Adult Baptism

I received a number of comments from pastors, seminary students, and lay people,  in response to my article Repent, Believe, Be Catechised, Be Baptized. The most in depth was was written by Rev. Ken Weiske, who is a Missionary Pastor in Recife, Brazil, sent by the Canadian Reformed Church at Aldergrove. It is reprinted here with permission.  Read the Facebook Thread for context.

I was marked in a comment, so I feel obliged to say something now 🙂 First of all, let me say that Rev. Anonymous beat me to it. Many of the Scriptural examples invoked to promote quick baptisms are really not convincing arguments. Rev. Anonymous very eloquently and accurately described how in most cases those who were quickly baptized into the Way did in fact already have significant knowledge and experience of the basics of God’s Word and revelation. The Ethiopian wasn’t some guy that Philip just happened to meet on the road; he was a man steeped in the Scriptures, and he was such a committed believer that he had just been to Jerusalem to worship. He was a Psalm 1 kind of guy, using his time while travelling to meditate upon the Word. He, like the many thousands baptized on the feast of Pentecost, and like several other examples mentioned, “just” needed to transition from the Old Testament era to the New Testament dispensation. These Old Testament believers knew of, believed in, and waited for the Messiah…. the only piece missing in the puzzle was “Who is the Messiah?”. When Christ was preached to them, the final piece fell into place and they could be received immediately into the New Testament Church. It is noteworthy that the conversion of thousands happened exactly at an event where there were many well educated, committed Old Testament believers; you don’t read of thousands converting and being immediately baptized in Athens for instance in Acts 17. Since it is impossible to find in our days a group with the same makeup and level of education in and commitment to God’s Word as you find in Acts 2, such mass conversions and almost immediate subsequent baptisms can really not be expected in our days. Even in the case of the Philippian jailer, we should remember that there were many synagogues in many cities, and Judaism was known as a special religion whose refusal to participate in civic religion was exceptionally tolerated by the Roman empire; it is not unlikely that the jailer was acquainted with the basic teachings of the Jews, and that this together with Paul and Silas’ godly example and teaching, reinforced with the miracle of the earthquake, literally put the fear of God into the man. His question, “What must I do to be saved” suggests that he had at least some prior knowledge of the basics of God’s revelation concerning sin and judgement. It should be noted that Judaism, with its emphasis upon pure monotheism, high ethical standards, rational (non-sacrificial) worship of the synagogue, ancient and inspired written revelation, and the social cohesiveness of the Jewish community, was very attractive to many Gentiles at the time of the apostles (see Backgrounds of Early Christianity, by Everett Ferguson). It is interesting to note that James, speaking to the Council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, speaks about what should be expected from Gentile converts, and then goes on in the next verse (21) to explain why this really shouldn’t be unknown to the Gentile converts: “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”

With respect to Berkhof’s comments about not judging or prying into the heart to evaluate if a profession of faith is genuine, this is certainly true. Only God can judge the secrets of the heart. When a person publicly professes faith in Christ, then unless their life and works clearly show them to be lying, we take their confession at face value. We see and treat them as Christians. However, when someone first comes into contact with the gospel, and as yet do not know the basics of the Christian faith, they are simply not able to make a credible profession. To profess Christ, you need to know Who He is, what He has done, and why He has done it. Otherwise your profession is meaningless. For that reason, there is a basic amount of teaching that a new convert must know, understand, and embrace in order to be able to make a credible profession. Historically, the Church has summarized these basics in what became what we now call the Apostle’s Creed. (see LD 7 of the Catechism). It is significant that the Apostles Creed developed out of a series of Scriptural affirmations that were expected from new converts at the moment of their baptism. The roots of this practice can be traced back to the time of the NT. We can expect that as the gospel followed the widening circles described by Christ (Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, ends of the earth), there would be a longer and longer period between first hearing the preaching and subsequent conversions and baptism, since the more the audience was ignorant of the basics of OT revelation, the longer it would take them to be instructed to the point where they would be able to make a credible profession.
Further, while we do not try to pry into people’s hearts, the Bible does teach us that preachers of the gospel are to call upon people to repent, believe, and bear fruits worthy of repentance. The Lord Jesus clearly taught that we are to judge people by their fruits. Once again, the vast majority of examples of “quick” baptisms in the NT refer to OT believers who are God fearers, and who have the example and witness of a godly life. Lydia, for example, was at a place of prayer when she heard the preaching of Christ. The church during the time of the apostles would certainly not have baptized a known fornicator and idolator who simply mouthed the words, “I repent and believe” but continued to live in his sin. We certainly have no NT examples of *that*.
Having said all this, there certainly is tension between the need to instruct people new to the gospel, and the need to avoid unnecessary delay in baptizing those who truly believe in and confess Christ. In Matthew 28.19, 20, the Lord Jesus commands the Church to make disciples by baptizing and *then* teaching ALL that He has commanded. In other words, it goes against the teaching of Christ to expect a new convert to be fully taught all of the Word of God before he can be baptized. In Romans 10 Paul teaches that if “you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. This is said in the context of how people ought to search for righteousness: in their own works (like the Jews), or in Christ. When the sinner recognizes that his only hope to be right with God is to bow the knee to Christ, and recognizes that Jesus has definitively dealt with sin by conquering death (the wages of sin), as was shown by His being raised from the dead (for our justification!)… when he believes that in his heart and confesses that with his lips, he is saved.
And yet, for someone to really believe this in their heart, and to really confess this with their lips, they need to be instructed in who God is, who Christ is, what sin is, what bowing the knee and confessing Jesus as Lord really means, and how and why Christ rose from the dead, and what the significance of that is. As the early Church spread, and reached more and more people who had less and less knowledge of the basics of Biblical revelation, the period of pre-baptism instruction grew longer and longer. In the early centuries, it quickly arrived at about 3 years before they were baptized, usually at Easter.
I work in a missionary situation, and I find that once someone has expressed interest in knowing and following Christ, it usually takes a minimum of one year to really come to the point where I can be satisfied that the new convert really understands, embraces and believes the basics of what the Church confesses in the Creed. The period of one year also gives time to evaluate if there are “fruits befitting repentance”. A practical consideration also comes into play: since it is a very serious thing to be baptized into Christ and His Church, and to be received at the table of the LORD, baptizing newcomers any more quickly without the period of teaching and evaluation would almost certainly increase the workload of the elders in discipline, as people baptized but then not showing a changed life would have to go through the entire process of discipline and finally excommunication.
In order to deal with the tension between waiting too long or being too quick, we (like the early Church) treat catechumens (newcomers who are preparing for profession and baptism) as people who in many ways are part of the community. As we teach and instruct them, and mentor/disciple them, looking for and encouraging fruits of repentance, we take their stated desire to love and follow Christ at face value, treating them as believers until such time that their words and actions convince us otherwise.
One final comment for the one or two brave souls who are actually still reading at this point: one reason that adult baptisms are not that common is that many people in the West(at least until recently)were baptized as infants, even if they grew up without Christian instruction and without following Christ. Since the Church does not re-baptize, this explains why we see fewer adult baptisms in the Christian West than we see for instance in pagan cultures.

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  1. Coosje Helder says:

    I appreciate this indepth answer very much!

  2. Peter Plug says:

    ” Like”