7. Early Church: Conversion

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Early Church: Conversion


Let me share with you at this point an overview of what conversion involves in the New Testament, and then we can build on that. I’m going to suggest that a paradigm of what conversion entails would be helpful to know. The paradigm is this: In the New Testament, conversion involves five integrally related components or aspects, all of which took place at the same time, usually on the same day. These five components are repentance, faith, confession (which is done by the individual), regeneration (or giving of the Holy Spirit, done by God), and baptism (done by the Christian community). That’s what conversion is understood as involving. You may say “Well, the thief on the cross wasn’t baptized.” Well, the church had rules. They said that if you come to believe in Jesus while being crucified you don’t have to be baptized. But there were not a lot of those. A majority were baptized, repented, received the Spirit, confessed Christ, and so forth.

Now, let me try to show how these are related to one another. For instance, in various parts of the New Testament, baptism and faith are used almost interchangeably. In Galatians 3:26-27, “In Jesus Christ you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” Somehow this saving faith cannot be understood by Paul apart from baptism. For him, you were saved by faith, so when you were baptized, you were born again. They are so intimately related to one another that you can use one, and sometime use the other, and sometimes you can put them both together. But if you refer to baptism, faith is assumed. If you refer to faith, baptism is assumed. Sometimes repentance and baptism are associated together.

Remember when we were back in the Book of Acts at Pentecost when the people said “What must we do to be saved?” Listen to Peter’s words: “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.” Repent – and be baptized. Now, let me ask you: did Peter mean that you don’t have to have faith – just repent and be baptized? That would be silly, wouldn’t it? Faith isn’t mentioned, but it’s assumed – it’s part of the package. And the only way you can make sense of these things is that if one is omitted, it’s assumed, even if it’s not mentioned. Sometimes faith and regeneration are mentioned together. Let me ask you one thing: did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing of faith? Having begun with the Spirit and are now ending with the flesh? The Spirit and faith are associated – regeneration and faith are seen together. Baptism and regeneration are seen together. Now this becomes a real problem for a lot of us.

Paul [in Titus 3:5] says, “He saved us not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Washing of regeneration – there’s a lot of water seen in that. And if baptism and being born again are intimately associated (regeneration), it’s not a problem. And you can say, “Yeah, but what about faith?” Faith is assumed, just as faith is assumed up here, isn’t it? And would not repentance be assumed up here? Sometimes faith and confession are seen together: [Romans 10:9] “That thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, and you will be saved.” In Acts 22:16, you have baptism and confession being assumed together: “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” Now would it be silly to say you don’t have to repent or believe however, just call and be baptized, and that’s enough? Faith and repentance are seen together. “Repent and believe the gospel.” It doesn’t say anything about baptism there. But we know that faith is associated with baptism elsewhere. Sometimes three of them are named: [Mark 1:15]“Repent and believe the Gospel.” [Acts 2:38] “Repent and be baptized … and you shall receive gift of the Spirit.” Faith is not mentioned, but repentance is; baptism isn’t, but being born again is. Sometimes all four are assumed [i.e., named] together. In Acts 19 we have an unusual situation in Ephesus, where Paul finally doesn’t know what to make of these people. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

“No, we never heard of the Holy Spirit.”

“Then what kind of baptism did you have?”

“We were baptized in John’s baptism.”

But John’s baptism involved repentance, and also required you to believe in Jesus, so they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, and they receive the Spirit after that. So you have all four of those located and listed together. But within it is a package that, in the normal understanding of conversion in the New Testament, a person was baptized upon confession of faith, and having repented. He was born again, and he also made a confession of faith. The order of them is not that important, but they’re all together. And people see them that way. And the result is that people can look back at their life and refer to any of those as the time they were converted.

Think, for instance of the Philippian jailer. If you asked him if he remembered the day he was saved, he could say, “Yes, I remember the day when I believed in Jesus with all my heart.” We’re comfortable with that. And another time you could ask the Philippian jailer if he remembers the day he was saved, and he could answer “Yes, I remember when I was baptized by Paul.” We’re also easy with that. And at another time we could ask if he remembers the day he was saved, and he could answer, “Yes, I remember the day I was saved. The Spirit came into my life and made me a new person.” We’re happy with that. “Yes, I remember the day I confessed Christ.” “Yes, I remember the day I repented.” All of those are part of that experience. He may want to single out one, but they’re a package – you can’t separate them in the Philippian jailer’s experience.

Now, when we’re trying to understand the Philippian jailer, and Luke’s description of that, we cannot read our experience into this; think of the Philippian jailer. He could easily say “I remember when I was saved; I remember when I was baptized.” I can’t, because my baptism is separate in time from the day I had faith.

“Bob Stein, do you remember the day you were married?”

“Yeah, I remember the day I was married. I remember putting that ring on my wife’s finger.”

“Do you remember the day you were married, Bob Stein?”

“Yeah, I remember the day that I said ‘I do. I, Robert, take you, Joan, to be my wedded wife.’”

“Bob Stein, do you remember the day you were married?”

“Yeah, I remember giving my wife a big kiss – we had people who came 3,000 miles for this wedding. They had to have something special, so she a got a really, really good kiss.”

“Bob Stein, do you remember the day you were married?”

“Yeah, I remember the pastor pronouncing: ‘By the authority vested in my by the State of California, and as a minister of the Gospel, I pronounce you husband and wife.’”

“Bob Stein, do you remember the day you were married?”

“Yes, I remember the sexual consummation of our marriage that night.”

“When was it that you were married, Bob Stein? Was it when you put the ring on her finger, when the pastor pronounced you man and wife, when you had your sexual consummation with your wife?”

That’s all part of becoming married – you can’t separate those.

You could say, “What happens if you have sexual consummation earlier, or what happens if you don’t have a wedding ring?” We’re talking about the normal pattern of marriage. Maybe it’s not normal anymore, but that’s the pattern. In the New Testament, you have a pattern of conversion, and people are converted, and they’re baptized as soon as they’re converted. Everybody is baptized when they’re converted. We could say, “Well, baptism is for us a kind of an outward sign of an inward faith.” Well, it wasn’t an outward sign so much of an inward faith for the Ethiopian eunuch – he was baptized that night! If you wanted to have a big testimony meeting, you waited till noon. It was much more important to keep these things together. And if you have this understanding, then you can read the New Testament at face value, and you don’t have the problems that we have, who read it in the light of our experience. We need to read it in the light of the Philippian jailer’s experience, in the first century church’s experience. Those at Pentecost who repented and were baptized and believed and received the Spirit – that’s what the New Testament is talking about. And our first job as biblical exegetes is not to try to see how the New Testament experience and our experience fit, but how to understand the New Testament experience and what they’re talking about. It makes perfectly good sense.

Therefore, we were saved by baptism – by the washing and regeneration (Titus 3:5). Baptism now saves you (1Peter). No problem for the Ethiopian eunuch. No problem for the Philippian jailer. That’s the people that are being discussed in these passages. So the next question, is, well what about today? Well, as long as we know that in the first century all of these are assumed (even if one is not mentioned, it’s assumed), clearly I don’t know of anybody would say that when Peter said at Pentecost “repent and be baptized,” this meant that you didn’t have to believe – no one would say that. It’s part of the package.

So, the New Testament – washing, regeneration, etc., and that’s why, for instance the baptism of regeneration means Christian baptism, which is associated with your receiving the Spirit – because it happens in the same time in the New Testament. Now, you separate our personal experience of faith and repentance from baptism, and all the sudden everything’s geehunkle, and everything’s screwed up. And what you now have is all these groups trying to make a theology that somehow fits the present practice rather than the New Testament practice. And so you have Roman Catholic theology saying “Yes, like the New Testament says, when you’re baptized, you receive the Holy Spirit – you’re born again. So, children are born again when they’re baptized.” There’s no problem in this. In the New Testament, faith, repentance, and confession are associated with this. Now Luther knows faith is associated with repentance and so he says that when a child is baptized and is born again, he is given a supernatural gift of faith, because faith has to be there. And how do you know he has faith? Because faith and baptism are associated. That’s right, but that’s why baptism shouldn’t be there unless they have personal faith. Now in our Baptist understanding, we say a person has to repent and believe, and confess Christ to be born again, but baptism is disassociated with that. Some churches have a situation where if you come forward to be saved, they’ll march you right to the baptistery. Have any of you been baptized the very moment or day when you decided for Christ? They knew you could not identify much more with those statements about how “baptism now saves you,” the “washing of regeneration” because in your experience, you were born again – you received the Spirit when you were baptized, essentially. And so it’s much easier.

If you’re a missionary, and you start a new church out on an island that has never heard the Gospel, and a person says “I want to be saved,” and so you say, “Alright, you have to repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be baptized and he’ll give you the Holy Spirit,” and they say, “Well, let’s do it,” and you give a prayer of repentance and faith and baptize him right then and there. No problem. But there IS a problem that’s going to develop that the next generation faces. And it’s not dealt with really well in the New Testament. And it’s not really my experience, but my children’s experience. I know the day I was born again. I know the hour of the day, and my children don’t. So what about a child who doesn’t know the exact moment of conversion – who gradually grows into their experience? They know they’re saved, but baptism for that child will not have the intimacy that it had for the Philippian jailer. So that’s the problem. And the first thing that I, as a biblical theologian deal with is to try and understand the New Testament. I’m trying to give you the pattern that I believe makes sense as part of a package that belongs together.

The question that is next asked is: “How do you apply a package like this to a situation which is different in America today?” And I have an easy answer: “That’s not my problem. I’m a biblical theologian. Get one of the systematic theologians to handle that.” No, the first thing is to explain and understand. The next thing is (again, I’m not a systematician, but what I would try to argue would be) that we should try to keep together that which is most important. And certainly baptism should be most close to the moment of conversion as possible. However, it can never precede it; it must always follow it.

Let me give you a couple more aspects of this. In the New Testament, salvation is the result of repentance. In 2 Peter 3:9, “You are saved through faith,” Ephesians 2:8-9; are they different? Not if they’re part of the same experience. I don’t know how you can have faith in Jesus and not repent. And furthermore, I don’t know how you can repent and not have faith in Jesus (not in the New Testament understanding). So you’re just singling out one. “Salvation comes through confession.” “Salvation comes through being born again.” “Salvation comes through baptism.”

Let me read to you 1 Peter 3:21, “Baptism which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Rather than trying to give different meanings to baptism (such as, ”You’re buried with Christ through baptism” [Romans 6:4]), for the Philippian jailer that was true. You could say that, really, several milliseconds before, he was saved when he had faith; baptism came several milliseconds later. The early church was not in a millisecond mode. They saw it all as associated intimately together. We’re not talking about fractions of seconds and things of that nature, so that the package remains and salvation, therefore, can be said as coming as a result of any of these. And you don't have to make baptism here something different than baptism. The vast majority of times in the New Testament, when you come across the word baptism, it means baptism. The paper around that word tends to be soggy – there’s water involved in this – there’s not some spiritual entity apart from baptism.

Sometimes justification comes through different ways. Justification comes through faith, but it also comes through baptism. Not a problem if they’re associated together. Sometimes forgiveness comes through faith. Sometimes it comes through baptism, sometimes through repentance so that, again, they are intimately associated together and there’s no problem.

This is going to come up in a number of passages that people have difficulty with, and I remember when I was a young Christian, when I came across these passages like “we were buried with him in baptism unto death” [Romans 6:4], and I knew that didn’t fit my situation, because I was buried with Christ before baptism. And the result was that when I’d ask people we’d say that this didn’t really work for us, we were spiritually baptized. Well, what does spiritually baptized mean? It means baptized. And I think the readers in Rome would have had no problem understanding that, any more than the Philippian jailer would have had problems with it.