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Recently I was talking to a friend about American “Christianity” and the role of baptism and repentance. As I was thinking about this it occurred to me that baptism has become a very poor indication of Christianity in the
United States. It has lost most, if not all of its significance, in a society where it is not uncommon for a person to be “baptized” two or three times. Even more than that, most Christian’s do not really understand the role of repentance within Christianity. If you tell a person that they need to repent, they will likely accuse you of promoting a works based salvation. The role of baptism and repentance as they relate to salvation has been debated throughout the history of Christianity, as both have been practice since the beginning of the church in Acts 2. The book of Acts repeatedly makes reference to the need for baptism (1:5, 22; 2:38, 41; 8:12, 13, 16, 36, 38; 9:18; 10:37, 47, 48; 11:16; 13:24; 16:15, 33; 18:8, 25; 19:3-5; 22:16) and repentance (2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 13:24; 17:30; 19:4; 20:21; 26:20).


So then what did the apostles believe about the nature of repentance and baptism, especially as it relates to salvation? I think the best place to start would be with the consideration of this question would be the first church sermon ever preached in Acts 2:14-36 and more importantly the response of the people to that sermon in 2:37-41.


“Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all whoa are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself. And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:37-41)


Because of the close relationship that Peter presents here between the necessity of repentance and baptism, some have used this text to teach a form of sacramental salvation. The Catholic Church teaches, “Hence Baptism is a bath of water in which the ‘imperishable seed’ of the Word of God produces its life-giving effect.
St. Augustinesays of Baptism: ‘The word is brought to the material element, and it becomes a sacrament.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1228) The Church of England in the days of Spurgeon taught a similar perspective of baptism. Spurgeon quoted the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, “Then shall the priest say, ‘Seeing now, dearly beloved, that this child is regenerated and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning’” and “Then shall the priest say, ‘We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this infant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church.’” (Baptismal Regeneration, preached by Spurgeon on June 5th 1864)


Would this understanding of baptism have been what the apostles understood when they offered baptism to people such as the ground in Acts 2? I believe that a careful consideration of other text will clearly show that the apostles did not believe that it was by a water baptism that a person became a Christian, a person who had received “the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Let me give a couple of quick reasons why this cannot be the case:

  1. Man cannot control the movements of the Spirit, especially to whom the Spirit will be willing to grant new life (John 3:5-8).
  2. Jesus, as well as John the Baptist, drew a distinction between the act of water baptism and the baptism with the spirit. (Matt. 3:11-12, Acts 1:4-5)
  3. There are people who are water baptized, who had not been born again (baptized by the Spirit). Consider the example Simon the Magician in Acts 8:9-24, the apostle Johns comments in 1 John 2:19, and the necessity of church discipline (Matt. 18)


So if the apostles did not understand the act of baptism itself as the act of salvation, what did they believe? Before I show evidence of their belief from the events of Acts 2 let me summarize their belief as follows:


The apostles believed that a person was saved by faith in God, as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, and that faith would then evidence itself in a forsaking of one’s former way of living and pursuing God’s way of living, as shown throw the life of Christ.


First consider Peter’s sermon in Acts 2:14-36. What was Peter trying to show them? He was trying to show them that their belief system was wrong. They thought that the apostles’ speaking in tongues was a sign of drunkenness (2:13). Peter response to this wrong thinking by showing them that what they are seeing is not evidence of the Spirit of God working through them in fulfillment of the prophesy of Joel (2:14-22). Yet Peter does not stop by correcting their belief about the effects at hand, he then turns their attention to their beliefs about Jesus Christ (2:23-36). He shows him to be the Christ by pointing out the following:

  • Christ evidenced the work of the Spirit of God in His life (2:22)
  • God demonstrated the validity of His claim by raising Him from the dead (2:24-28)
  • Christ was THE descendant o David (2:30)
  • The pouring forth of the Spirit was evidence of Christ having been exulted (2:33-35)


But Peter does not limit his sermon to correcting their beliefs about the Christ, but the draws attention to their actions toward Him. He does not hesitate to remind them that “you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (2:23) and “this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36).  So Peter’s sermon was primarily aimed at correcting their faulty beliefs and bringing them to the knowledge of the truth.


How then did those listening react? “They were pierced to the heart” (2:38). Apparently, Peter’s words were received as truth, because they seemed to have realized that they had indeed but to death their Messiah. They were indeed following the wrong path. They were going the wrong way. So they ask, “Brethren, what shall we do”.


Finally, we have come full circle and the place of repentance and baptism are finally addressed. Peter calls them to “repent.” Peter calls them to turn from their previous course of life and turn to Christ. Peter calls them to stop acting as though Christ was not really both “Lord and Christ” and to start acting as though He was. But what would repentance look like? The first fruit of repentance that Peter expected to see from these people was baptism in the name of Jesus Christ.


But why would Peter point to baptism as a demonstration of repentance, as a change in what they believed? I think the answer is pretty simply, it was a matter of obedience. If they had genuinely come to believe that Jesus was both Lord and Christ, they would desire to follow Him and to be obedient to Him. Thus the willingness to be baptized into name of Christ would demonstrate obedience to Jesus commands in Matthew 28:19-20, not to mention obedience to the apostle’s instructions as coming from God. In addition, this would serve to identify them publicly with Christ. In a society, then where becoming a Christian would ostracize you from family and friends and would bring great persecution to openly identify with Christ was to place a target on your forehead.


My Concern for

My concern for the church in
America then is that we do not appreciate the significance of baptism. Because being identify with Christ in the
United States does not bring with it the sense of persecution or a sense of cost, baptism has lost much of its ability to be a sign of genuine repentance. Let me be blunt…the
United States has bread an environment in which being baptized brings with it almost no cost. You can be baptized go right on living the same life that you use to. You can be baptized and even unbelievers can be happy for you, because you have found something that works for you. And in a society, where most false religions are done in the name of Christ, how can any identification with that name bring with it a sense of genuine turning to the true Christ.


I think the American church needs to go back and consider better ways of discerning the genuineness of a person’s confession and that includes our own person confession. We can no longer consider the simple identification with Christ through baptism as a sufficient evidence of conversion (although it is still a necessary act of obedience). We must look beyond the moment of conversion to the life that follows. We must look for changes in our beliefs and changes in our attitudes and actions that evidence a work of God in our hearts. Otherwise, like Simon the magician in Acts 8, we are simply playing religion and we are still in our sins and will likewise perish.