The structure of verbs in Acts 2:38 is an exhortation: repent and get baptized, in that order. Peter taught the earliest followers of Jesus how they could find peace with Christ, and his exhortation is as good today as it was 2,000 years ago.
What Is Repentance?
Repentance is the step after confession; the step where one has not only admitted his or her sin to God but has asked for help to overcome that sin and clean one’s heart.
To repent means to “be grieved over one's past and seek forgiveness; feel such regret for sins, crimes, or omissions as produces amendment of life.”
In 2 Chronicles 7:14, God wants his people to “humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways” — this is repentance. If God’s people do this, he “will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”
Paul distinguished between genuine and false repentance: “godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10). God already knows each person’s sin and his or her intentions.
He knows if one’s determination to turn away from sin is real or disingenuous. Repenting disingenuously amounts to nothing less than perjury before the Lord: this indicates the seriousness of repentance.
And if the Lord’s people will not repent? “I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples” (2 Chronicles 7:20).
What Is Baptism?
Christians look to Christ as their example in every aspect of life. Jesus was baptized, so believers follow his lead.
John Piper explains that “baptism dramatically portrays what happened spiritually when you received Christ: Your old self of unbelief and rebellion and idolatry died, and a new you of faith and submission and treasuring Christ came into being.”
Baptism is something a believer does once, an important event. “Faith unites to Christ; baptism symbolizes the union” (Ibid.).
One is declaring allegiance to the King — testifying publicly. “The word baptism in Greek means dip or immerse. And most scholars agree that this is the way the early church practiced baptism.” Baptism is and was “only for believers” (Ibid.).
Baptism resembles a marriage ceremony. Like a bride and a groom being married to each other, the Christian is joining with the Bride (Church) and with the Bridegroom (Christ). This person:
- Publicly declares his or her intention to follow Christ as Savior and Lord
- Invites the church to keep him or her accountable
- Invites the church to offer guidance and support
- Agrees with the church’s declared mission and values
- Agrees to offer the same support to new Christians who come after them.
This is a powerful and moving event. Although God knows the heart of a Christian, making it public is a missional act.
When we remember that the church is filled with unbelievers as well as believers, one can imagine the potential impact of the testimony of baptism. The Lord rejoices every time a believer glorifies his name.
Is the Order Repent and Be Baptized?
Peter says first repent, then be baptized. Does this mean one repents a single time before baptism and then he or she is sufficiently covered against sin forever? No, of course not, but there is something significant in this order.
During a time of repentance, one is admitting a deep need for forgiveness, for the covering of Christ’s blood, and for the Holy Spirit to change his or her heart. The Spirit rested on Christ following his baptism.
Believers ask to receive the Holy Spirit when they are baptized. Paul said that true circumcision is “performed by the Spirit of God.”
When Jesus was baptized, “immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).
This Helper, the Spirit, is One with Jesus; the power, which enabled Christ to go to the cross and fulfill his purpose as Immanuel.
Immediately after his baptism, Christ went into the wilderness where after 40 days of fasting he was tempted by the devil — but he resisted by the power of the Holy Spirit.
His Spirit is also the power within Christians to resist temptation. “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:9).
Baptism becomes a symbolic reminder to the believer who has sinned again and is drawn into repentance by the Spirit. A disciple regularly confesses, repents, and surrenders to the cleansing blood of Christ.
Finally, “repentance, [...] concerns an individual and God while baptism involves others.” Matt Slick’s point evokes the marriage analogy. Baptism, like marriage, begins with a tender and personal relationship.
For one who understands the difficulty of resisting sin, however, that commitment cannot remain private. Joining with a body of fellow believers (even a small group of trusted fellow Christians) is wise, which is one reason baptism is public, not private.
Peter’s Audience in Jerusalem
Acts 2 records an address to a crowd of Jews in Jerusalem, “Devout men from every nation under heaven” (v.5). In other words, the audience comprised men whose parents had committed them to God by way of circumcision when they were infants (except in the case of adult converts).
Circumcision identified their race and connected them to the people of Israel. Peter was telling his listeners how to obtain circumcision of the heart through a new symbolic act, particularly poignant because baptism demonstrated a personal choice to belong to Christ. “Circumcise yourselves to the Lord; remove the foreskin of your hearts,” said Jeremiah (4:4).
As Paul explained later, circumcision is not about the body but “is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29). The Jews who believed in the risen Christ made a deliberate decision of their own volition which was independent of their people group and their family legacy.
Repentance is like the cleansing before circumcision, and baptism is likened to circumcision. Peter and Paul’s teachings helped their audience to understand that neither one of these acts was a saving work; that a person belonged to God on the basis of Christ’s work, not circumcision.
They united the inward life of the believer with the outward testimony. Jews would identify with Christ by dying to their old lives and rising from the water, newly cleansed by the blood of their Savior.
If Peter’s listeners understood correctly, they also realized that this new circumcision invited all who believe to repent and be baptized.
Any Jew who answered this call to repent and be baptized was simultaneously submitting to Christ and accepting the Gentile as his or her brother or sister.
Gentiles were likewise invited to identify with the risen Christ and, through him, with the Father; to die to self and rise again with Christ (Colossians 2:11-12).
Salvation by Baptism?
“Circumcision was both a covenant sign and the initiatory rite into the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17:10). But this covenant sign did not save anyone.”
Matt Slick clarifies that the same is true of baptism, which is not a saving work, which publicly identifies the believer “completely and totally with Christ as a manifestation of the inward work God has done.”
Salvation occurs when one believes in Christ for salvation. The call to baptism is a call to decide whether one is truly ready to declare that Christ is the Lord and to submit to the Spirit’s sanctifying work which begins with a clean slate — a fresh start.
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Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Olga Chetvergova
Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.