Digression 31: The Level Of Knowledge
Required Before Baptism
Many readers will have been confronted by those in 'Evangelical' churches who reason
that doctrine is unimportant for salvation, and that a mere verbal confession that 'I
believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God' is the basic pre-requisite for salvation.
Superficially this sounds plausible because of the way conversions are recorded in the
Acts, whilst also appealing to the ideas of 'love' and 'tolerance' which are the spirit of
our age. This study makes a more detailed analysis of the importance of doctrine.
Why So Quick?
There can be no doubt that a quick reading of Acts gives the impression that many
baptisms were carried out with precious little instruction in the basics of the Gospel,
and with only a brief confession of belief in Christ as God's son. Just saying the four
words 'I believe in Christ' is obviously meaningless as a way to salvation - and the
majority of 'Evangelicals' will concede that there must be some other knowledge or
appreciation in the mind of the person saying those words for them to be meaningful. This
point should not be hard to establish. It is difficult,then, to argue that the passages
which record confessions of faith in Christ as the son of God prove that saying those
words is all that is needed. It is almost common sense that just saying a brief sentence,
regardless of one's other feelings and beliefs, cannot put a man on the road to salvation.
The following points may be helpful in explaining these apparently quick conversions:
- The record in Acts - as in much of Scripture - is necessarily highly condensed. It
makes an interesting exercise to read out loud some of the speeches recorded in Acts and
note the time it takes to do so; it is fairly certain that they would have taken much
longer in reality, including much that is not recorded. A few examples:
Paul's defence in Jerusalem takes four minutes to read (Acts 22); that before Felix one
minute; before Agrippa four minutes; Peter's Pentecost address takes only four minutes;
that to Cornelius three minutes; the Lord's speech after feeding the 5,000 (John 6) six
minutes; the sermon on the mount 18 minutes. Peter's preaching in Acts 3:12-26 takes about
two minutes to read out loud; but in reality it was long enough for news about the content
of his preaching to be taken to "the priests, the captain of the temple and the
Sadducees" and for them to come on the scene (Acts 4:1).
Thus the fact that more lengthy 'instruction' of baptism candidates is not mentioned is
no proof that it did not happen. An argument from silence is very dubious in this case.
- The possession of "the (miraculous) gift of knowledge...of discerning of spirits
(minds)" enabled the early preachers to accurately read the minds of those they
preached to, thus making a full doctrinal interview, as we need, unnecessary.
- There is reason to believe that the mass baptism of Jews in Jerusalem at the beginning
of Christianity was a special case. There is no evidence that such methods and volume of
baptisms were performed later in the first century. If conversions had continued at that
scale then the whole of Jerusalem would have been Christian within a few years. These
people being Jews it would have meant they had a fair knowledge of the Old Testament and
the ways of God. The depth of Paul's letter to the Hebrews and Peter's (also to Jews) show
that their readership were capable of grasping the many Old Testament allusions they make.
It is staggering that Paul describes what he says about Melchizedek as the milk of the
word, lamenting that he could not go into more detail about him because of their spiritual
immaturity (Heb.5:11,12). That indicates their level of knowledge at the time of their
conversion, as Paul charges them with not having grown much since that time. It seems that
those letters were primarily written to the Jerusalem ecclesia, most of whom would have
been baptized in the early days recorded at the beginning of Acts.
- We hope to show that preaching the name of Christ and confessing that as described in
Acts was equivalent to understanding quite a detailed body of doctrine.
- It would appear from 1 Cor.1:17 that Paul (and other apostles?) operated in harness with
an effective team of follow-up instructors and baptizers, so that he only spent a
relatively short time in each place where he preached.
The Name of Jesus
The Name of God includes much teaching about Him and His ways - God's Names and titles
express His character and purpose. The Name of Jesus Christ is also not just an
appellation but a deeper statement of doctrine.
Belief in the name of Jesus is paralleled with being baptized (Jn. 3:5,18,23). Gal.
3:26,27 makes faith in Christ inextricably linked with baptism into him: "Ye are all
the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. FOR as many of you as have been baptized
into Christ have put on Christ. Further examples of this link between belief and baptism
will be found in Acts 19:4; 10:42 cp. 48; 2:37,38; Lk. 24:47. Apollos "knew"
John's baptism (Acts 18:25), showing that baptism is not just an act, but involves knowing
"Philip...preached Christ unto them" (Acts 8:5) sounds as if he just said
'Believe on Jesus'; but "Christ" is defined in Acts 8:12: "When they
believed Philip preaching the things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus
Christ, they were baptized". Note that "things" is in the plural; not just
a brief statement about Christ; and to 'preach Christ' also included the doctrine of
baptism. John 6:40 tells us that it is the will of God "that every one which seeth
(understands) the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life"; while later
Jesus says that "If any man will do (God's) will, he shall know of the doctrine"
(John 7:17). Thus knowing the doctrine is the same as 'seeing' the Son. Christ's words
"Thou hast kept my word, and hast not denied my name" (Rev.3:8) also show that
the word of Christ is parallel to His Name. Christ under inspiration quotes Is.42:4,
"The isles shall wait for his (Christ's) law" as "In his name shall the
Gentiles trust" (Matt.12:21), again equating His name with the Gospel about him. The
second and third letters of John contain reference to the itinerant preachers "Whom
if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well, because
that for his name's sake they went forth" (3 John 6,7). This seems to be alluding
back to the commission of Mark 16:15,16, to go forth worldwide and preach the Gospel; thus
the name of Christ and His Gospel are equated. To 'believe in Christ' Biblically therefore
includes being baptized: "Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For
(i.e. because) as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ"
(Gal.3:26,27). Paul speaks as if their having faith in Christ naturally included their
expression of that faith in baptism. Thus believing on Christ is a process of
understanding followed by obedience, rather than a quick verbal confession 'I believe in
Christ'. T borne out by John 6:35: "He that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he
that believeth on me shall never thirst", which equates believing on Christ with
COMING to him - showing that belief is a process.
Preaching "Christ" therefore involved a series of doctrines. Thus Luke 9:11
describes Christ preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God (cp. Matthew 4:23), whilst the
parallel account in Mark 6:34 refers to Him teaching them "many things". The
Gospel includes "many things" - not just a brief statement about Christ which
can be made in a minute. Thus we read phrases like, "When they had preached the
gospel to that city, and had taught many" (Acts 14:21), equating preaching and
teaching. Such language would be unnecessary if the Gospel was just a few simple
statements. Paul's preaching at Berea resulted in the people searching the Scriptures
daily (with the synagogue copies of the Old Testament?) to check what Paul had taught them
(Acts 17:11). The Gospel taught by Paul was therefore based throughout on the Old
Testament, and it was because of the people's process of Bible study after hearing him
that they believed- "Therefore many of them believed" (Acts 17:12). When we are
dealing with people who have little knowledge of the Bible and do not often search it
daily after a discussion, it is not surprising that times of instruction are far longer
than in the first century. "Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of
God" (1 Jn.5:1) clearly corresponds with verses like "Of His own will begat He
us with the word of truth" (James 1:18), "Being born again...by the word of
God...the word which by the gospel is preached unto you" (1 Pet.1:23,25). This shows
that to believe that Christ is the Son of God is an epitome of the fact that one has
understood the Gospel contained in the word of God.
The King of the Kingdom
The emphasis on 'believing in Christ' becomes more meaningful once it is appreciated
that the title 'Christ' can be read as synonymous with the Kingdom of Christ in some
passages. Thus our Lord told the Pharisees that they need not go round looking for Messiah
to come, because he was already standing in their midst. He expresses this in the words
"...the Kingdom of God is among (A.V. mg.) you" (Lk.17:21), showing that
"The Kingdom" is to be equated with the king of the Kingdom. John's preaching
that the Kingdom of God was near therefore refers to his heralding of the manifestation of
Christ. The stone hitting Nebuchadnezzar's image represents God's Kingdom (Dan.2:44); it
is the stone/Kingdom which "shall break in pieces and destroy all these (other)
kingdoms", showing that the stone is the Kingdom when it smites the image, as well as
after its destruction. In similar vein Ezekiel's parable of the vine describes a
"tender one" of its twigs being cropped off and planted, so that it became a
great tree, "and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing" (Ez.17:22,23).
This must refer to Christ, the "tender plant" of Is.53:2; yet there are obvious
connections with His parable of the mustard seed, in which the Kingdom of God is likened
to a small seed which grew into a great tree, under which all types of bird came to live.
This connection between the word of the Kingdom and Jesus Himself personally shows that He
saw Himself as the living word of the Kingdom. In the light of this it is understandable
that 'believing in Christ' and believing in the full Gospel of the Kingdom of God are
What is the Gospel?
We now come to discuss in more detail what was considered essential doctrine amongst
first century believers. It must be recognized that there was a body of doctrine in New
Testament times which was roughly equivalent to our "Statement of Faith".
Another important factor to bear in mind was the existence of brethren with the gift of
prophecy - 'forth-telling' of direct revelation from God under inspiration. There is
reason to believe that with time some of these inspired utterances were added to this body
A Body of Doctrine
Paul could say that those at Rome ecclesia at least had "obeyed from the heart
that form of doctrine which was delivered you" (Rom.6:17) before their baptism. The
Greek for "form" is the same translated "example" and
"pattern" - as if it referred to a body of teaching that was copied elsewhere.
Paul's reference to this indicates the importance of a defined body of teaching to be
understood before baptism, and also that it was not just a few brief statements that were
mentioned before baptism. Some within the ecclesia would have "a form of godliness,
but deny the power thereof" (2 Tim.3:5), perhaps suggesting that they might hold the
basic doctrines of the faith but not recognize the real power of the Truth in their daily
lives. Paul could remind the Galatians that "Jesus Christ hath been evidently set
forth, crucified among you" (Gal.3:1). The Greek for "set forth" means
literally 'depicted in written words', as if the initial instruction of the Galatians had
been through some written form of instruction manual.
When defining the doctrine of the resurrection, Paul could say "I delivered unto
you...that which I also received, how that Christ died..." (1 Cor.15:3), showing how
he had received a revelation about these things, and had delivered it to them as doctrine
to be accepted as fundamental. 2 Peter 2:21,22 falls neatly into place here: "It had
been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness than...to turn from the
holy commandment delivered unto them. But...the sow that was washed (in baptism) (has
returned) to her wallowing in the mire". Here "the way" and "the holy
commandment" which were "delivered" to them are associated with the washing
of baptism, as if the way and commandment were known before baptism. We have shown that
there was not just one command to be understood before baptism; therefore the
"commandment" in the singular may suggest that there was a body of teaching very
clearly defined that had to be understood before baptism. There are several passages which
speak of 'receiving' teaching about doctrine and "the Gospel": Gal.1:9,12; Phil.
4:9; Col.2:6; 1 Thess.1:6; 2:13; 4:1. This confirms that 'the Gospel' was comprised of a
specific body of teachings that had been 'received' firstly by the apostles and then by
those to whom they preached.
Jude also speaks of "the faith which was once (for all) delivered unto the
saints" (Jude 3). "The faith" is thus parallel to the "form of
doctrine" that was delivered to them before baptism, and it would have been another
phrase in the first century vocabulary which referred to this body of doctrine. Paul's
exhortation to "hold fast the profession of our faith" (Heb.10:23) may be
alluding back to their public profession of belief in "the faith" before their
baptism. Preserving "the faithful word" (Titus 1:9) would have primarily
referred to upholding this 'Statement of the faith' which they had originally been taught.
"The common faith" (Titus 1:4) shows how this body of doctrine was shared by all
believers; there was only "one faith" (Eph.4:5). "The faith" and the
name of Christ are connected in Acts 3:16. We have seen that the name of Christ is another
name for the same teaching contained in "the faith". Both in matters of practice
(1 Tim.6:10) and doctrine (1 Tim.4:1) Paul warned that some would "depart from the
faith". The first stage in that apostasy would be to say that "the faith"
was impossible to define.
Matters of Practice
Matters of practice were also part of this body of doctrine. "The faith in
Christ" included reasoning about "righteousness, temperance and judgment to
come" (Acts 24:24,25). Paul talks of the instructions about the breaking of bread as
he does of the teaching concerning the resurrection: "I have received of the Lord
that which also I delivered unto you" (1 Cor.11:23). There seem to have been a group
of these practical things, which Paul later extended to include teaching about the place
of sisters in the ecclesia: "Ye...keep the ordinances as I delivered them to you. But
I would have you know that...the head of the woman is the man...." (1 Cor.11:2,3).
This indicates that the explanation of these things should be before baptism, and were
part of the body of doctrine that was insisted on in the first century. The Greek for
"ordinances" is also translated "tradition" in 2 Thess.3:6 and 2:15:
"Withdraw...from every brother that walketh..not after the tradition which he
received of us...stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by
(inspired, prophetic) word, or our epistle". These show the vital importance of
holding on to this body of teaching, and the need to separate from those who do not obey
it: "Holding fast the faithful word (another description of this same corpus of
doctrine) as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and
to convince the gainsayers" (Tit.1:9).
We know there were "false prophets" in the early ecclesias, claiming to have
had revelations from God about doctrine which should be added to the accepted body of
teaching. Thus Paul stresses what are "faithful words" of inspired revelation of
doctrine (Titus 1:9; 3:8; 2 Tim.2:11; 1 Tim.4:9), which are "worthy of all
acceptation" (1 Tim.1:15; 4:9) - i.e. into the body of doctrine comprising "the
faith". This is why John warned not to "Believe...every spirit" who claimed
inspiration (1 John 4:1).
The following are some clear examples of where doctrines other than a simple 'belief in
Christ' were taught as part of the basic Gospel which was to be understood before baptism:
"God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my Gospel"
(i.e. the one Paul preached; Rom.2:16). The doctrine of the judgment seat and
responsibility is therefore considered to be a 'first principle'- see also Acts 24:25;
The idea that circumcision was necessary for salvation was described by Paul as
"another Gospel" (Gal.1:6). Thus knowing that we should not keep the Law of
Moses, e.g. the Sabbath, is part of understanding the true Gospel.
"The Gospel of the Kingdom" is not only about Christ but also about his
coming Kingdom; Is.52:7 (cp. Rom.10:15) describes the preacher of the Gospel speaking of
the time when it can be said to Zion "Thy God reigneth"- i.e. in the Kingdom.
The correct understanding of the 'finer points' of Christ's nature was a matter of
fellowship (2 John 7-10); because of this the Gospel involved the "things",
plural, about Christ (Acts 8:12). Again, just saying we believe in Christ is not enough.
The importance of the promises about the Kingdom is a vital part of the Gospel; it was
through the promises that the Gospel was preached to Abraham (Gal.3:8) and Israel
(Heb.4:2). Thus Paul spoke of his preaching about the promises made to David as "the
word of this salvation" (Acts 13:23,26). They were therefore a vital part of the
message of salvation. Thus he says "We declare (same word translated 'preach'
elsewhere) unto you good tidings (the Gospel) of the promise made unto the fathers"
(Acts 13:32 R.V.). Similarly Rom.1:1-4: "The Gospel of God...concerning His Son Jesus
Christ, which was made of the seed of David".
To understand the promises requires a certain knowledge of the history of Israel. A
study of Paul's preaching at Antioch in Acts 13 shows him outlining the history of Israel
with special emphasis on the promises, stressing how they were fulfilled in Jesus. His
preaching was thus based on the history of Israel, and was what we might call
'expositional', concluding with a warning of the consequences at the judgment of not
responding to the word he was preaching (Acts 13:40,41). The content of our preaching
should be similar.
The importance of all this cannot be over-emphasized. "Take heed unto thyself and
unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and
them that hear thee" (1 Tim.4:13-16). Lists of important doctrines like those given
in Appendix 1 of this book are obviously not inspired, but in the writer's opinion it does
seem a fair summary of many of the specific items mentioned in the Bible passages which
speak of things which are part of "the faith", "the traditions" etc.
This study hopefully has shown that there is a definite need for a body of doctrine which
we all accept and are not slow to affirm our allegiance to. The contents of this body of
doctrine should comprise our instruction of candidates for baptism, and it is only fair to
them to check by way of discussion before their immersion that they fully understand what
they have been taught. Frequently the believers were encouraged to cling to "the
faith" in times of trouble. "The foundation of God standeth sure". Our
familiarity with the first principles, with the marvellous way the full purpose of God
holds together, should be an encouragement to us in itself. Only by our regular preaching
or re-studying of these things will this benefit and deep sense of assurance be ours, so
that like Paul in his hour of darkness and loneliness we can say "I have finished my
course, I have kept the faith...I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is
able to keep that which I have committed unto him (our life, our all) against that
day" (2 Tim.4:7; 1:12).
FOOTNOTE: Confessing the Lord Jesus
"If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine
heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved" (Rom.10:9).
The following points need to be made:
We have shown that 'The Lord Jesus' is probably a synonym for a whole body of doctrine
comprising the "things concerning the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus
Christ", including baptism (Acts 8:5 cp.v.12). The 'confession' of which Paul speaks
may well have been at baptism. He would in this case be alluding to Mark 16:16 "He
that believeth (cp. confessing with the mouth) and is baptized (cp. rising with Christ
from the dead) shall be saved".
To understand the resurrection of Christ involves a knowledge of Bible teaching about
hell and the nature of man.
Rom.10:8,9 appear to be parallel with v.13: "For whosoever shall call upon
(himself, Greek) the name of the Lord shall be saved". Paul is described as being
baptized and thus calling upon himself the name of the Lord (Acts 22:16); only baptism
gives us entrance into the name of the Lord (Matt.28:19).
Having stressed the importance of baptism a few chapters earlier in Romans 6, it is
impossible that Paul would now teach that it was unnecessary for salvation in chapter 10.
Rom.10:9 is preceded by v.6-8: "Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into
Heaven...Who shall descend into the deep?...But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even
in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach".
"The word of (the) faith" was therefore what had to be confessed, and is
parallel to "the Lord Jesus" in v.9. We have seen that "the faith"
describes the whole body of doctrine which comprised the Gospel. Paul is quoting from
Deut.30:11-14: "This commandment which I command thee this day,,,it is not in
Heaven...neither is it beyond the sea ('the deep')...but the word is very nigh unto
thee". He seems to interpret "the word...this commandment" as referring to
Christ. In the same way that if Israel kept the word they would be blessed (Deut.30:16),
so if the new Israel believed in the word about Christ they would be saved. Confessing
Christ with the mouth therefore corresponds to assenting to this teaching about Christ.
"If thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord" (Deut.30:10) is matched in
Rom.10:9: "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus". This parallel
again shows that "the Lord Jesus" is a title summarizing the basic teaching of
the word of God.