1 May 2014

Faith and Baptism

(Gospel e-Letter - May 2014)

Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people,
who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have? (Acts 10:47).

How is a person justified - is it through faith or by baptism? Clearly it is the duty of every new believer to submit to the rite of baptism as ordained by the Lord Jesus. But we ask, did the Lord institute baptism as the means to obtain justification or is it a sign of spiritual cleansing which is accomplished by faith in him?

While there are several scriptures that teach plainly that we are justified by faith, it never said that a person is justified by baptism. So it seems reasonable to suppose that baptism signifies justification which had been previously received through faith.

It is profitable to look at Cornelius’ conversion experience as a ‘test case’ in this regard. Is salvation preceded and obtained by baptism, or is it received by faith, and followed by baptism? Cornelius’ story is emphasized in Acts because he and his relatives were the first Gentile converts admitted into the church. (Please read Acts chapter 10; 11:1-18 and 15:7-11).

An angel told Cornelius to send for Simon Peter, who “will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household” (Acts 11:14). At first Peter was reluctant to step in a Gentile’s house but he was persuaded by the Holy Spirit to go. When Peter and his Jewish companions entered the house, Cornelius’ family and friends were gathered together, eager to hear what he had to say.

Peter preached the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, promising that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). As he spoke, the Holy Spirit came upon the group. Peter and the Jewish Christians were amazed because they realized that God had welcomed the Gentiles into the church.

After visiting Cornelius, the apostle Peter had to defend his action before the Jewish Christian community in Jerusalem to explain why he had entered a Gentile’s house and received Gentiles into the church (Acts 11). Several years later Peter refers again to that historical event at the Council of Jerusalem:

“Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us (Jews), and he made no distinction between us and them, having cleansed their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:7-9).

So, while hearing the gospel, Cornelius and the Gentiles believed in Christ, and God purified their hearts by faith. What should the apostle Peter have done in that situation? He reasoned: “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Naturally Peter ordered the baptism of the new converts.

Please note that they were baptized after hearing the Gospel. They were baptized after believing in Christ. They were baptized after receiving the Spirit. They were baptized after their hearts were purified by faith.

We cannot dismiss this clear example as an exceptional case. The apostle Peter himself presents it as the model of salvation to all people.  He declared before the Jerusalem council: “We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we (Jews) shall be saved in the same manner as they (Cornelius and the other Gentiles)” (Acts 15:11). This then is the biblical pattern for all people, whether Jews or Gentiles. We are forgiven and purified by faith in Christ, followed by baptism to signify this amazing truth.