Editor’s Note: The IMB operates within the framework of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which specifically mandates the baptism of believers but is silent on the matter of subsequent timing of baptism. Immediate baptism of converts is popular among many missionary practitioners on the field, but not universal. Dr. Hammett was invited to present this article not as a statement of IMB policy, but as an invitation to thoughtful and courteous ongoing conversation.
Many pastors and missionaries believe that immediate baptism is the command and pattern of Scripture. I’d like to offer a different perspective.
With loving concern, I contend that the Bible, rather, supports the exercise of pastoral wisdom according to one’s context regarding the timing of baptism. It does not, I believe, support the notion of a universal command that immediate baptism should be carried out in all times and places. I say that after having wrestled through the question of baptism during my own experience as a missionary and after having numerous discussions on the topic through the years—both in the halls of academia and with fellow pastors and missionaries.
“The Bible does not support the notion of a universal command that immediate baptism should be carried out in all times and places.”
Baptism Isn’t Understood in the Same Way Everywhere by Everyone
To be fair, I believe those who insist upon immediate baptism have every good intention as sincere servants of Christ. Baptism is an important command of Jesus that initiates new believers into Christian fellowship. It also sets a positive pattern of obedience to Christ.
That said, there are some contexts in the world—the West, for instance—where baptism simply does not carry the same degree of gravity that it carries elsewhere. In Central and East Asia, for example, baptism is a clear statement of public commitment to Christ and portends certain persecution. But in the West, baptism rarely comes with such a cost, making an enormous contextual difference.
5 Reasons for Not Mandating Immediate Baptism
Here are five reasons why I believe the Bible does not mandate—for all churches and in all cases—immediate baptism after a person’s profession of faith in Christ.
1. No explicit command concerning the timing of baptism exists in Scripture.
Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38 do command the practice of baptism, but there is no mention of the time for baptism in either text. The narrative in Acts 2 does indicate that the baptism of the new converts in that instance was immediate, but that is not part of the command.
2. There is no uniform pattern of immediate baptism after conversion.
Granted, it is true that immediate baptism was practiced on six occasions.
- Peter’s sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2, after which Luke comments, “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:41 ESV)
- Philip’s preaching in Samaria in which immediate baptism is not explicit, but very likely (Acts 8:12)
- The Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:36–38)
- The Gentiles in about whom it was clear to Peter and other witnesses that “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.” (Acts 10:44–48 ESV)
- The Philippian jailer (Acts 16:33)
- The Ephesian disciples who had been previously baptized through the ministry of John the Baptist (Acts 19:1–7)
It is notable that Paul’s baptism was not immediate, but occurred three days later. Still, three days is a very short delay, and his baptism seems to have been immediately after he regained his sight (Acts 9:17–19). Also, in Acts 16:15 and Acts 18:8, there is little to indicate the timing of baptism. One could argue that if all these other occasions of baptism were immediate, so were these, but that assumes the very point under discussion. It seems tenuous to conclude that six examples from nine occasions are sufficient grounds to mandate a universal pattern.
3. There exists additional evidence, which is often overlooked by those arguing for immediate baptism.
Eighteen texts in Acts (see endnotes) describe either an individual or group being converted without any mention of baptism at all, let alone immediate baptism.
In a number of these cases, immediate baptism seems unlikely. For example, in Acts 2:47 people were being saved and added to their number “daily.” Are we to suppose daily baptisms? Or consider Acts 4:4 when the number of men had grown to about five thousand, which means there had been about two thousand added between the time of Acts 2 and Acts 4. Something as momentous as the baptism of two thousand people would probably have been recorded, but it is not. In fact, during the entirety of Paul’s first missionary journey (Acts 13–14), there is no mention of baptism at all.
Granted, these texts constitute an argument from silence. Additionally, there is no mention of delayed baptism either. But the fact that in eighteen cases, persons could be converted and immediate baptism was not recorded raises doubts on a couple of fronts: (1) as to whether immediate baptism always happened, and (2) whether the author of Acts wanted readers to see immediate baptism as a pattern that all churches in all situations should follow. After all, there are only six cases where he does mention immediate baptism.
4. The apostle Paul rarely performed baptism.
A final piece of biblical evidence comes from the fact that Paul speaks of himself as rarely performing baptism, at least in the case of the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:14–16). If baptism was immediate, to what church leader would Paul have delegated the task? He had been the only one preaching the gospel and teaching them.
5. Church history does not support immediate baptism.
Church tradition must always be placed secondary to Scripture, but it is worth noting that the patristic church—those closest in time to the New Testament—observed a waiting period between profession and baptism for catechetical instruction. Early Baptists typically delayed the baptism of children until their late teen years. For instance, C. H. Spurgeon baptized each of his two sons at the age of eighteen (Mark Dever in A Theology for the Church (Revised Edition), 662–63, n. 171).
It seems that immediate baptism was sometimes practiced in the early church. But there is no command concerning the timing of baptism, and there is no consistent testimony that belief in the gospel was always followed by immediate baptism.
It may be wise in some cases to move very quickly to baptism, but not so quickly that we fail to practice believer’s baptism, for which there is a very strong case.
“Guarding the gravity of baptism and what it signifies is an important matter of pastoral responsibility.”
The Gravity of Baptism Matters
Guarding the gravity of baptism and what it signifies is, I believe, an important matter of pastoral responsibility. The credibility of a church’s witness in any given context depends on the transformed lives of its members. (See articles on the Lord’s Supper and church discipline in love, which are also pastoral responsibilities related to the credibility of a church’s witness but are beyond the scope of this article.)
Undue Delay Is Not the Answer
With adults and in some cases youth, the genuineness of one’s commitment to Christ may be observed within a very short time. In other cases, especially those concerning children, more delay may be advisable. I do not advocate undue delay, but we also must not claim more strength for the case for immediate baptism than is justified.
Not a Universal Rule, but Freedom to Exercise Wisdom
In the end, the Bible doesn’t give a universal rule about the timing of baptism. Rather, God’s Word encourages church leaders to exercise pastoral wisdom in their respective contexts as they strive to obey that very clear command of our Chief Shepherd.
“Shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Pet. 5:2 ESV).
John Hammett has been a professor of theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1995. Prior to that, he was a pastor for nine years and a missionary with the International Mission Board. He is the author of Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches and 40 Questions About Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as numerous articles on church leadership and the Christian faith. He and his wife, Linda, have two adult children.
Acts 2:47; Acts 4:4; Acts 5:14; Acts 6:7; Acts 9:31; Acts 9:34-35; Acts 11:20-21; Acts 11:24; Acts 13:12; Acts 13:48; Acts 14:1; Acts 14:21; Acts 16:5; Acts 17:4; Acts 17:12; Acts 17:34; Acts 19:18-20; Acts 28:24