Posted inForthright Magazine

Clarifying Conversion Confusion

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 a unified and 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.

We can observe that 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 these people 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 that they only believed? Several lines of evidence reveal an answer.

The first line of evidence is that only brief conversion narratives describe the conversion response as believing. As an example of a summary conversion narrative, take for example Acts 9:32-35. After Peter announced to Aeneas that “Jesus Christ heals you, ”  we are told that “all those who lived in Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:34,35).

By writing “they turned to the Lord” Luke communicated conversion occurred without providing any details about what was involved. This is an example of summarizing conversion.

Now consider the conversion story in Acts 4:4. “But many of those who had listened to the message believed, and the number of the men came to about 5,000.” As in the prior story, we are provided no dialogue nor an extended description.

We can know that Luke intended for us to understand “many believed” as a summary statement indicating conversion occurred rather than providing us with an exhaustive depiction of everything involved in their conversion.  How can we know this? When we observe that every time Luke expands a conversion narrative beyond a brief affirmation that someone believed, believing becomes tied together with baptism (Acts 2:41; 8:12; 16:14-15). Furthermore, as conversion stories delve deeper into offering details, such as dialogue, baptism is always involved (Acts 2:37-41; 8:29-39; 9:2-19; 10:30-48; 16:27-34, etc.).

In other words, whenever conversion narratives exceed a brief statement, Luke never limits describing the conversion to a simple statement about believing. This argues strongly that Luke used “believed” to function like turning and obeying in order to indicate conversion occurred and not that their conversion only involved believing.

Second, in Acts 15:7 Luke recounted Peter explaining his involvement with Cornelius’ household as: “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 version Cornelius’ household was water baptized (Acts 10:47-48). This demonstrates Luke was comfortable using “believe” to indicate conversion occurred without specifying all of the details.

Third, notice how baptism precedes the Jailer’s affirmation that “he had come to believe” (Acts 16:33-34). It is only after the jailer is baptized that he finally celebrates having arrived at believing!

Thus baptism appears required in order to become a believer. In this case Peter’s earlier statement to the jailer, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31) is functionally equivalent to proclaiming, “turn to the Lord and you will be saved.” Both call for conversion without delineating all of the details.

Acts does not reveal two different responses to the gospel: one involving baptism and another without it. Rather, when Luke desired to communicate that people turned to the Lord, one of his methods involved writing, “they believed.” None of Acts provides evidence that conversion occurred without baptism.

The appropriate response to the gospel is, “Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8:35-36).


 

Barry Newton
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