This is a class for the converted. And it’s not a class on systematic theology. In other words, I’m going to skip lots of really, really important stuff, because I assume the class members are already convinced of such things as why they need to be saved in the first place and who God is. Rather, this class begins with a review and then an expansion on some very familiar concepts.
The five-finger exercise
We traditionally teach — pretty much correctly, I think — that to be saved we must hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized. This teaching goes back to the Restoration Movement’s first missionary, Walter Scott (not the author in the card game Authors, you know, the guy who wrote Ivanhoe and such. He lived in England. Our guy lived on the American frontier, in places like Ohio and Kentucky).
It’s Biblical, but we need to take time to understand it more deeply. Consider “hear,” “believe,” and “confess.” We hear the gospel, believe the gospel, and confess the gospel. More precisely, we hear, believe, and confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. In other words, we have faith in Jesus.
These aren’t truly distinct steps. I mean, you just can’t believe without having heard. And we can’t baptize you or consider you a Christian until you’ve told us what you believe. These are all just part of coming to a faith that others can see.
“Repent” means to turn again, that is, to change directions from being self-willed and following the flesh to following the will of Jesus.
Now, notice that we do neither of these perfectly. Our faith can be weak at times, even after we’ve been Christians for years. And our penitence sometimes lapses. We often sin despite desperately wanting not to. Sometimes the weakness of the flesh overwhelms the spirit and our commitment to Jesus.
But we understand that God is not demanding perfect faith or perfect penitence.
Bringing in Jesus
Odd, isn’t it, that we feel perfectly comfortable rattling off the “five steps” and not even mentioning “Jesus” or even “the gospel.” We really need to ponder how these steps relate to the Savior.
“Faith” means to believe in Jesus, but “believe” is just the verb for “faith.” In the Greek, they are two forms of the very same word. We need to go deeper. You see, faith is, first, a recognition of who Jesus was and is. It’s accepting him as the Son of God, the promised Messiah, a part of the Godhead.
We have no faith if we deny his divinity or his humanity, although we can be less than clear as to how he could be both. We must believe that Jesus was a real human who appeared in actual history, died on the cross, was buried, and resurrected.
Consider these critical verses–
(Matt. 16:16-18) Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ [Greek for Messiah], the Son of the living God.” 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
(1 Cor. 2:2) For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
(1 Cor. 15:2-5) By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance : that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.
(Gal. 3:1-2) You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?
(1 John 4:2-3) This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world.
The New Testament writers give the impression that their preaching to the unconverted about Jesus was simple. They focused on the story of Jesus, especially the crucifixion and resurrection.
“Faith” in the New Testament is not a system of doctrinal truths. We aren’t saved by our belief in the doctrine of divorce and remarriage or the five acts of worship or the role of women. Rather, “faith” is what we expect people to know before being baptized.
Now, penitence is actually a part of faith. By making it a separate “step,” we tend to separate it from faith, which has led to a lot of confusion. And occasionally the New Testament writers make this separation as well, but always for a purpose.
(Rom. 10:9-10) That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
What we are asked to confess is that Jesus is Lord. In other words, we admit that we are not in charge. Jesus is. We accept him as Lord and yield our heart to him.
I think we sometimes make a mistake by not routinely asking our converts to confess their penitence as well as their faith in Jesus as Son of God. Occasionally, someone asks to be rebaptized because they failed to understand the Lordship of Jesus. I don’t think rebaptism is in order, but wouldn’t we do better to honor Romans 10:9 and be sure our converts understand this essential principle?
(Luke 17:3-5) So watch yourselves. “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. 4 If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
We use two definitions of “repent.” In discussing our initial salvation, we teach that “repent” means to change the direction of our lives. We don’t actually stop all sin, but we consistently try to do better. This is true.
But when we deal with a sin that we particularly despise, we insist that the person must repent to be forgiven, meaning that he must stop altogether. Hence, some would say I’ve not truly repented of lust if I continue to struggle with lust or if I’ve never been taught on the subject and so don’t even try to stop.
But “repent” means but one thing, and it addresses the general tenor and direction of your life. If stopping a sin entirely were essential to being forgiven, then we couldn’t be forgiven of all sin unless we repented of all sin, meaning that we stopped all sin! It’s an impossible standard, and the very impossible standard Jesus died to save us from.
(Acts 3:19) Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord … .
(Acts 26:20) First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.
“Turn to God” is synonymous with “repent.” In each case, the speaker is using Hebraic parallelism to emphasize his point.
In short, the “plan of salvation” is better expressed in terms of how we relate to Jesus —
Hear, believe, confess = believe = accept Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the Living God
Repent = turn to God = accept Jesus as Lord.
Both are often referred to as “faith.”
And this brings us to baptism.
The New Testament repeatedly associates our salvation with our baptism. However, the New Testament never speaks in sacramental terms. There’s no magic in the water. The sacrifice of Jesus brings forgiveness, not the getting wet. And yet, there’s no denying that God does the saving at the time we get wet.
Jesus himself submitted to baptism as an example to us all–
(Matt. 3:13-17) Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
Three things happened at Jesus’ baptism that typify our own:
- The Spirit descended on him
- He was declared God’s Son
- He was declared well pleasing to God
Now, Jesus already had the Spirit, already was God’s Son, and already was well pleasing. But these things happened to show us what happens in our own baptism. In effect, Jesus ordained and approved John’s practice — making it his own — so he could encourage his followers to do the same.
(Matt. 28:19-20) “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
And his concluding command was that we are to baptize those we convert.
(Acts 2:38-41) Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Peter clearly says that baptism is “for” the forgiveness of sins. “Baptize” in the Greek is most literally translated “immerse.” The preposition translated “for” is eis, which means “into” when following a verb involving physical movement. Hence, a more accurate translation would be “be immersed into the forgiveness of sins”! Again, Peter certainly doesn’t teach that the water forgives, but baptism is a picture of what’s happening in the heavenly realms.
(Titus 3:4-7) But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
Paul teaches a similar lesson in Titus, showing that while we are being physically washed we are having the Spirit “poured out” on us generously, resulting in our justification and hope of eternal life. This washes away our sin — a common expression in the New Testament.
(1 Pet. 3:21-22) [A]nd this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a good conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand–with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
Just so, Peter makes clear that while salvation is to occur at baptism, the power is in the resurrection, not the water. The “pledge of a good conscience” is simply repentance.
Now, we need to pause to consider a couple of words. “Justification” is a word Paul likes to use for what we often call “being saved.” It is, in fact, a legal word, declaring a defendant innocent. To quote N. T. Wright—
Justification in the present is based on God’s past accomplishment in Christ, and anticipates the future verdict. This present justification has exactly the same pattern.
(a) God vindicates in the present, in advance of the last day, all those who believe in Jesus as Messiah and Lord (Rom. 3.21-31; 4.13-25; 10.9-13). … ‘Justification’ … is God’s declaration that the person is now in the right, which confers on them the status ‘righteous’. (We may note that, since ‘righteous’ here, within the lawcourt metaphor, refers to ‘status’, not ‘character’, we correctly say that God’s declaration makes the person ‘righteous’, i.e. in good standing.)
(b) This present declaration constitutes all believers as the single people, the one family, promised to Abraham (Gal. 2.14 – 3.29; Rom. 3.27 – 4.17), the people whose sins have been dealt with as part of the fulfilled promise of covenant renewal (Jer. 31.31-34). Membership in this family cannot be played off against forgiveness of sins: the two belong together.
(c) The event in the present which corresponds to Jesus’ death and resurrection in the past, and the resurrection of all believers in the future, is baptism into Christ (Gal. 3.26-9; Rom. 6.2-11). Baptism is not, as some have supposed, a ‘work’ which one ‘performs’ to earn God’s favour.
Paul also speaks of “sanctification,” which literally means “holy-fication.” It’s the process of becoming actually holy, while justification makes you holy in God’s eyes and begins the process of sanctification.
The next word is “hope.” It’s actually a lousy translation. You see, in English, “hope” often refers to a chance — even a very slim chance — of success. We may be losing and overwhelmed, but there’s still “hope” while we still draw breath! I “hope” someone dies and leaves me a million dollars! I “hope” Alabama wins a national championship every year!
“Hope” in the New Testament is a confident expectation that God will keep his promises. Hope is dead certainty that God will reward his children.
Paul said when on trial,
(Acts 26:6) And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today.
And he promises that —
(Rom. 5:5) And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.
Hope doesn’t disappoint because it’s based on the word of the Creator of the universe, who cannot lie.
(Heb. 6:18) God did this so that, by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged.