When something is hard to swallow, chew it first! You may find this blog entry tough, but chew over the scriptures and be willing for the Holy Spirit to speak you through them. 'All scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.' (2 Timothy 3:16,17)
When the New Testament speaks of 'salvation' it means either being saved from the coming wrath of God on the earth, or else being saved from final judgement and death and being granted everlasting life. In many cases it probably means both. But what must we do to be saved?
On the basis of Romans 10:9,10 Christian evangelists sometimes say, "If you believe and confess that Jesus is Lord and you ask him in faith to forgive your sins you will be saved," and they stop there. They should never, never stop there. Why? Because that is not the whole story. There are three further requirements for salvation, and each one is essential.
The first is repentance. According to Matthew, the first word that Jesus preached was 'repent'. 'Jesus began to preach, saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."' (Matthew 4:17) When Peter's audience asked him on the day of Pentecost what they must do to be saved, the first thing he said was, "Repent..." (Acts 2:38). In Acts 26:19-23 Paul tells King Agrippa that following his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road he told both Jews and Gentiles "that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance." Repentance doesn't mean feeling sorry about wrong things we have done wrong: that's remorse. It doesn't mean feeling sorry for not doing things we should have done: that's regret. Repentance doesn't even mean telling God we are sorry, although that's a start if it's true. Repentance is a decision to stop doing things that God has told us are wrong, and to start doing things he has told us to do. It is to perform deeds worthy of repentance. (See also Luke 3:7-9)
Genuine repentance means repentance from unbelief - unbelief in God as he has revealed himself in the Bible, and unbelief in Jesus as the Son of God; and it means repentance from disobedience - disobedience in thought, word and deed to the commandments of God as written in the Bible and as interpreted by Jesus and his apostles. Repentance means turning one's back on both unbelief and disobedience, in other words turning from sin and turning to God to do his will instead of the devil's. And repentance is essential for salvation. "Unless you repent you will all perish," Jesus twice told his disciples in Luke 13:1-5. "Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations..." (Luke 24:46,47). Without repentance there is no forgiveness; and without forgiveness there is no salvation.
The second requirement for salvation is baptism. And just to be clear, the word 'baptism', wherever it occurs in the New Testament, means immersion - total immersion, either in water or in the Holy Spirit. (Luke 3:16) That's what the Greek word baptizo means. Immerse. It shouldn't be translated in any other way. In the New Testament water baptism was always the first step to be taken after repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord - immediately:
- As soon as Saint Paul (then still known as Saul) recovered his sight in Damascus he was baptized. He had eaten and drunk nothing for three days, nevertheless the first thing he did was to be baptized, and then 'he took food and was strengthened.' (Acts 9:17-19)
- When the Philippian jailer asked Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved, Paul replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved, you and your household." The book of Acts goes on to tell us, '... and he was baptized at once, with all his family. Then he brought them up into his house, and set food before them; and he rejoiced with all his household that he had believed in God.' (Acts 16.29-34) Paul and Silas baptized the jailer and his household in the middle of the night, even before satisying their own hunger as released prisoners. Baptism, not food, was the very first priority for someone who had decided to believe in Jesus.
- In Acts 2:38 & 41, as soon as the centurion Cornelius and his household broke into tongues of praise to God Peter turned to the believers who had come with him and asked, '"Can anyone forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.'
- Again, when the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip the evangelist, "See, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptized?" (Acts 8:37) it is evident that Philip must have told him that the way to respond to God's offer of salvation through faith in Jesus was to be baptized in water.
- In Philippi Paul and his companions preached the gospel beside the river to a lady named Lydia. She believed what they told her, was baptized there and then, and took them back her house to stay with her. (Acts 16:12-15)
- Finally, when Peter's audience asked him on the day of Pentecost what they must do to be saved he replied, '"Repent, and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins..." So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.' (Acts 2:38,41,42)
Evidently baptism in the early church always immediately followed belief in Jesus and repentance. It was not an optional extra to be engaged in, like a dessert after a main meal, which a diner might or might not opt for. Some churches seem to regard baptism in the same way that many couples today regard marriage. A couple will happily live together as though they were a husband and wife, and then at some point they decide it would be nice to get married. They are totally ignorant of the fact that in God's eyes to live together without being married is fornication, a sin that without repentance will exclude them from the Kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9,10) No minister should ever say to his congregation, "There will be a service of baptism next month. If you would like to be baptized please tell one of the leaders." Baptism is not an invitation, it is not an optional extra, it is a command of the Lord to anyone who wishes to be his disciple. There is no promise of salvation for anyone who has not been baptized. "He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be condemned." (Mark 16.16) We are united with Christ when we are baptized, and it is only then that we have the promise of resurrection and release from slavery to sin. Read Romans 6:3-6. Jesus told the pharisee Nicodemus that to enter the kingdom of God he must be born again 'of water and the Spirit'. (John 3:3-5) That is a clear reference to being baptized in water and in the Holy Spirit. So how can anyone think he has been born again if he has not even been baptized in water?
It is not that the ceremony of baptism in itself saves us. We are saved because we truly desire our sins to be washed away and to live a life of obedience to Jesus Christ, and baptism is the means by which Jesus told us to demonstrate this and to become his disciples. "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in(to) the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you..." (Matthew 28:19) "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)
The third requirement for salvation is a genuine commitment to obey Jesus as lord, with the help of the promised Holy Spirit. (Romans 8:3-5) Believing in Jesus means more than trusting in him as saviour: it means to commit ourselves to serve him as our lord and master out of gratitude for saving us. Without a willingness to obey Jesus there is no genuine faith. Do we think we can save ourselves? How can I honestly tell a mountain guide that I trust him to get me safely to the top if I then refuse to follow him up the mountain? Without a genuine commitment to obey Jesus we have no promise of salvation. Jesus made that totally clear. "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him." (John 3:36) Obedience means more than lip service."Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord', shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is is in heaven." (Matthew 7:21) Jesus concluded his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount with these words: "Every one who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock... Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand... and great was the fall of it." (Matthew 7:24-27)
To overcome sin, to produce the fruit of godliness, and to serve God faithfully and effectively, we need the Holy Spirit's help. The New Testament teaches and demonstrates that normally the Holy Spirit is given at or immediately following baptism. "Repent, and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:38) Repentance first, baptism next, and then the gift of the Holy Spirit to give us the power we need to serve God as he wants us to. This was even true of Jesus himself! He had no need to repent, but he did insist that he must undergo baptism, 'to fulfil all righteousness.' (Matthew 3:15) And what happened as a result? '...when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, as a dove...' (Luke 3:22) It was only after this that Jesus began his ministry. Again, in Acts 19:1-7 Luke tells us that Paul found some disciples at Ephesus who evidently had something missing. 'And he said to them, "Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed." And they said, "No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit."' These disciples had been baptized, but only to demonstrate their repentance from sin. Paul explained that they now had to commit their lives to the lordship of Jesus. 'On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Spirit came on them; and they spoke with tongues and prophesied.' (Acts 19:5,6) Once again the Holy Spirit was given after they had been baptized in the name of Jesus. Why should God want to endow anyone with supernatural power who hasn't yet demonstrated his submission to God's authority by being obedient to him?
In my opinion it is neither scriptural nor right to pray for someone to receive the Holy Spirit until he has demonstrated his commitment to Jesus as Saviour and Lord by being baptized. God gives the Holy Spirit 'to those who obey him.' (Acts 5:32)
In baptism we publicly declare that we are beginning a new life characterized by faith in Jesus, love for Jesus, and obedience to Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit whom God gives to us in response. We declare to God, to his angels and to the human witnesses who are present that we have repented of unbelief and disobedience, we have turned our back on sin in all its forms, and that from henceforth we shall not only trust in Jesus as our Saviour but we shall serve and obey him as our Lord. He died for us so that we might live for him, now and for ever, and that is what we intend to do. Being baptized is both the declaration and the proof of our decision to obey the Lord Jesus Christ to the maximum of our ability. God's subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit is his seal of approval on that decision. Our marriage to the Lamb is then registered in heaven. "What God has joined together let no man put asunder."
So what must we do to be saved? Not by attempting to earn salvation through good deeds. Salvation is a gift that we receive only by the mercy of God. Who receives it then? Whoever believes in Jesus as Saviour and Lord, who repents of all sin, and who follows Jesus's instructions to demonstrate this by being baptized. It's then that God can and will give us the ability to live holy and righteous lives and become fit to live with him for ever. Here's how Saint Paul put it in his letter to Titus, 3:5-7: '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 in the Holy Spirit which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that we might be justified (declared and made righteous) by grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.'
Thanks be to God!