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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Should we not immediately baptize those who accept Christ as Saviour, and then teach them our doctrines? Was not that the practice in the apostolic church?
It is not easy to answer the question of the content, extent, and timing of the instruction given to new converts to Christianity in the apostolic church (usually called “catechesis,” from the Greek verb katecheo, “to teach”). Historical evidence indicates that from the second to the fifth centuries Christian catechesis took place before baptism. Once infant baptism was popularized, a shift took place and baptism preceded catechesis. Let’s look at a few New Testament passages for answers.
1. The Gospel Commission—Matthew 28:19, 20: Jesus commanded the disciples to “go and make disciples . . . , baptizing them . . . , and teaching them to obey everything I commanded you” (NIV). Since “teaching” is last on the list, it is sometimes concluded that the catechesis was given after baptism.
But the text is not as clear as some believe. The relation between the two participles— “baptizing,” “teaching,” and the main verb, “make disciples”—is not clear in Greek. Is making disciples explained in terms of baptizing and then teaching, or should the participles be taken as imperatives, listing what the Lord expects from the disciples without emphasizing the specific sequence?
Based on Greek grammar, the first possibility is very unlikely. The second has the support of Greek grammar. Because of the ambiguity of the passage one cannot be dogmatic, but even if we accept that there is an implicit sequence, then making disciples would imply that some prebaptismal instruction was given to new converts and that after baptism instruction was continued. The question is not whether catechesis preceded baptism but how much instruction was given.
2. Church Practice in Acts: After Peter’s sermon at Pentecost 3,000 were baptized “that day” (Acts 2:41, NIV). The instruction they needed was given through a sermon and “those who accepted his message were baptized.”
Philip “proclaimed [literally “was proclaiming,” suggesting progressive action in the past] the Christ” in Samaria and many were baptized. His message included the good news of God’s kingdom and the name of Jesus (Acts 8:5, 12, NIV).
Obviously some instruction was given before baptism. Philip also explained the Scripture to the Ethiopian, beginning with Isaiah 53, before baptism (verse 35). Paul baptized the jailer and his household after speaking “the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (Acts 16:32, 33). After informing him that he had to believe in the Lord Jesus, Paul instructed him, and then baptized him.
3. Content of the Catechesis: Among the most important topics mentioned, in the apostolic speeches in Acts, we find the good news of Jesus Christ (8:35), His death and resurrection (3:15), His exaltation and mediation (2:33; 5:31), and His Lordship (2:36). Other doctrines mentioned are repentance (2:38; 3:19), forgiveness (13:38), justification (13:39), worship of the true God (17:29), final judgment (17:31; cf. Rom. 2:16), general resurrection (24:15; 17:18), second coming of Christ (3:20, 21), the kingdom of God (8:12), and the Holy Spirit (2:38).
This impressive list indicates that instruction was given to unbelievers before they were baptized. The amount of catechesis probably depended on the background of the individual.
4. Implications for Today: If baptism means the end of an old way of life and the beginning of a new one (Rom. 6:4), it is simply impossible to baptize someone without explaining the practical implications of a Christian life.
This is not just a matter of sharing present truth; it is a matter of honesty. Baptism joins people to the church and calls them to stand for truth. The least we can do is ascertain whether they understand our mission and the biblical truth we proclaim.