A common belief regarding baptism and its relationship with the Gospel is that it is immaterial to the process of God by which a penitent person moves from being lost to becoming saved. For proof, the Apostle Paul is employed as testimony to affirm this position (1 Cor. 1.14-17); specifically, the language that says, “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel…” (1 Cor. 1.17).
The problem with this view is that it fails to take into account the context of 1 Corinthians. Baptism and the Gospel are to not be divorced. Wayne Jackson has written an excellent brief note on this verse:
In this setting Paul is addressing a problem in the church at Corinth. Some of those Christians were inordinately enamored with the person who had immersed them — even to the point of adopting the baptizer’s name as a religious appellation (vv. 12-13). In view of such a perversion, the apostle was thankful that he had personally immersed only a few of these people (vv. 14-16).
It was within that context that Paul said: “For Christ sent me not to baptize.” The word “baptize” here denotes “to administer the rite” of baptism (J.H. Thayer, Greek Lexicon, p. 94). Paul was not sent to be an administrator of baptism; his primary mission was to proclaim the gospel. But the inspired apostle was not disassociating baptism from the gospel; rather, he was suggesting that no special adoration was to be attached to the one administering the rite.[link]
As we conclude our study of conversions in the book of Acts, let us reflect on how those first auditors of the Gospel responded to the message of God, and appeal to them as how we ought to appropriate God’s mercy today.
THE CONVERTS OF BEREA (Acts 17.10-15)
After fleeing the politically charged uproar in Thessalonica, Paul and Silas began preaching the Gospel in Berean synagogue. They were met with an audience of rigorous Bible students, “they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (17.11).
The result was a mass conversion:
Many of them therefore believed with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men. (17.12)
Unfortunately, their stay was interrupted by Jews from Thessalonica. As a consequence, “the brothers” (17.14) sent the missionaries away by the sea.
There is a transitional moment here in the narrative not to be overlooked. At some point, these Bereans were simply regarded as “Jews” (17.10-11); however that changed during the campaign, because as Paul departs these Bereans were described as “brothers”. The moment was when they “received” (17.11) the gospel message and “believed” it (17.12).
In other conversion narratives, converts are described as “receiving the word” (Acts 2.41, 8.14, 11.1). In each of these cases in Acts, this phrase is followed by a note about belief, or repentance, with every case mentioning baptism (Acts 2.41, 8.12-13, 10.47-48). But here, the fact of belief is employed in a comprehensive sense, including all acts of faith which man is responsible for (faith, repentance, confession, and baptism, see also Acts 18.8).
THE ATHENIAN CONVERTS (Acts 17.16-34)
After Paul preaches an elegant religio-philosophical argument for the true God, playing off the Athenians altar dedicated to “an unknown god” (Acts17.23); moreover, Paul moves from that basis and affirms the gospel message of Jesus as the resurrected Christ and judge of the actions of humanity (Acts 17.24-31).
Through this message God called them to repentance (Acts 17.30); the reception was mixed:
But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. (17.34)
As in the case of the Thessalonians, Luke describes the conversion of the Athenians with a note that “joined” (Acts 17.4) and “believed” Paul.
These actions are two sides of the same coin. To join Paul is to believe his message, and so these terms are comprehensive in scope designed to fulfill the obligation of repentance which leads to baptism (Acts 2.38).
THE CORINTHIAN CONVERTS (Acts 18.1-11)
After spending some time providing for his needs employing himself as a tentmaker, Paul eventually began to focus all his attentions upon spreading the word (Acts 18.5).
Despite an initial rejection by the synagogue (Acts 18.5-6), and a reception by a gentile believer of God (“worshipper of God” 17.7), many Corinthians responded:
Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed in the Lord, together with his entire household. Many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized. (18.8)
Again, we see that basic, but comprehensive, terms are used to describe the conversion process. “Crispus believed in the Lord”, which is exactly what the Corinthians did: heard Paul’s message, believed that “the Christ was Jesus” (Acts 18.5), and were baptized (1 Cor. 1.16). The conversion process is clearly described.
CONFUSION AND CONVERTS IN EPHESUS (Acts 18.24-19.10)
John the Baptist’s Baptism versus Christian Baptism. It is no shock to readers of the Gospel Accounts that John the Baptist preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3.2). And this message leads him to baptize many. Mark says, “John appeared baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1.4). To his credit, John affirmed the transitional nature of his ministry, “He [=Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3.30, Mark 1.7-8). The Gospel Accounts demonstrate that both the message and baptism of John is preparatory.
In preparation for the coming kingdom, the resurrected Jesus affirms his authority, his message, and his age-lasting baptism:
And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28.18-20).
As a result of the new era, Paul would later affirm that there is “one baptism” (Eph. 4.4). This is the baptism of Jesus, empowered by his authority, which is to be distinguished from the baptism of John.
Priscilla and Aquila, and Apollos (Acts 18.24-28). The significance of the story of Apollos is that he had the right message regarding Jesus; this is not in dispute (18.24-25). What the Scripture says, however, is that his message was flawed in that he “knew only the baptism of John”. It is to this issue, that Priscilla and Aquila address themselves too, “and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18.26). If we were left with only this information, the nature of the correction would not be known, but we are not.
Paul and Certain Learners (Acts 19.1-7). In Ephesus, Paul meets a group of twelve learners (“disciples”) and begins to ask about the reception of the Holy Spirit in their baptism (Acts 2.38-39). But they had not; the reason? They said, “we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (19.2). Ultimately, the learners admit that they were baptized “into John’s baptism” (19.3).
The flaw Apollos propagated, is the flaw these learners had practiced – theirs was an outmoded baptism (19.4). Consequently, Paul baptized them “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (19.5), and he laid his hands on them to bestow them with the Holy Spirit (19.6-7). If baptism is not important to the Gospel message, why correct Apollos and these twelve learners? Theirs was wrong.
The Gospel of Luke concludes with the words of the Lord in the following way:
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 proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24.46-49)
The Book of Acts sets out the manner in which “repentance and forgiveness of sins” were proclaimed in the name of the resurrected Christ. What we have labelled as narratives of conversions is based upon a common word used in Acts about “turning” to God.
What we see in these studies is that such preaching of the Gospel was of “repentance and forgiveness of sins”, and turned the penitent to God. The process God brought mercy upon people was very natural: (1) the heard the Gospel, (2) believed it, (3) repented of they behavior, (4) were baptized for the remission of sins, and (6) joined themselves to the Jesus movement.
Let us be clear, the Bible has much more to say about salvation and conversion, but such a study is incomplete without first considering these vital elements to conversion as revealed in the Book of Acts.