Peter and the apostles are announcing, they’re proclaiming in Acts 2, that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus has inaugurated the eternal Kingdom of God. Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah! This holy one you killed but God has now raised to eternal life, this Jesus, is the bringer of God’s salvation for all people and he is now both Lord and Christ!
“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” ~Acts 2:37-38
Forgiveness happens at baptism. So does God’s Holy Spirit taking up residence in your soul. Peter says “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins” just like John the Baptist said “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” In both cases, people are being cleansed on the inside and being made holy. People are being prepared for the coming presence of God.
That’s how people are saved: baptism. It’s a critical part of the Christian conversion process. The conversion stories in the New Testament are soaked with baptism. Men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor — they hear the Good News, they believe it, and they’re baptized.
That’s what we believe and practice regarding baptism. We believe that is the biblical view: baptism is the time and place one is united with the crucified and risen Lord and receives eternal forgiveness of all sin and the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit.
But there’s something else we believe about baptism that we don’t talk about as much or as well. We believe it, we just don’t make it clear. So, let me be very, very clear: Baptism only works by faith in what God through Jesus has done and is doing for the sake of the world.
“You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority… having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” ~Colossians 2:10-13
God made us alive with Christ and forgave our sins when we were buried with him in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God. Baptism is faith — faith is baptism. Baptism is not effectual for salvation because we believe in baptism or because of what we believe about baptism or because of how we believe baptism ought to be practiced. It’s got nothing to do with that. Baptism works through our faith in the work of God in Christ. It’s effectual only by faith. Otherwise, it’s just a quick bath; you’re just getting wet.
Baptism is God’s work, not ours, not yours. God is the One doing everything. It’s got nothing to do with my goodness or correctness or the right words being said or the right amount of water being used or how much or how little I know about what’s going on. Baptism is a divine act of pure grace. And anything that undermines that or adds to it is legalism and denies the Gospel of Christ.
Wait. But isn’t baptism itself legalistic? If we’re saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, why is baptism necessary? That’s a human work, right? Surely we’re not saved by human works.
Boy, those are all great questions. Thank you for asking them in that way.
Martin Luther, during the Reformation in the 1500s, gave us the language of saved by grace only through faith in Christ only. He taught and preached that human works have nothing to do with our salvation — it’s 100% faith and 0% works. He was so hard-core about that, he wanted to have the book of James struck from the New Testament. But Luther put baptism in the category of faith, not works. He called faith “the beggar’s hand.” It’s how we receive God’s gifts. And baptism is where we do the receiving. Luther put it in his church catechism in 1529:
“As our would-be wise new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in any of us is of any avail but faith. But faith must have something it believes, that is, of which it takes hold and upon which it stands and rests. Thus, faith clings to the water and believes that it is baptism in where there is pure salvation and life.”
Baptism is an expression of faith. It’s only effective through faith. In baptism we die and are raised with Christ, through faith. In baptism, we can’t do anything, we don’t accomplish anything or effect anything. In baptism, we receive everything.