Lent and the Development of the Catechumenate

John ArmstrongChurch History, Church Tradition, Sacraments, The Church

hands-water I sometimes am drawn into discussion about immediate baptism. Based on several accounts we have in the New Testament some Christians believe that as soon as a person professes faith in Jesus Christ they should be immediately baptized. Some traditions even insist that this be done so that a person who has believed will be sealed with the baptismal water and truly saved lest they die without baptism and perish. I still recall a dialogue with some evangelicals, in my childhood, who insisted that this had to be true since they had been taught what amounted to “baptismal regeneration.” Without water baptism a convert was in peril.

A story went around when I was a boy about a man who walked forward in such a church one Sunday to accept Jesus as his Savior. There had been an unusual freeze in that part of Texas and the baptismal pool had no water. He was told he would be baptized the next Sunday. That afternoon he got nervous about his soul and wondered if he died if he would go to heaven. He called the minister who told him he was still not regenerate without the water of baptism. The man decided there and then to leave his church and be a Baptist! (I wonder if this story is true but I heard it all my life. It makes for good polemics anyway.)

I also recall Dr. John Gration, a professor of missions in the Wheaton Grad School who had served as a missionary in Africa, telling a story about immediate baptisms. Some African students had read the story of the Ethiopian eunuch in the Book of Acts and asked, “Professor, why did you not baptize us immediately like this African was baptized?” Dr. Gration answered, “Had we found you reading the prophets and asking the same questions we would have baptized you immediately.” I always thought that was a very contextually sound answer.

The point is this. The early church, by at least the early second century if not earlier, prepared people for baptism by teaching them the faith clearly and effectively. This teaching was called catechism and these people were called catechumenates. Over time, by the third and fourth centuries, the final period of preparation for baptism, and thus for formal entry into the visible church, came during Lent. Baptism, being the rite of Christian initiation, came on Saturday at the Easter Vigil in the evening. These new members then could celebrate Easter days as well-taught and well-prepared converts to the Christian faith and church.

I believe non-liturgical evangelical churches could stand to learn a great deal here from these Lenten developments in church tradition. The least they could do I believe is to begin to instruct people far better before they baptize them. The further our culture moves away from Christendom the more this becomes necessary. Most independent, evangelical and Baptist churches rush to baptism and this is a huge mistake. Though I may not be able to convince such churches to take Lent as seriously as I would like I think they could at least consider why the early church very early in the development of apostolic practice prepared candidates for baptism with a time of very serious instruction and repentance.