Most evangelical Christians believe in and practice believer’s baptism as opposed to infant baptism.1 Likewise, most Protestants believe and practice baptism by immersion or pouring rather than by sprinkling.
The New Testament as well as early church history stand with both of these positions.2
However, it is typical in most contemporary churches for baptism to be separated from conversion by great lengths of time. Many Christians were saved at one age and baptized at a much later age. In the first century, this was unheard of.
In the early church, converts were baptized immediately upon believing.3 One scholar says of baptism and conversion, “They belong together. Those who repented and believed the Word were baptized. That was the invariable pattern, so far as we know.”4
Another writes, “At the birth of the church, converts were baptized with little or no delay.”5
In the first century, water baptism was the outward confession of a person’s faith.6 But more than that, it was the way someone came to the Lord. For this reason, the confession of baptism is vitally linked to the exercise of saving faith. So much so that the New Testament writers often use baptism in place of the word faith and link it to being “saved.”7 This is because baptism was the early Christian’s initial confession of faith in Christ.
In our day, the “sinner’s prayer” has replaced the role of water baptism as the initial confession of faith. Unbelievers are told, “Say this prayer after me, accept Jesus as your personal Savior, and you will be saved.” But nowhere in all the New Testament do we find any person being led to the Lord by a sinner’s prayer.
Instead, unbelievers in the first century were led to Jesus Christ by being taken to the waters of baptism. Put another way, water baptism was the sinner’s prayer in century one! Baptism accompanied the acceptance of the gospel.
For example, when Lydia heard Paul preach the gospel, she believed and was immediately baptized with her household (Acts 16:14-15). In the same way, when Paul led the Philippian jailor and his household to the Lord, they were immediately baptized (Acts 16:30-33).
This was the New Testament pattern (see also Acts 2:41; 8:12, 35-37). Baptism marked a complete break with the past and a full entrance into Christ and His church. Baptism was simultaneously an act of faith as well as an expression of faith.8
So when did baptism get separated from receiving Christ? It began in the early second century. Certain influential Christians taught that baptism must be preceded by a period of instruction, prayer, and fasting.9
This trend grew worse in the third century when young converts had to wait three years before they could be baptized! If you were a baptismal candidate in this era, your life was meticulously scrutinized.10 You had to show yourself worthy of baptism by your conduct.11
Baptism became a rigid and embellished ritual that borrowed much from Jewish and Greek culture— elaborate with blessing the water, full disrobing, the uttering of a creed, anointing oil with exorcism, and giving milk and honey to the newly baptized person.12 It had devolved into an act associated with works rather than with faith.
The legalism that accompanied baptism led to an even more startling concept: Only baptism forgives sins. If a person committed sin after baptism, he could not be forgiven. For this reason, the delay of baptism became quite common by the fourth century.
Since it was believed that baptism brought the forgiveness of sins, many felt it was best to delay baptism until the maximum benefits could be obtained.13 Therefore, some people, like Constantine, waited until they were on their deathbeds to be baptized.14
As stated earlier, the sinner’s prayer eventually replaced the biblical role of water baptism. Though it is touted as gospel today, this prayer developed only recently. D. L. Moody was the first to employ it.
Moody used this “model” of prayer when training his evangelistic coworkers.15 But it did not reach popular usage until the 1950s with Billy Graham’s Peace with God tract and later with Campus Crusade for Christ’s Four Spiritual Laws.16
There is nothing particularly wrong with it. Certainly, God will respond to the heartfelt prayers of any individual who reaches out to Him in faith. However, it should not replace water baptism as the outward instrument for conversion-initiation.
This post is an excerpt from Chapter 9 of Pagan Christianity (published January 2008).
See also Rethinking Water Baptism.
1 Though we can’t offer a detailed examination of what Scripture teaches about baptism in this chapter, consider that from a theological standpoint, infant baptism divorces two things that the Scriptures consistently join together: (1) faith and repentance and (2) water baptism.
2 Baptism in the Greek (baptizo) can have a number of meanings depending on the context in which it is used. Immersion was the common practice of the Christian church until the late Middle Ages in the West (Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 43–51).
3 Acts 2:37-41; 8:12ff., 27-38; 9:18; 10:44-48; 16:14-15, 31-33; 18:8; 19:1-5; 22:16.
4 Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 153.
5 David F. Wright, The Lion Handbook of the History of Christianity (Oxford: Lion Publications, 1990), “Beginnings,” see the section on “Instruction for Baptism.”
6 Augustine called baptism a “visible word” (Tractates on the Gospel According to Saint John, LXXX, 3).
7 Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; and 1 Peter 3:21 are some examples.
8 The importance of water baptism in the Christian faith is depicted in early Christian art (Andre Grabar, Christian Iconography [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968]).
9 Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 33.
10 Wright, Lion Handbook of the History of Christianity, “Beginnings,” section on “Instruction for Baptism.” Wright points out that by the fourth century, the clergy took over the instructions for converts and the bishop became personally responsible for the teaching and discipline that preceded baptism. This is the precursor for the prebaptismal class overseen by the pastor in many modern Protestant churches. From the second century onward, baptisms normally took place at Easter. Herein is the origin of Lent (Smith, From Christ to Constantine, 151).
11 Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 35.
12 Ibid., 35–36; W. R. Halliday, The Pagan Background of Early Christianity (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1970), 313. The giving of milk and honey was borrowed from paganism. The new convert (“catechumens” as they came to be called, from which catechism is derived) was typically baptized on a Sunday Passover or Pentecost. The Thursday beforehand the candidate had to be bathed. He spent Friday and Saturday in fasting, and then he was exorcised by the bishop to drive out any demons. By the end of the second century, this was a fairly uniform baptismal ceremony in the West. Gregory Dix points out that the introduction of the creed in Christianity begins in the first half of the second century with the baptismal creed. The creed was made up of a series of three questions dealing respectively with the three Persons of the Trinity. The Council of Nicaea of AD 325 carried the creed a step further. The creed evolved into a test of fellowship for those within the church rather than a test of faith for those outside of it (Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy, 485; Norrington, To Preach or Not, 59).
13 Ferguson, Early Christians Speak, 60.
14 Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, 156.
15 C. L. Thompson, Times of Refreshing, Being a History of American Revivals with Their Philosophy and Methods (Rockford: Golden Censer Co. Publishers, 1878); Paul H. Chitwood, “The Sinner’s Prayer: An Historical and Theological Analysis” (Dissertation, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY, 2001).
16 Here is the classic “Sinner’s Prayer” that appears in the Four Spiritual Laws tract: “Lord Jesus, I need You. Thank You for dying on the cross for my sins. I open the door of my life and receive You as my Savior and Lord. Thank You for forgiving my sins and giving me eternal life. Take control of the throne of my life. Make me the kind of person You want me to be.” In the first century, water baptism was the visible testimony that publicly demonstrated the heart of this prayer.