Repent, Believe, Be Catechized, Be Baptized?


KD writes, ” … I have a question. Are we doing adult baptism right? Growing up Canadian Reformed, I did not see any of them as a youth.  The first one I saw was my wife’s when we were 22 years old.  She came with me to Church for a year and when she asked to be baptized she had to learn 2 years of catechism class first.  When I asked why, the response was that  they needed to make sure she is serious. Is this biblical? “

Hi KD, Thanks for the question.  I have often wondered about that as well.  While I was baptized prior to joining our church, I also had to go through about 6 months of introductory training, and a year of formal catechism training before I could profess my faith and partake of the Lord’s Supper.  On top of that I also had private meetings with my pastor to to go over the finer points of doctrine – although I initiated those, not the elders. I have only witnessed a few adult baptisms in the CanRC.  They tend to be few and far between. And when it happens that a new convert joins the church, sometimes I think that we might be overly cautious about it.  Why do we tend to wait so long? Do we really need to make sure they are serious?   What is the prerequisite for adult baptism?  How much do you need to know before you are baptized?

If an unbelieving adult is suddenly converted, when should he be baptized?

This is what our Church’s form for the baptism of adults says:

Those who were not baptized in their infancy, and at a later age declare that they desire Christian baptism, must first be thoroughly instructed in the essentials of the Christian doctrine. After having confessed this doctrine before the overseers, they shall be admitted to the public profession of their faith and to baptism.

This begs the question, “What are these Essentials of Christian Doctrine?”  Does  a new convert need to learn the entire 3 Forms of Unity? Just the Heidelberg Catechism?  Just the Apostles Creed?  Do they just need to recite John 3:16? What is it they need to do before being baptized? How thorough is “thoroughly instructed?” One could answer that you just need to believe first. Isn’t saving faith simply, recognizing your sin and need, then confessing your sins, repenting of them, and turning to Jesus Christ in faith? How deep of a knowledge does one need before we baptize them?

We should look at the scriptures. Let’s consider the Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch:

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

How long do you think that Phillip evangelized to the Eunuch? If it was a very long ride, maybe a few hours or half a day? How thoroughly instructed was he? What depth of knowledge did that Eunuch have before he was baptized? Let’s also consider Paul and the Jailor:

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them, and suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened. When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And 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 wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.

…That same hour…

An hour of training?  Is that what is required? As an aside, notice also that in both these accounts, those who received baptism were rejoicing afterwards. Joy is a certain sign of saving faith.

Now let’s consider the conversion of Saul.

And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, well spoken of by all the Jews who lived there, came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.’

“…Why do you wait?” One could argue that Paul already had a ton of knowledge being a Pharisee, but the point still stands.

Consider Lydia:

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

It is not entirely clear how much time elapsed between her heart being opened by the Lord to hear the preaching and the time that she was baptized.  But from the flow of the sentence, one would be lead to believe that the Lord opened her heart, and immediately following that she was baptized.

And consider this account:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Again we can’t tell how much time passed between Peter’s exhortation and the time they were baptized.  But 3000 people believed and were baptized in one day. How thoroughly could 3000 new converts be instructed in one day?

The Reformed theologian, Louis Berkhof states in his Systematic Theology:

1. ADULT BAPTISM. In the case of adults baptism must be preceded by a profession of faith, Mark 16:16; Acts 2:41; 8:37 (not found in some MSS.); 16:31-33. Therefore the Church insists on such a profession before baptizing adults. And when such a profession is made, this is accepted by the Church at its face value, unless she has good objective reasons for doubting its veracity. It does not belong to her province to pry into the secrets of the heart and thus to pass on the genuineness of such a profession. The responsibility rests on the person who makes it. The method of prying into the inner condition of the heart, in order to determine the genuineness of one’s profession, is Labadistic and not in harmony with the practice of the Reformed Churches. Since baptism is not merely a sign and seal, but also a means of grace, the question arises as to the nature of the grace wrought by it. This question is raised here only with respect to adult baptism.  ~ Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology

KD, I am not saying our Churches are right or wrong. I too am looking for answers. I am simply asking what are these ‘essentials’ of Christian doctrine are that the church’s form speaks of? How thorough is “thoroughly instructed?” How much catechism training is required to  have saving faith?  Is any required? How much time should pass between professing faith in Jesus, and being baptized?  Remember that we are not waiting a period of time to test the person to ensure his faith is real, we are to take a profession at “face value” as Berkhof states.  Which also means that the response you received that, “they needed to make sure she is serious,” if that was in fact the reason, is not entirely right. If the response was that she needed to be thoroughly instructed in the essentials, then that falls in line with the form.  The time we wait should simply be to instruct and hear the profession of faith – but how long should that time be?

I submit that once a person professes to have saving faith in faith in Jesus Christ, and this is verified by an elder in the church, he should immediately be baptized as soon as is feasible. At least that appears to be the pattern of scripture. The Ethiopian pulled his chariot over and was baptized on the side of the road.  The jailer (and his whole family) was baptized outside his home at night.  Lydia appears to have been baptized after hearing the preaching. They didn’t even wait for the next worship service.  And I wonder how long it took to baptize all those 3000 converts?

KD thanks for your question.  Please don’t dwell on what might be wrong, look to the beauty of baptism.  The rich promises that God  makes to us in our baptism.  I hope I didn’t just muddy the waters.

I welcome the reader’s thoughts.  And I would love to hear some CanRC minister’s thoughts on this as well.  Am I off base?

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  1. Veronica says:

    Ryan, Greg and I were discussing this recently too and all that I could figure was that we do not have an open table and the reasons for that might be related since adult baptism and profession of faith both open up the door to the table. Could that be related? And if so, what would be the indication for a closed Lord’s Supper table?

  2. Jason says:

    Part of the answer lies in the type of membership which we hold to. Upon review of the form for public profession of faith, one can see that the Canadian Reformed Churches practice what’s called confessional membership: “First, do you wholeheartedly believe the doctrine of the Word of God, summarized in the confessions and taught here in this Christian church?”
    By way of comparison, the United Reformed Churches appear to practice creedal membership, as their form (first of two profession of faith forms in the Psalter Hymnal) reads as follows: “First, do you heartily believe the doctrine contained in the Old and the New Testament, and in the articles of the Christian faith, and taught in this Christian church …?”

  3. Coosje Helder says:

    Pondering over this question as well…..
    I guess I am not helping…..

  4. Hi Ryan,

    First of all, the practice of catechizing converts for an extended period of time prior to baptism (or profession of faith) is not a novelty in the history of the church, or something unique to the Canadian Reformed churches. Early on in the history of the Christian church, a class of people known as “catechumens” grew – people who were being trained in the fundamentals of the faith prior to being baptized. A regular practice was to divide the church service into two segments – the first, where the preaching was done, included catechumens and members. The second, where the Lord’s Supper was celebrated, was open only to members, and catechumens and non-members had to leave!

    We know that neither antiquity nor succession of persons, etc., makes a practice “correct.” But it does show that our Canadian Reformed practice is not a novel thing, or something that has only developed in recent centuries, even.

    Regarding the baptisms you mention in the New Testament. In most, if not all, of the cases you cite, people were baptized who had already been part of the people of God, but who didn’t yet know Jesus Christ as the fulfilment of what they had been taught. The Ethiopian eunuch was reading Scripture when he and Philip ran into each other. Ananias was a devout man according to the law. Lydia was a worshiper of God. When these people had become part of the Old Covenant church, as “God-fearers,” Gentile converts to Judaism, they had already been catechized. They knew the Scriptures, but they didn’t know Christ. When their hearts were opened to the truth of the gospel, when the Christ was introduced to them, and they believed in Him, extensive catechizing wasn’t necessary, because they already knew the truths of what we have as the Old Testament. This means that this is a much different situation than someone coming from a completely non-Christian background, with no knowledge of the Scriptures or Christian teaching.

    I have had the privilege of performing a number of non-infant baptism in a mission setting (young children, young people, and adults), and welcoming new members into the church who had already been baptized, but had not yet made profession of their faith. In each case, baptism was preceded by a period of instruction, and not just instruction, but also interaction on a personal level, as we get to know each other, as current church members get to know the prospective new member, and vice versa.

    We want to make sure that people know what it is that they’re doing, and I personally want to make sure that people realize the seriousness of the commitment that they are making. For me, it’s more about a prospective member’s level of commitment and about their being “teachable” than it is about “knowing the confessions.” If someone has made a start and has accepted the basic teachings of the Christian church, shows a willingness to learn, and expresses a willingness to commit themselves to the instruction and discipline of the church, I believe that’s what is needed for baptism (or profession of faith). How long that takes is a case-by-case kind of thing – I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all kind of program we can follow.

    Hope this addition to the discussion is helpful!

    Pastor Jim Witteveen
    Prince George, B.C.

  5. My colleague Rev. Ken Wieske posted an excellent response on Facebook. If you ask him nicely, perhaps he will allow it to be re-posted here. His explanation is very good.

  1. October 4, 2014

    To read Rev. Wieske’s Reponse click the name Adult Baptism | One Christian Dad