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Repentance and Baptism: More Than Fire Insurance

Every evangelistic tract I have ever laid eyes upon focused on answering a question about salvation. Namely, how does a person get saved from sin and God’s eternal judgment? Now if a person has never committed their life to Jesus and is experiencing an existential crisis due to some moral failure, the question might address their crisis. The problem is that this view of salvation  is too narrow.

In Acts, the apostles were not thinking about how they would be saved from sin and judgment. They wanted to know when Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:8). So it seems that when the pious Israelites at Pentecost realized that the Jesus they helped crucify had been raised from death by God and exalted as Lord and Messiah, their question about what they must do (2:37) was a kingdom question. That is, they weren’t just asking how could they now be forgiven and spared from God’s judgment but now that God is restoring his kingdom in Jesus the Messiah, how could they participate in the kingdom?

The question of how do we participate in the kingdom is much broader than just how do we get saved from sin and judgment. Yes, such participation includes salvation from sin and judgment but the question of salvation is as much about the life we are being saved to rather than just what we are saved from. The point is that salvation is so much more than just escaping eternal damnation! So here the summons to repentance and baptism again:

“Change your hearts and lives [repentance]. Each one of you must be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 2:38

Now despite the countless debates about the meaning of “for the forgiveness of sins” and when is a person “saved” in relation to baptism, such a focus is too narrow. What makes this summons to repentance and baptism different is that it is 1) in the name of Jesus Christ, and 2) associated with the promise of receiving the Holy Spirit. That makes sense because the entire Pentecost sermon was a declaration that God is now pouring his Spirit out on all people now that he has raised Jesus from death and exalted him as the Lord and Messiah.

The question we must ask in Acts chapter two is how do we participate in the kingdom that God is restoring? The answer is repentance and baptism because in doing so — in turning away from the old life that is passing and to the new life as we learn to live as followers of Jesus [repentance] and surrender our lives in submission to King Jesus [baptism] — we are immersed into a new life where we live under the kingdom-reign of God where we are then formed and animated by the Spirit to live as the church of Jesus Christ. This is the way we are summoned to participate because neither repentance nor baptism is a one-and-done transaction but an immersion into a transformative life as the people of God.

I’m going to be blunt here but it’s something that needs to be said. Repentance and baptism is about so much more than “fire insurance” to escape whatever hell we think awaits. If we truly want to participate in the eternal kingdom of God, then we must learn what it means to live a life of repentance and baptism. And if we don’t, we really haven’t repented and the baptism we received has become nothing more than a cleansing bath.

God is restoring the kingdom. That’s why he has poured out the Spirit and exalted Jesus to his right side as the Lord and Messiah but the kingdom is not appearing in some magical hocus-pocus manner. The kingdom appears as we, who profess our faith in Jesus as Lord and Messiah, live a life that is form by the Spirit as an embodiment of cruciform-character and kingdom-oriented life Jesus lived. So our summons to repentance and baptism is an invitation to receive the Spirit and be transformed in the way of Jesus as we live under his reign.

God’s Artwork: The Convergence of Beauty and Mission

A couple of years ago my family and I visited the Smithsonian Museum of Art in Washington D.C. I’m almost ashamed to admit it but here I was, in my early forties visiting an art museum for the very first time. I always thought it would be a boring way to spend my day but as I gazed upon so many fascinating pieces of craftsmanship, I realized that I could spend my entire day and then some.

That’s what good art does. Whether it’s a painting, a song, or else, beauty commands our attention. We are mesmerized, smitten with a sense of appreciation and even curiosity. The particular work may even cause us to think and reflect upon life in some particular manner, and it may also inspire us to participate in some capacity. Who hasn’t found themselves humming or even singing a catchy tune heard on the radio? As a guitar player who loves the blues, every time I hear the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, who I consider to be one of the best blues players to ever pick a guitar, I want to play my guitar — not that I am anywhere close to the caliber of SRV.

A lot of Christians may not realize this but the church, both in its universal and local expression, is understood as artwork. Ephesians 2:10 says,

Instead, we are God’s accomplishment, created in Christ Jesus to do good things. God planned for these good things to be the way that we live our lives.

The English word “accomplishment” is a translation of the word poiēma which other Bible translations render as “handiwork” (NIV), “masterpiece” (NLT), or “workmanship” (KJV). The word poiēma is a word for art and it is where English words like “poetry” and “poem” derive from, which makes sense because poetry is a form of art. Because of artisan meaning of this word, Ephesians 2:10 in the New Jerusalem Bible reads “We are God’s work of art…”

Though this is only one passage of scripture, the imagery of the church as artwork seems important and needs more consideration among Christianity in America. Understanding the capacity of art to speak is relevant to how local churches understand what it means to live as witnesses of Jesus and the kingdom as well as making disciples. Bryan Stone writes:

A faith born out of a response to beauty inclines organically, naturally, and perhaps even necessarily toward sharing. If Christians do not share their faith or seek to inspire it in other, perhaps the solution is not to berate, cajole, or otherwise ‘fire up’ luke-warm believers so they will go forth knocking on doors, button-holing passengers sitting next to them on a plane, or passing out tracts at the neighborhood grocery store. Perhaps the Christian faith has become unimaginative and unattractive and somehow disconnected from beauty. When faith is solely preoccupied with truth so that evangelism is aimed at securing belief understood as mental assent, perhaps it is no wonder that the average Christian has little interest in going about evangelism when it means convincing people to believe certain things. (Evangelism After Pluralism, pp 120-121).

As local churches embody the gospel as their way of life, evangelism happens naturally or organically. While there is a place for apologetics where there are intellectual questions about the credibility of believing in Jesus, the church as God’s artwork is a beautiful portrayal of the gospel and so preaching involves more explaining rather than debating about what is true and believable. Also, the commitment necessary for people to follow Jesus happens naturally because they are inspired and even compelled to do so based on the beauty that is seen in this living artwork known as the church. Just as person who loves to cook naturally wants to share a good recipe, the new disciple that has found the beauty of the gospel embodied among a local church will naturally want to share this discovery with others.

So this past year the Newark Church of Christ began making efforts to be more engaged and hospitable to our neighbors living in a nearby apartment complex. Most of the residents living in these apartments have endured plenty of struggles in life and seemingly have plenty of reasons for any skepticism. However, last year after one of the women who lives in the apartments was baptized, I asked her about starting up a Bible-study in her apartment that others living in the apartment complex could join. She agreed without hesitation and then without any suggestion or coaching on my part, she made up some flyers with details about the Bible study and posted them around the apartment complex.

Participating in the mission of God as a local church happens quite naturally when our imagination is captivated by the beautiful artistry of what God is doing among us.

Grace and Peace,

K. Rex Butts