The In-Between Years - Part 14
Series: The In-Between Years
August 16, 2020
The In-Between Years — Part 14
We are progressing through our look at the church in the book of Acts. We have slowed down a bit with the birth of the church on Pentecost and the first sermon consequently preached by Peter. And we’ve slowed down even more to study the most important question ever asked and its answer.
When the crowds saw the miracle of tongues brought on by the power of the Spirit and heard the mighty words in Peter’s message, they were cut to the heart and asked, “What shall we do?” That’s the most important question. Here’s Peter’s answer…
38 And Peter said to them, “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. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Acts 2:38–39 (ESV)
The most important question and its answer are certainly worthy of a whole sermon, if not a whole series because it cuts to the very heart of salvation, how one becomes a Christian. But before we dig down deep into what the answer is, we really need to talk about what it isn’t.
I learned from CS Lewis’ style of explaining things that often the best way to figure out what something is is to figure out what it isn’t. I believe with all my heart that Acts 2:38…
Isn’t a salvation formula or equation. It’s not spiritual arithmetic whereby Repentance + being baptized (in the name of Jesus Christ) + having sins forgiven + receiving the Holy Spirit = becoming a Christian.
But it does present the elements of salvation without laying them out to the degree that they must be included in order and followed to the letter when it comes to getting saved. That just wasn’t Peter’s intention.
And yet, whole denominations and religious movements form around this very notion. For example, we have friends in the faith meeting right now who see Paul’s answer as a formula requiring baptism in order to be saved.
They might ask…
Have you repented? Yes
Have you had your sins forgiven? Yes
Have you been baptized? No, Not yet. This all just happened five minutes ago.
Then you are not saved!
And there are others in our tribe who might ask this…
Have you repented? Yes
Have you had your sins forgiven? Yes
Have you been baptized? Yes.
Were you baptized in the name of Jesus? No, I believe the pastor said I was baptized in the name of Father, Son, and Spirit.
Then your baptism was invalid. You must be baptized in Jesus’ name only.
I’ve seen many confused and abused by this kind of thinking. So I want to address it briefly today. If we have a clear understanding of what the answer to the most important question isn’t, that it isn’t a formula, then we can understand better what it is.
Before I go any further, let me say that I get why someone would do this. We want to contain God within a set of laws, a denomination, a theological bent, a view on baptism, or even a book, the Bible. And we want to make parts of what the Bible says into neat, inalterable blueprints. It makes us feel safer. It makes sense to us. But God won’t have it. The wisest man who ever lived, the first to build God a temple dedicated as his dwelling place admitted…
27 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built! 1 Kings 8:27 (ESV)
Let me show you how I know Peter’s answer to the most important question includes all the elements of salvation but isn’t a formula.
1. There are other places the same question is asked and the answer doesn’t include the same elements.
In Acts 16 we’ll see Paul and his companions get arrested in Philippi for preaching the gospel. He’s thrown into jail and miraculously the doors are opened at midnight. Paul could have walked out but he didn’t…
27 When the jailer woke and saw that the prison doors were open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” 29 And the jailer called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas. 30 Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Acts 16:27–31 (ESV)
“What must I do to be saved?” here is the same as “What shall we do?” In Acts 2. Paul says believe in the Lord Jesus with no mention of baptism. If being baptized is required, if it’s part of a formula or equation shouldn’t God’s Word be consistent? People’s eternal destinies are at stake here.
In John’s gospel, just after Jesus fed the 5,000 with a few loaves of bread and fish, the crowds sought him out…
26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” John 6:26–29 (ESV)
“What must we do to be doing the works of God?” Was just another way of saying what must we do to be saved, to have this eternal life you’re talking about. Jesus — Jesus himself — had the perfect opportunity to mention baptism here if that’s the formula but he didn’t. He framed salvation solely by believing in him.
That very truth is set forth by John himself at the end of his gospel…
30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. John 20:30–31 (ESV)
If Acts 2:38 is a formula, John does a great disservice here when he frames salvation according to belief in Jesus and mentions not a word about baptism.
Here’s another reason I know it isn’t a formula.
2. Peter preached another message where he mentioned salvation and didn’t include baptism.
In Acts 3, Peter and John heal a lame beggar in the temple. When the crowds gather in amazement, Peter seizes the opportunity to address them saying…
19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, Acts 3:19 (ESV)
He called on them to be saved by repenting only. He didn’t mention baptism or even the Spirit. If Acts 2:38 is a rigid equation and people’s eternal destinies depend on including every element, shouldn’t Peter — who gave the formula — repeat it to be consistent?
Here’s another reason I know Acts 2:38 isn’t a formula…
3. Paul’s whole point in his letter to the Galatian Christians is that the new covenant in Christ is founded on a Jesus-plus-nothing gospel
We went through Galatians on Wednesday nights a while back. We learned that Paul wrote to the Christians at Galatia mystified that they were turning away from the gospel of Jesus-plus-nothing he preached to the false gospel of Jesus-plus-circumcision preached by the Judaizers (Jewish Christians who believed Gentile believers were required to keep some tenets of the Mosaic law to be saved).
1 For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4 You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love. Galatians 5:1–6 (ESV)
The sign of the old covenant in Moses was circumcision as commanded by God. It signified you were his people. It was an outward act that demonstrated an inner commitment. But the act itself wasn’t what mattered most, it was what it represented in your life. Look at what Paul said about circumcision in Romans…
25 Being circumcised is worthwhile, if you obey the Law. But if you don’t obey the Law, you are no better off than people who are not circumcised. 26 In fact, if they obey the Law, they are as good as anyone who is circumcised. 27 So everyone who obeys the Law, but has never been circumcised, will condemn you. Even though you are circumcised and have the Law, you still don’t obey its teachings. 28 Just because you live like a Jew and are circumcised doesn’t make you a real Jew. 29 To be a real Jew you must obey the Law. True circumcision is something that happens deep in your heart, not something done to your body. And besides, you should want praise from God and not from humans. Romans 2:25–29 (CEV)
The sign of the old covenant in Moses was circumcision. What do you think the sign of the new covenant in Jesus is? BAPTISM. A Jesus-plus-baptism gospel isn’t the gospel at all.
Let’s plug baptism into what Paul said about circumcision and see if it fits…
Just because you live like a CHRISTIAN and are BAPTIZED doesn’t make you a real CHRISTIAN. To be a real CHRISTIAN you must BELIEVE IN JESUS. True BAPTISM is something that happens deep in your heart, not something done WITH YOUR body.
Finally, I know Peter’s words in Acts 2:38 aren’t a formula because…
4. Jesus commanded us to baptize in the names of the Trinity
19 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, Matthew 28:19 (ESV)
Jesus says to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. But Peter says to baptize in the name of Jesus. In fact, Acts is fairly consistent on that. What gives? Who’s right?
They both are. For us a name is just what we’re called by. For the Jews, and ancient culture, even, the totality of a deity — his attributes, his being, his authority — was tied up in his name. It’s anything but just something you call him by.
To “formulize” Jesus’ name when it comes to baptism is to demote it to meaning little more than words spoken when someone is dunked under water. The reason Jesus says to baptize in the name of the Trinity and Peter says in the name of Jesus is because they are the same thing! You’re baptizing in his authority as the second person of the Godhead.
Interpreting Acts 2:38 as an equation is a classic case of using a loupe to study God’s Word without also stepping back to see it from the big-picture perspective. Rather than making it into a formula, understand Peter’s answer to the question as the essentials of the conversion experience, what salvation involves in principle.
3. Forgiveness of sins
4. Receipt of the Spirit
Listen, we don’t throw stones at our friends in the faith on this. If we’re not careful we’ll be guilty of putting God in a box!
Conclusion: We’re going to spend more time here next week (not just one sermon, I know). But as we close I need to leave you with something.
Just because baptism isn’t required for salvation, that doesn’t mean it’s optional. All of the NT writers, all of the early Christians assumed anyone believing in Christ would be baptized. An unbaptized Christian would make no sense to them. They couldn’t imagine there being such a thing as an unbaptized believer.
Baptism is critically important because…
1. It follows the example set by Jesus.
2. It demonstrates following Jesus’ command in Matthew 28:19-20. Getting baptized is your first act of obedience as a Christ-follower. Jesus said if we loved him we’d keep his commandments.
3. It identifies a believer. It is the way someone publicly proclaims his or her allegiance to the kingdom of God.
4. It illustrates Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s the outward symbol of the inward commitment you made to Christ in your heart.
A Christian not wanting to be baptized is like a fellow telling a gal he wants to marry her but then refuses to put on the wedding ring the day they marry. A ring doesn’t make someone married or not married, but it does represent loyalty and devotion to the marriage covenant. It’s an outward way to show inner commitment.
I love the seven meanings JI Packer gives to baptism:
First, it’s a gospel service, in which “the power of God for salvation to every one who has faith” (Romans 1:16) is set forth in symbol, giving them a personal guarantee that through faith they might experience that power.
Second, it’s a marriage service, in which we are given away to Jesus our Lord to be his person, his covenant-partner, “for better, for worse”—but ultimately for the best (his best!), and forever.
Third, baptism is a burial service, a funeral rite committing the man or woman we were by nature, in Adam, to total destruction.
Fourth, baptism is an Easter festival, proclaiming both Jesus’ resurrection and ours, as believers, in and with his. “In baptism … you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:12).
Fifth, baptism is a birthday celebration: Our official “new-birth-day,” for new birth is what co-resurrection with Christ effects.
Sixth, baptism is an admission ceremony, bringing us into the family of God’s adopted children so that we might share the family life of worship, witness, and work for our Father’s glory.
Seventh, baptism is a commissioning service, entering us upon a life wholly given to serve Christ and his cause.
I have two questions for you today.
1. Have you ever taken God up on his offer to save all those who call on his name?
2. Have you been baptized?
…it is a matter of common experience that, when one person has got himself into a hole, the trouble of getting him out usually falls on a kind friend.
Now what was the sort of ‘hole’ man had got himself into? He had tried to set up on his own, to behave as if he belonged to himself. In other words, fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realising that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor—that is the only way out of our ‘hole’. This process of surrender—this movement full speed astern—is what Christians call repentance. Now repentance is no fun at all. It is something much harder than merely eating humble pie. It means unlearning all the self-conceit and self-will that we have been training ourselves into for thousands of years. It means killing part of yourself, undergoing a kind of death. In fact, it needs a good man to repent. And here comes the catch. Only a bad person needs to repent: only a good person can repent perfectly. The worse you are the more you need it and the less you can do it. The only person who could do it perfectly would be a perfect person—and he would not need it.
Remember, this repentance, this willing submission to humiliation and a kind of death, is not something God demands of you before He will take you back and which He could let you off if He chose: it is simply a description of what going back to Him is like. If you ask God to take you back without it, you are really asking Him to let you go back without going back. It cannot happen. Very well, then, we must go through with it. But the same badness which makes us need it, makes us unable to do it. Can we do it if God helps us? Yes, but what do we mean when we talk of God helping us? We mean God putting into us a bit of Himself, so to speak. He lends us a little of His reasoning powers and that is how we think: He puts a little of His love into us and that is how we love one another. When you teach a child writing, you hold its hand while it forms the letters: that is, it forms the letters because you are forming them. We love and reason because God loves and reasons and holds our hand while we do it. Now if we had not fallen, that would be all plain sailing. But unfortunately we now need God’s help in order to do something which God, in His own nature, never does at all—to surrender, to suffer, to submit, to die.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). Mere Christianity (pp. 56–58). New York: HarperOne.
2 Corinthians 3:12–16 (ESV) — 12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.
John 6:41–47 (ESV) — 41 So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. 45 It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— 46 not that anyone has seen the Father except he who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.
You could be a Christian today. Why? Because being a Christian is not about what you give God. It’s whether you’ve received this forgiveness. It’s whether you’ve received it. That’s the reason why they were added today. There’s a decisive change. It can be like that. Now what do you have to do? You have to say, “Lord, I’ve seen that though I have disobeyed God’s law, my sin cost you your life, O Lord. Therefore, I trust not in my obedience, but what you did for me. I kind of knew about it, but I’d never seen what you’ve done. So I rest completely in what you’ve done for me, and I take all conditions off my obedience.”
If you do that, he will give you forgiveness, because that’s repentance. The gift of the Holy Spirit, which is already working on you, will come on in. He’s cutting you out of love. Christians, you may have been a Christian for a long time, but if you’re having trouble getting over your sinful habits it’s because you’re not letting him cut you here. You’re beating your will instead of melting your heart. Let him cut you. He’s only doing it out of love, because the blade of the gospel is not the blade of a thief that cuts to hurt; it’s the blade of a surgeon that cuts to heal. Let’s pray.
Keller, T. J. (2013). The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive. New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church.
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