Should baptism be… speedy?

Is it possible to baptize a newly professing-Christian too quickly? What about too slowly? I have to admit, I have often been uncomfortable with massive revival meetings or Easter megachurch services where scores of people come forward, professing faith in Jesus for the first time and being baptized on the spot. I wondered what the follow-up was with these people. Would they find a good local church to which to attach themselves? Did they have a true desire to repent of their sins and follow Christ? Or were many of them caught up in an emotionally-charged wave of mass baptism?

However, I’ve also seen cases where it seemed someone had credibly professed faith in Christ yet their baptism was substantially delayed. At a large church I regularly attended, no one was baptized before age 18 in order to confirm their profession of faith was sincere and reflected a solid understanding of the gospel. This hard-line age requirement surprised me at the time since this church very strongly emphasized church membership yet someone could grow up in that church and then go off to college without ever having the opportunity to be a church member. I thought surely there are 16-year-olds (and even some younger ones) who have grown up always knowing gospel to be true and who can make a well-articulated and credible profession of faith, right?  It seems this position also expects young Christians to live a life faithful to all of Christ’s commands except the commands to be baptized and take the Lord’s Supper (for which baptism is usually a prerequisite), which seems a bit awkward, as well.

So I’ve been conflicted, feeling uncomfortable with both rapid and delayed baptisms. Our natural question should be: What do we observe in Scripture? Before baptism, did someone have to show persistent fruit in their life… or did they just have to say they had placed their faith in Jesus, even if they were a new and immature disciple? Below is a list of all instances I’ve found of people being baptized in the New Testament with the timing noted. (This list does not include the people mentioned in 1 Cor 1:14 & 16 which is a non-narrative passage with no timing indicated.)

  1. Crispus and many Corinthians – Acts 18:8: Probably quickly. Many who heard Paul’s preaching “believed and were baptized”.  The close linking of these events in the narrative gives the indication of close timing.
  2. Lydia – Acts 16:14-15: Probably quickly. We read, “the Lord opened her heart”, then she and her household were baptized, then right away she urged Paul to stay at her home. A natural reading of this short narrative leads one to believe everything happened within a short period.
  3. Saul/Paul – Acts 9: Quickly (three days later). Paul was blinded at his conversion and did not eat or drink for three days. As soon as his sight was restored (even before he ate!), “he rose and was baptized”.
  4. The 3000 at Pentecost – Acts 2:37-41: Immediately. “And Peter said to them, ”Repent and be baptized’… So those who received his word were baptized…”
  5. Samaritan men and women – Acts 8:12-13: Immediately. “When they believed… they were baptized…”
  6. Ethiopian Eunuch – Acts 8:35-36Immediately. Philip shared the good news and, seeing water, the eunuch requested to be baptized.
  7. Cornelius’ household and friends – Acts 10:44-48Immediately.  As soon as Peter saw the Holy Spirit fall on them, “he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
  8. Philippian jailer – Acts 16Immediately. The jailer heard the good news and the same night he “was baptized at once, he and all his family.”
  9. Disciples of John – Acts 19:4-5Immediately. Disciples of John heard the good news; “on hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

In apostolic practice, then, in each case where a baptism timeline was provided, overwhelmingly we see very quick, if not immediate, baptisms. The Didache, a church document likely from the 1st century, only prescribes fasting for a day or two before baptism and does not mention a long vetting or observation period. I do not confess to have all the answers and, admittedly, I do not serve in a pastoral role. However, in reviewing Scripture on this issue, my mind has been changed about expeditious baptisms and I think this is something that church leaders need to consider very carefully. Certainly pastoral wisdom always needs to be exercised any time a sacrament of Christ is administered. And, importantly, it is easy in America to make a quick and somewhat thoughtless “decision for Jesus” with your friends and have potentially no personal ramifications, whereas for a New Testament-era Jew to confess Christ, it was clearly a major life commitment. One could argue that this, alone, requires more careful examination of a new convert and I agree that is reasonable, provided pastors are still seeking to meet with and examine new confessors in a timely manner. Pastors of large gatherings also must avoid the temptation of pressuring crowds into mass instant baptisms for the sake of racking up impressive numbers, which, sadly, does happen. Baptism is neither a spectacle nor a competition in soul bookkeeping. It signifies entry into discipleship at the feet of our Lord.

Ultimately, I think the biggest cause of inordinately delayed baptism is that many churches fear “wrongly baptizing” someone who is not actually regenerate; more time is desired to observe them. Yes, a new convert should be able to explain the gospel, even if very simply, to show they understand they are making a commitment to Christ since they are asking to visibly join the church community. However, the best mere man can do is think or feel someone is probably saved. Acting in practice as though we can have absolute certainty of someone’s salvation wrongly elevates our own spiritual discernment abilities beyond even what the apostles were able to know (see 1 John 2:19, Acts 8:13-22, cf Heb 10:29, Rom 11:17-24).

Thankfully, in Jesus’ kind accommodation to our limitations, he doesn’t set the unachievable goal of only baptizing people we know for sure are beyond-a-doubt true believers. Following the criterion for baptism is actually humanly possible: Jesus said, “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” (Matt 28:19-20). Make and baptize disciples. Disciples are simply people who want to learn about Christ and follow him; they are to be baptized and taught. We know from Jesus’ own words that there are some people who are “disciples” and some who are “disciples indeed” who truly trust in Him (John 8:31); some may fall away, evidencing a lack of true faith (Matt 13:1-23). However, the fact remains that Jesus said the Church is to to baptize and teach disciples! God does not expect ministers of the gospel to supernaturally know the inner recesses of someone’s heart, but pastors can certainly identify someone who says they want to follow Jesus. This removes a lot of the stress in discerning whether someone can be baptized. In Scripture, it was assumed that if the person said themselves that their commitment was to learn about and follow Jesus, they were baptized at once because they were identifying as disciples, the very people Jesus says to baptize.

So should we treat the sacrament lightly and administer it willy-nilly every time someone repeats a prayer at an altar call? No; it is important to confirm that the object of this person’s faith is Christ alone. But were the apostles setting a bad example with quick baptisms? Also no. We should follow the instructions of our Redeemer, which the apostles understood to mean a timely baptism to integrate people into the Christian community. Rigorous follow-up with discipling and mentorship after baptism are, of course, also necessary and biblical. Among other things, timely baptism would have the profound benefit of showing young disciples the importance of publicly identifying with the body of Christ as dutiful church members before moving out of their parents’ home. And that, I think, would be a beautiful thing.

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