Belief or Baptism?

What does God require, belief alone or belief and baptism?

In Acts 2 Peter preached that Jesus, who had been crucified by some of those listening, was Christ their Lord.  Acts 2:36, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (NAS95). Luke recorded their reaction in the next verse: “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” Peter’s answer should be our answer today. Acts 2:38: “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each 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.’”

The Jewish people had waited a long time for their Messiah to come. They had hoped for Him with great anticipation. Then when He came, most did not believe in Him. Instead of welcoming Him and seeking His guidance, they crucified him. Peter was explaining this to them in his sermon, and many of those who heard him and the other apostles preaching believed the gospel. But what could they do? They realized that they had killed the one God had made both Lord and Christ. So, they asked, “Brethren, what shall we do?”

When people hear the gospel today and ask what they should do, many are told they need only pray the sinner’s prayer. However, that is not what Peter said. He called for them to repent and be baptized for forgiveness. His answer was faithful to the teachings of Jesus who had told the eleven apostles who had been faithful to him what He wanted them to do in Matthew 28:18-20: “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.’”

Mark’s account teaches us the same thing. Mark 16:15-16: “And He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.’” These accounts of Jesus’ words seem to make the answer to whether it is belief or baptism that saves us simple. Jesus said both are required to save one from the consequences of his sins. However, some turn to passages such as John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” But does this passage not teach that salvation is offered to those who believe, or does it teach that belief alone will save a sinner from condemnation?

John 3:16 is not the only passage that teaches belief. We can turn to the story of the Philippian jailer in Acts 16. Paul and Silas were in a Philippian jail until they were freed by an act of God who caused the earth to quake and opened the doors of the jail. The jailer thought his prisoners had escaped and prepared to take his own life. But Paul called out to stop him. Acts 16:28-30: “But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!’ And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”  

One would expect the answer to be the same as Peter’s in Acts 2:38, but it was not. The answer here is recorded in Acts 16:31: “They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’” Are there two different answers to this question? Is it a matter of indifference to God? Why does Peter tell the Jews at Pentecost to repent and be baptized but Paul and Silas tell this jailer to believe? Does the Bible contradict itself? Is Paul’s gospel different than Peter’s? Some believe that it is, but the answer seems best found by looking not at the answers to the question but to the ones asking the question. The context of the question in Acts 2 was when many Jews had heard the gospel and believed it and then asked what they should do. The Bible tells us that “they were pierced to the heart,” or in other words, the gospel had penetrated their heart. It had found hit its mark, and these hearers were moved to belief.

The writer of Hebrews 4:12 wrote of the power of God’s word: reads, “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” The gospel is the good news of what Jesus did for us. He redeemed us on the cross and paid the debt of death that we owe, because we are sinners. Now God, in Christ, will forgive us of our sins. The gospel is meant to penetrate the honest of heart who are turning to God. It had done just that in Acts 2. The several thousand Jews who heard and asked what they should do had believed. That is why they asked, “Brethren, what shall we do?”

There was no reason for Peter to call on them to believe. He knew they already believed, but it was not enough. Their belief needed to move them to obey the gospel. They needed to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. But the Philippian jailer had not yet been taught when he sought salvation. He needed to hear the gospel, believe, and obey. So, Paul and Silas said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). But notice what Luke wrote in Acts 16:32-33: “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.” 

We may rightly infer from these examples that one must first hear the gospel and believe it and repent of his sins and be baptized. And God will wash away their sins in baptism to borrow a figure of speech from Acts 22:16. Therefore, the answer to the question is that both belief and baptism are called for by God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus called for the gospel to be taught, heard, believed, and then obeyed. The honest heart will be pierced through with the truth of the glad tidings of Jesus and will be led by the doctrine of the apostles to confession, repentance, baptism, and to living a new life as one reborn in Christ.

Forgiveness follows baptism motivated by belief in Jesus Christ. We see that in Acts 2:38: “Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.…” We see it in the account of Paul’s conversion to Christ. Jesus appeared to Paul as he traveled to Damascus and Paul, believing then in the risen Christ, asked what he should do. We read this in Acts 22:10, “And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go on into Damascus, and there you will be told of all that has been appointed for you to do.’” So, Paul went into Damascus, and God sent a man named Ananias to him whose words for Paul are found in Acts 22:14-16: “The God of our fathers has appointed you to know His will and to see the Righteous One and to hear an utterance from His mouth. For you will be a witness for Him to all men of what you have seen and heard. Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.’”

Paul’s sins had not yet been forgiven. He had not yet been saved from the consequences of his sins. That salvation came when he was baptized and washed away his sins. Peter later compares baptism to the sins of the world being washed away by the great flood in the days of Noah.  The waters of the flood lifted the ark up and saved the eight souls who obeyed God, and Peter makes a comparison to “the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water” in 1 Peter 3:20, and then writes in 3:21-22: “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him.”

The Bible teaches that the gospel must be preached, heard, and those who believe must repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins. Paul would also write of belief that moves one to confession.  Romans 10:8-11: “But what does it say? ‘The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart—that is, the word of faith which we are preaching, that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved; for with the heart a person believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation. For the Scripture says, ‘Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.’”

The one who truly believes is moved to discipleship, to ask what he or she must do, and then to obedience of all God calls for, namely confession, repentance, baptism, and to a life as one born again to a new life guided by the teachings of Jesus Christ and God’s word. Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”