Baptism and Repentance
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
(Acts 2:38 NIV)
Baptism and Communion, two sacraments God has given to his church, have been minimized in many an evangelical church. Someone recently said, “Communion should be called a ‘snack-rament’ the way many observe it!”
In New Testament times, as you see from the Apostle Peter’s words above, repentance, turning in faith to Jesus, and the gift of the Holy Spirit were not separated from baptism.
Acts 2:38 leaves unsettled the question whether baptism is the essential cause of forgiveness of sin and the gift of the Spirit or their accompanying sign. Acts 10:44-48 helps us clear up that question. At the home of Cornelius, the Roman Centurion, the Holy Spirit came on the people before they were baptized, not because they were baptized (read the whole wonderful chapter). Instead, Peter called for baptism because they had received the Holy Spirit.
So baptism is not the effective cause of forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit, but it is not separated from these grace-gifts either (Peter would say, “Not baptizing these converts right away is a failure that opposes the work of God.”). To say it another way, they were “saved” neither through baptism nor without baptism.
Baptism is thus distinguishable from cleansing but not separated from cleansing. As St. Augustine said, “The outward sign of an inward grace.”
When churches and individuals introduce a big time-lapse between conversion and baptism, they bring confusion into the whole dynamic. They may wonder why scriptures on conversions don’t seem to make sense. It’s like exchanging the wedding rings months or years after the ceremony. You can’t say, “With this ring I thee wed.” This confusion may also come if baptism precedes faith and repentance by many years. Hence, “believer baptism”.
And no, you shouldn’t put off baptism just to wait to be baptized in the ocean!
Yet, this time-lapse is what we have allowed to happen. Many churches have the “walk-forward altar call” sacrament-like tradition in the place that baptism should fill. But biblically speaking, it is in our baptism that we make the confession, “Jesus is Lord!”
Let’s get back to the biblical theology and examples and make baptism what it was intended to be—part of the majestic drama of the Holy Spirit we call “conversion.” As Ananias said to Saul (later, as known to us, “The Apostle Paul”), “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his [the Lord’s] name” (Acts 22:16).