The title reflects a question that people often have, both those who are studying and contemplating being baptized and those who have already been baptized and now are studying with others. Biblical concepts give us direction, along with common sense based on the principles of the Bible. Sometimes these two can seem at odds even though they are not. At other times, the two are at odds because the principles involved in each are not understood well enough to produce their correct application. Let’s begin with the biblical principles, then move to the practical principles that may be involved and hopefully end up with an approach that strikes a balance.
Of course it should almost go without saying that we are looking only at examples in the New Testament and in Acts particularly. Baptism as a faith response to Christ is found primarily after his death and resurrection, since baptism is a picture of these things. Romans 6:1-4 gives us a clear explanation of how we by faith accept his death in our behalf through our own death, burial and resurrection in baptism. This means that John’s baptism prior to this time was a restoration baptism for the Jews, who had either wandered from what they knew was right or had wandered in another way ─ through misunderstanding what was right. (See my article on this website entitled, “Was Apollos Re-baptized?” for further explanation of John’s baptism.) With that in mind, let’s focus on the examples of baptism in the Book of Acts, that wonderful history of the establishment and spread of the early church.
In Acts 2, the church was begun with the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, who then by inspiration spoke to the huge audience of Jews who had gathered for the Day of Pentecost. The day began with the apostles as a group speaking in many languages to those gathered from many nations and ended with Peter being the main spokesman. He preached about the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, concluding that God the Father had declared Jesus to be both Lord and Messiah (verse 36). After those with stricken consciences asked what to do, realizing how their sin had led to the death of Christ, Peter told them. He gave two commands and two promises based on their acceptance of the commands. Repent and be baptized in order to receive forgiveness and the indwelling Holy Spirit (verse 38). Verse 41 informs us that 3,000 obeyed the commands and were baptized ─ on the same day in which they were initially taught.
Baptism is not mentioned as directly in these three chapters as in Acts 2, and the indirect references to baptism do not indicate the amount of time prior to baptism for anyone. Acts 3:19 reads thusly: “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.” Turning to God would evidently correspond to baptism in Acts 2:38 and the times of refreshing would parallel the reception of the indwelling Spirit. Several passages just mention that additional people became believers, without detailing the process. Acts 4:4, 5:14, 6:1, 7 are examples of such passages. When we reach Acts 16 and the conversion of the jailor in Philippi, we will see that coming to believe included baptism. This understanding will help us to avoid the false conclusion that variations of how to become a Christian existed in Acts (i.e. – people becoming Christians without repentance and baptism).
Verse 12 informs us that many in Samaria were baptized, and verse 13 mentions the magician Simon believing and being baptized. In neither case are we given a time frame between hearing the gospel and obeying it in baptism. However, beginning in verse 26, we find the conversion account of the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip taught him about Jesus, using the very passage he had been reading from Isaiah 53 as a starting point. The text simply says that Philip told him the good news about Jesus, but in doing so must have taught him about how to respond to Jesus. The eunuch saw water as they were traveling in his chariot, asked to be baptized and Philip went down into the water and accommodated his request. Hence, much like those in Acts 2, he was baptized as soon as he was taught (on the same day).
The first part of the chapter records Paul’s conversion, with verse 18 mentioning his baptism. Evidently he was baptized very soon after he was taught by Ananias. His conversion account is also found in Acts 22 and Acts 26, with Acts 22 being the most specific. “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (verse 16). Thus we have another account of someone being baptized as soon as they were taught, obviously on the same day. Certainly God had already worked in his life providentially prior to his conversion, but his baptism followed his being taught very quickly.
In verses 31, the church is said to have increased in numbers and verse 42 simply says that many people believed in the Lord. Such summary passages leave out the details of just how the people became disciples and they also omit any time factor between being taught and responding in baptism. We obviously have to conclude that these details would parallel what occurred in the other passages that provide the details. Something as important as salvation is not going to be non-specific. All of the passages that do mention baptism definitely form a discernable pattern.
This chapter describes the conversion of Cornelius and his family, the first Gentile converts. The last two verses of the chapter mention their baptisms. In the preceding verses, we are told that the Holy Spirit came on them prior to their baptism, an unusual occurrence not found anywhere else in the NT. This was a miraculous work of the Spirit, not to convince the Gentiles to become disciples but to convince the Jews present (including Peter) to allow them to become disciples. Hence, they were evidently baptized right after the miracle convinced Peter that God was opening the doors of the Kingdom to Gentiles. For further help with this passage, see my article on this website entitled “Baptism With the Holy Spirit.”
In these chapters, the conversions are mentioned in broader, more general terms. In 11:21, we are informed that a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord. Acts 11:24 describes the effects of Barnabas arriving to teach in Antioch, stating again that a great number of people were brought to the Lord. Acts 12:24 states church growth in even more general terms, just stating that the word of God continued to spread and flourish. Acts 13:12 says that the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, believed ─ again a general summary without the specifics being included in the account. Acts 13 continues in the same vein with Paul preaching in Pisidian Antioch, as verse 43 shows Paul encouraging the Jews and Jewish proselytes to continue in the grace of God, implying that they had already been saved. Then in verse 48, the Gentiles honored the word of God by believing.
Acts 14:1 says that a great number of Jews and Greeks believed. Then in Derbe, verse 21 says that Paul and Barnabas preached and won a large number of disciples. In Acts 15:3, we find Paul traveling from Syrian Antioch to Jerusalem and reporting on the way about the conversion of Gentiles. Interestingly, these conversion accounts use different terminology describing the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles, but the variations are all found in summary type reporting when specifics not included. When we reach chapter 16, the specifics will again be found and found in a way that is extremely informative.
This chapter begins with a general report of church growth in verse 5, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers.” Verse 15 says that Lydia and the members of her household were baptized. The text doesn’t say that they were baptized immediately upon hearing the message, but it strongly implies such. The next conversion account is one of the most helpful in the Book of Acts, showing the specifics involved and ending up with a summary that enables us to fully grasp what the other generally stated accounts no doubt included.
The jailer’s question in verse 30, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” has generated much discussion. What was he asking? Simply to be saved physically, as some allege? Paul and Silas had been preaching in the city for a number of days by this time, and the jailer may have even heard them or at least heard about them. Further, he was surely aware of what charges had been lodged against his prisoners, and he may have heard them singing and praying earlier. The point is that he knew enough already to be asking about spiritual salvation, even if it was a hazy concept for him.
The answer given by Paul and Silas was as basic as the man’s question: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31). The answer was the introduction of Paul’s message to a pagan man who needed to start at square one. That statement is Paul’s topic sentence, but its meaning must be spelled out before there can be a response. Since faith is predicated on hearing and responding to the Word (Romans 10:17), the jailer and his family had to first hear message. Therefore, Acts 16:32 informs us that the next order of business was to preach that message.
After they did hear the message of who Jesus was and what a response to him would involve, they were urgent about baptism. With the dust not yet settled from an earthquake, they were baptized “the same hour of the night.” A remarkable statement! What more could one need to understand that baptism into Christ is at the very center of the conversion process? Delay cannot be tolerated when it comes to baptism, once a person understands what they need to do and are fully ready to do it. Churches that wait until a “baptismal service” once or twice a year to baptize certainly do not connect it with the forgiveness of sins and initial salvation.
The jailer heard the message, believed it, repented (shown by washing the wounds of the preachers, among other things) and was baptized—all after midnight. When were he and his family saved? They were saved when they, in faith, accepted and responded appropriately to the message. Verse 34 provides us with a wonderful summary as it describes the entire faith process in these words: “The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family.”
The “believe” in verse 31 is defined in verses 32–34, and it quite obviously includes baptism rather than excludes it! Additionally, we see once again that those becoming saved in Acts did so through baptism and did so immediately upon knowing what to do to be saved and being ready to do it ─ understanding the implications of what they were doing (giving their lives to Jesus as Christ and Lord). The conversion process for Gentiles in this chapter was precisely the same as in Acts 2 for the Jews. Again, something as important as conversion was destined to form a distinct pattern, a pattern for those in the first century and the twenty-first century. For more details regarding this, I suggest reading the article on this website entitled, “Are We Saved By Faith Alone?” In it, I examine six different ways that the term faith is used in the NT, using this same passage to demonstrate the comprehensive use of the term.
These chapters mainly describe conversions in general terms by way of summaries, although Acts 18:8 uses both the general and the specific: “Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized.” If we are to understand the conversion process as it is described in Acts (or in any other NT passage), we must grasp that the specific descriptions clarify what is included in the general descriptions. Acts 17:4 describes those converted in Athens as being “persuaded” and “joining” Paul and Silas. Acts 17:11-12 describes those in Berea as “receiving the message with great eagerness,” resulting in them becoming believers. Acts 17:34 shows some people becoming “followers of Paul” and believing.
Acts 18:26 contains the very interesting account of Priscilla and Aquila taking Apollos aside to explain “the way of God more adequately” to him. My article about Apollos’ conversion previously mentioned takes the position that Acts 18 doesn’t describe his conversion but rather his enlightenment about John’s baptism. If you read that article, you will definitely find it interesting! Then in Acts 19:5, those who had apparently been taught wrongly by Apollos were “baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” This for them constituted a “re-baptism.” The remainder of Acts has no direct references to conversions, although Acts 19:20 speaks of the word of the Lord spreading widely and Acts 28:31 speaks of Paul proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. With that exciting comment, the Book of Acts closes!
Practical, Common Sense Principles
Since most of the churches in our movement (the ICOC) use a series of studies to lead someone to conversion, the question naturally arises about why this is done. After all, conversions in Acts seemed to happen quickly. Those hearing the message of Christ were baptized the same day (Acts 2), as soon as they were taught (Acts 8), and even the same hour of the night (Acts 16). Another question that should arise about our typical use of a series is not only “why” but “must we?” Of course the answer to the last question has to be no, if we take the biblical examples seriously. We must be able to distinguish between a useful approach and a necessary approach.
Our main reason for using a series and not baptizing people as quickly as we read about in Acts is that so much religious confusion exists now. When Christianity was new, false teachings regarding the conversion process had not yet arisen, but now they abound. Originally, the process was a one-step process of simply learning about Christ and accepting him through faith, repentance and baptism. Now, the process is most often a two-step process, at least in parts of the world where some form of Christianity is popular. Those who have been taught falsely must first unlearn the erroneous teaching and then replace it with proper teaching. The confusion between the two often lengthens the conversion process.
That being said, we also have to understand that our series of studies cover not only the first part of the Great Commission (“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,” Matthew 28:19), but also a good deal of the second part (“and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you,” verse 20). Honestly, our standard approach should raise a number of related questions that we should be able to answer clearly.
The Questions Raised
Why Do We Use A Series?
As we have already explained, primarily to clear up confusion for those who have been taught falsely about conversion. Additionally, to help those whom we teach to understand enough to resist other false teaching that friends and family may introduce after hearing about their decision to be baptized biblically. We do not want someone to be baptized only to become a part of a church that does indeed teach wrong things about topics as vital as conversion. If we are studying with a non-religion person, perhaps the second reason would still apply and perhaps it would not, or if it did apply, perhaps to a much lesser extent. In that case, we might well decide to baptize someone much more quickly.
Must We Use A Series?
The short answer is no. If we who are teaching know the Bible reasonably well, especially the basics about Jesus and what it takes to accept him as Lord and Savior, a series is not absolutely necessary. I have found that using a series is helpful in most cases, since many of those with whom we study are fairly illiterate biblically and often confused with the myriad of false teachings in our American society. Along with this, many are reluctant to make Jesus the Lord of their lives quickly, once they understand what this actually means in their lives. Thus, the answer to this question depends on the person with whom we are studying, their understanding and their heart openness. As we deal more and more with the younger generations, we will discover that their questions, concerns and possible obstacles are going to be different than those we dealt with in the past. We need to continue to re-examine our approaches and adapt to sharing the gospel in ways that will be most effective.
When I am studying with someone who is biblically literate and spiritually involved in Christianity in broad terms, I don’t use a series. I explain that discipleship is the issue, for Jesus said in the Great Commission to make disciples. I further explain that discipleship has both a vertical aspect and a horizontal aspect. The vertical is about us and Jesus. We must be fully committed to him as the Master (Lord) of our lives. The horizontal is about the relationships we have with other followers of Jesus, the “one another,” “each other” responsibilities we have within God’s family as defined in the NT. I go to the passages that deal with both of these aspects and ask if the majority of the members of their present church are practicing them. Then I ask if they as an individual are practicing them, and if they say yes, I dig more deeply to see whether they are accurate in their answer or not. Obviously in this process, I am using many biblical passages that are applicable to their personal situation.
Ultimately, I am going to deal with their conversion, but usually not until I find out where they are with their current beliefs and practices regarding discipleship. Repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38) are issues of Lordship, so this response will be covered as a part of examining initial discipleship. For those who are seriously involved in their church, topics like the inspiration of the Scriptures and Jesus’ death for our sins are already familiar topics to them. I will ask enough questions to make sure that their understanding is in line with the Bible, but it doesn’t take an entire study on common Christian topics to establish that. Therefore, while I am not against using a series by any means, I don’t want anyone to believe that such is a necessary part of the process of becoming a Christian. Otherwise, we have taking something that is often helpful and turned it into a law and a tradition.
Must We Use A Certain Series?
Again, the answer is no. I’ve used several different ones and helped developed several others. When faced with helping a seriously ill person come to Christ, I use a very basic approach that covers only the essentials. Among those would be God’s love for every person; the Bible as God’s word; what sin is and does between us and God; the substitutionary death of Christ on the cross; the definition of faith and repentance; and the church as the family of God and how that family should function. Surely these basics understood and accepted would cover enough to prepare someone to be baptized into Christ. Any study, whether carefully written out or not, that covers these basics would be sufficient to lead a person to Christ. We should be able to ask enough questions to discover which areas might need more attention, and we should know enough Bible to provide that attention.
On this website is a rather lengthy article, actually a series of articles, with the title “Paradigm Shirt Evaluation.” The Paradigm Shift series called into the question much of what I am questioning in this present article regarding the conversion process. As I stated in that evaluation, my main concern was not about the content of the series, but the tone of it. Those presenting the series seemed to me often condescending and arrogant, totally unnecessary and unhelpful attitudes. I agreed with the main focus of the series, which rejected the idea that a series of studies must be laboriously followed in order to bring every person studied with to Christ.
What Should Determine How Quickly Someone Is Baptized?
In a word, readiness. Readiness is shown by three things: head knowledge, heart knowledge and urgency. Head knowledge is the easiest to determine. Heart knowledge is shown by a person’s emotional reactions to God’s love, especially as demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Different people show genuine emotions in different ways, which means that our expectations have to match those individual differences. For example, tears may or may not show the right emotional response. The human part of the study process is one of the most fundamental. The one being studied with is trying to figure you out, to see if what you are teaching them is being shown in your life. You should be trying to figure out the one with whom you are studying, to grasp their head and heart knowledge and their level of urgency.
The urgency factor cannot be overlooked. You cannot allow your urgency to see someone be saved to push them beyond their own urgency. That is a serious mistake that has been made far too often. I explain very clearly and fairly frequently that while I am urgent to see them accept Jesus, they have to be motivated by their own urgency. I provide them with enough information to help them develop urgency, but it still must be their own that drives them to the ultimate decision to turn their life over to Christ. I often wonder if focusing more on Jesus and less on man’s response might prompt more urgency of the right kind. After all, that is the gospel message, according to passages like 1 Corinthians 15:1-4.
No matter what study approach I am using, when a person says that they understand that they are lost and are urgent about getting saved, we are most likely going to move forward quickly. When a lost person’s urgency level reaches a certain point, they are most likely going to get baptized soon. I do not want them going to someone else to accomplish that if I am the one studying with them. If they are reaching that level of urgency, I will determine their readiness through asking questions. They must be ready to repent and make Jesus the Lord of their lives, present and future. In the event that I think they are just responding based on a temporary emotional reaction, I will either keep asking more questions that are increasingly probing or ask another person to join us and ask the questions. If either or both approaches show that they are in fact as ready as those three thousand in Acts 2 were, I will baptize them.
What About Making People Wait Longer?
If the one being studied with wants to wait until a different day, regardless of the reason, this shows their lack of true understanding and urgency. If the one studying with them suggests waiting until a certain time or date in spite of the lost person’s urgency, they are the one with a problem. For example, sometimes it has been suggested that one should wait until a church service is held in order to encourage the Christians. When something of that nature occurs, the lost person’s urgency is not the issue; it is the one making such suggestions. When any person understands that they are lost until they are baptized into Christ, trying to make them wait is unbiblical and unloving – if the readiness factors are in place. If they are not in place, you cannot proceed until they are. It is a judgment call, to be sure, but I am going to err on the side of urgency. I do not want to be the one holding another back without very good reasons. It should go without saying that the goal of finishing a study series is not a good reason (but I will say it anyway!).