Most evangelical Christians believe in and practice believer's baptism as opposed to infant baptism.1 Likewise, most Protestants believe and practice baptism by immersion rather than by sprinkling. The New Testament as well as early church history stand with both of these positions.2
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.' One scholar says of baptism and conversion, "They belong together. Those who repented and believed the Word were baptized. That was the invariable pattern, so far as we know."' 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.' 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
Though we can't offer a detailed examination of what Scripture teaches about baptism in this chapter, consider that from a theological standpoint, infant baptism divorces two things that the Scriptures consistently join together: (1) faith and repentance and (2) water baptism.
Baptism in the Greek (baptize) literally means immersion. John 3:23 does not make much sense if sprinkling was practiced. Immersion was the common practice of the Christian church until the late Middle Ages in the West (Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 43-511.
3 Acts 2:37-41; 8:12ff., 27-38; 9:18;10:44-48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8;19:1-5; 22:16. Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 153.
David F. Wright, The lion Handbook of the History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Publications, 1990), "Beginnings," see the section on "Instruction for Baptism."
Augustine called baptism a "visible word" ( Tractates on the Gospel According to Saint John, MX, 3).
"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. And there is not the faintest whisper in the Bible about a "personal" Savior.
Instead, unbelievers in the first century were led to Jesus Christ by being taken to the waters of baptism. Put another way, water baptism was the sinner's prayer in century one! Baptism accompanied the acceptance of the gospel. For example, when Lydia heard Paul preach the gospel, she believed and was immediately baptized with her household (Acts 16:14-15). In the same way, when Paul led the Philippian jailor and his household to the Lord, they were immediately baptized (Acts 16:30-33). This was the New Testament pattern (see also Acts 2:41; 8:12, 35-37). Baptism marked a complete break with the past and a full entrance into Christ and His church. Baptism was simultaneously an act of faith as well as an expression of faith.'
So when did baptism get separated from receiving Christ? It began in the early second century. 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.' You had to show yourself worthy of baptism by your conduct." Baptism became a rigid and embellished ritual that borrowed much from Jewish and Greek culture—elaborate with
Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; and 1 Peter 321 are some examples.
The importance of water baptism in the Christian faith is depicted in early Christian art (Andre Gra bar, Christian Iconography [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968]). Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 33.
Wright, Lion Handbook of the History of Christianity, "Beginnings," section on "(nstruction for Baptism." Wright points out that by the fourth century, the clergy took over the instructions for converts and the bishop became personally responsible for the teaching and discipline that preceded baptism. This is the precursor for the prebaptisma I class overseen by the pastor in many modern Protestant churches. From the second century onward, baptisms normally took place at Easter. Herein is the origin of Lent (Smith, From Christ to Constantine, 151).
Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 35.
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 had devolved into an act associated with works rather than with faith.
The legalism that accompanied baptism led to an even more startling concept: Only baptism forgives sins. If a person committed sin after baptism, he could not be forgiven. For this reason, the delay of baptism became quite common by the fourth century. Since it was believed that baptism brought the forgiveness of sins, many felt it was best to delay baptism until the maximum benefits could be obtained." Therefore, some people, like Constantine, waited until they were on their deathbeds to be baptized.'
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