I believe we often baptize people before they’ve been properly taught. But then again, it’s often hard to determine what a person should know before they are baptized. Since baptism is only the beginning point, it is only necessary those who are baptized have a basic understanding of Christian theology, doctrine, and practice. But what exactly constitutes a “basic understanding”? What do people need to know before being baptized? I’m certain I can’t give an exhaustive answer to that question, but perhaps this post will help you as you think through this question.
Anticipating the Objection
First of all, I know someone will ask, “But, Wes, what about the people on the day of Pentecost or the Ethiopian eunuch or Cornelius? It doesn’t seem like they were taught much before their baptisms.” That’s a very pertinent question. So in anticipation of it being asked, let me go ahead and address it.
The answer is quite simple. 1st century Jews, proselytes (Gentiles who had become Jews), and God-fearers (Gentiles who had not become Jews, but worshiped God) were knowledgable about God, sin, atonement, the coming Messiah, and His coming kingdom. In fact, the Jews gathered on Pentecost (Acts 2) were probably far more knowledgable about the God of the Bible than most mature Christians are today.
When Peter explained that they were speaking in tongues because, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel,” the people understood what he meant. They understood that judgement was about to come upon them because they had “crucified and killed” the Lord Jesus Christ. They understood they needed to save themselves from that crooked generation (Acts 2:40). Which is why they asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) and why 3,000 of them responded when Peter said, “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” (Acts 2:38).
There is a vast difference between teaching an ordinary person in 21st century America and teaching a Jew (or someone who followed the Jewish religion) in the 1st century world. That doesn’t mean it should take years of in-depth study to prepare someone for baptism, but it does mean they need to have a basic understanding of a few things before going down into the water:
1. They Need to Know About Jesus
First and foremost, baptism ought to be motivated by a love for Jesus. Baptism ought to be a response to what He did on the cross. If a person only understands she needs to be baptized in order to go to heaven when she dies, but doesn’t have a basic understanding of who Jesus is and what He has done, then she doesn’t have the knowledge she needs to be baptized.
The Ethiopian eunuch “had come to Jerusalem to worship” (Acts 8:27). He obviously understood about sacrifices and he probably understood about the coming Messiah. So Philip got in the chariot and, starting with the passage in Isaiah, “told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Philip told him the Messiah had come and He was the final sacrifice for sins.
People need to hear “the good news about Jesus.” They probably need to understand something of His Abrahamic and Davidic heritage, His deity, His incarnation, His sacrificial death, His resurrection, His reign at the right hand of the Father, and most importantly His love. They need to understand His blood brings about things like redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, and sanctification. Yes, I know those are deep subjects, but they are absolutely essential elements of the gospel. And they aren’t as complicated as you might think. Over time, I believe each of those points could be explained in such a way that even a child could comprehend them.
But I’m afraid we are often in such a hurry to get people in the water, their baptism is more of a response to our pleading than a response to Christ’s death. People need to know about Jesus before they are baptized.
2. They Need to Know About Their Lostness
Before someone is baptized, he needs to know he stands guilty before God. He needs to know, because he has chosen to join sinful humanity in rebellion against God, he is dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1). He needs to know he has “made God angry” and is “going to be punished like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:3, CEV).
He needs to understand he cannot do anything to atone for his sins. He cannot make up for the evil he has done by doing a bunch of good deeds. His only hope is for God to have mercy on him and show him grace. And the ONLY way that will happen is through Jesus.
Baptism is meaningless for someone who thinks, “I’m a pretty decent individual. I don’t think God sees me as being wicked or an evildoer.” It is only when “godly grief produces a repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10) that an individual is ready to “appeal to God for a good conscience” (1 Peter 3:21) in baptism.
Baptism is asking God – in faith – to remove your sins through the power of the blood of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6). Until people know about their lostness, they’re not ready to be baptized.
3. They Need to Know the Commitment They Are Making
Last, but certainly not least, people must know what they’re getting into. Jesus said a person must first “count the cost” (Luke 14:25-33) before becoming His disciple. People need to be told what is going to be expected of them and what they are going to have to give up as disciples of Jesus.
Not only should those being baptized understand they are dying to sin (Romans 6:1-7), they also need to understand something about the church. Acts 8:12 says, “When they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” We have to teach people about the kingdom and the obligations that go along with being a citizen of that kingdom.
Among other things, being converted to Christ is being recruited to the cause of Christ. Until they know what that means, they’re not ready to commit to a Christian lifestyle.
There is much more that could be said on this issue; and at the same time, I don’t want to give the impression that someone needs to be a Bible scholar before being baptized. But the fact of the matter is, the decision to be baptized should not be based on emotion or evangelistic pressure.
The decision to be baptized should be based on having been taught what it means to be a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-20).
I love you and God loves you,