Repent & ... Be Baptized
“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, ESV).
Peter presents this prescription for sin to an audience that has been “cut to the heart” and wanted a solution, asking “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37, ESV) Since sin both ruins our life and separates us from God, Peter prescribes a two-fold solution, addressing the two big problems of sin: how to stop it and how to be forgiven of it.
Together, repentance and baptism deliver the comprehensive solution, as we stop sinning and receive forgiveness for all sins. Here is good news indeed! But repentance without baptism only reforms us, and does not redeem us (redemption is the forgiveness of sins – Colossians 1:14, Ephesians 1:7). And baptism without repentance is merely a bath.
First let’s consider repentance without baptism. A recent development in my city helps illustrate this point. Virginia Beach has recently installed traffic light cameras to catch motorists who run through red lights. If you enter the intersection after the light has turned red, the camera captures your license plate and generates a traffic ticket – with its hefty fine - to be mailed to your address. If you vacation in our city and run one of our red lights, you will automatically receive a ticket and a fine. Let’s say that after your transgression, you repent and even bear the fruit of repentance. Thus, you stop at every red light for the remainder of your vacation. Moreover, you slow down and stop at every yellow light. You even volunteer as a crossing guard at the scene of your crime! Will you still receive the ticket? Will you still be fined? Yes – in fact, it will be waiting in your mailbox for you.
In this example, repentance has changed your life, but it hasn’t removed the debt that you owe for your violation. While our city may applaud your new driving ethos, we’ll still demand payment of that debt. Baptism is the gift by which God pays our debt. Baptism is his prescription “for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). See also Colossians 2:11-14, Acts 22:16).
Now consider baptism without repentance. Actually, there’s not much to consider, because without repentance, baptism is not baptism. Instead it’s a mere bath or an empty sacrament. Why? If we are without repentance, we are likewise without faith (see “Repent & Believe” earliet post). By teaching us, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved,” Jesus establishes the priority of repentant faith in baptism. Without it, there’s no need for him to even mention baptism, as he continues, “but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16, ESV emphasis added). Paul likewise teaches that faith is required to be raised from our burial in baptism: “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12, ESV emphasis added). After the Ethiopian eunuch heard the good news about Jesus, he said to Philip, “See, here is water. What prevents me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36, ESV) Some later manuscripts include Philip’s response: “If you believe with all your heart, you may” (Acts 8:37, ESV2emphasis added). Also, to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38, ESV) seems to correspond to the confession of repentant faith which states, “Jesus is Lord!” (See Romans 10:9, 1 Timothy 6:12, Hebrews 10:22-23, Hebrews 4:14). Regarding this point, Paul’s baptism was the occasion for him to confess his repentant faith: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16, ESV).
Finally, we find in the preaching of John the Baptist, a parallel to Peter’s call for repentance and baptism. While John’s baptism was not a baptism “in the name of Jesus” (see Acts 19:4-5 for this distinction), it did prepare the way for Jesus:
He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Luke 3:7-9, ESV emphasis added)
John prohibited seekers to be baptized without repentant faith. Moreover, he anticipated that some might even claim metanoia in order to be baptized. Therefore, he demanded that each bear fruits in keeping with repentance before becoming a candidate for baptism. He even got specific: “Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ And he said to them, ‘Collect no more than you are authorized to do.’” (Luke 3:12-13, ESV)
A Word On Works
Don’t confuse John’s demand for proof of repentance with a works-based salvation. He was facing a unique – or perhaps not so unique - challenge. His hearers wanted forgiveness without repentant faith. They had become deceived, thereby falsely claiming repentant faith. Rather than promote works for salvation, John is promoting fruit for discernment of repentant faith. In our New Covenant, metanoia should not be confused with its ensuing deeds (see Acts 26:20). If we do, we can fall into the trap of demanding works before we point the way to forgiveness. We Christians should instead advocate and demand metanoia, which will result in good fruit, remembering “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, ESV).
In some Christian circles, baptism has likewise been tarred with the “works” brush. I’ve often heard Ephesians 2:9 offered as an explanation of why one cannot “be baptized… for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38). Does the Bible regard baptism as a work? Titus 3:5 provides a solid theological starting point on this question: “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5, ESV). God saves man wholly because of his mercy and grace. No righteous work on man’s part can merit such a gift. Within this context God presents this gift of salvation by the means of baptism. Colossians 2:11-12 also offers insight on the issue: "In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead." (Colossians 2:11-12, ESV). ‘Having been buried with him in baptism’ is described as an operation of Christ rather than an operation by the hands of men. Thus, baptism is contrasted rather than compared with the quintessential ‘work’ of circumcision. Faith again plays the vital role of raising us with Christ. ‘Being raised with him’ is again delineated as the work of God rather than of men. The Bible does not treat baptism as a work. Over the centuries, men have made it into one, especially when they remove the element of our repentant faith from God’s work in baptism. By doing so, they focus on the water rather than the Spirit and on the “sacrament” rather than the sacred faith.
2 Verse 37 is lacking in many of the earliest manuscripts. Although the King James and New King James versions include the verse in their translations, most modern translations relegate it to a footnote.