Our world abounds with controversial issues ranging from politics to scientific theories, from social policy to religion. Among the chorus of dissenting voices rise competing perspectives regarding baptism.
It is my belief that scripture provides an unequivocal voice inviting us to rely upon Christ in baptism in order that we might receive the benefits of our Savior’s death. My experiences have also led me to conclude that one major barrier against accepting this understanding lies not with scripture’s failure to positively teach about baptism, rather false assumptions about faith are negating the biblical message.
How might someone tackle such a scenario? Here is one possibility.
Sometimes Luke summarized conversions in Acts with a phrase or a word. For example some priests “became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7), while many people “turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:35). In such instances, Luke does not provide us with any specific details about how they responded to the gospel.
From this observation a question arises. When Luke wrote “they believed” or “many believed” (Acts 4:4; 9:42; 11:21; 14:1; 17:12, etc.) are these more examples of Luke summarizing conversion narratives or was Luke claiming they only believed? Several lines of evidence reveal an answer.
First, in Acts 15:7 Luke recounted Peter explaining his involvement with Cornelius’ household. “Brothers, you know that some time ago God chose me to preach to the Gentiles so they would hear the message of the gospel and believe.” We can know that Luke used “believe” in this verse to summarize the conversion details because in the expanded narrative Cornelius’ household was water baptized (Acts 10:47-48).
Since this example demonstrates Luke was comfortable using “believe” to indicate conversion without identifying all of the details, this increases the probability that “many believed” is equivalent to many “became obedient to the faith.” This understanding gains further strength when we consider whether the literary character of different conversion stories are summary statements or in depth narratives.
Notice that when Luke expands a conversion narrative beyond “believed,” believing becomes tied together with baptism (2:41; 8:12; 16:14-15). Furthermore, as conversion stories delve deeper into offering specific details, such as actual dialogue, baptism is always involved (Acts 2:37-41; 8:29-39; 9:2-19; 10:30-48; 16:27-34, etc.).
If this were not enough, notice how baptism in Acts 16:33 precedes the affirmation that “he had come to believe” (Acts 16:34). Baptism appears required in order to become a believer. In this case Peter’s earlier affirmation, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) stands equivalent to proclaiming, “turn to the Lord and you will be saved.”
Acts does not reveal two different responses to the gospel: one involving baptism and another without it. Rather, when Luke desired to communicate people turned to the Lord, one of his methods involved writing, “they believed.” Thus from an historical perspective, none of Acts provides evidence that conversion occurred without baptism.
Nevertheless the question remains. What is so special about water baptism and how does baptism relate to Christ crucified? Our answer begins in the Old Testament where God graciously chose to use covenants to claim people for himself (Gen. 17:1-7; Ex. 19:3-6; Deut. 29:9-15; Jer. 11:1-5; Eze. 16:8).
Through Christ crucified, God now offers to the world a new covenantal relationship with himself filled with better promises, such as the forgiveness of sins (Heb. 8:6-13; 9:15). Jesus, knowing that his blood would usher in God’s new covenant, asked his disciples to memorialize his blood’s role (Mt. 26:28; Lk. 22:20).
When we trust in Christ by being baptized we connect with Christ’s death and blood and enter the new covenant (Heb. 10:22; Rom. 6:3-4). This explains why the promises of the new covenant are received in baptism. Upon being baptized, God both forgives us thereby enabling us to have a clear conscience (Acts 22:16; 2:38; Heb. 10:22; 1 Peter 3:21) and God causes us to be born into a new life as his people (Gal. 3:26-27; John 1:12-13; 3:3-5).
Thus we should not be surprised Paul makes dying with Christ in baptism and being raised up with Christ as the pivotal transition point between being guilty of sin versus living in Christ for righteousness (Colossians 2:12-13, 20; 3:1-3; Rom. 6:17-18). Nor should we be surprised when Paul writes that the gospel leads people to the “obedience of faith” (Rom. 16:25-26) or people must “obey the gospel” (2 Thess. 1:8).
Does Paul’s teaching on faith nullify baptism’s necessity? Not at all. With faith, Paul emphases our need to trust in Christ. Just as we must believe in our heart and confess with our lips, so too we must be buried with Christ and raised up from baptismal waters if we are going to trust in Christ and receive salvation. Baptism is a faith response to the gospel.
Whether from an historical perspective or theological one, responding to Christ crucified involves baptism. An unequivocal voice emerges from scripture inviting sinners to rely upon Christ in baptism in order for them to receive the benefits of our Savior’s death.
The appropriate response to the gospel is, “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8:35-36).
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