Christian Initiation

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Tonight we are starting a new series of studies on the Church. We shall be expounding various passages of the Bible. But they will all be related to church life from the very first days of the New Testament church. You read about that period in the Acts of the Apostles chapter 2. So the subjects for the next few weeks all come from Acts 2.38-47. And our first subject is Christian Initiation - or "becoming a Christian". On this occasion, in this introductory study, I shall be looking at Acts 2.22 - 41.

But by way of introduction can I say just two things. First, the mechanics of how you become a Christian are not the important thing. Perhaps there is someone here tonight who believes in Christ but you are worried because you didn't have the same experience as someone else? Perhaps you've read about famous people like Paul in the Bible or people like John Wesley in Church history and their dramatic conversions. You then wonder if you are a real Christian because nothing like that happened to you? Well, let me tell you straightaway, to set your mind at rest - the Bible is more interested in convertedness than the mechanics of conversion.

But, secondly, you do need to become a Christian. You need to be "born again", to quote Jesus. You are not born a Christian by natural birth. That is why there is a difference between the believer and the non-believer, and the church and the world. That is why there is a broad road that leads to destruction and a narrow road that leads to life, and a wide gate onto that broad road but a small gate onto that narrow road. And you have to find that gate and then enter through it. Nor is that me talking. That is Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7.13-14). But there are many people, even clergymen in churches, who will deny all that. They will say that we are all on that road that leads to life. That most certainly is not what the Bible teaches.

My grandfather was converted at the end of the 19th century. As people are encouraged to do, he immediately went to his local vicar in London, and told him what had happened. Because he had four sons, he also asked if there could be a Sunday School for them. The vicar replied in words to this effect: "Oh! don't bother. All of this will soon wear off." Fortunately for our family my grandfather was the sort of man that immediately left that church and tried to find one where the Bible was followed and young people taught the Christian faith. Yes, you do need to become a Christian. You aren't born one.

Well, becoming a Christian is our subject for tonight. And to help us focus on our passage I have three simple questions: first, WHEN? secondly, WHAT? and, thirdly, HOW?

First, WHEN?

When does someone become a Christian? Answer - when God has taken the initiative. Your becoming a believer depends ultimately on God, not on you. Let me explain. One, it depends on God having sent Jesus Christ into the world and his working through him - verse 22 (this is Peter preaching on the Day of Pentecost):

" Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him."

Two, it depends on God's plan for Christ not only to live but to die at Calvary. So what happened that first Good Friday was not some tragic accident of history. No! It had been planned from before the foundation of the world. The Cross proves not only the wonderful love of God in Christ bearing your sins, in your place, but it also proves his absolute sovereignty. Look at verse 23:

" This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross."

God, indeed, is in total control of history - including your personal history. The Jews and the Romans were only doing what God had planned. Three, it depends on that first Easter - verse 24:

" But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him."

Four, it depends on Christ's ascension to heaven and his present reign in heaven. Verse 33 tells you that Christ is ...

" Exalted to the right hand of God,"

Five, it depends on (verse 33) "the promised Holy Spirit" who was poured out in a totally new way for the Church on the day of Pentecost. So a new age has begun. Six, it depends on someone being called by God to preach and explain all these things. So Peter says (verse 36):

" Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."

Seven, finally and vitally, it depends on people being convicted by the Holy Spirit of God - verse 37:

" When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart."

It then, and only then, depends on people responding and doing something themselves - verse 37:

" When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, 'Brothers, what shall we do?'"

But remember, while they (and people still today) must do something themselves from their side, from God's side he is still in control. Jesus said, John 6.44:

" No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day."

This is a complete mystery - God's sovereignty and human freedom. But it is true to human experience as well as the teaching of the Bible. So when does someone become a Christian? Answer: after God has acted in history in Jesus Christ coming to live, die, rise again and ascend to heaven; after God has sent the Holy Spirit, and calls people to preach and teach; and after the Holy Spirit has convicted people of their sin and need. That is why prayer is so vital for God to work. Becoming a Christian is all about what God has done and still does do. But you then have to do something.

That brings us to our second heading tonight.

Secondly, WHAT?

The answer is twofold. Look at verse 38:

" Peter replied [to the question 'what shall we do?'], '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.'"

First, there is to be repentance. You say, "what is repentance?" Well, literally it is a change of mind. You admit your need - your need for a new life that is right with God. You admit that your present life needs, in some way, replacing. You are "wrong" with God and you know it. And you admit that the only way to have that new life is to trust absolutely in the mercy of Christ and then to obey his directions as your living, personal Saviour and Lord.

The bible has all sorts of ways of describing repentance and the faith that goes with it. Jesus himself, for example, says "come to me". That immediately shows it is more than academic. It involves approaching Christ, by his Holy Spirit, and trusting him and relying on him - or to use Luther's term "closing" with him. Here's how the old Anglican Catechism defines the repentance and the faith needed. It says that

" Repentance [is] whereby [people] forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God"

And you can see from verse 38 that the key promises are "for the forgiveness of sins" and "the gift of the Holy Spirit" for new life and power. Now, all that has to do with the mind, or the heart. It is all inward. But the New Testament teaches that you also need to do something that is outward.

So, secondly, after saying "Repent", Peter says "and be baptized". Peter says that something outward must happen. People must not just have something going on in their inner consciousness. But you say, "what exactly is baptism? And why this ritual? And what does it mean?" They are good questions. Let me try to answer them.

First, what is baptism? A simple answer, is that it is a "sacrament". That's a technical name for part of a ritual that theologians say is an "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace". The outward and visible sign of baptism is water, and the inward and spiritual grace that baptism points to is repentance and new life. Nor is it odd that Christians should need ritual acts. Human beings need and find rituals helpful - to sign and seal achievements or new relationships.

You have "cups" in sport - something the Newcastle Falcons are now more familiar with than Newcastle United. In weddings there are "rings" that the bride and groom give to each other. At a coronation there is a Crown that is put on the head of the Monarch. And in the Old Testament the Jews had circumcision. These physical rituals are valuable in all sorts of ways. They have emotional and psychological value. They set standards and stimulate effort - a cup-competition does that. They identify people - certainly Jewish circumcision did. And they mark important new relationships as do wedding rings and royal crowns.

So what is baptism - it is a ritual involving water and as a matter of fact it encourages believers; it identifies them as Christians; and it marks a new relationship with Jesus Christ. Human beings need rituals. And Christians when they are converted don't cease to be human beings.

But "why this ritual?" Well, it was a common religious ritual at the time of Jesus. We know that John, Jesus' cousin, majored on baptism and Jesus' disciples, like John, baptized people before Pentecost. By John's time Jewish ceremonial washings were connected with cleansing from defilement. So it was appropriate as a sign or symbol of "washing away sin". And when John baptized Jesus, the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus in a unique and remarkable way - in the form of a dove. So baptism is a good sign for cleansing from sin and for the coming of the Holy Spirit. But we must be cautious. The bible doesn't tell us all we would like to know about everything and that includes baptism. There is a very important principle expressed in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 29.29:

" The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children."

God hasn't revealed everything. He has revealed sufficient. He has revealed that we are to be baptized. But much else that relates to baptism, we are not told. So that is why a number of issues about baptism belong to secondary matters about which Christians are at liberty to disagree. And that is important to remember when we come to ask, "what does baptism mean?" We can see how the New Testament writers take baptism as a good visual aid for teaching fundamental truths. Paul does that in Romans 6 where he says, "all of us who were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death." But he clearly doesn't mean us to take that in an absolute or automatic way. That is clear from the case of Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 who was physically baptized with water but spiritually nowhere. There is no magic in baptism. That is clear from the dying thief on the Cross. He wasn't baptised with water but it seems that he was "baptized into the death of Christ". Jesus said to him: " today you will be with me in paradise." And John the Baptist distinguished actual water baptism from what the Holy Spirit did in a person's life, which is not physical but spiritual. So in Mark 1 verse 7 he says of Jesus:

" I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."

And Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12.13:

" We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body".

Nor is this difficult. The context will tell you if it is a literal or an extended or metaphorical (or picture language) use of the word "baptize".

So - baptism is a public water ritual administered to a believer that's a sign of the forgiveness of sins and of the coming of the Holy Spirit. And it seals or marks your commitment to Christ. That is so clear if you are a convert from Hinduism or from a Muslim background.

Thirdly, HOW?

How do you repent and be baptized? Should it be as on the day of Pentecost? You have an evangelistic service; you pray a prayer and baptize those who come forward? Or can you wait a bit to prepare people for baptism? It is not clear from the New Testament. In the history of the Church there have been various practices. In this question "how?" you especially need to be cautious. Many cases in the Acts of the Apostles of how people became Christians and were baptized are different. That fits in with the teaching of Jesus. When he talked about people being born again in John 3 verse 8, he said:

" The wind [or the Spirit] blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

And what about the mode of baptism - should you be immersed or should water be poured on you from above? Both methods are allowed in the Church of England. But again the Bible is not clear. Some Christians insist on immersion.

However, if baptism is a sign of burial with Christ, remember that Jesus was not buried vertically in the ground, but horizontally in a rock tomb. His rising was not so much "up" as "out". And if baptism is a sign of the coming of the Holy Spirit, pouring is good sign. And if baptism is a sign of spiritual cleansing, remember that many people who wash in rivers to this day, don't submerge themselves. They scoop up and pour water over themselves, as they stand ankle deep in the water. They certainly did that in the Nile when I lived and worked in the Sudan.

And what about children of believing parents being baptized? The trouble here is with the abuse of infant baptism in State churches where non-believing parents bring children for baptism. But is there a true use? The majority of the denominations say, "Yes!" - including Anglicans, Presbyterians and Methodists. So we at JPC baptize (only) children of believing parents. Baptist, and the majority of Pentecostal and House Churches say, "No!"

But what does the Bible say? Again it is not clear. So again there must be caution and liberty to disagree. For example, when the Philippian gaoler was converted, we read that "he and all his family were baptized" (Acts 16.33). Did that include his children? And what do you make of Paul's remark in 1 Corinthians 7 verse 14 where he is commenting about believing partners in a marriage "sanctifying" the unbelieving partner. He then says, "otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy." That, to me, makes more sense if their children had been baptized with them in their own baptism. This seems to have happened in contemporary Jewish baptism of Jewish converts. But the evidence for that, I have to admit, is late.

Then there is the practice of Old Testament circumcision, where children of the covenant were included with the adults. Then there is the argument from history. The first evidence we have of the details of baptisms of any sort comes from the 2nd century AD. Infants were being baptized then. However, that often was not wanted. People, wrongly, wanted to put off baptism till just before death. But they never argued infant baptism was not biblical or un-apostolic.

On balance, I personally am convinced that infants were included in household baptisms, for such was the strength of the family. But I can understand why others - and there are some in this church - take a different view. So at JPC we have Thanksgiving Services also. However, I cannot understand when others are too dogmatic. Of course, if children in believing families are baptized, in the sense of having the water part of the initiation ritual first, they must have an occasion to confirm that action later by publicly professing faith in Christ.

But all these are secondary matters. What is primary is not the outward and visible sign over which Christians take different views, but the inward and spiritual grace. To sum up - how do you become a Christian? Answer, you must "repent" (with all that repentance means). Who tonight needs to do that? If you want to get off that broad road that leads to destruction, you must change your mind and commit your life to Christ. Then you need to go public. And the biblical public way is baptism; for adults that is so straight forward.

Let me conclude, then, with verse 40 of Acts 2:

" With many other words [Peter] warned them; and he pleaded with them, 'Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.'"

Is that not so relevant for our generation? My prayer tonight is that a number here will want to accept that message and "repent" and "be baptized", as did 3000 on the day of Pentecost.

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