What Is the Best Time for Baptism?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, December 29, 2009 at 8:54am
A RECENT QUESTION: We have had a number of baptisms lately during the week, i.e., not on Sunday. We keep our water warm and tell people we can do baptisms any time, when they have come to that decision, and will arrange for someone to be baptized on, say, Wednesday at 10 A.M. Of course, Sunday baptisms are always welcomed and encouraged, and we’ve had a number of those too. But my question is, is there a Scriptural reason to prefer having baptisms on Sunday during the morning service as opposed to other times of the week? I realize in Acts they were baptized immediately as soon as they believed, so I can see that baptism at any time can be good. But what about a “preference” for having them on Sundays?
MY REPLY: In my judgment, the answer to this question is directly related to the PURPOSE of baptism. By far, the New Testament shows that baptism is the time God has appointed to bestow salvation upon the believing, penitent sinner. Every NT text that directly or indirectly refers to the meaning of baptism, when honestly exegeted, shows this to be so. (See my book, “Baptism: A Biblical Study.”) This means that the main point of baptism is that it is a personal saving encounter between the repentant sinner and God. It is the time or occasion when God meets the sinner and bestows upon him or her the blessings of salvation, the double cure of grace, the benefits of the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Because of its character as a salvation event, baptism SHOULD NOT BE DELAYED. Once the sinner has believed and repented, followed by a confession of faith that calls upon the name of the Lord, he or she should meet the Lord in the baptismal waters as soon as possible. This was indeed the precedent set by the early church (Acts 8:36; 10:47; 16:33). Ananias’ words to the anguished Saul say it all: “And now why do you wait?” (Acts 22:16, ESV). It is good to have witnesses, but it is not essential (cf. the Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:35-39). In truth, only three persons are required for baptism: the baptizer, the sinner, and God.
Of course, this is not how it usually is within most Protestant churches, and increasingly even within our Restoration Movement churches. When I was a child we seldom had conversions at all, including baptisms, except during the annual two-week revival meetings in the summer months. (This made it easier to baptize in the creek or pond, to be sure!) In many denominational groups, baptisms are scheduled for certain Sundays of the church calendar year, such as Easter. Even in our own churches we often schedule “decision days.” We often postpone baptism until Sunday, even if the decision was made on the previous Monday. We may even wait until certain relatives can be present, even if that takes several weeks. I have noticed with considerable horror that several Christian church websites invite inquirers to call the church office and schedule a convenient Sunday for their baptism.
What is the origin of this abandonment of the NT precedent of baptizing converts “immediately” (Acts 16:33), and of the assumption that baptisms should be conducted only on Sunday as part of the church service? In modern times at least, this change can be traced back to the Reformer Huldreich Zwingli’s revisionist view of baptism, which he created ex nihilo in A.D. 1523-1525. Zwingli boldly repudiated the 1500-year view that baptism is for salvation, and substituted a completely new view of the PURPOSE of baptism. (This is explained thoroughly in my doctoral thesis, “Covenant and Baptism in the Theology of Huldreich Zwingli,” Princeton Theological Seminary 1971, summarized as “Baptism According to the Reformed Tradition,” which is chapter 2 in the book “Baptism and the Remission of Sins,” ed. David W. Fletcher, now published by Hester Publications, Henderson, TN.)
Zwingli patterned his new view of baptism after the meaning of the ancient Latin word “sacramentum” (“oath, covenant”) and after the meaning of circumcision in the OT. He taught that a person who has already been saved is baptized as a covenant sign, i.e., as a sign that he or she is already a member of the covenant people of God. It is an oath or pledge of allegiance that one will live faithfully for the Lord. The key question is this: FOR WHOSE SAKE does the believer submit to baptism and thus receive this sign of the covenant? For Zwingli the answer was simple: one receives baptism NOT for his own sake or for God’s sake, but for the sake of the Christian congregation. Here are his words: “For baptism is given and received for the sake of fellow-believers, not for a supposed effect in those who receive it.” It is “not given as a sign to those who receive it, but for the benefit of other believers” (for documentation and other such quotes, see my chapter in the Fletcher book, pp. 58ff.).
Tragically, Zwingli’s new view was adopted (via John Calvin) by most Protestants. Baptism is no longer seen as the meeting point between God and the sinner, but as the time when the new Christian announces, proclaims, declares, confesses, demonstrates, expresses, or gives evidence of his faith in Jesus to the Christian congregation. This language has been increasingly adopted by Restoration churches. Thus baptism has become a “church ritual” or “church ceremony” done for the sake of the congregation as such, rather than the climactic event of the individual’s personal journey to salvation, i.e., the sinner’s last act of obedience to the gospel. This is the reason it is usually incorporated into a Sunday church service, and why it may be postponed until any given Sunday.
I would strongly encourage all of us to abandon our nonchalance regarding the time of baptism, and to return to the apostolic sense of its urgency. We must baptize according to the need of the individual, not according to the church calendar.