|Original picture by Felipe Skroski|
Just think about the question that prompted this instruction. When they were convicted and were "cut to the heart" by the message of Christ and they believed what Peter said- that they had killed Jesus, the man God made both Lord and Christ- they asked "what shall we do!?"
That question sounds very tame when I read it in modern English today. But I don't think it was a tame and calm question at all. I think it was a panicked and desperate question. They had been cut to the heart. They had just accepted the fact that they were murderers...and not just any murderers. They were murderers of the Christ of God...the Lord, Himself! "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" could easily be interpreted to say "No! This can't be! If I am responsible for the death of the Lord, I can't live with that! I can't go on! Is there any answer? Tell me what to do and I'll do it! Anything! Is there anything I can do to right this wrong!?"
God's instructions through Peter did not involve any great feat on the part of the offending sinners. He simply told them, "repent and be baptized."
A man named Naaman was given similar instructions when he was petitioning the prophet Elisha to heal him of his leprosy. (See 2 Kings 5 for the full story) Naaman initially left angry because he was expecting the prophet of God to perform some elaborate ritual. Instead, Elisha just sent his servant to the door to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River 7 times. Thankfully for Naaman, one of his servants talked some sense into him before they got too far away. "My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!" (2 Kings 5:13). Naaman finally obeyed the simple command to wash in the water, and his skin was made "clean like that of a young boy."
Some look at promises like that in Acts 2:38-39 and attempt to minimize the cost of being a Christian. Paul addresses those ideas in places like Romans 6 and elsewhere. Others look at the promise in Acts 2 and reject it the same way Naaman did because it is just too simple. The truth is that the command to "repent and be baptized" is both a very simple, and a very complex command.
Repentance means a change of thinking and a change of doing. It is a decision to change course completely. It is the only correct answer to Jesus' call to "deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me." Repentance means making the judgment call that to be a slave of God is infinitely more valuable than the illusion of freedom and independence in decision making. I say "illusion" because the truth is that some day- on the last day- every person who has ever lived will be convicted with the truth of the gospel message. On that day everyone will understand that refusing to become a slave of God was really just a choice to remain a slave to sin. Repentance is not easy. And it is not something that is done once and then moved on from. It is a daily decision to live for Christ instead of self. But the journey of repentance does not need to be finished before one is ready to be baptized. It needs to be begun.
And once someone has repented, has made the decision to "die to self," then the process is finalized in the same way we finalize the physical death of someone. We bury them. Baptism is a beautiful picture of burial of the old sinful self (See Romans 6). Yes, it is a simple act at least for the person being baptized. But it was anything but simple for God to put the plan of salvation into place before the foundation of the world, allowing Jesus' death to serve as a substitutionary sacrifice for our deaths. And all He asks us to do is to repent and be baptized.
But the blessings of this promise don't stop with just the eternal forgiveness of our sins. We are also promised the gift of the Holy Spirit. I love the fact that God, through Peter, saw fit to spell out for those of us living today and anyone who comes behind us, that the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit is for all of us who are called by the Lord. Without getting into all the details of what exactly the gift of the Holy Spirit is, I think we can at least rule out a few things it is not.
First, it is not simply the gift of the Word of God- if by that we are talking about the written Bible that we have today. How do I know that? Because the gift of the Holy Spirit was not just for people later on...God promised it to the people who were listening to Peter that very day! If that was about 33 A.D., then the last letter written that we have in the Bible- Revelation- wasn't written for another 60 years or so! I have no doubt at all that the written word collected in our Bibles is a very valuable and worthy gift from God and His Spirit. But it cannot be the only gift being referred to by Peter in this promise.
Second, it is not a promise that every believer who repents and is baptized will be able to perform miracles, speak in tongues, or prophesy. A quick reading of 1 Corinthians 12 will make it abundantly clear that not every believer will receive the same "specific" gift, or ability, from the Spirit.
But this is what I do know. Every single repentant and baptized believer from the day of Pentecost down through the ages until today has received the gift of the Holy Spirit!
May those of us who lean toward legalism remember that Peter's answer to the question "what shall we do" was not to try harder and live better. It was to repent and be baptized. It was simple. Because the gospel story is that it what we have done is insignificant compared to what God in Christ has done. Our part is to accept that promise as fact and live trusting it with the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide our days and help us in our faltering obedience.
May those of us who lean more toward what some people call "easy grace" remember that Peter did not simply say "be baptized." He said, "repent and be baptized." If Christ's love has not changed my focus, my attitude, and my Lord, then Christ's love has not changed my eternal destiny either. If there was never a death, then there was never a burial in the watery grave of baptism. There was just a dunk in a pool of water.
And may all of us heed the words of Naaman's wise servant. "if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!"
May we all learn to trust in this ancient promise more and more every day. The promise that if we obey the command to "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus," the we will receive the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit." And may we live joyously and passionately because of it just as the early church did.