OK, Evangelical Christians, straight talk time. Every evangelistic tract I have ever seen (think of those handed out by folks knocking on your front door), and most radio and televised sermons focus upon answering one big question: “how can you get saved” from an adverse eternal judgment by God?
My denomination has almost always pointed potential new converts to Acts 2:38. In this passage, the crowd of people on the Day of Pentecost has just been convicted in their hearts by the Apostle Peter’s Sermon holding them responsible for the death of their Messiah, Jesus Christ. When the reality of their dire predicament hits home, the crowd asks “what shall we do?” Peter answers their question by telling the people to repent, get baptized and that they will then receive the Holy Spirit. However, many people today fail to understand that the crowd was not asking Peter how to “avoid hell and get to heaven.”
In Jesus’ day, the over-arching religious question on the minds of Jewish people wasn’t how they could get to Heaven. What they wanted to know was “when will the Messiah come and restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:8)? In his first apostolic sermon (Acts 2), Peter explained to the crowd gathered on the Day of Pentecost that they had just helped to crucify the very Messiah they had long been waiting for. Thus, the crowd’s question about what they needed to do was a kingdom question. What they wanted to know (in view of their murderous mistake) is what could be done so they wouldn’t be excluded from the new kingdom God was establishing.
Peter’s Acts 2 sermon is equally applicable today. People should also ask themselves, “what must we do” to participate in the kingdom that God is restoring? Repentance and baptism are still part of the answer. But the Bible doesn’t really present these actions as a formula for getting to Heaven and avoiding Hell. Unfortunately, many Christians today often do try to present the gospel almost as if it is a transactional process similar to purchasing a “fire insurance” policy.
For a Christian, repentance and baptism are not “one-and-done” transactions. In turning away (repentance) from the old, worldly life that is passing away, and initiating a new life (baptism), fledgling Christians begin learning to live as followers of our king, Jesus. Baptism inducts us into a new sort of life animated by the Holy Spirit. Our transformation into people of God (“genuine human beings,” to use theologian N.T. Wright’s synonym for Christians) fits us for ushering heavenly values to earth as we live under God’s reign. This is what Jesus expected of us when He said we are to become “salt of the earth and lights to the world.”
You could say that salvation is the natural outcome of a life that has been transformed into conformity with the values Jesus advocates in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. Chapters 5-7), rather than something that can be produced by on-the-spot, formulaic actions we undertake. The things we can do (i.e. repentance, baptism, etc.) are essentially what fit us to begin living a new and better kind of life in keeping with heavenly rather than worldly values.
To say it plainly, repentance and baptism are about a lot more than “fire insurance” to escape Hell’s flames. To participate in the eternal kingdom of God, we must learn what it means to live repentant lives that produce “fruit in keeping with repentance.” Repentance isn’t something you can just state that you have done by word of mouth. A Christian’s life should demonstrate heavenly values (fruit) marked by peacemaking, enemy love, forgiveness, grace, hospitality and unity. If that doesn’t occur, your repentance is questionable and the baptism you subsequently received may be little more than an ordinary bath or a jump into a swimming pool.
Consider that when Christians use fear and high pressure (“now or never”) tactics to scare potential converts into undertaking formulaic steps or actions to “get saved,” it often results in people signing up merely for the “fire insurance.” They may be scared enough to do the minimum they believe is necessary (e.g., put their hand on the radio and say the sinner’s prayer) to avoid eternal torture in Hell, but they often never embrace the rich kingdom life that results from becoming Messiah people.
God is now in the process of restoring His kingdom. That’s why He has poured out the Spirit and exalted Jesus to His right side as our Lord and Messiah. The kingdom won’t appear because new believers say seemingly magical words or take hocus-pocus apparent types of actions. God’s kingdom will appear as we profess our faith in Jesus as Lord, and then live new, spirit-formed lives that simulate that of the Messiah Himself. Just like those 1st century folks on the Day of Pentecost, Peter’s summons to repentance and baptism is an invitation for people today to receive the Holy Spirit and become transformed into new “Jesus-like” people who live under the reign of a new, divine king. Don’t miss out on it.