Setting the Scene
So let’s enter into the matter of baptism like this. Picture this whole situation in your mind with me. There is a great crowd. In fact that is an understated way to put it. There is a whole mess of people gathered together. Now in this great crowd of people there are all sorts of different characters. Some of them are there just because of happenstance and so they are just a bit confused by what is going on. Some in the crowd are just plain angry. They are not happy with what is going on and so they are ready and eager to mock and ridicule. And others are filled with amazement and wonder at what they are seeing.
So we have the crowd. We can picture that in our minds. But that is not all that there is to this situation. A man stands up in the midst of the great crowd and he begins to speak to them. Imagine this, there are thousands of people gathered together. There is the hustle and bustle. There is all the noise that accompanies a crowd of that size. There aren’t any microphones, or stages, or lights. And in the midst of all of this one voice rises above all and commands the attention of all.
We are drawn in. What will this man say? How will he say it? What will happen?
Well, this man speaks with both great authority and boldness. He doesn’t meander around searching for his topic. His speech isn’t full of “umms” and “uhhhs.” Rather, he declares to the crowd the gospel of Jesus Christ. He reminds them of Jesus’ power and God filled ministry, saying, “A man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst.” He brings them to the cross and the bloody death of Jesus, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” And finally his speech climaxes in this word, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”
We have to note that this was a particular type of preaching. Some preaching is abstract and cold. It just hovers above us, never touching us, never making any meaningful contact. But this preaching was different. The preacher’s words came down and landed upon the audience. Again and again he repeated the 2 personal plural pronoun you, “You yourselves know… You crucified…” And fittingly, he ends his sermon by pressing his audience with inescapable logic of his sermon, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus you crucified.”
What happens? It just isn’t possible for this kind of preaching to just sit around idle. Something has to happen. There were all sorts of responses going on that day. Many of those who were confused remained in their confusion. Many of those who were angry only grew all the more angry. But among some in the great crowd the Spirit of God was at work. And as a result of the work their was a cry, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
The word of the gospel as it was preached created an urgency among some of the people. Christ lived by the power of God. He died for sin according to the plan of God. God raised him up. God seated him at his right hand as the Lord of Lords and the King of kings. Action is needed. So they cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Or in other words they were asking, “How can we be free from our sins? How can we live under Jesus’ righteous and good rule? How can we become partakers in his glorious kingdom?”
You must listen carefully to what happens next. The preacher responds and gives clear direction. He tells them exactly what they must do to share in all of these good things. He says, “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Those are familiar words to us. Repent. Those people needed to repent. They had stood opposed to Jesus, his ministry, and his message. They needed to change their behavior, their minds, and a make a return to God. Forgiveness of sins. Those people needed forgiveness. They crucified the Lord of glory. They needed their guilt atoned for. They needed their transgressions covered. But there is one phrase in the middle of these that seems a bit odd, a bit out of place, “Be baptized.”
We naturally get the urgency of repentance. We get the importance of forgiveness. The whole Christian enterprise doesn’t make sense without them. If you take away those phrases––repentance and forgiveness––you really don’t leave much behind that is meaningful to Christianity. But when the preacher stands before the crowd he commands them to receive the rite of baptism and he does so with the greatest urgency.
Making Sense of Baptism
We need to pause here and collect ourselves. This is a whirlwind of a story––a great crowd, a bold preacher, a sharp gospel, a people cut to the heart, urgent demands. And all of this comes right from the Bible, Acts chapter 2 to be exact. Now, I tell you this story that climaxes in the call of baptism––“Be baptized”––as a way to set the stage for us and to reframe our thinking about the matter.
We cannot, if we are to be biblical, speak about baptism in a detached sort of way. Baptism is not and issue that can just sit on the back burner, slowly simmering. It isn’t an optional extra for the Christian who is ‘really’ serious about their faith. Rather, as we let the word of Peter from Acts chapter 2 wash over us we see that baptism is the prescribed way that we are to respond to the gospel of grace. The Scriptures teach us how we are to savingly respond to the message of the gospel. We are to believe the message. We are to repent of our sin, turning from them to God. And finally we are to enter into all that God has for us through the waters of baptism.
What we find Peter saying to the gathered crowd has immediate application for us and should cause to to think or perhaps rethink how we do the Christian life together.
For example think about the matter of evangelism. We go out and proclaim the gospel. And when we do this important work we always do so with a bunch of imperatives. After we speak of Christ we call upon those who are listening to believe and to repent. But Peter teaches us in Acts 2:38 that is not all we should do. We must plead, even more, we must command, those listening to the gospel to enter into the waters of baptism, just as Jesus taught us. So this very morning I make the biblical appeal. The word of the gospel is before you, will you not respond as Christ commanded and get baptized? Will you not come and enter into the waters of salvation and judgment? Will you not come and enter into all that God has for you in Christ Jesus through baptism?
It also ought to change the way we think about Christian formation. There are certain events in the Christian life that we can look back upon and remember how God was tangibly at work in us––that conference, that prayer, that conversation, that sermon. These events all function like milestones. But if we catch the force of Peter’s preaching in Acts 2:38 chief among all milestones for the Christian, chief among all events that God has used in our lives ought to be the day when you were baptized. Baptism is not a perfunctory rite––like a kindergarten graduation. Nor is its worth captured by the little signed card you receive from pastor that you stuff behind the front cover of your Bible. Rather, baptism is this great rite that ought to have an ongoing spiritual significance for the believer. In fact, we must go farther than that. When we look at the biblical data we can say this, if you are a follower of Jesus and you haven’t been baptized you have not been properly formed yet as a Christian. You are missing out on something that is essential for your life in Jesus.
Searching for a Definition
So we have Acts 2:38 before us, “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” By way of summary we can say that baptism is an urgent command to be obeyed. It is act in which we embrace the gospel message. In fact, it is an event so important that we must learn to count it as the most consequential event of our entire lives.
But if you are a keener and pressing in at this point you should want more. You likely have questions about this whole matter, perhaps saying something like this, “Just don’t tell me to swallow the pill. Tell me what’s in it. Show me the list of ingredients.”
With the rest of our time we are going to sort through some of these basic ingredients. We will do this by asking two very basic questions: who’s there? what’s going on? And each question will receive three answers. So two questions and three answers a piece.
Question #1: Who’s there?
The point of this question is to account for all the parties involved in baptism. Think of a crime scene. We want to know who exactly was there.
Answer #1: The Believer
The first answer is rather obvious. The person being baptized has to be there, otherwise there would be no baptism to speak of. But as we think about this is there anything else we can say about the person who is being baptized? Is there some clear and definable characteristic that jumps off of the page?
The answer is this: a believer. Only those who profess faith in Jesus, only those who are embracing the gospel of grace, only those showing forth the fruit of repentance are to be baptized.
Now what proof is there of this? We just need to look at the pattern laid out for us in the Scriptures. As you carefully read through the book of Acts when does baptism become an issue? It only becomes an issue when someone is responding to the proclamation of the gospel, when someone is becoming a Christian. And why is that? Because baptism is part of the process of becoming a Christian.
A few examples may help solidify this for us. Acts chapter 2, “What shall we do? Repent and be baptized.” Acts chapter 8, “But when they believed Philip as he preached the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.” Acts chapter 18, “Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. And many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized.”
Many more examples could be cited but it becomes rather evident that those who are baptized are those who who have heard the word of the gospel, trust in Christ, and turn from their sin and idolatry and return to God.
This naturally brings up the thorny matter of what is sometimes called “rebaptism.” Perhaps you were baptized as a infant or maybe a young man or woman. And now you are sitting here and as you think it all through you come to the following conclusions. When I was baptized as an infant I had no faith in Christ. I had not turned from my sins. When I was baptized as a young man or woman I only was doing what everyone else was doing and my heart was clearly not alive towards God. What are we to make of this?
What cuts through the thorniness of “rebaptism” is this: if there wasn’t any faith, if there wasn’t any repentance, there wasn’t a baptism. To just speak straight, while you might have gotten wet, while you might have received the signed card, you certainly weren’t baptized. And your need is to now respond to the gospel by being baptized with both faith and repentance.
Answer #2: The Church
Just the language of the baptism keys us into the fact that there has to be another party involved. Peter commands the crowd, “Be baptized.” He doesn’t say, “Guys, go baptize yourselves. The water is over there go and take care of business.” Rather we learn that baptism is something to be received by the believer and consequently it is something that is to be given, or to use more precise theological language, something to be administered.
So who baptizes? Who administers this gift to the believer? While there are some outliers in the pages of the New Testament––think of the Ethiopian Eunuch––normally it is to the local church. And this should make good sense to us. It is to the local church that Jesus gives binding authority to. Matthew 16:19, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Even more, it is to the church that Jesus gives the charge to baptize. Mathew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
Answer #3: The Triune God
Two answers down, one more to go. Who’s there? It seems that we have our bases fairly well covered. There is the believer who is receiving baptism. There is the church who administers baptism. What else is there to say?
But if we stop with these two answers we miss out on the most important actor of all. We must take note that the Triune God is active and present in baptism. This is not empty event. While we don’t seem him physically and discernibly in baptism like we see the other characters, we can be sure that God––Father, Son, Holy Spirit––is active and at work.
Question #2: What’s going on?
Having answered the first question, we now need to plunge deeper into baptism by asking a second question. What’s going on? What is the believer doing? What is the church doing? What is God doing in baptism?
Again there are three answers to consider.
Answer #1: Public Profession
Most often God’s work of salvation occurs quietly behind the scenes. God’s Spirit brings conviction and the heart is torn up in grief. Then the gospel is brought to bear upon the soul and it produces joy and faith. The trustworthiness of Christ, the sufficiency of his work refreshes the soul and brings life. All of this often happens without flashing lights or sirens.
But in the matter of baptism the believer comes out into the light and into the sight of all. Before the watching world––believers, unbelievers, family members, neighbors, onlookers––the believer takes his hand with the Lord Jesus. There in the waters the individual is identified with Christ. There he is publicly buried with Christ. There he is publicly raised up with Christ to new life. There he submits to Christ’s Lordship over all. There his actions shout to one and all, “I am with this Jesus of Nazareth. I belong to him both body and soul.”
Answer #2: Public Affirmation
The public nature of baptism doesn’t stop with the believer’s profession. When the church gathers and then administers the rite of baptism the church publicly affirms the new convert. In baptism not only does the believer come out into the light and before the watching world, but so does the church. The church practically speaking raises up her voice and says, “This man’s profession, this woman’s profession, is true and credible and we joyfully count him, we joyfully count her, as one of our own.”
This gives us new and fresh perspective on baptism. Baptism is not an end unto itself. It has a direction to it. Or to put it another way baptism takes us somewhere. It brings us into the congregation of the redeemed, right into the church.
We see this happening right in Scripture. Just go back to Acts chapter 2. Peter preaches the gospel. Some are convicted by this preaching and they cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter responds, “Repent and be baptized.” And then what? Where does baptism go? Listen to Acts 2:41, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Added to what we ask? The answer is in the next verse. Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
When the 3,000 were baptized they knew who they belonged to. They knew where they were supposed to congregate. They knew who their brothers and sisters were. Baptism brought them into the church.
Answer #3: Public Naming
Again, two answers down and only one more to go. And again it seems that we have our bases fairly well covered. The believer makes a public profession. The church gives public affirmation. But what is God doing in baptism?
We have to be clear we do not serve the God of deism and we cannot let that type of thinking invade our understanding of the ordinances. We are not down here just carrying on business while God is far from us having out in the heavens. We can be sure that God is at work in this ordinance.
But what is God doing? He too is doing a public work. We can think about it like this. When my parents adopted my brother there was a point when everything became official. My parents and my brother went into the courtroom and stood before a judge. Papers were signed. Final arrangements were cemented. And what was the result? My brother came out of the room with a new name. Everyone knew who he belonged too.
This is exactly what God does in baptism. In sin we all had a name. We were children of wrath, followers of the prince of darkness. We all went by the first name “no mercy” and had the last name “not my people.” But in the baptism event God speaks through the proclamation of his word. There in the waters our name is changed and it is proclaimed to one and all that we are the children of God, precious sons and daughters. What is it that it said? We have heard it many times. “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” That is our new family name, the name that we get to bear forever.
“Brothers, what shall we do?” Perhaps that is the best way to close our time together. The answer before us is this “Repent and be baptized.”
Dear friends, if you have not been baptized I urge you again, obey the Lord Jesus today. Brothers and sisters, if you have been baptized it is my prayer that sermons has stirred you up in faith and has reminded you of the precious gift that you have already received, baptism.
“Brothers, what shall we do?” Perhaps that is the best way to close our time together.