn through water baptism. In his First Apology, Justin Martyr explained to the pagans how faith, repentance, and baptism were inseparably intertwined: ‘Those who are convinced that what we teach is true and who desire to live accordingly are instructed to fast and to pray to God for the remission of sins of all their past sins. We also pray and fast with them. Then we bring them to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves were regenerated. They then receive the washing with water in the name of God (the Father and Lord of the universe) and of our Savior Jesus Christ, and of his Holy Spirit, For Christ said, ‘Unless you are born again, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ [John 3:5]” [Will the REAL HERETICS Please Stand Up”, p.80]
Book of Acts and Water Baptism
In the very first inspired sermon, given by the apostle Peter on that historic Day of Pentecost when the Church of God was born, Peter commanded all who heard his sermon and were crying out ‘What shall we do?’ to repent and be baptized. Peter’s exact words were “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). How many followed Peter’s instructions? “They that gladly received his word were baptized; and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). That started off the early Church with a big bang, if you will. And it was through water baptism, of the immersion type, not an altar call, not that God doesn’t honor altar calls and the use of “the sinners prayer”. But do you want to know how they did it back then in the beginning? It was through Baptism, and the laying on of hands. Next example, Acts 8:5, 12, “Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them…but when they believed Philip preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God, and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Paul’s baptism is described in Acts 9:17-18, “And Ananias went his way and entered the house; and laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he rose and was baptized.” Lydia, seller of the rich dyed purple cloth manufactured in Thyatira is baptized, Acts 16:14-15, “Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul. And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.’ So she persuaded us.” Then there is the story of Paul and Silas being locked up in the jail at Philippi in the same chapter of Acts 16. They all start singing praises to God in the middle of the night. I can imagine the other occupants, ‘Oh no, not a bunch of religious nuts, and we’re trying to sleep.’ But God responds with a big earthquake which breaks all their bonds and opens the prison gates. Paul and Silas don’t run away, nor does anyone else. We pick up in verse 28, “Then he called for a light, ran in, and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. And he brought them out and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ So they said, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” So belief is primary, belief, faith in Jesus Christ as your Messiah, Savior must come first. Them what happened? “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes.” Paul and Silas had been beaten, whipped, so the jailor was giving them a little bit of medical treatment. Then, “And immediately he and all his family were baptized” (verses 28-33). Acts 18:8, “Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household. And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized.”
Laying on of hands
Most don’t associate ‘the laying on of hands’ with water baptism, as so little is said about it. But apparently it was an integral part of baptism, whereby the Holy Spirit came after it. Let’s look at Acts 19, where Paul comes across some believers who had only received the baptism of John the Baptist. We pick up in Acts 19:1, “And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, come to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them, ‘Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?’ So they said to him, ‘We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit.’ And he said to them, ‘Into what then were you baptized?’ So they said ‘Into John’s baptism.’ [That would be John the Baptist’s baptism] Then Paul said, ‘John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus.’ When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke with tongues and prophesied. Now the men were about twelve in all” (verses 1-7).
Cornelius receives the Holy Spirit ahead of baptism
Peter preached to Cornelius’ family. “…while Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost [Spirit] fell on all them which heard the word” (Acts 10:44). They were then immediately baptized, as we see in verses 46-48, “Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord.” Notice too, we’re not baptized into any denomination or church organization, we are baptized into Jesus Christ, or as Jesus expressed it in Matthew 28:19, “…baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit…” We are baptized into the Body of Christ, what Jesus termed in Revelation also as the Bride of Christ. That means if you have the Holy Spirit indwelling you, Romans 8:9-16, you are a part of the Body of Christ, regardless of which Christian fellowship or denomination you may be a part of. What we see here is that baptism doesn’t always come first, God can decide to place his Holy Spirit within a person before baptism, after they have believed. This is how so many in this day and age come to receive the Holy Spirit after reciting the “sinner’s prayer”. There is genuine belief, and a calling out to the Lord to enter their lives. God won’t be put in a box. But baptism by immersion, followed immediately by the laying on of hands was how people came to receive the Holy Spirit upon belief after hearing the gospel of Salvation in the early Church. Either way works, or as they say ‘Whatever floats your boat.’ But if you want to emulate early Christian Churches of God both in Jerusalem and Asia Minor, baptism after genuine belief is the way. What is the Gospel of Salvation people were responding to? Peter gives us a good example in his first major sermon in Acts 2, it was about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who died to pay for the sins of the whole world, repentance upon hearing that, and asking him into their lives through baptism. For a complete explanation of what this ‘Gospel’ was, log onto: http://www.unityinchrist.com/misc/WhatIsTheGospel%20.htm
How Long Should We Wait Once Understanding and Believing the Gospel?
Some denominations put it off until a candidate has “proven” by his or her obedience (often judged by church officials as towing the line on their particular church doctrines). But we see in Acts 2, it was to take place immediately upon belief. The other question is one of the age of the person who believes and seeks baptism. I have seen and witnessed children, from a young age accepting the Lord, and following him from then on, through teenage, to adulthood, and remain stedfast believers, imbued with the Holy Spirit. This is rare, but it happens. Most children don’t reach a maturity level which allows them to make such a serious decision until after they reach their late teens to early 20s. The Sabbatarian Churches of God from the 320s onward through the 1600s have always maintained that a person had to be an adult for that very same reason. They even use the example of Jesus’ baptism when he was 30. Also the Old Testament says a Levite cannot assume priestly duties until he is of the age of 30, when a certain level of maturity is reached. But David and Jonathan were believers as children, as was Samuel. So my advice, it’s a judgment call, of the child, parents involved, and pastor. As far as adults who have come to believe in Jesus as their Savior, baptism should be immediate or as soon as possible. An initial belief and repentance can and often does take place before baptism and/or the altar call, but until the Holy Spirit comes into that life, the real deeper levels of repentance and obedience cannot take place, so the rule of thumb is to baptize immediately upon sincere initial belief and repentance. Then the process of salvation and sanctification starts to take place, and that is a lifelong process (see http://www.unityinchrist.com/whatisgrace/whatisgraceintro.htm).
As I said at the beginning of this paragraph, “some, especially the Sabbath-keeping Churches of God, put off a person’s baptism until the candidate has “proven” by his or her obedience that they are believers (often judged by church officials as towing the line on their particular church doctrines).” Well, Jesus told his 12 apostles we were to be fishers of men, that was to be our evangelistic outlook (see http://www.unityinchrist.com/wwcofg/wearesalt.htm). He called 12 disciples, 11 of which became apostles, and the vast majority of them were roughshod Galilean fishermen. They understood fishing and the fishing analogies Jesus gave them in his parables. Since Jesus equated the catching of fish to the calling of new-believers into the Body of Christ by the evangelistic shedding of light (light often used in both the ancient and modern fishing industry), both Jesus and his disciples would view it as absolutely ridiculous the idea of cleaning the fish before they were taken out of the net and brought onboard the vessel. Such a person who is “in the net” is one who is being actively drawn to Jesus through the Holy Spirit, often in response to the light we shed in evangelism and as Christians. A new-believer, in both Jesus’ and the apostles eyes, is someone who is ready to ask and accept Jesus Christ into their life and then receive the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 2, the 3,000 who asked “what shall we do?).” They are “caught fish,” brought up in the fishing net. Making such a person come to believe all kinds of doctrinal beliefs and demonstrate “converted obedience” before baptism is just as ridiculous as cleaning a fish before you take it out of the net. Besides, it is God’s Holy Spirit which actually “cleans the fish”, over a lifetime, conforming us into the image of Jesus Christ, writing God’s laws into our hearts and minds (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:6-13). Any pastor who attempts to make such a new-believer understand all the church doctrines and meet “an acceptable level of obedience” in the eyes of the church before he will baptize that person, is simply trying to usurp the job of the Holy Spirit. No, the person who is ready to ask and accept Jesus Christ into their lives, if they wish to use baptism as a means of asking God for his Holy Spirit as the early Church did, they need to be granted immediate baptism, without delay, so that God through his Holy Spirit can begin to “clean the fish” Jesus has enabled us through his calling for you to bring up in the net. In essence, new-believers will only start to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ, and in obedience to God, after they receive the Holy Spirit through baptism (and/or the alter call). So, a word to the wise, don’t delay baptism when the individual asks for it. It’s time to shed an old, detrimental paradigm that doesn’t fit the Scripture, as revealed throughout the Book of Acts.
What was the early Church like? See:
What is the Gospel of Salvation, the knowledge of which leads to Baptism or the altar call? See:
What is repentance, repent of what? See:
What are Short-Term Missions? See: