Easter Baptism: an Ancient Tradition

Easter Sunday 1986 was a special day for seven-year-old Kesuke Sakai, a day he will never forget. On Easter Sunday Kesuke was baptized in the Toyoake Church near Tokyo, Japan. As Christians around the world celebrated the risen Christ, Kesuke became part of Christ's family. "Now I am God's child!" said Kesuke.

The choice of Easter Sunday for Kesuke's baptism was no accident. Many twentieth-century Christians have forgotten about the ties the early church established between Easter and baptism. But a look at the traditions and customs of past centuries reveals that the practice of baptizing on Easter is almost as old as the church itself.

In the following article Harvey Smit (d. 1998), editor in chief of CRC Publications' Education Department, traces the history of Easter baptism in the church and urges Western Christians to reexamine and perhaps reform their own baptismal customs.

Most of us have witnessed numerous baptisms. Baptism is a sacrament we are very familiar with, a sacrament we seldom question or think of "reforming." Yet, as those who stand in the tradition of the Reformation, we should be both reformed and always reforming—reforming the sacraments as well as other areas of our spiritual life and worship.

Several areas on which we might focus our reforming activity are our practice of baptism, our preparation for baptism, and our growing tendency to observe a Lenten season before Easter. We commonly consider these practices in the light of scriptural teaching; we should do so also in the perspective of early church practices.

Few of us are aware that many of the emerging churches in Eastern and third-world countries have baptismal customs that are strikingly similar to those of the ancient church. Perhaps this is because, like the early church, these congregations are baptizing large numbers of adults who come from non-Christian religious traditions, something that happens less frequently in our Western churches.

Japanese Christians, for example, have the fine custom of bringing a special thank offering on the commemorative date of their baptism. By far the greatest number of such offerings are made around Easter, since that is the favored time for adult baptism. Christmas runs a slow second.

The Tiv people of Nigeria also observe some special baptismal customs. They have a strong tradition of a three-year period of preparation (recently shortened somewhat) before a candidate is considered ready for formal acceptance into the church through baptism. Most of these baptisms take place during the dry season.

Early Church Practices

The New Testament church apparently scheduled no special time for baptism and required no set period of preparation. Some argue that Acts 2 adds to the act of believing the gospel a "receiving this word" that implies a required change in life consistent with the change in faith. Such a "catechetical period," they say, is even clearer in the case of Cornelius and his family: they not only heard Peter's catechetical instruction but also received the Spirit as a testimony to their new life of full faith.

Around A.D. 150 Christians generally agreed that becoming a Christian involved three stages. The first stage was an initial assent to the faith—what we would call today "accepting Christ as your personal Savior." The second stage was a probationary period during which the new believer was expected to show the sincerity of his or her new faith by a real change in life patterns. Justin Martyr delineates three requirements for this stage: sorrow for sin, learning and accepting the church's teachings, and transforming one's life. The third stage was the baptismal period: believers were required to fast and pray for several days before Easter and were baptized on Easter morning. Through baptism on Easter the new convert participated in the consummation of the Lord's passion and entered into the new life as a Christian sealed in Jesus' resurrection.

By the early third century this pattern had become firmly established. The first stage of coming to faith involved an examination of the circumstances under which the convert came to faith, the testimony of sponsors, and the convert's promise to live as a believer. The second stage involved a full three years of catechetical training. And the third stage, beginning with another examination to determine whether the candidate had lived piously and done good works, took the form of a full week of daily exorcisms, services, prayers, fasting on the final Friday and Saturday, and an all-night vigil of prayer and Scripture reading leading to baptism at Easter dawn.

Origins of Lent

This pattern, like so much else, began to change with the Peace of Constantine in A.D. 313. Many of those flooding into the church simulated faith for one reason or another: to please family, to marry a Christian, or to succeed politically. These persons went through the first stage and received the name "Christian," but many of them never advanced to the second and third stages. They remained slumbering catechumens and halfway Christians.

An example of one who followed this course is the famous theologian and writer Augustine. While still young he was "signed… with the cross of Christ and seasoned with his salt" (Confessions, 1, 1, 11). Yet he was not baptized until after his conversion at age thirty-three. For all those years he was a Christian in name but not in fact.

Most bishops spoke stridently against this practice of remaining a first-stage "Christian." They emphasized that a person needed real, living faith in order to be a Christian and that to delay baptism was to put off one's salvation. Some tried to hurry people into baptism without any real instruction.

During the latter part of the fourth century the church developed a solution to this nagging problem. The forty days before Easter became the accepted training time for new converts. This period of Lent began with a formal entrance ceremony in which baptismal candidates were examined publicly; family, friends, and neighbors were asked to testify about the person's character and life. This ceremony was followed by daily three-hour periods of instruction throughout the Lenten weeks in which the bishop would go through the entire Bible, explaining its teachings to the candidates. Holy Week was devoted to final preparations for baptism, prayers, fasts, and Scripture readings. The Easter vigil culminated in the Easter dawn baptism, followed by first communion. The week after Easter was dedicated to daily instruction about the sacraments and the moral requirements of true Christian living.

What the church did, in effect, was to condense the three years of Christian training into an intense, very serious Lenten period. It also tied baptism even more firmly to Easter.

Later Changes

Over the next centuries two major changes occurred.

First, the Lenten observance broadened to include not only baptismal candidates but also family, friends, and eventually all the Christian community. As a result, Lent began to lose its catechetical significance and became a time in which the entire church remembered in a special way its Lord's suffering, death, and glorious resurrection.

Second, a steady increase in infant baptisms and a decrease in adult converts loosened the tie between baptism and Easter. Since with infants there was no instruction, there was no need to delay baptism. Baptism at a young age was encouraged and, as the sacrament came to be viewed as a saving act itself, almost required. Gradually the church switched its focus from adults to preparing baptized children for first communion and full membership in the church.

And Today?

These changes have left us— the established Western churches today—with few patterns for the baptism of adult converts. This relatively rare occurrence finds us lacking a tradition as to length of instruction, sorts of requirements, and ideas about how such baptism should differ liturgically from child baptism and profession of faith.

As Reformed churches committed to evangelism, we need to think more about adult catechesis, about when we should baptize adults, and about how such baptism fits within the church's worship. Like the Reformers we should look both to the Bible and to the practices of the early church for guidance. We might then find it helpful to revive the ancient tie of baptism with Lent and Easter. This would both encourage an intensive preparation by adult candidates for baptism and restore a blessed dimension to our Easter worship.

When taking part in Easter baptisms in Japan and witnessing them in my own church here in North America, I've always been struck by the wonderful appropriateness of this practice. All worshipers recognize how fitting it is that as part of our celebration of the guarantee of new life in Jesus' resurrection, we also seal new believers into the fellowhip of this new life by baptism. This practice both deepens our understanding of baptism and adds to the joy of our Easter worship.

In A Word

The word reformed makes most English-speaking people think of penal institutions and changing criminal behavior. The reformed, in that sense, are those who have been released from prison or reform school.

Though all Christians celebrate their release from bondage into freedom, those who call themselves Reformed (with a capital R) stand in a particular tradition dating back to the Reformation of the church in the 16th century. The Reformers were consciously trying to recapture the "form" of Christian belief and life in early centuries and to return the church to the faith and practice of those times. They deliberately studied biblical understandings and practices and tried to repattern the existing church after the model of the apostolic fellowship and the purer traditions of the first centuries of the early church. There were two main branches of these Reformers. One took the name of their leader, Martin Luther; the other, followers of John Calvin, kept the more generic name Reformed, with the motto; ecclesia reformata quia semper reformanda est (the church reformed because it must always be reforming). As those who stand in that tradition of the Reformation, we too should be both reformed and always reforming.

The late Harvey Smit was executive director of Reformed Worship and editor-in-chief of CRC Publications. (05-2024)


Reformed Worship 3 © March 1987, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.