The Goal of Baptismal Instruction (or, Why new Christians need theology)

Let him, therefore, who is to be taught the truth in regard to piety be instructed before his baptism in the knowledge of the Unbegotten God, in the understanding of His Only-begotten Son, in the assured acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit. Let him learn the order of the several parts of the creation, the series of providential acts, the different workings of God’s laws.

Let him be instructed about why the world was made, and why man was appointed to be a citizen in it; let him also know about his own human nature, of what sort of creature he is; let him be taught how God punished the wicked with water and fire, and glorified the saints in every generation, . . . and how God did not reject mankind, but called them from their error and vanity to acknowledge the truth in various stages of history, leading them from bondage and impiety to liberty and piety, from injustice to justice, from death eternal to everlasting life (Apostolic Constitutions, 7.39.1-4, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 7:475-76, quoted by D.H. Williams in Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation [Baker, 2006], p. 82).

These 4th century instructions for how the church should prepare and instruct those seeking baptism in the basics of the Christian faith—that God is Triune, that he alone made the world, etc.—should challenge or at least cause some pause for churches who send people very quickly from profession of faith into baptism.

Has there been such an underestimation of the radical reversal that attends Christian conversion that we suppose new believers need no instruction or mentoring in their new identity prior to their public declaration of faith? Even with all the evidence to the contrary, do we assume that the average person in the post-Christendom West would have a basic understanding of the Christian faith and would not require instruction? Or, have we too often proclaimed a Gospel of easy-believism that bears little resemblance to the New Testament Gospel—a gospel that inverts my allegiances, re-orients my priorities, and re-narrates my life?

Or (less insidiously and maybe more likely), have too many of us embraced an uncertainty, sometimes borne of disinterest, about the relationship between the tenets of Christian orthodoxy and (1) the faith one confesses, (2) the worship and prayers one offers, and (3) the taking up of one’s role in the drama of redemption through vocation and mission?

Too often, God’s triunity and creative action, one’s identity as his creature and one’s place in the world, God’s providential movement throughout history and his eschatological promises—all these are lumped together, called “theology” and are thereby regarded as unnecessary (indeed, even simply un-important) for one to know before baptism.

Or are they?

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49 thoughts on “The Goal of Baptismal Instruction (or, Why new Christians need theology)

  1. Well said: surely we should know what we are signing up for, before we sign up. Especially since the Bible often warned us that there would be many false churches.

    The Bible warned there would be many “false” things, even in priests and prophets and churches; even among those who are the “prophets” of Israel; even among those who think they are following Christ. We were warned in the Bible that many will think they have followed Christ, crying “Lord, Lord.” But who will be found, in the End, to have followed a “false Christ,” “another Jesus” than the right one.

    Many who think they are following God or Jesus, are going to be found to have been following a false idea of God. A false theology.

    So your idea seems right enough: look before you leap. Read a little, before you sign on the dotted line.

    • Ok, this gets at one way of looking at the issue (maybe), but perhaps it has more to do with how one views “conversion” (although I don’t think it excludes what you mention).

      Consider how L. Gregory Jones describes it: “At the heart of ancient practices of baptismal catechesis is the conviction that Christian living involves a dramatic journey of conversion, a process of turning – typically over time, and with testing – from one way of life to another” (emphasis mine).

      Or maybe Augustine has something for us here. Augustine believed (as did Anselm) that there was a reciprocal relationship between Christian living and understanding the Creed (Sermon 214.10). Put in theatrical terms we might simply say that doctrine directs the believer’s participation in God’s reconciling work and is therefore critical for the life of faith – even (or especially?) from the very beginning.

  2. Hey Kent,

    Thanks for posting on this.

    One of the things that strikes me about my present church context is that those undergoing baptism are given a chance to “share their story” but are not called upon before the congregation to make a confession of faith (apart from affirming that they’ve received Christ as Lord and Savior). Sometimes the stories of conversion are inspiring, but I wish they were coupled with at least some credible affirmation of alignment with Christian orthodoxy.

  3. I found the quote given by D.H. Williams very interesting, and also suprising. To be honest, I have not thought much or heard much about instructing and teaching new believers certain theological principles and basics on the Christian faith BEFORE baptism. I have certainly thought about this regarding discipleship, and really wish churches and ministry leaders made this a priority in their discipling. However, I am not sure I agree with the quote in regards to specifically teaching such things before an individual is baptised. When I look at New Testament examples of baptism, it seems that the individual or groups of people are immediately baptised. Baptism seems to be an act that quickly follows accepting and believing in Jesus. While it does makes sense that we should teach and instruct people before they commit, I have trouble seeing this in Scripture – are there passages that show this? I think about the passage in Acts 8, where Philip helps explain the Gospel to the Ethiopian. Here he explains it, and then the Ethiopian is baptised. But it does not seem that Philip spends time teaching and instructing certain principles of the Christian faith before he allows him to be baptised. Rather baptism is an immediate response to the declaration of faith, and after this, discipleship and instruction begins.
    I guess the question I am wrestling with is why these teachings must be before baptism? Is this Scriptural? If these teachings are before baptism, shouldn’t they be before someone is even converted and makes that decision to follow Christ? Or can they make a decision to follow Christ, act upon it through baptism, and then continue in their faith by developing and learning these principles of the faith?

    • Abi, this is an excellent question and a very understandable one.

      Robert Webber explains the context behind the early Christian practice of “baptismal catechesis (or instruction)” as well as anyone: “The early Christians who lived in a world very much like our own developed a process to form new Christians into disciples. Numerous Gentiles with no background in faith, no sense of community or of ethical behavior, flooded the church. The process of making disciples began in the first century and developed over a period of time into a well-worked out, step-by-step process of Christian formation. This process was fully developed by the end of the second century … (Ancient Future Evangelism, 43-44).

      The process was based on four formative steps and three passage rites:

      1. Inquiry (Rite of Welcome)
      2. Catechumenate (Rite of Enrollment)
      3. Purification and Enlightenment (Rite of Baptism)
      4. Mystagogue

      What about the New Testament passages in which individuals were immediately baptized? Two responses: (1) Are these passages descriptive or prescriptive? One has to decide whether they simply describe what was going on or if they prescribe that we follow the same pattern (2) Is there a common pattern of belief, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts? No, if you consider the relevant passages, there is no common pattern of salvation in Acts (Acts 2:38; 4:4; 4:31; 5:14; 8:4-25; 8:36; 9:17-18; 9:42; 10:44-48; 19:1-7). So, we might not rule out baptismal instruction simply based on the fact that we don’t “see” it in the New Testament.

  4. Thank you for your response. The quote you gave by Robert Webber was especially helpful in understanding the process. It shows more intention, time, and developement that went into this idea than I was assuming. I think many of my false assumptions come from a lack of knowledge regarding church history. It is something I have not studied or been taught much on – so when I read a quote like the one given at the beginning of the blog, I am confused or suprised as to the full meaning or reasons behind it.

    I really am glad you asked whether the passages in the N.T. are prescriptive or descriptive. This is a good question to ask, and I had not even thought of that. One thing I do wonder though, if they were simply descriptive, why then is it sometimes commanded of people to be baptized right after salvation? (Acts 10:48) Why would leaders/apostles command people to be baptized right away if it wasn’t something they believed was necessary or right to do?

    I agree with your second point completely.

    • Abi, the apostles certainly believed baptism was something necessary to do. In fact, it is widely accepted that early Christians (apostles included) simply considered belief and baptism so intimately related that it would have been strange for someone to confess belief and not be baptized; to believe in Jesus Christ would surely, naturally involve baptism. So the question isn’t whether the belief/confession and baptism are related, but whether immediate baptism is anywhere prescribed. Solely based on the narrative of Acts, I think this is a difficult argument to make considering the lack of a common pattern of salvation (see Scriptures in previous comment).

  5. So many thoughts are running through my head after reading this post that it is hard to form a coherent response. The original post had me thinking on my own baptism and agreeing that more discipling should be done before a believer is baptized. Then Abi’s post had me searching through my Bible with support from my concordance. Finally I looked up baptism in Grenz to gather my thoughts.

    Based on my own experience of baptism, I would agree that it would have benefited me to have undergone more instruction on what it means to be a believer in Christ and what it means to be baptized. I do not even recall the date I was baptized or even remember much about my state of mind on that date. Baptism and even conversion should signify a turning from sin and a new birth–that is radical and should be something I remember.

    However, I am not sure how much church doctrine I could have grasped at the age I was baptized. This naturally raises the question of how much detail do we go into before baptism? How much do we expect the believer to know? Before the theology class I am now in I did not think it possible for me to ever understand church tradition and theology well. Theology for me was isolated to books filled with incomprehensible vocabulary and written by those who only desired to show off their intellect. Now I see theology in the choices I make everyday and in the way I interact with others.

    I think many churches today (including the one I was raised in) want to steer so clear of salvation by works that they create many apathetic Christians. My church baptized, but they so emphasized that it was not necessary for salvation that it became dispensable to me, an unnecessary embellishment. I guess what I am saying is that I think instructing believers before baptizing them is right. Only when the believer understands the significance of his/her conversion and baptism within the whole Gospel is that conversion and baptism life-changing and meaningful.

  6. The quote from the Apostolic Constitutions sort of blew me away. There was so much stuff in there, some things I still fee like I’m trying to wrap my mind around and i’ve been a Christian for the majority of my life. I could give general answers to these questions, but without a doubt could use some study in some areas. This seems so contradictory to many churches today, or at least churches I am familiar with.

    From personal experience, I remember wanting to get baptized and my dad wouldn’t let me because I was too young to understand all that he wanted me to before I made my public confession. I am thankful now because my baptism was a time of deep commitment, I knew what I was getting myself into in a way. Yet, I also think a strong case can be made for immediate baptism like is spoken of in the New Testament. It’s a hard line to draw. Maybe it’s different for different people, but if giving more instruction and background before baptism helps people stay committed after their confession because they are more informed, then how could we not be for that.

    My only draw back with waiting is that it become a process that really only postpones and apathy sets in. Yet, really that depends on the individual and the Spirits work within them, and even then the person reception of the Spirits work. Why do we always think we need a process for everything, a time line, a written out document. It’s not us that is doing the work of convicting, or drawing of people.

    Maybe we should give more emphasis on the Work of the Spirit, instead of bickering about how and when to baptize. In this way, growth is occurring either way. I don’t know if that is skirting the issue, but it makes sense to me.

    • I can understand completely what you are saying about apathy. Is it better to wait and gain a better understanding while losing some of the spark of the moment or is it better to jump in with limited knowledge? I definitely agree with you that it should never be our time and decisions that moves towards baptism. The Holy Spirit has timing for all things and baptism is no different

  7. I think I agree that we (as a church) have embraced a disinterest in what we might call Theology. This seems to be fairly apparent in my day to day conversations with other Christians who do not spend hours in class and out studying theology and other “Christian” subjects.

    However, I think the biggest issue that I have noticed is the second that you offered. The issue of “easy believism.” I work at a Christian camp that is trying to make converts of children as its main goal. And while I do not necessarily have a problem with this, I do have an issue with the gospel we share sometimes. Of course, we are sharing it with children so it can’t necessarily be as “theological” as we can share with some adults. However, almost nothing is mentioned about changing allegiances, re-orieting priorities, or re-narrating life. A little, usually, but just a little.

    I also volunteer with YFC and I tend to see a similar thing…at least when the Gospel is presented. When it is presented in both cases it seems to be presented with a heavy emphasis on what God is and has and will do for them, and has very little to no emphasis on what they have to do for God, of what we have to do for God. That being that we are suppose to completely re-route our allegiances and change our priorities and life.

    Again, these are both examples of young people and I am fully aware that there may need to be some difference in the way in which the Gospel is shared. I am simply sharing my discrepincies with an idea of a non-challenging Gospel. Any thoughts?

    • I agree with you about the “easy believism” thing. I was a part of YFC when I was in High school and I knew many of the kids that made faith decisions during that time fell away within the next few years and decided that Christianity wasn’t for them. Now was this because they had not been properly discipled in the faith? In some ways, I think that this is definitely part of it. If we aren’t being trained and taught the word of God from the very beginning, then we will not be solid in the faith. Don’t get me wrong, I love the YFC program, but I find that the kids need to be plugged into a local church to be discipled after making the faith commitment.

    • I agree with many of your thoughts Dustin. I find that the same situations you mentioned with kids to be similar to my own situation. I’ve said the “sinner’s prayer” within groups of people too many times to count. However, I still think that there is something the Holy Spirit does during acts of conversion. I think one of the great things that camps and YFC is about is the value of discipleship. Christians that return to camp (I’m assuming that Christians come as well as non-Christians) are able to learn from their peers and mentors who are much older. YFC is a similar situation. The challenge, I think, comes through discipleship. I was blessed to have good friends and mentors growing up who spurred me on toward following Christ. That wasn’t without many seasons of being lost or confused. Transformation doesn’t end with conversion/baptism.

    • I totally understand this concern. I struggle with this daily, whether through conversation or lesson preparation. Yet, to add to this confusion before making sense of it, I have been thinking a lot lately about how little we actually do in the conversion process. God is the only who draws us to him, the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and shows us our need for Christ. Literally all that is left for us to do is believe and confess. All the hard work is done strictly by the Spirit or the Spirit working through someone else. Now with this in mind, I find it harder and easier at the same to present the Gospel. In the former, its harder because how to explain their responsibility to radically commit can change their life when you are saying that it is God who does the work in the conversion process. Yet in the latter, its easier because one would have a higher view of God’s Word and it’s ability to present it’s self, not needing anything we would have to offer it. Now the question remains, how do we find a balance between these two. Is that our job? Or again does it go back to my earlier point about the presence and practice of the Spirit in our lives? I’m not sure, but I get leery of these subjects because I always feel like I’m putting an emphasis on what I’m doing, when in all reality, I’m just a tool to be used. Maybe the answer lies somewhere in the work of the Spirit and it’s role in the believers life, along with discipleship. Just some incomplete thoughts, but perhaps a start

  8. I really like what Williams had to say. I do think that churches need to dig deeper in theology before AND after baptism. Being baptized, how I believe it to be, is a profession of faith symbolizing your life commitment to Christ. The real conversion takes place when one decides to profess, follow, and obey Christ.

    So, in this thinking, churches should help, guide, teach, and encourage new believers. They should be taught on what the faith is all about and how it is supposed to be lived. They need to be taught on all the theology that was quoted by Williams. Hopefully, not too long after you confess Christ to be Lord and Savior, you get baptized. So, is there a lot of time to teach all of that? It depends and it’s based on how fast your church does baptism. If there’s time to learn all of that then great! If there’s not enough time to learn all of that, fine! They have their entire lives to learn and to grow in the faith and in the theology that should be taught and learned by all Christians.

  9. I believe they are unimportant for baptism, at least I have seen and experienced it as unimportant in the churches I have attended (and they be many). For my baptism I do not recall ever having sat down with my pastor and parents and discussed why I wanted and why I should get baptized. I just said the sinner’s prayer and got baptized. Many people, I fear, ask for salvation and then baptism follows almost instantaneously. The difference being that in the early church many people understood what it meant to be a follower of Christ, not many people understand what that means today. I know I did not know what it meant to follow Christ. So I guess my question (had I been intelligent enough to post this blog) is whether or not salvation, baptism, conversion, etc. should have an “age” limit?

    I ask this only because I do not think I should have been allowed to be baptized at the age of 7. I also do not think my parents should have let me say the sinner’s prayer at the age of 7 because I could not grasp the meaning behind being a follower of Christ. Granted, this is probably just my experience but I have a feeling that this is not just a one time occurance. In Matthew 3 John the Baptist tells the crowd “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The word “repentance” here is Mentanoia which means the state of changing any or all of the elements composing one’s life: attitude, thoughts, and behaviors concerning the demands of God for right living.

    Knowing what it means to be a follower of Christ should be understood by the person about to be baptized. If that person does not understand and cannot articulate that understanding back to a priest, pastor, or their parents I do not feel that they should be baptized.

    • I am with you on questioning the wisdom of baptizing a child. This is not a comment on infant baptism or anything, but rather a comment on churches that practice baptism as part of a declaration of faith. I see children under 12 get baptized all the time in the church and I always wander how much they really understand of what is going on. I guess if we want to state the opinion that one should know the core beliefs of the faith and go through some instruction before baptism we may have to limit the age we baptize even more. However, some young children have an understanding of faith more real/deep than that of some adults. Another thing to be cautious about is that the young person is not just repeating what they have heard their parents say but is actually expressing their individual faith.

      • I was not meaning for me response to sound like a concern for child baptism, that was my fault for not articulating clearly, it was merely my illustration. My point was that some form of a theological conversation must happen before someone would be baptized and you touched on this. I would like to clarify without a confusing illustrations. My point was that some sort of theological discussion, whether that be with adult or child, before baptism. A basic understanding and articulation of Christian beliefs should be exemplified by the person wishing to be baptized. If that person can articulate those beliefs in a manner that is exceptional then dunk them under if the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

  10. I do agree that their should be some sort of confession of faith/theological study before a baptism. Before i was baptized i went through a class on the united brethren confession of faith and belief system with my dad. I think it is important to better understand the commitment you are about to make with baptism, then to not understand the reasons at all.

  11. I have always grown up with the idea that you should get baptized right after you have made your profession of faith. So as I read through this blog post I actually was reading in a way that was defensive and not trying to understand. But then I started wondering if what I had believed is really required by scripture or if it was something that I put into scripture. Even as I think about my own experience, I had gotten baptized when I was 12 years old. I grew up in the church and was being taught scripture for quite a while until I received baptism. Now throughout this time did I know that Jesus was the only way? Yes, my parents had taught me that. Did I also know many scriptural truths? Yes. Did I love Jesus and want to live for him? Yes. Obviously it is different for someone who grew up outside of the church, but for me I had learned a lot before I was baptized. But most of the time we are expecting people who are outside of the church to receive baptism right away.

    This discussion makes me think of the great commission which says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:19-20) This verse definitely tells us that we should baptize people once they become disciples and then teach them to obey Jesus. What exactly is this process of making disciples though? Must it be done in this order? I guess I’m at the point of asking questions right now and I don’t have a lot of answers. Just some thoughts I’m putting out there for now…

  12. I think that the church has lacked big time in readying its newcomers to the faith of what it is we do believe. Thus, creating people who just know the basics, and that gets us into trouble when defending or articulating the faith. But I struggle to say that it is all the church’s fault, because that it is also our own personal fault too. I think that we are not seizing it with enough conviction to whole heartedly study and understand what it is that we believe. I’ll admit that I am one of the people that did not do this. My church offered me the things that I needed to know or at least tried to. Yet, I did not have the desire to take it to heart and truthfully dig into and learn what it is that I believe. Therefore, do think that we need to form a class or some kind of informational learning time, so that we can properly teach the new comers more then the “basics” of the faith. This will create more whole devout Christians that will be ready to stand up against the tests of the world.

    • I know just what you mean. Even though my experience with my home church was positive with how new believers are instructed, I do recognize that there are many churches that aren’t really preparing those new to the faith in regards to why they are being baptized. A lot of the time the focus is merely on “winning” someone over to the faith and the rest is really left to their own ambitions. I also agree that using a blanket statement regarding the church is not enough either, it really comes down to each believer using their gifts to work together to bring about a correct understanding of these things. Those who are more “familiar” with the faith helping and teaching those who are new.

  13. It’s a vague memory to me, considering back when I was baptized, because it was when I was a younger boy. I remember though, my pastor did sit down with us before baptism, in at least one class teaching us what the significance was of what we were doing. He made certain that we understood and were full aware of what it meant. I remember at the baptism itself we were asked to tell the church why we were being baptized and what it meant for us. I know still this is the same way my pastor officiates baptism. There are classes for those interested in being baptized, it’s not directly after their conversion, but rather it is a commitment following an understanding of what the significance of baptism is. So when I read this article it seemed only normal to me that believers would go through some form of teaching regarding baptism so they know what they are declaring.

  14. let him be taught how God punished the wicked with water and fire, and glorified the saints in every generation, . . .

    I often wonder how and why the whole process of conversion has changed since the time of the early church. The goal of conversion today is to simply get the person to Christ and then worry about educating them. But does this work? For some people I would say yes. They can simply learn as they go and they are fine. For others I would say no. Their environment and situation requires that they know more about the faith that they confess towards. A Christian must know what he or she is committing to at the very least. Jumping blindly into Christianity will often leave the converter with very few options and the converted confused and limited with where their faith can go.

    I really have never given much credit to baptism. While I think that if possible it is an excellent way to show commitment I do not think that every person must be physically baptized. I would much rather have a person have a strong understanding of their faith over being physically baptized. While both would be nice I can certainly settle for the former first. I think God would rather we understand Him to the best of our abilities rather than jumping into a pool of water without any knowledge of Him.

    I remember when I was baptized. I took a one time class about a week before the actual event. It explained the different methods of baptism and what the act really means. I remember my pastor basically stating that it doesn’t really matter how you are baptized because the affirmation of commitment is the most important part of the process.

  15. I struggle with concepts like instruction. Does my instruction determine whether or not I am a Christian? Is the sincerity of my following of Jesus Christ affected by instruction?
    I remember making a case for my baptism when I was 5 years old. The common practice in my church was for children to wait until they turn 12 years of age and have gone through some confession of faith classes and/or discussions. However, I at the age of 5 saw others being baptism, learned it was a sign of belief in Jesus as savior of the whole world and me in it, and decided I should be baptism. I spoke with the leaders and asked if I could be baptized. An exception was made. Personally, I find joy in my desire for baptism. Since then, there have been times when I failed to follow Christ. I plan to do one thing, but then find myself doing the very opposite. Am I following Christ then? Furthermore, since my young baptism I have gone through a decent amount of theological instruction. My understanding of theological concepts has surely increased tremendously.
    So now what?
    I see the importance resting less on instruction and more on transformation. Then, it’s not really something we can make happen, with classes or whatever, but something the Holy Spirit does. Did the criminal beside Jesus hanging on a cross need instruction before baptism (only this time not a symbolic death) Don’t get me wrong, discipleship is key in the narrative of conversion and often starts way before the moment of conversion. Wait? Is conversion a moment?

    • I feel like i am in the same boat as zach. I grew up in a missionary family and when i saw my brother get baptized i urged my dad to let me get baptized as well, i was 6 years old at the time and im glad he let me and also that he made me do a baptism class because i still remember it to this day and have the book i used for the class. I use to think man i was young, and stuff like that but i have grown to realize that we always talk about seeking a childlike faith so why should i doubt my own childhood faith. It just doesnt follow.

    • Zachary I fully agree with you. “I see the importance resting less on the instruction and more on transformation.” I like that, good word(s). It is something that the Holy Spirit works in us and transforms us to be more in His image. We also can’t learn everything before we are baptized, so we are going to continue to be transformed by God as we advance in our journey with Him.
      As I have learned more about baptism and what it means, even more than what I was taught before I was baptized, I get chills thinking back about the transformation that occurred at that moment and which continues even to this day.

  16. I like the way that the early church fathers thought of and utilized the process of baptism. I suspect that their method for this process was probably a huge part of why the early church had success in terms of unity and the spreading of the gospel.

    I tend to think that the problem is probably not simply explained by any one of the issues mentioned, but probably a combination of several of them. Of the possibilities listed, I most suspect the assumption that people already understand what they’re getting into combined with the “easy-believism” preached today.

    Because I work for Youth for Christ, I naturally think about this (and most topics) from the perspective of ministry to high school age students. In my position, I see my role as part of the education process along the way. I do what I can to educate in group settings as well as to go more in depth in one-on-one settings. I will do every bit of educating that I can on this subject, especially when it comes to conversion and baptism, but ultimately, I won’t always have the final say in the matter. Churches need to do more to step up their education process at the time of baptism.

    If there is ever a good time for this, it is during the time when someone is interested in being baptized. This is 1) because they have already shown interest in the faith and in learning what it means, and 2) because they need to know what it means to be a Christian. They are more receptive to information at this time anyhow, and I think it would go a long way for the individual and for the Church to be clear about the commitment they are making.

    The church needs more education prior to baptism. Nuff said.

  17. I believe that all too often we emphasize the importance of baptism and rush new believers into doing this proclamation without mentoring them through the true theology of what Christians belief. New believer lack the knowledge and basics of the Christian faith. It is necessary for those believers that make the proclamation of the faith, to know the Christian doctrine which includes God’s triune identity, His creative action, and our identity as his creatures and our role in this world, as well as his eschatological promises. We must know what we believe before we proclaim it. How can we truly know of the God who saves if we do not understand the role He plays in our lives and in this drama of redemption. Without knowledge of God’s triunity, his creative action and his role in our lives, then baptism becomes merely an act with little meaning and significance besides showing that you have accepted Christ. This act of baptism is to be one of the most significant events of our lives. It is the moment where we proclaim who this God is that we have accepted and been called to. We accept his nature, the way in which he works in creation, and what he will do in the future. We also accept our responsibility as his agents in the world in which we are dedicated to his mission of reaching others and reconciling them to Him. Baptism is not something that should be taken lightly and all too often we down play its importance and power. How often do we have children become baptized shortly after their conversion without walking them through the core beliefs of our faith. They are basing their whole conversion on their experience. They have no basis or knowledge of God truly calling them to Him and then baptism becomes a retelling of their experience. Baptism is an event in which we are baptized in the trinity and the understanding of this is crucial in order to understand the significance of this act.

  18. I wholeheartedly agree that new believers must be discipled more and that we usually do a poor job of this. But I don’t think this has to be done before baptism for several reasons.

    In Acts 8, Philip just got done leading the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ. Verse 36 says, “As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” There wasn’t any hesitation.

    In Acts 10, a large group of people were converted. Immediately, Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (v 47).

    In Acts 22, Paul witnessed to the leaders when he was on trial. He said, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (v 16). There was no hesitation, but both baptism occurred within the same timing.

    One last reason, and this is just along the lines of reason, at what point is someone “mature” enough or “smart” enough to get saved? We never stop growing and learning, and it seems difficult, even risky, to try and draw a line and tell people, “okay, you’ve reached that point, and we will let you be baptized now.”

    I want to back up a little bit and say that as far as conversion itself goes, people must know what they are getting themselves into, that they must die to themselves and take up their crosses daily. To often we just confuse people by asking vague things like, “would you like to accept Jesus into your heart?” I think that there should still be somewhat of a standard, but it should be judged along the lines of if the person is eager to follow Christ and learn about him. Granted, they will have to know enough about Christ to know they want to give their lives to him. But beyond that, I think it is dangerous to limit people from getting baptized if they don’t know enough. The bottom line is that they are willing to follow Jesus wholeheartedly, and yes, they must know who Jesus basically is if they are to follow him.

    Sorry if I confused anyone, I’m sort of in the middle. I guess I’m trying to say that people should be immediately baptized after having a genuine conversion, but this genuine conversion will naturally involve some level of knowledge and understanding. But beyond that, I believe it isn’t biblical to make people wait and go through some sort of schooling before baptism like in the 4th century.

    • I see what you are saying about the urgency that is apparent in passages such as in Acts 8, 10 and 22. This was my natural reaction as well. And yet, I find myself honestly wondering if the story we are given gives us the full picture of what happened. Is there part of the story that we do not have that would give us a complete picture of what happened or is this exactly in order the events that occured. I don’t know… but I do think it is a good consideration.
      While I see that immediate baptism can have at least emotional benefits when it coincides with a conversion, if indeed it can be established as one particular point or not. However, I see this not only as a process of foundational learning as a perfect consideration of the confession that has been made through conversion, but also it begins the journey of Christian life and the lifelong pursuit of knowing and following God. Just some thoughts for consideration.

    • Alright John after more thinking about what you said I do also agree. and I change my views to an extent. As long as the conversion itself was wholehearted and that they knew what they were getting themselves into then the next step is then proclaiming their faith through baptism. As a child I was baptized and even though I did not fully understand the trinity or God’s role in creation, it was still real to me. The power of the baptism was not fully realized though until later in my life when I was able to discover more about the essence and personhood of God. Just because I was untrained and had no theological teaching does not mean that my baptism was any less real or powerful then someone who has been baptized with their Doctorate in Theology. I do agree that it is dangerous to limit people in baptism when there is evidence in the Bible of people getting baptized immediately after their conversion as is evident in Acts 8:36. I do think that we need to do a better job at discipling but as far as baptism goes as long as they have been converted and know what all that entails then the next step is baptism.

    • John I think that you have a valid point and maybe there should not be a time in between. The scripture references were good. I do think that they should be baptized directly after conversion, as long as they understand its meaning. The church should offer some sort of class or time for new believers to better develop a their understanding of the Christian faith. This would create more educated believers that actually know what they believe, thus helping them to grow and mature even further.

  19. Should we even accept baptism with water? Actually, there are some questions, controversies, about this.

    There are many, many major historical controversies about Baptism. And whole nations went to war over this issue among others; especially the Baptists.

    Among other problems, there are two or three possible kinds: by water, or by the Holy Spirit.

    And then, even regarding water in itself: is it a spinkle – or total immersion?

    Especially though, is any kind of literal water baptism advisable? While John “the Baptist” baptized with actual water, and even baptized Jesus himself that way, John noted that the one who came after him would baptise with the Holy Spirit (Acts 11.16 etc.). Seemingly the Holy Spirit, even as opposed to water, often. Oddly, Jesus himself apparently did not baptise with water, it seems at times: “Jesus himself did not baptise” with water (John 4.2), on at least one occasion. Or ever?

    If Jesus encouraged his disciples to baptise, therefore, was it with Water? Or with the Holy Spirit? Here readers might look at what Jesus himself said, vs. his disciples, llike Paul.

    Especially: what if we want to follow Jesus himself, the words attributed directly to him, more than to his followers or disciples (who often failed; Mat. 16.23)? What if we want to follow primarily what Jesus himself said in person – as some theologians at times suggested? Should we still accept baptism with water?

    It seems to some for instance, that water baptism is more from John the Baptist, after all, than from Jesus himself. No doubt Jesus might have said we must be “born from water” and from the holy spirit. But after all, being born from water might just refer to breaking water in natural childbirth etc..

    So finally: is the Bible, and particularly Jesus himself, entirely clear that we must be baptized by water? And if Jesus himself never baptised with literal, actual water, then should we even accept that kind of baptism in church? Since some say, it is not really the true baptism from Jesus himself; but only a flawed baptism, from his fallible disciples?

    Here the history seems very confused.

    Does anyone here have a clarification on these issues?

    • Brett, I’m glad you pointed out the different baptisms. I’ve spent quite some time researching them before, but yet I am still confused on it. But I will still offer what insights I can.

      One thing I’m sure of is that there are two baptisms, and the Bible clearly points out that both are distinct, like you pointed out in Acts 11:16 (also 1:5).

      When the Bible just generally says “baptism” without specifying, I think it means water baptism each time. In response to your question on John 4:2, it seems logical that it refers to water since Jesus did in fact baptize with the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:11), and this verse says that Jesus didn’t baptize, so this must mean by water.

      Water baptism was also practiced after Jesus left. This is seen in Acts 8:36, 10:47, and 22:16. 1 Peter 3:21 and Romans 6:3 also point to water baptism. To answer your question about sprinkling, Rom 6:4 and Col 2:12 mention being buried in baptism, and so my opinion is that people don’t sprinkle people at funerals, but fully immerse them.

      So then what is baptism in the Holy Spirit? I believe it is a sort of filling of the Holy Spirit, not that people don’t have the Holy Spirit prior to this experience, but that they Holy Spirit fills them in a new way. What makes this study tricky is that people who were saved prior to Jesus’ ascension (when He promised the HS) did not have the HS. But now all believers do from the moment they are saved, because the HS is the seal of salvation. But just to reiterate, all believers have the HS from the time of salvation, but baptism of the HS (which is different than water baptism) is a subsequent filling of the Holy Spirit to empower believers, and this is done by Jesus himself, not by people.

  20. I tend to agree with abi, in the sense, that most people in the church don’t have a good hold on church history and how the church has progressed to become what it is today. Like I said earlier when we mention theolgy, people just tend to shut off or not pay attention, because they don’t find any concrete fact in it. Since there is so much opinion and lee way involved, people don’t put a high regard on the subject. It also kind of spills into what Kevin had to say. There does need to be more emphasis on teaching church history and coenciding that with our modern theology and how that effects our faith. But I really think it is necessary to note that not all people were baptized after years of learning about God. Like the Etheopian Eunech was baptized right after he heard the gospel message, there are other occassions when this happens. It is a sign of conversion and acceptance of the faith. It is just like being reborn. We become a completely new person in baptism, which offers us a new life in which we learn and grow. I don’t think we should discourage people from getting baptized, because they don’t know enough. When will we ever know enough. We look at pastors and leaders and we think there is one point in life where we will just get it and understand everything. I feel it would be more beneficial to have classes and a more in depth study after conversion.

  21. Thanks John Cross:

    So it sort of looks like the baptism with water, is not as important as the baptism with the Holy Spirit.

    Corroborating the idea that baptism with water was problematic or secondary even in ancient times, it is interesting along these lines, to note that water baptism is presented questioningly. In say Acts 8.36: “what prevents me from getting baptised?” And Acts 10.47: “Can anyone fordid water…?” Only later on, is water baptism is presented more firmly, in Acts 22.16. But even there it is presented as a solution that to be sure, only emerged after a time, after a “delay.” And even there, the acceptance of the solution is presented in part, in a way that acknowledges some delay in accepting it, and presents it almost questioningly still: “Why are you delaying?”

    So your ideas seem mostly good; and the baptism with the Holy Spirit seems more important.

    In fact, I’m not sure I see much reference to water baptism at all; outside just the baptism of John the “Baptist.” Even in Rom. 6.3, I don’t yet see any reference to water at all explicitly; while being “buried” with Jesus might just refer to dying to our physical body, our physical desires? Then too Peter 3.21 seems if anything, to rather directly go against water, a bath: the passage referring to “baptism (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the request made to God for a good conscience,) through the resurrection of Jesus”. Which by the way, is inserting a clarification in response to questioning of the nature of baptism again. And Peter further suggests it is not with water, is not a bath, or cleansing the “filth of the flesh” (or even putting off the body?). And it does this parenthetically; as if in a hesitant, historically late reconsideration or amendment. (See also baptism with “fire”? Maybe the Holy Spirit; maybe not).

    So with your help, the impression I’m starting to get, is that it was not Jesus, but John the Baptist, that literally baptised with water; Jesus didn’t do that. Even John himself had made a firm distinction, between his baptism with water, and Jesus’ with Holy Spirit. In my memory, this is confirmed (somewhere) when a disciple (Paul?) goes to parts of Christiandom, and finds that some know the baptism of John with water, but not of the Holy Spirit.

    So to me for now, it looks like there was an early baptism with water, in the early history of Christianity – but it came pretty much just from John “the Baptist.” Not from Jesus himself. And so the importance of water baptism, to Jesus, and Christianity, was often literally questioned.

    Is baptism with water important then? And how about baptism with the spirit? Today, it seems like preachers attempt to fix or resolve any possible mix ups or mistakes, with the “shotgun” approach: we get baptised with water, but also “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Preachers here giving us everything included; water and spirit. Apparently in the hope that whichever element it is that is important, the right element whichever one it is, will not be left out, if we include them all.

    Still though to be sure, there seems to be a trend to suggest that water may be less important. Many have rightly noted here, that ministers often tell us that beyond the water ceremony, is the more important moment when we more fully change, in our hearts; and accept the “spirit,” the Holy Spirit, more fully, consciously.

    And all that leaves the water rite looking rather less important. Finally it seems that water baptism does not seem firmly indicated by the Bible itself, at all. In fact, it looks like something that mainly John the Baptist did; not Jesus himself. Which leaves it looking like it is not from Jesus; and might be left out.

    Problems like these, are in fact probably the reason that today, many individual denominations and churches, don’t stress water baptism. It looks as it most don’t even require it, these days.

    Finally, some might even reject water baptism outright; since it did not come from Jesus himself, but only from unreliable, tangential traditions (of John the Baptist; unreliable disciples, etc.).

    Personally, I don’t have a great objection to water baptism. Except to note that to be sure, water baptism seems to promote magical thinking. For many people, it is as if some thing that some physical substances – like baptismal water, or the bones of saints – if touched, work some magical influence on us. That the phsyical objects in sacraments like Baptism, are magical objects. Whereas in fact, the important change is when our minds or spirits, are changed; when our hearts accept the spirit of Jesus and God.

    So it is all about simply making a change in our minds; not about some magical substance or magical objects, magically working supernatural effects.

    Though if anything, to the extent that using water in baptism, seems to play up to false, magical thinking, belief in Magic and magicians and objects with magical powers, in effect, water baptism might even be positively rejected. As being not real Christianity, but belief in magic and magicians; belief in magical substances.

  22. It may even be that the 1) physical baptism by water, might be less unimportant. And even misleading. More important than being sprinkled with water would be 2) receiving – or being educated in – in your mind or spirit, the holy spirit of God. While theology helps make it more certain, that the spirit we receive really is the right one; and not a “false spirit.”

    A look at baptism itself, would seem to confirm the main point above: that just jumping into something in religion, with no intellectual/spiritual/ or even theological preparation, would not be good. We might end up not knowing what we are doing as Kent suggests; I would add that we might even jump into the wrong thing.

    Even baptism itself, for example, should be looked at carefully, before we participate in it. And then, we should carefully decide what kind of baptism we want. Particularly, we probably want one that contains some intellectual/theological content. Otherwise it could be that we would end up being baptised into a false, magical idea of Christianity, for instance.

    Look carefully, before you leap (Mat. 4.6).

  23. I’m late in responding to this considering the 40 comments before me, but I figure I’ll go ahead an weigh in too, albeit late.

    First, the idea of baptismal instruction presupposes not only the importance of baptism, but that baptism is in some senses (maybe in all) a sacrament. With this I’m okay. This being the case, the early church’s understanding of baptism is one in which baptism was not simply symbol of faith, but a practice in inclusion to an alternative community, one which may be juxtaposed to the empire. And I think this is incredibly important even today, however, it is overshadowed by “turn-or-burn” evangelism.

    Second, we cannot understand baptism without first being trained and formed by the alternative community claiming us. As a result, baptism before instruction cannot make sense. It can only be a symbol without any substantial meaning.

    I think too that we ought to see basptism as it was originally seen, as a sumberging of one’s self. And I believe this is best seen in the sumberging of one’s self into the alternative community and reality of the Church. Perhaps I’m stretching the analogy too far though?

  24. Andy:

    Immersion in water can be a partially-effective symbol of immersing ourselves in a new community; or better, in the being of God.

    At the same time though, the water is only a symbol; not a magical substance.

    And ultimately the real submersion, is into the spirit, Holy Spirit, being, of God. (Churches, even alternative ones, often being unreliable).

    So that immersion in water is in part, useful; but in part, can be very misleading. Especially to those trained to believe in magical substances, and magical objects.

    • Right, but my comment is that immersion or baptism, isn’t simply about the water. It is about being immersed in a new and alternative community. I’m not claiming that water has any magic properties. What I’m saying is that through or immersion (or whatever way in which we are baptized) we aren’t simply being immersed in water, but we are being immersed into a new reality.

  25. Let’s learn some academic theology.

    Theologians have historically conceptualized what baptism is, and how it works, in many different ways. The different ways theologians or religious scholars (and ordinary folks) think of Baptism, we might arrange here on a scale; from say, the most Magical, to the most Rational. Or from the most “believing” or “faithful,” to the LEAST believing or faithful.

    Which if any of the following characterizations of Baptism, is correct? Or the most common? Which would you personally choose? Be prepared to steel yourself when considering them; the last options especially, will seem rather shocking to a believer. But in the interest of including all common academic views, we need to consider even the last ones.

    Here is a spectrum of different charaterizations of Baptism, from say, “most believing” to “least believing” characterizations. Which if any, seems most defensible or best?

    1) The water is a good “Magic”al object; it touches us, and its supernatural, “magical” powers, transform us into a different person.

    2) The water is a “Miracle” substance; it touches us, and miraculously or supernaturally, transforms us into a different person.

    3) The water is Miraculous; it touches and transforms us … but only if we ALSO happen to get an additional Miraculous sustance, The Holy Spirit.

    4) The water is a symbol; it stands for immersing ourselves in the more mirculous substance of the Holy Spirit.

    5) The water is a symbol, standing for immersion in the spirit; the “Spirit” just means having the right ideas, the “spirit” of, God. Baptism works, if we get the water … but especially if we get the idea or “spirit” of it all.

    6) This is an ancient, symbolic ritual, that can introduce some to the better ideas or “spirit,” of a better morality.

    (Finally, there are even some rather negative speculations:)

    7) This is is an ancient – and primitive – ritual.

    8) This is an ancient and destructive superstition, that is essentially belief in magic; those who believe in it, become superstitious people following magicians. Their belief in Magic, will cripple their practical Reason and understanding. They will mistakenly rely on this false belief in Magic, to bring them happiness and prospersity. But because their belief in magic and miracle, is deceived, they will remain crippled, ignorant. And incapable of taking the more practical steps they need, to improve their minds, and lives.

    9) This is a destructive superstition, which we need to end.

    Believe it or not, these are actually a number of ways that different theologians – and/or religious scholars – have conceptualized religion; specifically baptism. Arranged on a scale from most believing and accepting, to most critical.

    Which if any of these views would you support? Or which which would you most like to discuss/refute? Or would you like to add your own option?

    Before becoming baptised, would it be useful to consider any of this?

    • I’m not really sure what your question is, or what you are trying to get at or refute. Oh and thanks for the “academic theology” lesson.

  26. What’s at question here for me, is HOW does Baptism “save” us? Or what is the right, most defensible account of Baptism? It seems generally assumed by many, that the act of Baptism not just a formal, empty marker; most seem to assume that the act of baptism, has some kind of force or power on its own, to work a change in us. But the question is, HOW?

    Honestly, its been years since I informally researched this type of topic, as an undergrad and then grad student; in part in theology, but rather more through Anthropology. But briefly, Anthropology sees these events as in effect, “rituals,” or “rites of initiation.” Those terms, combined with the word “baptism,” should be adequate to search for related materials on the internet, or a scholarly data base.

    Roughly speaking though, the topic was also pursued in theology, under the notion of in part, either accepting supernaturalism: accepting miracles at face value, and accepting mirculous substances, and so forth; like the water in Baptism somehow working directly on our psyche by magic or miracle. Or taking miracles, from the days of even Philo, not literally. But as metaphors. Especially as metaphors for mental or spiritual things. While Religious or Biblical Criticism, much of it, attempts to favor explanations consistent with both the Bible, and science.

    In any case, for many sermons today, in fact, the water is not a magical substance changing things physically; but somehow works spiritually. Or on our “spirit.” Or “mind.” Which, by the way, we can accept in scientific -based theology.

    In part my model here relies on a traditional major classificatory division, in many theologies; between a 1) literal belief in miracles, changing physical things; vs. the 2) spiritual understanding of them. Our list moves roughly at first, from a more magical/supernatural mirculuous idea, to less so. As we move down the list, baptism is less about making physical things change by miracles; and more about changing our mind or spirit. This is not only more consistent with science; but also with many theologies. The attempt to get away from literal, physical miracles, is why for example, some of our pastors cited above, from ordinary sermons, suggest that it is not the water itself, or magical substance, but the Holy “spirit” that really makes the important change. While finally even the “spirit” can be seen in more scientific ways.

    In my list, I carry the metaphorical/spiritual theology further, with an Anthropological variation on this traditional idea of the mental- or spiritual-change. Real Anthropology, as a science, does not favor accepting “supernatural” entities or miracles either, per se; but looks to see if there is another explanation consistent with science. In the case of Baptism, we can explain the efficacy of Baptism, without positing supernatural substances. Simply: the rite or ritual of baptism might symbolize and dramatise – and therefore heighten – the moment when our minds and convictions, our spirit, shift toward Jesus. Like most Art might do. So again, the effect is not magical, or even necessarily supernatural; but can be explained by the dramatic (even threatrical) effect of rituals, in helping us to simply change our minds, or “spirits.” No magic or supernaturalism here at all.

    And in this way, about midway through this list, we have an explanation for/proof of the effectiveness of Baptism, in a way that I would suggest, is both 1) totally consistent with the Bible itself (as I show elsewhere, in a yet-unpublished book); and yet at the same time 2) does not contradict, but rather is confirmed by, science.

    Which is an important moment; here we have a Christianity not contradicted by, but confirmed by, science. A Christianity that is 1) consistent with the BIble; 2) consistent with Theology. And a theology that also 3) really works, in a way that empirical science can verify. (Anthropology can prove that rituals are effective).

    Among other secondary gains? Now the formerly split, dualistically separated elements of human thought – religion and science; heaven and earth; spirit and body – here begin to come together again. Ending a contradiction in human thought, among other things.

    But on the way to doing that, we looked here for earlier models of this progression. And historically (to some extent; in obscure corners to be sure; church doctrines and early anthropology etc.) there can be found a spectrum of various attempts, to do what we are working on here. There were many explanations, both in popular ideas, and in serious theology, and in Anthropology, to explain how Baptism works; and many attempted to do this in a way more and more closely approaching what a real Anthropological science could confirm.

    These attempts I have placed in a spectrum outlined above. Mainly, the issue is, how are the various theologies of Baptism compatible or not, with Reason and Science. The main question is, is it the water itself? As a magical substance? Or is the important thing, the change in our heart or “spirit.” Here I outline some traditional attempts to arrive at a scientific understanding; beginning with the least, to the most (and then beyond).

    The non-supernatural, change-in-the-mind theology, has two huge advantages: importantly, it is not only 1) preferred in many “spiritual” churches; but 2) is also more defensible to science. And it therefore is the preferred explanation here. Here we examine a series of beliefs, from most magical/supernatural to least (and then beyond?). And suggest that the earlier explanations look too much like belief in supernatural magic. While say, mid-spectrum explanations, spiritual/rational explanations, look better.

    Why prefer non-magical explanations? Even if you don’t care for science in its own right (which you should, sitting at a computer), then notice this: for one thing, “magic” is opposed not only by science, but also significantly, by the Bible itself. Which warned of “false Christs” and magicians,” “sorcerers,” “deceiving” the whole world (Rev. 13, etc.), with “magic,” “enchantments,” “illusions,” and “delusions.” To fix this, our mid-level explanations dispell magic; by making sure our explanations correspond not only to modern “spiritual” Christianity, but also to anti-magical science (with some tweaks, elsewhere).

    Why outline all this, here and now? It is important of course, to get the right idea of Baptism in mind, before one is baptised. Then too, all this also ties in to my own idea, in another part of this blog, of what a REAL “Theological Anthropology” should be.

    • I guess I just don’t understand, even through your pages of comments, what this has to do with my comment. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I feel like you are saying a lot, but really not saying much.

  27. The Bible, some say, was written in “poetry”; phrases with more than one meaning or message. Likewise, in theology, often the deepest lessons are not explicitly stated; but are pointed to by indirection. At lot depends on your mind set, and what you are prepared to face.

  28. In this case, I’m doing a metaphorical/”spiritual” reading of baptism; that suggests that much of what happens in baptism can be explained without any miracle, but in terms of common sense.

    Here, the water is not necessarily a miraculous substance that directly changes our spirit; but is a symbol, which dramatizes the experience of conversion. And in that way, helps us change our minds or spirits, to be sure.

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