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Baptism in the Early Church

In my online class about the history of the Christian church to 1500, I had to write a blog that chased a “rabbit trail” related to the history of the earliest church. The topic I chose to pursue was baptism in the early church. What is the function of baptism? Who may be baptized? Based on Acts 2:37-41 and other New Testament texts, I concluded that in the early church, baptism was for professing believers who exercised repentance and faith. It was thus the “initiation rite” into the Church. I’ve posted that “Rabbit Trail” below (with minor corrections and clarifications) in the hopes that it would edify us as believers.

Baptism was the integral initiation rite of the early Christian church. The Apostles baptized new converts, who subsequently baptized succeeding generations of Christian converts, on the basis of Jesus’ command, recorded in Matthew 28:18-20, to the Eleven: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The Greek word translated “baptizing” means “dipping or immersing,” i.e., in water (Thayer and Smith, “Greek Lexicon entry for Baptizo“). After their own special baptism in the Holy Spirit by tongues of fire (Acts 2:3-4), the disciples began water-baptizing all new converts to Christianity.

The Apostles baptized the first converts almost immediately after they had been baptized by the Holy Spirit through fire. After Peter’s sermon following that event, the audience members

were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:37-41)

Thus, the apostles initiated these three thousand converts into the Christian faith by baptizing them. However, this passage raises two questions:

  1. What is the function of baptism?
  2. Who may be baptized?

This passage raises the first question, “What is the function of baptism?”, because of the ambiguous phrase in verse 38: “be baptized … for the forgiveness of your sins.” Is Peter teaching that baptism results in forgiveness of sins? Noted Bible expositor John MacArthur in a sermon on the text in question remarked concerning this phrase, “The Word of God does not teach baptismal salvation. It does not teach that you’re to be baptized to be saved. It’s simply indicated here that they were to be baptized in response to what had happened in their life as a public confession of their new union with Christ.” He continued, “For the Jews who had openly rejected the Lord, [Peter commanded] not only repentance but baptism, that they might identify publicly with Christ. And he knew the biggest stumbling block to their discipleship was the fear of persecution, and so he makes that the standard because he wants them to get over the one hurdle that will really keep him from coming to Christ.”

Since Peter is not teaching that baptism results in forgiveness of sins, what is the function of baptism? Other passages in the New Testament reveal what function the initiation rite of baptism served in the early church. Peter later gave a clear meaning of baptism in 1 Peter 3:21, in which he said, “Baptism … now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Water baptism, “a removal of dirt from the body,” does not save, does not forgive sins; rather, God forgives a person’s sins when they “appeal to God for a good conscience,” in repentance and faith in “the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Water baptism, then, symbolizes this spiritual reality of forgiven sins. As Paul wrote in Colossians 2:11-12, “In him [Jesus] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Regeneration, God’s gift of resurrection life to a sinner whereby he or she exercises saving faith in and repentance toward Jesus Christ, is the spiritual baptism (John 3:5, alluding to Ezekiel 36:25-27) of which subsequent physical baptism is a symbol.

To summarize the answer to the first question that Acts 2:37-41 poses, early Christians viewed baptism as a symbol of the convert’s new life in Jesus Christ. Water baptism was not a saving rite but a rite of initiation into the Christian community in which the convert publicly acknowledged his or her faith in Jesus Christ and committed to following him and fellowshipping with fellow Christians (see also 1 Timothy  6:12).

The second question Acts 2:37-41 raises is “Who may be baptized?” Peter said, “the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” If baptism was the rite of initiation for new converts, was Peter allowing here the baptism of converts’ children? Arguing against paedobaptism, Stephen J. Wellum writes,

Often Baptists [and other credobaptists] are charged with not appreciating the place of their children in the covenant community. Not only does this charge miss the mark in fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the new covenant community, but it also runs the danger of what is truly imperative–to call all people, including our children, to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is only then that the promise of the new covenant age becomes ours, for the promise is not only for us, but for our children and “for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39). (pp. 169-170 in Believer’s Baptism, ed. Thomas Schreiner and Shawn Wright, B&H Academic, 2007)

“Everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” in Acts 2:39 thus qualifies not only “all who are far off” but also “you” and “your children.”

Matt Waymeyer in his book, A Biblical Critique of Infant Baptismagrees with Wellum’s exegesis of Acts 2:39:

In Acts 2:39, Peter identifies three groups of individuals who are the recipients of this promise: (a) “you,” (b) “your children,” and (c) “all who are far off.” But Peter doesn’t stop there. Instead, he qualifies all three groups with the clause, “as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.” In other words, to how many of you has God promised the Holy Spirit? As many as the Lord shall call to Himself. To how many of your children has God promised the Holy Spirit? As many as the Lord shall call to Himself. To how many of those who are far off has God promised the Holy Spirit? As many as the Lord shall call to Himself. God has promised to give the Holy Spirit to those whom He effectually calls and draws to Himself in salvation.

To summarize the answer to the second question, “Who may be baptized?” The earlier-used texts of Colossians 2:11-12 and 1 Peter 3:21, which imply that baptism is for new converts to Christianity who consciously repent, which means to turn away from sin to Christ Jesus in faith, find explicit support in Acts 2:39. Although Acts 2:39 may seem to imply that baptism for infants is acceptable (“for your children,” some of whom may have been infants), in reality, baptism is for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” whether adults, children, or people at the far reaches of the globe.

The earliest Church, then, used baptism as a rite of initiation for prospective converts. For a prospective convert to convert to Christianity, the apostles commanded them to evidence their claimed repentance and faith by being willing to receive baptism, to be immersed in water. Nevertheless, this rite was not a saving rite but a rite that symbolized the convert’s prior experience of regeneration. As such, the rite of baptism was reserved for converts who articulated prior faith and repentance. Despite apparent ambiguity in Acts 2:39, baptism was for non-infant converts only, whether adults, children, or foreigners: in short, baptism was for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

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