“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each 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, Holman Christian Standard Bible)
Peter “laid it all on the line” for that generation of Jews that had clamored for the Son of God to be treated like a common criminal. He told them the truth about their sin and they had no proper answer. Instead, they simply asked, “What shall we do?” In Peter’s reply, we see that their immediate need is to be released from the condemnation that their sin brings. A sinner’s greatest need is forgiveness. And forgiveness comes by repentance expressed through baptism.
Baptism. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that we live in a Christian world that minimizes baptism. We know there is such disagreement over its meaning and application that we tend to downplay it for the sake of a desired unity. On the other hand, I like to think that Peter would have positioned himself near a body of water for his preaching, so that baptism of the multitudes could be easily done. However, in our crusades and revival services, the response card and the “sinner’s prayer” have replaced the baptismal waters.
Why does Peter not merely call the multitudes to pray for their salvation? Why does he specifically call them to be baptized, emphasizing each person’s responsibility to do so? And why does he, in the sentence’s wording, place the call to baptism prior to forgiveness? Among many evangelicals, baptism is held by many as a outward sign of a presumed inward reality, or a public profession of a faith that has already been embraced in the heart of a believer. Does Acts 2.38 support that notion?
Several observations can be made about the verse. First, the purpose of this verse is to answer a question asked by those convicted of the sin of crucifying the Lord Jesus Christ. In view of their grievous sin, what are they now to do to escape the judgment of God? Second, repentance is to be expressed in baptism. The act of faith is not mentioned, as it is later on in Acts 20:21, where it is paired with repentance in the message which Paul preached (“testifying both to Jews and to Greeks repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ”). It may be that baptism could be considered the tangible expression of faith in the Lord that God requires. Third, baptism is the beginning of a new life. It goes hand-in-hand with the reception of the promised Holy Spirit, and is the beginning of a lifestyle of discipleship within the church. For, after being baptized, the converted steadfastly gather with the saints for teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42).
The more I ponder it, the less convinced am I of the view that baptism is merely to function as an outward sign of a presumed inward reality, merely a public testimony for those who have already “become Christians.” Would it be going too far to claim that baptism is the first act of faith that God desires for the believer?
Some may say that I am reading this verse incorrectly. I am misunderstanding the role that repentance, baptism, and forgiveness all play. So I ask you…how does repentance and baptism relate to forgiveness? Next time, let’s take a further glance at Acts 2:38 and attack this question further.
If we want to be people who remain true to the New Testament witness, we need to strive to get this right. However you feel about this issue, I hope you at least take from this discussion that the Apostle Peter made baptism the primary physical response for those who confess Christ.