Summary: In the New Testament account, those who believed, and only those who believed, were baptised.
“There was a man named Simon, who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But 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. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.”
The Book of Acts points up in greater detail than any other book of the New Testament the importance of baptism in the life of the early churches. Luke’s treatise for Theophilus provides readers with a detailed account of the formative days of New Testament churches. Reading this book, we are afforded a glimpse into the life and the practise of the apostolic churches. Though a more thorough theology of baptism can be gleaned from the Letters of Paul than from Acts, Luke’s account demonstrates the importance that was assigned to baptism among the early churches.
Throughout this historic account, each individual who believed the message of life was baptised immediately. Not a single incident is recorded to give comfort to the idea that an individual might have received baptism in order to be saved; rather, because they had already believed, those who had become Christians through faith in Jesus the Christ were baptised. These believers were baptised in order to identify openly as Christians. They sought to identify boldly with the Lord in Whom they had believed. They proclaimed through baptism the Gospel they had believed—that Jesus died, that He was buried and that He was raised from the dead. Simultaneously, they confessed the lifeless nature of their former existence and they affirmed the spiritual vitality they presently enjoyed as result of the New Birth through faith in the Living Son of God.
We Baptists do not baptise our babies—there is absolutely no warrant in Scripture for such practise. Neither ministers nor congregations have power to redeem a person through human effort; hence, there is no salvific merit in baptism. Redemption is offered only through the mercies of Christ and results from faith that He is our sacrifice. Therefore, we cannot baptise those who have no confession of faith in the Risen Son of God since unbelievers have nothing to declare. Beginning with the early days of the New Testament churches, the consistent practise has been to baptise only those who openly and voluntarily confess Christ as Lord; Baptist continue this practise to this day.
Those who were not baptised were not viewed as Christians within the earliest communities of faith. If an individual chose not to publicly confess the mastery of Jesus through baptism, that one was not considered to be His follower. Baptism became the identifying mark that distinguished between those who were committed to following the Master and those who were only exploring the Faith. Refusal to be baptised was de facto evidence that the individual was not committed to following “the Way.”
Messages from this particular text often focus on Simon the sorcerer, especially addressing the sin of simony—the attempt to purchase or to sell ecclesiastical favour. The classic example of simony is the sale of indulgences, a kind of “get out of hell” free card sold for “a nominal fee.” However, the account before us reveals essential truths concerning baptism as practised by the New Testament churches. Together, let’s examine these verses so that together we can learn about baptism as practised among the New Testament churches and as seen through the eyes of the Apostles.
THE RELATIONSHIP OF BAPTISM TO FAITH — “When they believed … they were baptised.” When I read this text, my eyes are drawn immediately to the propinquity of baptism and belief. In the early church, those who believed were baptised. There were no baptismal classes. There was no probationary period. There were no sponsors. There was simply an expectation that each believer would identify openly with the Master. Modern Christendom has complicated the act of the open confession of one’s faith.
Every denomination within Christendom practises baptism for adults who believe. It matters little what communion within Christendom one happens to approach, those seeking baptism will be accommodated. However, in almost all communions there will be either a probationary period or a requirement for instructional classes—even among a growing number of Baptists! I do not doubt that it can be helpful to know the polity and doctrinal position of a given denomination if one intends to unite with a church within a given communion. Thus, I recognise that membership classes can be helpful for the applicant for church membership. However, there is a distinction between what is helpful and what is mandated as though Scripture commanded it.