37 Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized 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 your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” 40 With many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Save yourselves from this perverse generation!” 41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added.1
What must I do to be saved? The answer to this question has implications both now and for eternity. Sadly, wrong answers are being given all the time. In this study, Don Blackwell opens the Bible and shares with us God’s answer to this question. It is a simple, straight-forward study done in a kind and loving manner. With a question of this magnitude, you cannot afford to be wrong. Won’t you join us for this vital study? YouTube video by World Video Bible School (WVBS)
For forty days after His resurrection Jesus continued to appear to His disciples and others, giving convincing proof that He had risen from the dead. During this time Jesus and His disciples talked about the kingdom of God. The disciples pressed Jesus to tell them the precise time of His return, but He refused. This was the Father’s business, and the disciples didn’t really need to know this information. Jesus had not appointed them to conduct prophecy conferences, speaking of events that would take place in the distant future, after their death; He appointed them to bear testimony to what they had personally experienced with Jesus. That’s what a witness is supposed to do.
To facilitate their witness the Lord Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit. Thus, the apostles were instructed not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait until after the promised Holy Spirit had been given. The apostles and a number of other believers (totaling 120; see 1:15) waited for those remaining ten days3 until the Spirit was given at Pentecost. During these days they spent time at the temple (Luke 24:52-53) and in the upper room (Acts 1:13). Luke informs us that it was during this time that a 12th apostle – a replacement for Judas – was designated.
The first verses of Acts chapter two describe the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (2:1-13). Many devout Jews, originally from distant places,4 had been living in Jerusalem and were drawn by the loud noise that accompanied the appearance of the Holy Spirit. The Hellenistic Jews heard the apostles declaring the praises of God in their native tongue and wanted to know what this meant. Others (who seem to be native Hebrews) thought that this was merely the ravings of men who had drunk too much new wine (see 2:12-13). In verses 14-36 Peter explained the meaning of what had just happened, concluding with these words:
“Therefore let all the house of Israel know beyond a doubt that God has made this Jesus whom you crucified both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).
Our text takes up at this point, beginning with this question from the crowd:
“What should we do, brothers?”
It is a question that sounds a great deal like that of the Philippian jailor, later in the Book of Acts:
Then he [the Philippian jailor] brought them outside and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30)
Our text, then, along with the previous verses in Acts 2:14-36, are the first example of the apostolic preaching of the gospel. We should be reminded of these words, spoken by our Lord to His apostles:
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (Matthew 16:19).
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven” (Matthew 18:18).
Among other things, I believe Jesus is telling His apostles that they are the ones who are given the task of defining the gospel. This is consistent with what we read in Hebrews chapter two:
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4, emphasis mine).
This is the gospel by which we must be saved (Romans 1:16). It is the gospel that we dare not change or set aside (Galatians 1:8-9). It is the gospel that we must proclaim to the lost, so that they may be saved (Romans 10:14-17). Let us listen well, then, to the gospel as Peter first proclaimed it at Pentecost. Let those rejoice who have received it, and let those who have not take heed to its warnings.
In this lesson I will seek to accomplish several things. First, I want to draw attention to the radical changes that we see demonstrated in the second chapter of Acts. Second, I will seek to identify those elements of our account which are unique to that period of time. Third, I will focus on what one must do (and what one must not do) in order to be saved.
When compared to the gospel accounts of events that had occurred in the recent past, the events of Acts chapter two reveal that a radical change has occurred. There is a dramatic change in Peter, as with all of the apostles. And, there is a radical change in the response of several thousand of the crowd who have gathered to hear Peter’s sermon. We have become so familiar with the events described in this great chapter of Acts that we have become accustomed to what we read. But when we take the trouble to place these events – in some cases just months apart in time – we see how great the change has been.
The Change in Peter
Two months earlier Peter was asked if he was a follower of Jesus:
69 Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A slave girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” 70 But he denied it in front of them all: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” 71 When he went out to the gateway, another slave girl saw him and said to the people there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene.” 72 He denied it again with an oath, “I do not know the man!” 73 After a little while, those standing there came up to Peter and said, “You really are one of them too—even your accent gives you away!” 74 At that he began to curse, and he swore with an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment a rooster crowed (Matthew 26:69-74).
Compare this with Peter’s words in Acts 2:14-36, not to one powerless slave girl, but to the very mob that cried out for the death of Jesus. Now, Peter boldly looks this crowd in the eye and informs them: “You have murdered the Messiah. You called for His death; God raised Him from the dead. You would not submit to His leadership; God has made Him Lord. He is the only means by which your sins may be forgiven, and you sinned by rejecting Him as the Savior. Worse yet, the events of Pentecost which you have witnessed were meant to inform you that the Day of the Lord is drawing near. It is a day of blessing for God’s people (those who have repented), but it is a day of judgment for the enemies of God who have mistreated the Jews. What do you think your fate will be when He comes to place His foot on the neck of His enemies?
The dramatic change in Peter is not simply in the boldness with which he speaks (though it is certainly that); it is also evident in his understanding of what Jesus’ life and ministry was all about, and in his grasp and use of the Old Testament Scriptures.
In Matthew chapter 16 we find Peter rebuking Jesus for merely speaking of His sacrificial death for sinners:
21 From that time on Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22 So Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him: “God forbid, Lord! This must not happen to you!” (Matthew 16:21-22)
Now, in Acts, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the central theme of Peter’s preaching, the very heart of the gospel.
The Change in the Crowd
From what Luke tells us,5 we must conclude that the crowd that now stands before Peter at Pentecost is composed of those who were a part of the crowd that called for the blood of Jesus:
19 As he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent a message to him: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man; I have suffered greatly as a result of a dream about him today.” 20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 21 The governor asked them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas!” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” They all said, “Crucify him!” 23 He asked, “Why? What wrong has he done?” But they shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!” 24 When Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but that instead a riot was starting, he took some water, washed his hands before the crowd and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. You take care of it yourselves!” 25 In reply all the people said, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:19-25, emphasis mine)
The response of many in this crowd to Peter’s preaching should be considered in the light of other instances in Acts where the gospel is powerfully preached to an unbelieving crowd that needs to repent concerning their response to Jesus. Not all preaching – even Spirit-filled preaching – was received with repentant hearts. For example, consider the response of the Sanhedrin to the apostolic preaching of the cross:
31 “God exalted him to his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses of these events, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33 Now when they heard this, they became furious and wanted to execute them (Acts 5:31-33).
54 When they heard these things, they became furious [literally cut in their hearts] and ground their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked intently toward heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look!” he said. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” 57 But they covered their ears, shouting out with a loud voice, and rushed at him with one intent. 58 When they had driven him out of the city, they began to stone him, and the witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” (Acts 7:54-59, emphasis mine)
So, too, we see the reaction of the mob that believed the false accusation that Paul had defiled the temple precincts by bringing Gentiles into forbidden places.
22 The crowd was listening to him until he said this. Then they raised their voices and shouted, “Away with this man from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live!” 23 While they were screaming and throwing off their cloaks and tossing dust in the air (Acts 22:22-23; see also 21:31).
The response of the crowd in Acts chapter two is unique, or at least rare, even in the Book of Acts, which leads us to ask, “What did Luke intend to convey to his readers when he wrote Acts chapter two? I believe that we are expected to grasp the fact that the only explanation for what we read is the powerful ministry of the Holy Spirit, who has just been sent to indwell and empower the church. The spectacular display of God’s power (including the resurrection of Jesus and now Pentecost), clearly predicted by Old Testament prophecy, now forcefully proclaimed by the apostles is powerfully driven home by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had promised:
8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned (John 16:8-11).
We are meant to see why Jesus told His apostles (disciples) to wait for the promise of the Father. The Great Commission can never be fulfilled in the power of the flesh. It is the coming of the Spirit that precedes the miraculous growth of the gospel in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and among the Gentiles.
We should also note that conversion is not the only result of Spirit-empowered preaching. Sometimes the gospel does not result in revival, but in revolt and rebellion. Such was the case in Acts 5:33, in Acts chapter 7, and Acts chapter 22. Conviction of sin, it would seem, does not always result in conversion. That is because men love darkness, rather than light:
9 The true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and the world was created by him, but the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to what was his own, but his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who have received him—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God’s children 13 —children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband’s decision, but by God (John 1:9-13).
The Unique Elements in our Text
I remember hearing the story of a man who was seeking guidance from God by means of his Bible. He decided to close his eyes, open his Bible, and put his finger at a certain place. He would then read the words under his finger and take that to be God’s will for him. The first text he pointed to read like this,
Then he went out and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5).
The fellow was sure this wasn’t the right guidance, so he tried again. This time he read,
“Go and do the same” (Luke 10:37).
In desperation he made one last try, to find these words,
“What you are about to do, do quickly” (John 13:27).
We should all recognize that we cannot always make a direct application of what we read to our own actions. The Scriptures were written to particular people and a certain point in time. Any accurate interpretation and application of God’s Word must take the original setting and readers into consideration. When we come to the Book of Acts we must be careful not to take everything we read as a pattern for us to follow mechanically. I would like to point out some unique elements in our text in Acts chapter 2.
We should recognize that our text focuses on the apostles, their preaching, and the signs and wonders which they perform in the power of the Spirit.
Now when they heard this, they were acutely distressed and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “What should we do, brothers?” (Acts 2:37, emphasis mine)
42 They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles (Acts 2:42-43, emphasis mine).
The apostles are singled out by Luke, our author, as having extraordinary power and authority from the Holy Spirit. This is consistent with what we read in the New Testament epistles:
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
11 I have become a fool. You yourselves forced me to do it, for I should have been commended by you. For I lack nothing in comparison to those “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. 12 Indeed, the signs of an apostle were performed among you with great perseverance by signs and wonders and powerful deeds (2 Corinthians 12:11-12).
The Holy Spirit designated the apostles as those who acted and spoke with the authority of Jesus, as those who proclaimed the gospel whereby men must be saved. It was not every believer who was performing mighty acts of healing, or impressive signs and wonders. This is what set the apostles apart.6
13 When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and discovered that they were uneducated and ordinary men, they were amazed and recognized these men had been with Jesus. 14 And because they saw the man who had been healed standing with them, they had nothing to say against this (Acts 4:13-14).
We should also recognize that there was something unique about that generation that sets them apart from others. This was the generation who heard the preaching of John the Baptist, as well as the preaching of Jesus. They had witnessed some of the miracles He had performed, by which God accredited Jesus as the promised Messiah:
“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him, just as you yourselves know” (Acts 2:22).
In spite of these powerful proofs this generation rejected Jesus as Messiah and demanded that He be crucified:
This man, who was handed over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you executed by nailing him to a cross at the hands of Gentiles (Acts 2:23).
Consequently, this generation has a unique and greater degree of guilt, for they saw and heard Jesus. They were, so to speak, without excuse.7
16 “To what should I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces who call out to one another, 17 ‘We played the flute for you, yet you did not dance; we wailed in mourning, yet you did not weep.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon!’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds” (Matthew 11:16-19, emphasis mine).
41 The people of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented when Jonah preached to them—and now, something greater than Jonah is here! 42 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon—and now, something greater than Solomon is here! 43 “When an unclean spirit goes out of a person, it passes through waterless places looking for rest but does not find it. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the home I left.’ When it returns, it finds the house empty, swept clean, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and live there, so the last state of that person is worse than the first. It will be that way for this evil generation as well!” (Matthew 12:41-45, emphasis mine)
34 “For this reason I am sending you prophets and wise men and experts in the law, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town, 35 so that on you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36 I tell you the truth, this generation will be held responsible for all these things! 37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it! 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate! 39 For I tell you, you will not see me from now until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Matthew 23:34-39, emphasis mine)
There was a special judgment awaiting that generation that rejected Jesus. This judgment was soon to come in the form of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. Thus, Peter’s sermon not only calls upon these Jews to confess their sins and be saved from eternal torment in hell; it calls upon them to repent and be saved from the judgment that will soon fall on that generation:
40 With many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Save yourselves from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:40, emphasis mine)
Having emphasized the uniqueness of Peter’s warnings and exhortations to that generation, let us also note the application of Peter’s words to us (even if less direct). When Peter calls upon his audience to “save themselves from this perverse generation” there is still an application to other, later, generations. Is it not true that every sinner needs to repent and be saved from the evil generation in which he lives?
1 And although you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you formerly lived according to this world’s present path, according to the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the ruler of the spirit that is now energizing the sons of disobedience, 3 among whom all of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath even as the rest… 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of his great love with which he loved us, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of the gift of Christ. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he captured captives; he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 2:1-8, emphasis mine).
17 So I say this, and insist in the Lord, that you no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are darkened in their understanding, being alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. 19 Because they are callous, they have given themselves over to indecency for the practice of every kind of impurity with greediness. 20 But you did not learn about Christ like this, 21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him, just as the truth is in Jesus. 22 You were taught with reference to your former way of life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 23 to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth (Ephesians 4:17-24).
3 Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, 4 who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age according to the will of our God and Father, 5 to whom be glory forever and ever! Amen (Galatians 1:3-5; see also 1 Peter 4:1-6).
No matter when men have lived, the gospel has called upon them to identify with Christ, rather than with the evil age in which they live.
We should also note that signs and wonders do not, in and of themselves, convince or convert lost sinners. Peter has clearly stated that his audience had witnessed some of the miracles Jesus performed, but they were neither convinced nor converted by them.8 The same could be said of the miracles performed by the apostles through the power of the Holy Spirit. The reason why lost sinners came to faith in Jesus was because the Holy Spirit convinced, convicted, and converted them:
8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned (John 16:8-11).
5 In that our gospel did not come to you merely in words, but in power and in the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction (surely you recall the character we displayed when we came among you to help you). 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, when you received the message with joy that comes from the Holy Spirit, despite great affliction (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6).
He saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
4 My conversation and my preaching were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power (1 Corinthians 2:4).
While we most likely will not perform breath-taking works like the apostles did, we have been promised that the Spirit of God will empower our words, enlightening darkened minds, convicting and convincing men regarding the gospel, and giving life to those who are dead. It is clear in Acts that those who are saved come to faith because God has drawn them:
“For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far away, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself” (Acts 2:39).
When the Gentiles heard this, they began to rejoice and praise the word of the Lord, and all who had been appointed for eternal life believed (Acts 13:48).
A woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira, a God-fearing woman, listened to us. The Lord opened her heart to respond to what Paul was saying (Acts 16:14).
The Gospel According to Peter
Finally, I want to focus on the gospel that Peter preached at Pentecost: What must men do to be saved? This is the most important matter of all. What is the gospel? What must we do in order to be saved? Some have said that one must be baptized in order to be saved, and they would point to our text to prove it. Is baptism necessary in order for one to be saved?
Dr. A. T. Robertson, now deceased, was probably the greatest Greek scholar of his day. He authored a large Greek Grammar, as well as a six volume series entitled, Word Pictures in the New Testament. In his comments on Acts 2:38 he shows how the grammar of this verse can be used to support more than one interpretation of this text. He then reaches this conclusion:
“One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not. My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the New Testament taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission. So I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received.”9
Since the grammar of the Greek text is not definitive or conclusive, one’s interpretation of Acts 2:38 will ultimately be dictated by his theology. I would suggest that the overwhelming evidence of the New Testament rules against baptismal regeneration, the doctrine that teaches that baptism is the means by which one is saved. Or, to say it another way, baptismal regeneration teaches that one cannot be saved unless they are baptized.
Consider the evidence of these New Testament texts:
So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added (Acts 2:41, emphasis mine).
Here, baptism occurs after acceptance of the gospel. We might say that here baptism is the effect of belief and salvation, not the cause.
19 “Therefore repent and turn back so that your sins may be wiped out, 20 so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and so that he may send the Messiah appointed for you—that is, Jesus” (Acts 3:19-20, emphasis mine).
Baptism is not mentioned here as a condition for salvation.
44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the message. 45 The circumcised believers who had accompanied Peter were greatly astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, 46 for they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God. Then Peter said, 47 “No one can withhold the water for these people to be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 So he gave orders to have them baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay for several days (Acts 10:44-48, emphasis mine).
With much prompting and preparation by God, Peter went to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, and there he preached the gospel. These people were ready to believe, and so they quickly embraced the gospel as Peter presented it. The Spirit came upon them, baptizing them just as He did the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4; 10:47). Since water baptism is a symbol or a picture of what has taken place in Spirit baptism, there was no way that Peter could refuse water baptism to those whom God had saved. The important thing to see here is that the reality (Spirit baptism) precedes water baptism (the symbol). If salvation precedes water baptism then it (baptism) must be the result of salvation, and not the cause of salvation.
30 Then he brought them outside and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him, along with all those who were in his house. 33 At that hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and all his family were baptized right away. 34 The jailer brought them into his house and set food before them, and he rejoiced greatly that he had come to believe in God, together with his entire household.
The Philippian jailor is “shaken” by the earthquake that has opened all the cells, yet without to loss of one prisoner. He asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved. The question is clear and direct, “What must I do to be saved.” If there was ever a time to include baptism as a requirement for salvation, this would be it. But Paul requires faith (belief) alone. The man and his family were baptized but it seems clear that this is as a result of his salvation.
Circumcision and Baptism
There are certain parallels between circumcision and baptism.10 Just as some insist that one must be baptized in order to be saved, so some Judaisers insisted that Gentile converts must be circumcised to be saved:
1 Now some men came down from Judea and began to teach the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” 2 When Paul and Barnabas had a major argument and debate with them, the church appointed Paul and Barnabas and some others from among them to go up to meet with the apostles and elders in Jerusalem about this point of disagreement (Acts 15:1-2).
This precipitated what has become known as the Jerusalem Council, which is described in Acts 15. The question about circumcision was not a minor matter, because those who insisted that the Gentile converts be baptized were really adding works to faith as the basis for salvation. The apostles were clear in their rejection of such teaching, as we can see from Peter’s words in Acts 15:10-11:
10 “So now why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? 11 On the contrary, we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they are.”
Works was the yoke which no one could bear (Romans 3:1-20), for only faith in Jesus could save, faith alone (Romans 3:21-26). Circumcision was only a symbol, and unless the reality were there, it would not save (see Romans 2:25-29).
In Romans chapter 4 Paul demonstrates that salvation by faith in Christ Jesus alone, apart from works, is what saves men. He goes all the way back to Abraham to show that this was true in the Old Testament, just as it is in the New:
9 Is this blessedness then for the circumcision or also for the uncircumcision? For we say, “faith was credited to Abraham as righteousness.” 10 How then was it credited to him? Was he circumcised at the time, or not? No, he was not circumcised but uncircumcised! 11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised (Romans 4:9-12, emphasis mine).
God pronounced Abraham righteous when he believed in God (Genesis 15:6). This was two chapters11 and several years before Abraham was circumcised. Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. His circumcision was a symbol of what had already happened at his salvation.
No wonder Paul reacts so strongly to those who would impose circumcision on the Gentiles:
2 Listen! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you at all! 3 And I testify again to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be declared righteous by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace! 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait expectantly for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision carries any weight—the only thing that matters is faith working through love (Galatians 5:2-6).
The only “washing” that saves us is the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit:
4 But “when the kindness of God our Savior and his love for mankind appeared, 5 he saved us not by works of righteousness that we have done but on the basis of his mercy, through the washing of the new birth and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us in full measure through Jesus Christ our Savior. 7 And so, since we have been justified by his grace, we become heirs with the confident expectation of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7).
Baptism is necessary because we have been saved; baptism is not necessary in order to be saved. Some have overreacted to baptismal regeneration by minimizing its importance, and even its necessity. If the Great Commission included the command to baptize, then it should not surprise us that the apostles commanded men and women to believe and to be baptized. The line between baptism as an act of obedience on the part of a believer and between baptism as one’s attempt to add works to faith alone is sometimes blurred by those who distort the truth one way or the another. We must strive to keep the line clear, especially for those to whom we preach the gospel.
But what if some of the early church fathers and even some of the Reformers held that baptism is necessary for salvation? A little research will show that baptismal regeneration was held by some folks who are otherwise highly regarded. I would remind you that in the case of the Reformers they were coming out of a period of doctrinal darkness. The truth had been greatly distorted. The Reformers were moving toward the truth. They had a great start in their foundational creed: the Scriptures alone; Christ alone; by grace alone; through faith alone; to the glory of God alone. But they brought with them some of the baggage (errors) of the past, including baptismal regeneration.
I do not wish to throw stones at such great men, men who risked (and sometimes sacrificed) their lives for the gospel. But they were mere mortals, and thus they were subject to error, just as we are. Their writings are not on the level of Scripture; they are not inerrant and infallible. To their credit, these men were moving from error toward the truth. Some have not been as noble, moving from truth to error. In the final analysis, we must always ask, “What saith the Scriptures?”, not “What saith man?”
Some folks today may lean too heavily on the ancients (church fathers) and Reformers, based upon a faulty (in my opinion) premise. The premise could be stated something like this:
Older is better.
The closer we get to New Testament times the closer we get to the truth.
Some tend to view the primitive church in early Acts as they would Adam and Even in the garden of Eden, before the fall. In other words, they would look upon the primitive church as perfect, only to be progressively flawed or corrupted over time. The problem is that the church came after the fall, and thus it is not flawlessly perfect. In the next lesson I intend to show that the church at the end of Acts chapter two was not the perfect pattern for all that the church is to be or to do today. More on this later.
I would suggest that error quickly cropped up in the churches of the New Testament, as the book of 1 Corinthians clearly demonstrates. Error quickly appeared in the post-apostolic church as well. The church fathers have something to contribute to us, but they were not infallible. In fact, it took time for doctrinal questions to arise, and for important doctrines to be clarified and articulated.12
I believe that Paul’s words in Ephesians chapter four may challenge the “older is better” point of view (unless by “older” we are referring to Scripture):
11 It was he who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God—a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature.
As I read Paul’s words here, the church is corporately growing up. Spiritual gifts have been given to the church to facilitate that growth. The impression left is that the church is maturing. This would challenge the view that the purest and most complete insight into the doctrines of the faith all came to us very early.
Other Variations of the Same Error
How often we throw error out the front door, and welcome it at the back. Jay Adams has written an excellent booklet entitled, “Decisional Regeneration.”13 Adams points out that while we renounce the teaching that one must submit to baptism in order to be saved, we often replace baptism with some other work. For example, a well-meaning evangelist may insist that you “come to Christ” by walking the aisle, signing a card, repeating a certain prayer, or by raising your hand. Too much emphasis is placed on a specific response on the part of one seeking salvation. I have heard a well-known teacher say something like this: “If you have any doubts about your salvation, I want you to drive a stake tonight. Then, if you ever have another doubt, just look back to this night, look back to this stake, and know that you are saved.” The problem is that we would be looking at the wrong “stake.” It is the work of Christ on the cross of Calvary that saves us, not our works. In order to be saved we simply need to trust in what Christ has already done at Calvary. And if we ever have a doubt, we go back to His stake, the cross. We should not find assurance in what we have done, but rather in what He has done.
We need to be careful that we don’t set aside baptism as an illicit “work,” only to replace it with “repentance”as a work. After preaching this message a friend reminded me of the danger of a distorted view of repentance. Repentance may thus become the “work” that one does in order to be saved. Repentance may be defined as “giving up smoking,” or going to church, or some other work on our part. Repentance here in our text is a change, a change of mind. Those who rejected Jesus as the Messiah must change their mind about Jesus and embrace Him as Messiah. Repentance is therefore a synonym for “belief” or for “faith.” That is why Peter can tell his audience to believe in Jesus in Acts chapter 10, instead of calling them to “repent” as he did in Acts chapter 2:
“About him all the prophets testify, that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43, emphasis mine).
To repent is to acknowledge our previous rejection of Jesus as sin, and to trust in His saving work on the cross as the only means by which we can be saved. And just to make this matter clear, let us not forget that belief is not something we produce; it is something God produces in us:
8 For by grace you are saved through faith, and this [faith] is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
The Lord’s Table, An Example of Salvation By Faith Alone
The Bible has a lot to say about the dinner table. For example, we read this in Psalm 23:
You prepare a feast [literally, a table] before me in plain sight of my enemies.
You refresh my head with oil; my cup is full of wine (Psalm 23:5).
Heaven is symbolized by a feast. God sets the table filled with of all kinds of delicious food. In the Gospel of Luke we even find our Lord serving those who sit at His table.
“Blessed are those slaves whom their master finds alert when he returns! I tell you the truth, he will dress himself to serve, have them take their place at the table, and will come and wait on them!” (Luke 12:37)
When you are invited to the home of a wealthy and gracious hostess, it is clearly understood that she is providing the entire meal. You don’t bring a bowl of salad, or a dessert. In this setting, it would be an insult to do so. This morning, as every Sunday morning, we have come to observe the Lord’s Table. I want you to notice that this meal (the bread and the wine) is not a potluck. We do not bring anything to the table, because God in His grace has provided it all. There is nothing we could bring, for God has provided the sinless body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. God provided this meal because we had nothing to offer Him.
When we observe communion there is an offering plate on the communion table. Let it be clearly understood that this is not a “contribution” on our part toward the salvation which our Lord alone has provided. The offering is to be the grateful and joyful response of one who has found salvation, full and free, in Jesus. It does not contribute toward our salvation in any way. The Bible instructs us to give, and thus we should give, but only in response to God’s grace. The same is true of baptism. Baptism is commanded (Matthew 28:19), and this command should be obeyed. But it does not contribute to the work of our Lord; it is the response of one who has experienced God’s grace in Christ Jesus.
So What Must We Do to Be Saved?
The key word for Peter’s audience is not baptism, but belief. From the events of this Day of Pentecost they should believe that the Day of the Lord is fast approaching. They should believe that this is a day of salvation for “all who call upon the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:21). They should believe that it is also a day of judgment for those who have rejected God’s salvation. Most importantly, they must change their minds (repent) about Jesus, whom they rejected and called for His crucifixion. They should believe that He is God’s Messiah, God’s only provision for their salvation. They must believe that God raised Him from the dead and that He is coming again to bring blessing to His own and eternal judgment on those who are His enemies. They must cling to Jesus as the One who bore their judgment and who provides them with His righteousness. As a result of believing, and as a declaration of their faith, they should be baptized. In this way they are identifying with Jesus. Likewise, baptism is an indication that they no longer identify with that wicked generation that rejected and crucified Jesus the Messiah. In this way they will not only be saved from divine wrath when He returns, they will also escape the wrath of God on that generation that rejected Christ (the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 A.D.).
Aside from a few distinctives of that generation, the message is the same for men today. We must acknowledge our sin, and the fact that we are guilty of rejecting Jesus, as well as failing to live according to His standard of righteousness. We must believe in Jesus as God’s Messiah, and as God’s only provision for our sins. We must believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, and that He is coming again to judge His enemies and to bless His saints. We must cling to Him alone, trusting only in what He has done on the cross of Calvary in our place, and not in anything we might add to His work. In response to His salvation, we should identify with Jesus publicly by being baptized.
My friend, there is nothing more important than for you and I to get this right. The gospel is the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Have you trusted in Jesus as God’s only means of your salvation? If you have not, do so today. The Day of the Lord is ever more near and time is short.
Someone might possibly say, “I am not worthy of God’s forgiveness.” You’re right! You are not worthy. That is why salvation is by grace, and not by our worth or works. If Peter could promise his audience God’s forgiveness and salvation, then God’s saving work in Jesus can surely save you. Peter’s audience was made up of those who saw Jesus and heard His teaching. They witnessed the miracles He performed in the power of the Spirit. By these miracles, and surely by the resurrection of Jesus, God accredited Jesus as His Son. Nevertheless, they rejected Him and demanded that He die. It is for such sinners that Jesus came to die, so that they might be saved from the judgment to come. Your sin will not surpass theirs. No one is too sinful to save because nothing is greater than the saving grace of God in Christ Jesus. To focus on your sin is to magnify yourself and to minimize the person and work of God in Jesus.
This gospel is the gospel that we must believe, and it is the gospel that we must proclaim, so that others may believe and be saved.
9 Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and thus has righteousness and with the mouth one confesses and thus has salvation. 11 For the scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between the Jew and the Greek, for the same Lord is Lord of all, who richly blesses all who call on him. 13 For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. 14 How are they to call on one they have not believed in? And how are they to believe in one they have not heard of? And how are they to hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:9-14)
May this gospel be upon our lips, to the praise of our glorious God, and to the salvation and blessing of lost men and women.
1 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:www.netbible.org.
2This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by Robert L. Deffinbaugh, teacher and elder at Community Bible Chapel, on November 6, 2005. Anyone is at liberty to use this edited manuscript for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel. Copyright 2005 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081.
3Pentecost was fifty days after the first fruits were offered (during the week of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, following Passover). Since Jesus appeared to the apostles forty days after His resurrection (1:3), they must have waited ten days until Pentecost.
4We would call these “Hellenistic Jews,” as opposed to the “native Hebrews” who were born in Israel (see Acts 6:1).
5See Acts 2:5, 22-23.
6Someone might point out that in Joel’s prophecy, the Spirit was to be poured out on “all flesh” (see Acts 2:17-18, citing Joel 2:28-29). I would respond that we should expect this in the last days, but (like other elements of this prophecy) we do not see the complete and ultimate fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy here. As I understand it this is the firstfruits of the fulfillment of Joel 2.
7This expression is found in Romans 1:20, referring to the Gentile heathen who have rejected the revelation of God in nature. In Romans chapter 2 Paul shows the greater guilt of the Jews, who have been given much greater revelation, and yet rejected it.
9A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1931).
10Indeed, those who practice infant baptism would use circumcision as a basis for their practice.
11Abraham was circumcised in Genesis 17:9-27.
12For example, the “Five Points of Calvinism” were a response to five points or objections previously spelled out by Jacob Arminius.