Peter was a preacher. The all-time best sermon ever preached, was the one he delivered in the second chapter of Acts on the day of Pentecost when three thousand people were saved. When he finished speaking people asked the key question that should follow every sermon: "Men and brethren," they said, "what shall we do?" Having heard the gospel, they were ready to act. James, the brother of Jesus, may have been one of those three thousand souls. He later wrote, "Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves" (James 1:22).
"What shall we do?" the people asked and Peter answered, "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" (Acts 2:38). The directions Peter gave the first church on the day of Pentecost are the same directions I believe he would give our church if we were to ask the same question: what shall we do? First
I would rather paint than scrape, wouldn't you? And I had rather be forgiven than repent. Just as scraping comes before painting, so repentance comes before forgiveness. Although God does not (and people dare not!) demand repentance as a condition for bestowing pardon, repentance remains an essential condition for receiving it. After all, God does not save us in our sins; he saves us from our sins. And he is eager to do it. Nobody has to sit around being humiliated in the outer office waiting for God to get over being peeved with us before he issues a stamped official pardon. Like the father of the prodigal son, God can see repentance coming a great way off and is there to meet it with love. Repentance means a change of mind, a complete turn around in your thinking, an "about face" in your attitudes and behavior. It means more than, "I've looked at my past and I'm sorry." It means "I look at my present and I'm ready." Repentance comes first, then
Notice that Peter does not give this as an option; he gives it as a command. We must be baptized or be guilty of disobedience to a divine imperative. Genuine repentance leads to baptism as naturally as genuine faith leads to good works (James 2:17-20). I know some people are baptized under false pretenses. They see it as an initiation rite to church membership, not as a "baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4).
Baptism without faith is like a kiss without love just an empty formality that confuses people. It often inoculates people with a small dose of Christianity which keeps them from catching the real thing.
Faith without baptism is like the works of a clock without hands or face. It is like the political belief of someone who doesn't vote. It is like an elected president who refuses to take the oath of office.
Baptism is a sermon entitled "A New Beginning" written in a person's life (2 Corinthians 3:2-3). Baptism is a like a funeral. Those who are baptized are buried in water and stop breathing for a moment. Baptism declares something is dead and buried (Colossians 2:12-14). Your former values and behavior which were hostile to God were "nailed to the cross."
Baptism is also like a birth. It proclaims that something is alive and risen. "Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions" (Ephesians 2:4,5 NIV). "In baptism you were buried with [Christ] and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead" (Colossians 2:13 NIV). Baptism is all about death and life. Baptism is a divine appointment. Through it we are brought into union with Jesus Christ. "For surely you know that when we were baptized into union with Christ Jesus, we were baptized into union with his death. By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life" (Romans 6:3-4 TEV). The one who is baptized participates in Christ's death and resurrection.
Baptism is a divinely appointed occasion in which two levels of reality meet: nature and supernature, earth and heaven, this world and the next. It is a mystery beyond words. It is an act that says something that can't be fully spoken. When Paul was converted Ananias asked him. "What are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name" (Acts 22:16 NIV). I ask you the same question. What are you waiting for? Be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on the Lord.
The people in Jerusalem didn't wait. "They that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved" (Acts 2:41,47 KJV).
Notice who added them to the church: "The Lord!" Has the Lord added you to the church? If not, why not?
Repentance and baptism without church membership is like saluting the flag but refusing the obligations of citizenship. Although salvation is always personal, it is never private. Nobody can relate vertically to God, without relating horizontally to the rest of God's family (1 John 4:20).
There's an old quartet song that I enjoy for its music, but dislike for its theology. It says, "On the Jericho road there's room for just two, no more and no less, just Jesus and you." Wrong! On the Jericho road there's room for the whole family of God. If you try to privatize your relation with Jesus, you will lose it.
God created us for community and then recreated us for a new community, the church. In the beginning God said, "It is not good for man to be alone." You can't be Christian alone. Your Christian faith must be lived out in a community of faith. Many other religions are individualistic, but not Christianity. Shinto religion is individual and so were the ancient Greek religions. The Parthenon was not a meeting house. There was no pagan congregation. But Judaism and Christianity are unique in the emphasis they place on fellowship among believers. Jesus founded the church as the place for Christian community.
Some may say, "Of course, I belong to the church. I am an active member of the church universal, the body of Christ. But I don't belong to any specific local church." Notice, however, the church the Lord added those people to was a specific body of believers meeting in Jerusalem. A congregation, by the way, that was so quarrelsome and narrow-minded they refused to accept the apostle Paul until Barnabas vouched for him (Acts 9:26-27).
Belonging to the church in general is like loving the world
in general but nobody in particular. It is like praying for everybody
collectively but nobody specifically. It reminds me of Charlie Brown who
said, "I want to be a doctor when I grow up." His nemesis, Lucy,
said, "You can't be a doctor, Charlie Brown. To be a doctor you have
to love humanity."
Such love is phony and unreal because it is detached from anything concrete. The proof of mathematical competence is found in balancing one's checkbook, not in discussing Einstein's theory of relativity. The proof of one's love is found in loyalty to one's spouse and family, not in singing a romantic love ballad. Likewise, the proof of our devotion to the body of Christ is found in our commitment to the local church in real face-to-face relationships. Where can we find the church universal? It is always incarnate in some local church somewhere.
Membership says something about relationship. Joining the church is like getting married. The church is, after all, the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:21-33). And a membership certificate is like a wedding license. If I burned my wedding license, you might doubt my sanity, but except for that fact, my marriage would be as sound as ever. The license is just a piece of paper. I couldn't sell it to anyone for two cents. But I am not going to sell it or burn it. Why? Because it is a powerful symbol of the devotion and love Martha and I promised each other on May 20, 1957. Because I value my marriage, I value my license. Because I value my place among the people of God in his church, I value the signs and symbols of our mutual commitment. Our membership certificates are printed on parchment not Kleenex: they're made to last.
Some of you are de-facto members. You look like members, act like members, talk like members, think like members, give like members, but you are not really members. You lack one thing: a powerful symbol of commitment. You haven't put it on paper. That powerful symbol of your commitment to Christ and his church may be the next step you need to take in your Christian growth and life.
For some of you that may mean simply saying out-loud in words what you have been saying in deeds for years: "Yes, this is where I really belong." What shall we do? Our instructions haven't changed since Peter's day: repent, be baptized and be added to the church.
When you do what God wants you to do, he has two wonderful gifts for you: "the forgiveness of your sins, and .the gift of the Holy Spirit." They are yours today. What are you waiting for?