Summary: When some teenagers asked me a question about the relationship between baptism and the Holy Spirit, it forced me to rethink some of my assumptions. Here’s how I presented to them.
It’s interesting to note that when we take certain verses out of their context, we end up creating our own systems to replace God’s “system.” God’s system is called covenant or relationship. Our systems tend to be what we can control. But, of course, we aren’t the ones in control when God is leading, guiding, inspiring, and empowering us.
With that in mind, I’d like for us to revisit a very familiar verse from the annals of the early church. At Pentecost, many in the crowd are moved to action, but they aren’t quite sure exactly what to do in order to be saved or experience the life eternal that Jesus promised. In Acts 2:38 we read: “But Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ into the writing off of your sins, and (as a result) accept the gift of the Holy Spirit.” [my translation] As we read this, it seems straightforward enough. In fact, it seems like a clear sequence of causality. It seems like you change your way of living before you are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and then, you receive the “writing off” or pardon for your sins before you receive the Holy Spirit. It seems all neat and very clear-cut.
Unfortunately, or perhaps quite fortunately, it has been my experience that God doesn’t submit to our human rules of “cause and effect.” That is fortunate because it keeps us from treating God like some “God in a box” where we turn the causal crank and God pops out (more like a Cosmic Jeeves than a clown) with the desired effect. Truth be told, we can try to force God’s hand in that manner, but since He is the Lord of the Manor instead of a mere valet to His children, it’s not going to work. I personally like the fact that God is not a “mechanism” but a “person” that relates to us as “persons” instead of some checklist of rules.
Of course, the unfortunate aspect of this is that relationships are difficult and not always straightforward. Relationships require a commitment of time and effort beyond memorizing the rules and trying to figure out what we can get by with. So, it probably won’t surprise you that the Bible doesn’t give us a consistent sequence with regard to forgiveness of sins, baptism, and the reception of the Holy Spirit. It looks like we have that in Acts 2:38, but what do we do with Peter’s own message in Acts 3:19. In the latter verse, repentance is described as the first step toward forgiveness of sins, but there is no mention of baptism—even though verse 20 describes a refreshing from the Lord (which would likely be the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives) and verse 21 identifies Jesus as the Messiah.
And that isn’t the only place we see salvation without baptism. In Acts 8:22, Peter tells his hearers to repent and pray to the Lord Jesus in order that the intent of the heart would be forgiven. And before we move on to the next example, let me note that it is just as troubling for those who hold to a “sequence” that the believers from Samaria in Acts 8:14-17 had already been baptized in the name of Jesus but did not “receive” the Holy Spirit until Peter and John laid hands upon them.
In Acts 20:21, Paul shares about how repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ go hand-in-hand. Remember this word because I believe it is the route out of our conundrum, our difficulty of understanding why Peter would have preached what seems to be a sequence without, possibly, intending a sequence. Even more so, we see Paul telling King Agrippa in Acts 26:20 that he taught repentance to Jews and Gentiles alike in order that they could live lives consistently with that repentance.
Now, I’ve already shared how the believers from Samaria didn’t receive the Holy Spirit until after Peter and John laid their hands upon them—well after they had been baptized. Now, consider the case of Cornelius and his company in Acts 10. Verse 44 has the Holy Spirit coming upon Cornelius and company BEFORE they are baptized in verses 47-48. Then, we seem to be somewhat in sequence again when the Ephesians receive the Holy Spirit after they are re-baptized in the name of Christ Jesus (Acts 19:1-7).
So, there doesn’t seem to be a “causal” link between baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. And, since we’re also seen forgiveness and pardon without baptism, there doesn’t seem to be a “causal” link between baptism and the forgiveness of sins, either.
So, why did Peter frame this “invitation” or “altar call” in this way? I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Peter saw all of these actions as working together, overlapping and sometimes simultaneously, but sometimes delayed according to God’s timing and purpose. Please bear with me, though. I’m not just making this up as I go along. Just as the other verses we looked at in the Book of Acts cause me to believe that there is no sequence of “cause and effect” here, there is something in the text that causes me to see things a little differently than the usual checklist or sequence approach.