When someone becomes a Christian and puts their faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour, they need to be baptized in water. The Bible is clear about this, and few who claim to be Christians dispute it.
As far as the timing of a new convert’s baptism is concerned, it is rare today for a person to be baptized immediately after conversion. Instead, it is extremely common for there to be a significant time interval, often of some months, between conversion and baptism.
One of the reasons for this time gap is to enable people to witness the baptism. Plenty of notice is given, so that as many as possible can make plans to attend.
THINGS WERE VERY DIFFERENT IN THE EARLY CHURCH
When we turn to the Bible, however, we find that in the early church things were very different from today. There is strong biblical evidence that new Christian converts were typically baptized as soon as they became believers.
It is true that for the first Christians baptism may often have functioned in some measure as a public declaration of faith. But there is no evidence that they ever delayed baptism to enable people to be present. It was apparently much more important for new converts to be baptized immediately.
THE PURPOSE OF THIS ARTICLE
In what follows, I will aim to show from Scripture that early Christians were typically baptized as soon as they came to faith. And then I will move on to say something about the timing of baptism today.
THE RELEVANT PASSAGES
Let’s begin, then, by looking at biblical texts that are relevant for this issue. As we look at each of them, the question we will be asking is how long the time interval was between conversion and baptism.
The following passages are the most important:
In Acts 2:41, as soon as Peter has finished speaking on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came, Luke tells us:
“So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”
(Scripture readings in this article are from the English Standard Version.)
The first point to note here is that the words “those who received his word were baptized” imply a close connection in time between receiving Peter’s word, i.e., being converted, and being baptized.
We should note too how after saying “those who received his word were baptized,” Luke continues with “and there were added that day . . .” This most naturally suggests that what Luke has said immediately before he says “and there were added that day” took place on the same day. If the most natural interpretation of the text is the correct one, then, the baptisms of these converts took place on the day that they became Christians.
It is true that Luke might have simplified his account to some extent. If so, it could be the case that not all those who became Christians on the day of Pentecost were actually baptized on that day. But even if there is some simplification, it seems likely that their baptisms would have taken place within a few days. Anything longer than that would involve taking quite an unnatural interpretation of the passage.
Acts 8:4-13 has the account of Philip’s ministry in
. In verses 12-13 Luke
tells us: Samaria
“12 But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the
and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. 13 Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip.” kingdomof God
This passage implies that the people who believed were baptized very soon after coming to faith.
It is true that in v. 12 the Greek verb ebaptizonto, translated as “they were baptized,” is in the imperfect tense, and the imperfect typically refers to an action that was not instantaneous but lasted for a period of time. Someone might therefore want to argue that the fact that the imperfect is used shows that these people were not all baptized as soon as they believed.
This, however, would be a very dubious argument, for several reasons:
First, the period of time referred to by the imperfect could easily have been a short one.
Second, the imperfect could just signify that these new converts were not all baptized at exactly the same time.
Third and most importantly, the text specifically says that the men and women were baptized “when” they believed Philip, which implies that the baptisms took place very soon after believing. Similarly, the impression from v. 13 is that Simon was baptized soon after he believed.
It is true that this passage doesn’t tell us exactly how soon after conversion these people were baptized. Nevertheless, only a very unnatural interpretation of the text would allow more than a few days between conversion and baptism.
In Acts 8:26-40 we read about Philip’s encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch, who becomes a Christian. In verses 36-38 Luke says:
“36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.”
(It is unlikely that v. 37 was in the original text, and the
ESV, like many English translations, omits this
verse. However, even if we were to include it, that wouldn’t affect any of the
points that I am making.)
It is true that the eunuch was returning to
(verses 27-28), so
practicalities meant that he had to be baptized immediately. Nevertheless, this
passage seems to give the impression that it was normal for someone to be
baptized as soon as they became a Christian. Ethiopia
Acts and Acts
In Acts 9:10-19 and 22:12-16 are the accounts of Paul’s conversion to the Christian faith in the presence of Ananias, after his experience on the road to
In Acts 9:18, as soon as Ananias has finished speaking to Paul, we are told:
“And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized;”
Similarly, in Acts Ananias says to Paul:
“And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
In these texts there is a strong implication that Paul was baptized within minutes of becoming a Christian.
Importantly too, these verses strongly suggest that making a public declaration of faith was not a key function of Paul’s baptism.
There were other Christians in
at the time Paul was
converted (see Acts ), and he was well
known as a zealous persecutor of the Christians. His coming to faith was
nothing short of amazing. So if his baptism had been delayed for a few days,
that would apparently have given an opportunity for the believers in Damascus to gather to marvel
at the baptism of this former persecutor. Damascus
It appears, however, that it was more important for Paul to be baptized immediately. He would have plenty of opportunities to declare his faith later. But it seems that to delay his baptism in order to provide an opportunity for a public declaration of faith would have been to get priorities wrong.
In Acts -48 Luke tells us about the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his family and friends in
Caesarea. In verses 44-46, while Peter is still
speaking his gospel message to them, they receive the Holy Spirit, it being
implied that they have believed Peter’s message.
Then, as soon as Peter realizes that they have received the Spirit, his first words (in v. 47) are:
“Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”
And then in v. 48 we read:
“And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
There is a strong impression here that Cornelius and those with him were baptized within minutes or a few hours of their conversion.
The passage also suggests that making a public declaration of faith was not a key reason for these baptisms.
What happened to Cornelius and his companions is highlighted in Acts as the event that made the early church realize that the gospel was for Gentiles as well as Jews (see esp. Acts -18). There is no doubt that Peter would have wanted Cornelius and the others to make public declarations of faith at some point. Yet the impression we get from the text is that they were baptized without any attempt being made to gather people to witness their baptisms. It seems that publicly declaring faith could wait for another time. Getting on with the baptisms was apparently more important.
In Acts 16:14-15 we are told about a woman called
, who becomes a
“14 One who heard us was a woman named
, . . . The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. 15 And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, . . .” Lydia
The most natural impression we get from this verse is that
and her household
were baptized on the day they became Christians. And it would certainly be a
very unnatural interpretation of the text to understand the gap between conversion
and baptism to have been more than a few days. Lydia
In Acts 16:25-34 is the account of the conversion of the Philippian jailer. In verses 31-32 Paul and Silas tell him and his household the gospel message. And then v. 33 continues:
“And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.”
These new converts are certainly portrayed being baptized on the night they become Christians.
It is true that Paul and Silas were currently in prison, and they may have been unclear what would happen to them in the following days. Therefore, they could potentially have thought that if they delayed the baptisms of the jailer and his family, they might not get another opportunity. So the situation here is admittedly unusual.
Nevertheless, the passage still seems to give the impression that it was normal in the early church for baptism to follow very soon after conversion.
In Acts 18:8 Luke says something about the effects of Paul’s ministry in
“And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.”
Again, the impression is given that baptism followed conversion very closely, although the concise wording doesn’t allow us to be more specific than that.
In Acts 19:1-7 is the account of Paul and the followers of John the Baptist in
. In v. 4 Paul tells
them that John had told people to believe in Jesus. And then v. 5 continues: Ephesus
“On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
The passage quite strongly suggests that the men were baptized on the day that Paul spoke to them and they were converted.
1 Corinthians 15:29
In 1 Corinthians Paul asks the church in
“Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?”
This is one of the most difficult and obscure verses in the entire Bible.
The most likely background of Paul’s words is that some of the Corinthian Christians had undergone Christian water baptism on behalf of other believers who had died before being baptized. This is the majority view of New Testament scholars.
Exactly what those who were baptized in this way were hoping to achieve is the subject of a huge debate. So too is why Paul doesn’t say anything in his letter criticizing this practice. These questions are not ones that we need to consider here.
For our purposes, the relevant issue has to do with implications for the timing of baptism. If some of the Corinthians became Christians and died before being baptized, does this show that baptisms in
sometimes took place
a while after conversion? Corinth
We could read between the lines in this way. Nevertheless, the obscure nature of this verse means that we need to be very cautious indeed about placing too much weight on it. At best, this verse provides a small amount of support for the view that in the early church baptisms sometimes did not immediately follow conversion.
That concludes our examination of the biblical evidence concerning the question we have been asking. We have looked at all the texts in Acts that refer to Christian water baptism, and one in 1 Corinthians. There are no other passages that are equally relevant for our topic.
So let’s sum up our conclusions.
As regards the time interval between conversion and water baptism, strikingly, all nine episodes in Acts strongly imply that the baptisms of the converts in question took place very soon after conversion. Concise wording in some of the passages means that we are not able to be specific about exactly how soon some of them were baptized. Nevertheless, we can say about the passages in Acts:
(1) No passage leads us to think that any baptism took place on a day other than the day of conversion.
(2) Leaving aside the baptisms of the Ethiopian and the Philippian jailer because they are not relevant enough, most of the other passages most naturally suggest that the converts in view were baptized on the day of their conversion.
(3) In Paul’s case, there is a strong implication that he was baptized within minutes of becoming a Christian. And in the case of Cornelius and those with him, a strong impression is given that they were baptized within hours of becoming Christians.
(4) The more detailed passages imply that the new converts were baptized on the day of conversion. So it is reasonable to think that in the less detailed passages the new converts were probably also baptized on the day of conversion. One exception to this could be the 3000 or so who became Christians on the day of Pentecost, since it might not have been practical to baptize them all on that day. Even in this case, however, it makes sense to think that they would probably have been baptized as soon as was humanly possible.
It is true that 1 Corinthians can be read in such a way as to support the view that there was sometimes an interval between conversion and baptism. However, the weight of evidence this verse provides for an interval is very small in comparison with the evidence from Acts for immediate baptism of converts.
As an overall conclusion, then, we can say that in the early church it was normal practice for new converts to be baptized immediately, and that there may well have been no exceptions to this.
WHAT CHURCHES SHOULD DO TODAY
So what are we to make of this conclusion? What are the implications for church practice today?
Quite simply, there seems to be no good reason for churches today not to follow the practice of the early church. Having a long time interval between conversion and baptism is an unbiblical tradition that should be dropped.
If this means that only a few people are able to witness a baptism, then so be it. It is much more important for the baptism to take place without delay than it is to enable people who would like to be there to attend.
I think some might want to challenge what I have just said by arguing in this way:
The examples we have looked at in Acts all involved apostles or special insight from the Holy Spirit. Today we can’t expect always to be so sure of the genuineness of people’s conversions. Therefore, we might need much more time to decide if people are ready for baptism.
This argument is at best weak. Importantly, it is very doubtful that it is the job of church leaders to cross-examine at great length those who profess Christian faith in an attempt to decide if their faith is genuine.
When the 3000 professed faith on the day of Pentecost and were baptized very soon afterwards, it is implausible to think that the apostles and others spent countless hours grilling them all to decide if they had real faith. It also seems unlikely that the apostles and others received special insight from the Spirit as to the genuineness of each person’s faith. Most probably, they just got on with baptizing all who professed faith on that day.
It does seem reasonable to think that there is a place today for a small amount of pre-baptismal questioning of those who say they have come to faith. And sometimes it may be right to conclude from this that a person is so unlikely to have genuine faith that they should not be baptized.
But nevertheless, as a general rule it is surely right to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Besides, taking too long to consent to baptize people is only part of the problem. Even after church leaders do consent, there is still often a long wait until the baptism actually takes place. And as we have seen, this is very different from what happened in the early church.
THE PURPOSE OF BAPTISM
I think one reason why so many Christians have such a relaxed attitude to the timing of baptism is because they misunderstand what baptism accomplishes. All too often there seems to be the idea that baptism is nothing more than a symbol of becoming a Christian.
It would be outside the scope of this article to discuss what baptism achieves. Nevertheless, I will say that the idea that it is purely a symbol is one that should be rejected. Instead, the Bible much more naturally seems to imply that something spiritual occurs at a deep place, at least normally, when someone who has genuine Christian faith is baptized. And it is therefore not wise to delay this spiritual event unnecessarily.
FOLLOWING THE BIBLE INSTEAD OF CHURCH TRADITIONS
In the church today there are many ways in which Christians tend to follow traditions that differ from how early believers did things.
It is true that occasionally cultural differences between the first century and today mean that it makes sense for us to do things differently now. But unless there is a convincing reason for acting outside the biblical pattern, we should aim to copy what we see. One of the main reasons that God has given us the Bible is so that we can follow the example of the early church. And there seems to be no good reason why we shouldn’t follow their lead in the timing of baptism.