Why is it that we don’t talk about baptism in relation to conversion more? If you were to come to me and say, “Kyle, what must I do to be saved?” I might say to you, “Repent and Believe.” This answer, of course, would suffice. However, it is interesting that Peter says in Acts 2 to “repent and be baptized.” Why does he link repentance with baptism? Why does he link baptism with the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit? Well, the answer lies in history and a thorough reading of the New Testament. Today, we are often guilty of thinking in an individualistic mode. However, in the New Testament, to be baptized was to join the community of God’s redeemed people. Baptism was the public ceremony that marked people out as those who had received the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit through the name of Jesus Christ. Baptism was the outward sign that they placed faith in Jesus Christ.
It is important to notice that, with the exception of the thief on the cross who died after his conversion, there is no New Testament evidence to support the idea that people were converted in the first century and yet not baptized. In fact, baptism very often in the New Testament almost stands for conversion. I will attempt to share an illustration that a theologian named Don Carson has used before. In the late 1920’s and 30’s there was a converted baseball player named Billy Sunday, who went around the country preaching the gospel; he had great influence. He would travel and preach and set up this massive tent that would seat thousands of people. People would walk down the aisle to him during invitation and make a profession of faith. He discovered that if the tent had been pitched on dry ground, then when people would walk down, they would stir up a bunch of dust that led to people hacking and coughing. Alternatively, if the ground was wet, then they could potentially slip on the mud. So he put sawdust down in all of the aisles.
Now, because of this sawdust move, people started using the phrase “to hit the sawdust trail.” So if we were living in the 30’s, if you asked me when I was converted, I could say, “I hit the sawdust trail in Chicago in 1931,” and everyone would understand what I meant by that. In addition, it became so common that even if you had never gone forward in a Billy Sunday tent, nevertheless when you got converted you could have said “I hit the sawdust trail,” and everyone knew what you meant, even though no one would truly say that you needed to walk on sawdust to become converted. Thus, “hitting the sawdust trail” was so tied up with conversion that it came to almost stand for conversion.
Well, baptism functioned much like that in the New Testament. It was so connected with conversion in the first century that you might say to someone in Corinth, “Oh, When did you become a Christian?” and they might say, “I was baptized in AD 47.” A scholar named F.F. Bruce rightly states in his commentary on Acts, “The idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New Testament.” So we need to avoid two primary errors when it comes to our view of baptism.
The first is to treat baptism as though if saves—as if something in the water or the ritual itself confers regenerating grace to the recipient. The second error is to treat baptism as an optional add-on to the Christian life. At a conference I was at recently, a pastor stood up and said that his church had the goal of having 2,000 salvations and 1,000 baptisms in 3 years. When I heard that, in my head I was asking, “Why do you have 1,000 less baptisms as a goal?” That doesn’t make any sense to me because the New Testament closely links baptism with conversion. Perhaps the best analogy that I can think of is circumcision. Circumcision cannot make you a Jew—but all Jews are circumcised. Baptism cannot make you a Christian, but all Christians are baptized. Do you have to be baptized to be saved? No, the Bible makes clear that we are saved by grace through faith. However, it is important to recognize that in the New Testament, conversion and baptism are a package deal and we must not fall into the error of seeing baptism as an optional add on. We must see it as a necessary step of obedience after conversion.
Senior Pastor of CCR