Acts 2 and baptism

waterAfter taking a few days to attend the Pepperdine Lectures, I’m ready to continue our discussion of baptism. We come to a watershed moment, the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Here we see the outpouring/baptism of the Holy Spirit and the first apostolic sermon to non-believers.

Peter drives home his main point in Acts 2:36

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” (Acts 2:36)

The crowd reacts to this, recognizing the truth of Peter’s words. They cry out, “What can we do?” How do we fix this? We’ve killed the Messiah; what now?

Peter’s response:

“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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:38–39)

So, to break it down, we have baptism

  • in the name of Jesus
  • for the forgiveness of sins
  • leading to the gift of the Holy Spirit

Peter also extends this promise to generations to come and people not physically present. He ends by returning to Joel 2, the passage he had quoted earlier:

“And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, among the survivors whom the LORD calls.” (Joel 2:32)

We’ll dig a bit deeper in the next few days. Initial thoughts?

10 thoughts on “Acts 2 and baptism

  1. Gary

    Some years ago I came across the use of eis (for) in Matthew 3:11 and have had to rethink my understanding of baptism ever since. It has been an article of faith in Churches of Christ that eis in Acts 2:38 must point forward to a salvation that begins with baptism and cannot point backwards to a salvation that had already begun. Matthew 3:11 shows that that understanding of eis (for) is not accurate. John the Baptist says in Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water for repentance….” The repentance of those who were coming to John for baptism had obviously already begun before they were baptized. Their baptism did not mark the beginning of their repentance. Their baptism was an emphatic public declaration of their repentance.

    Coming forward to Pentecost and Acts 2 we find Peter calling Jews who were already in a covenant relationship with God to also be baptized “for the forgiveness of sins.” I can no longer maintain that the 3,000 who were baptized that day went into the water as lost alien sinners and came up as saved Christians. They were saved before their baptism and they were saved after their baptism. Being saved was not the point of baptism in Acts 2. The baptism of the 3,000 was an emphatic, public embracing and celebration of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ and a sign of their openness to receiving the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as a gift. Rather than diminishing baptism I believe this perspective enriches our understanding of baptism and removes the bad news of baptism as a boundary between the saved and the lost.

  2. Paul Smith

    Gary, would you then suggest that in Matthew 26:28 Jesus is telling the disciples that his blood will be poured out for them “because” their sins had already been forgiven? The same preposition is used!

    There are passages where “eis” means because of, or as a result of. The most obvious to me is Matthew 12:41, where Jesus speaks of the men of Nineveh repenting because of the preaching of Jonah. But you cannot take an aspect of the Greek language as fluid as a tiny little preposition and make ONE definition determinative for every usage. You must include context and the way in which the author uses the associated terms throughout his work. Clearly Luke had a meaning of baptism that transcends simply confirming what has already taken place. If baptism is a “boundary” it is a boundary because the inspired writers made it so, not recent scholarship.

    And, Tim – kudos to the “watershed moment” phrase in relation to baptism – nicely played, maestro, nicely played.


  3. Gary

    Paul you correctly point out that in Matthew 26:28 eis points forward to the crucifixion. Eis can point forward and backward. Even in Acts 2:38 eis primarily points forward but my point is that it points forward to a continuation of the forgiveness of sins that had begun before baptism. Even in Matthew 26:28 the sacrifice Jesus made for us at the cross was set in motion with Christ’s incarnation and the beginning of his public ministry. It’s not always either or (past or future) with eis. Frequently it’s both. But concerning Acts 2 do you believe that the 3,000 were lostbbefore their baptism?

  4. Paul Smith

    Gary, what I think really is immaterial. But, to explain – according to Luke, the people responded, “What shall we do?” As I read the passage the most simple interpretation to me is that Luke is conveying that the people themselves knew they had done something wrong, or at least were complicit in the crucifixion of Jesus, and were asking Peter if there was something they could do to rectify the situation. Peter did not tell them, “Don’t worry about it, you are all a part of God’s covenant community, just don’t do it again.” He told them to repent (indicating they had indeed violated God’s covenant) and to be baptized. That really is all we have in Acts 2, but when we look beyond Acts 2 we see that Luke clearly wants to set baptism as a central event, if not the central event, in the new covenant in the blood of Christ. The NRSV, hardly a Church of Christ created document, translates Acts 2:38 thus, “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'” I have not found a committee-produced, major English translation that translates the verse in any other manner (even the HCSB!) If the people speaking felt like they were “in their sins” and Peter believed they were “in their sins” and Luke believed they were “in their sins,” why should we work so hard to place them in an already “saved” relationship?

    I am not God and I cannot answer every question regarding the relationship that Jews had to God in the first century. Those questions do not affect us now, anyway. I do not want to go beyond the written word and create a boundary that God has not created. However, I cannot erase a boundary that God has created. And, taking the entire book of Acts (as well as Paul’s other writings, Romans 6 is a prime example) I cannot accept that baptism is simply an ornamentation to an otherwise saved or saving relationship. That may not be what you are arguing, either. But if it is, at what point would you consider a person “saved” short of baptism? And, by creating any “point” at which a person moves from being “lost” to “saved” are you not creating a boundary? Why is praying the sinners prayer not a boundary? Why is “accepting Jesus in your heart” not a boundary? I would much rather use a boundary that has Scriptural authority than one that does not.

    Thanks for the conversation.


  5. Gary

    Paul I actually agree with practically everything you said. I think most of our difference is one of emphasis. Baptism is obviously an important boundary of repentance for many people although not for all. I was baptized at the age of 10 and can remember my thinking very well. I was just as penitent before my baptism as afterwards. Now I understand that I was saved before my baptism- that I was never lost. Nevertheless my baptism is still very precious to me as my formal identification with Christ in his life, death, burial and resurrection as my life direction. I guess my point overall is that I no longer view the unbaptized as “out” or lost but rather as on their own journey with God which would hopefully result at some point in their being baptized. Matthew 25 is little emphasized in Churches of Christ as it does not fit well with our traditional priorities. Jesus in his own words gives us the most detailed account we have of the Judgement but no reference is made to the religious beliefs or confession of either the saved or the lost. All that seems to matter to Jesus is practical compassion and justice for the least of these in our society. I’m not at all saying that the rest of Scripture doesn’t matter but shouldn’t the rest of Scripture regarding salvation and judgement be read through the lens of Matthew 25? It’s something to think about. I see baptism as a blessing available for all and not as a barrier which by its absence would condemn most of humankind.

  6. Paul Smith

    Gary, if I read your comment correctly your position is one of universalism – everyone is saved, just on a different path. Some will come to baptism, others will not. That is just a position I cannot accept.

    You reference Matthew 25 – a parable full of salvation implications, but what about Matthew 7:21-23? Jesus clearly states that not even confession of his Lordship, and resulting prophetic or charitable works, will avail if there is no underlying commitment and obedience (“does the will of my Father.”)

    There are other issues involved in the “never lost” concept, but I have hijacked Tim’s post long enough –

    Once again – we cannot take one parable, or one verse, or one preposition within that verse, and build an entire theology upon that verse. Baptism is taught, either explicitly or implicitly, in every single book of the New Testament, and in every reference or allusion salvation from sin is found within the context. It is the entirety of the New Testament message upon which I rest my teaching.

  7. Gary

    Paul isn’t Matthew 25 telling us what it means to do the will of the Father? Obviously some will be saved and some will be lost according to Jesus’ own words in Matthew 25. What happens after that (unending punishment, annihilation or temporary punishment followed by reconciliation with God) is a whole different discussion that goes way beyond the parameters of today’s subject. I value baptism highly. I just don’t want to attribute more to it than Scripture tells us. The only sense in which baptism saves is as an appeal to God for a clear and good conscience. I would imagine that you would see some folks being saved without baptism. The difference between us seems more one of degree and emphasis than of fundamental disagreement.

  8. Gary

    Paul, one more thought on your last paragraph. Hasn’t the Church of Christ built an entire theology on Acts 2:38? It is a truly great verse but is it more important than Jesus’ own words and description of the Judgment in Matthew 25? If not why then have Churches of Christ virtually ignored Matthew 25? Isn’t justice one of the themes that permeates Scripture far more than baptism?

  9. Paul Smith

    Gary, one last comment (really)…

    No, I do not believe the “Church of Christ” has built an entire theology on Acts 2:38. Maybe some preachers have – but in my experience Acts 2:38 is simply another in a long litany of verses that present the importance of baptism – Matthew 28, Mark 16 (if you accept the long ending), multiple references in John to water and the Spirit, Acts 8, 9, 10, 16, 22, 26, Romans 6, Ephesians 1, 2, 4, 1 Peter 3 (well, the whole book, but especially chapter 3). There are many others – I’m just working off the top of my head. No, far from building a theology on Acts 2:38, I would suggest that Acts 2:38 is simply one among many passages that reinforce one another.

    I do believe Matthew 25 has not received the emphasis that it should have among Churches of Christ. I have a personal suspicion that has more to do with the battle over the “Social Gospel” in the early 20th century than any debate over salvation. I have preached on that passage several times, usually to some very firm rebuttals. That is unfortunate, and we have paid a steep price in social outreach because of that omission.

    And, if I understand you correctly, there is far more separating our two viewpoints than simply a matter of emphasis.


  10. Gary

    Paul it is in my nature to search for common ground. If Paul could do that with idol worshippers in Acts 17 then Christians certainly should certainly be able to find common ground. I guess what it comes down to in our exchange is the question: can a responsible human being be saved without baptism? My answer is yes. I don’t think you will answer that question or at least answer it directly. But the answer to that question is the evidence of whether one has subscribed to a theology built on Acts 2:38. By the way I am truly thankful for the emphasis you have given to Matthew 25. May your tribe increase!

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