Saturday, December 10, 2011

Ordinances: Baptism in Acts

I have recently been thinking again about the doctrine of the ordinances (sacraments), baptism and the Lord's Supper, as we tighten and clarify our church's belief and practice.  Here is the first of several posts on this topic, regarding baptism in Acts:

On baptism: Should new believers be baptized immediately after they profess faith in Christ as seems to be the pattern in Acts or should there be a time of discipleship and discernment before baptism is administered?

Eight observations:

1. In the book of Acts the normal pattern is for baptism to follow very closely upon conversion. Examples in Acts: Jerusalem converts at Pentecost (2:37-41); Ethiopian Eunuch (8:36-38); Saul/Paul (9:18); Cornelius and his household (10:44-48); Lydia and her household (16:14-15); the Philippian jailer and his household (16:30-33).

2. The question is whether this pattern in Acts is prescriptive (given as the norm for the church to follow in all ages) or descriptive of the unique power manifested through the apostolic era to launch the church. Is the Acts pattern ordinary or extraordinary? Those in the charismatic tradition have tended to take Acts as wholly prescriptive (ordinary) while those in the Reformed tradition have tended to be more circumspect, recognizing both some elements that are prescriptive (ordinary) and others that are merely descriptive of the apostolic age (extraordinary).

3. Though there are descriptions of baptism taking place “straightway” after conversion (see the Philippian Jailer and his household in 16:33), other mentions of baptism are less precise in giving a definite time signature (e.g., the Samaritan converts in 8:12 where the focus is not on immediacy but on the fact that “both men and women” were baptized after believing). In the case of Sergius Paulus, Luke tells us he heard the word (13:7) and believed (13:12), but there is no description given us of his baptism (whether immediate or delayed).

4. There are also some examples of what we might call “irregular” baptisms in Acts. Simon the Samaritan Sorcerer is baptized by Philip, but Peter later rebukes him for his simony (8:9, 13, 18-24). Apollos “was instructed in the way of the Lord” but knew “only the baptism of John” (see 18:24-28). I think we can assume that among the things Aquila and Priscilla explained to him “more perfectly” was his need for Christian baptism. The Ephesian twelve, likewise, seem to be disciples who knew only the baptism of John till Paul instructed them in the faith and administered Christian baptism to them (19:1-7). These might be examples of those who at the first touch of Jesus “see men as trees, walking” but at a second touch see “every man clearly” (see Mark 8:22-26).

5. In the Gospels Jesus teaches that disciples must first sit down and “count the costs” before committing to be his disciples (see Luke 14:25-33). Anyone who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). We are to remember Lot’s wife (Luke 17:32). Our “yes” must be “yes” and our “no,” “no” (Matt 5:37). Solomon warns that we are “not to give the sacrifice of fools” by being rash with our mouths and uttering things hastily before the Lord, so that if we make a promise we are sure to keep it promptly (see Ecc 5:1-5). These Scriptures would add indirect evidence to the appropriateness of some period of discernment and discipleship before baptism is administered.

6. Since salvation is by grace through faith and not by works (Eph 2:8-9), including the work of baptism, we do not need to rush baptism in the way that those who affirm baptismal regeneration suggest (whether Roman Catholics or Campbellites).

7. The key focus of the witness of Acts regarding baptism is less on the immediacy of baptism after conversion, but on the fact that belief always precedes baptism. One must be a believer before he is baptized. Acts affirms credo-baptism.

8. Another key focus in baptism in Acts is that Christian baptism is administered by proper officers (e.g., in Acts 8 by Philip one of the Jerusalem seven [deacons?] or in Acts 19 by the apostle Paul). In his A Body of Practical Divinity, Baptist theologian John Gill thus observes, “Admission to baptism lies solely in the breast of the administrator, who is the only judge of qualification for it, and has the sole power of receiving it, and of rejecting from it.” The administrator would be a gospel minister, as a church officer. In some cases he might deem that baptism be administered “straightway” as in the days of Acts, but in other cases he might deem that further instruction and discipleship be given.


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