Peter’s instruction in Acts 2:38 appears to be one of turning from sin and self (“repent”) and giving oneself over to God in Christ (“and be baptized”). If Peter meant in this command, to have performed the water rite, we would have to construe from the sentence structure that he meant the water rite results in the forgiveness of sins. Salvation by faith alone, as attested throughout Scripture, argues strongly against that. Thus, Peter’s command, although possibly suggesting the picture and therefore the significance of the water rite, is speaking to the devotion to or immersion into or whole-hearted submission to the kingdom of Christ.
We have discussed the three possible uses or senses of the term baptize.
1. immersed into, given over to, devoted to
2. given over to or devoted to AS IN the water rite (using the water rite as analogy)
3. actual water rite
The words baptize and baptism (or some form of those) are used in 23 verses in the book of Acts—many more than in any other NT book. But of these, only 2:38 (the verse we just reviewed) and 10:48 hint of a command either to baptize or to be baptized. The setting of Acts 10:48 is in the house of Cornelius, a gentile. He has called for Peter so that he may hear the gospel. Peter arrives (responding not only to the call of Cornelius but to the direction of God the Spirit as well). As Peter preaches to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Spirit falls on these Gentiles who believe. Peter immediately calls for water, and then he “commanded them to be baptized” (10:48). But the expression here does not so much indicate biblical principle to be followed as simply Peter directing those with him to perform the rite.
In the rest of the NT (aside from the Gospels), the words baptize and/or baptism are used in only 9 other passages (8 times by Paul and once by Peter). In none of these passages is there a command either to baptize or to be baptized. Thus, after understanding the three commands in the NT concerning baptism to be either in the sense of devotion (Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38) or as a directive for the people in the immediate context (Acts 10:48), we are left without any prescriptive command directing us to be baptized.
What then should we do?—abandon the rite, understanding it to be merely a 1st century practice? Well, I don’t think so. Although it was a 1st century practice that is not commanded to be continued by us, baptism—the water rite—has been continued by us. This, then, is a point of tradition, which can be safely and meaningfully continued. We are told to profess Christ. We are told to witness of our involvement in the kingdom. Baptism provides that testimony. It demonstrates the change of a person who has repented from sin and self and given himself or herself over to Christ. Therefore, there is no point to suddenly turn from so long a tradition that provides this proclamation significance. (Of course, I am speaking of believers’ baptism; paedobaptism of the non-Roman-Catholic variety means something else but may still fall under the same tradition label.)
Acts 2 concludes with a description of the incipient church starting to exercise its communal program. Notice first that the immediate thought of those now in Christ is the gospel-instilled view toward community and relationship. Our Christianity should not be held in isolated individualism with an exclusive God-and-I mindset. The purpose for creation and then restoration is relationship—yes, us with God, but us in the communal sense. Together we compose the body (Ephesians 1-3). We are called to a unity. And it is significant and telling that the first attitude—the natural response—of those newly entered into the kingdom involves this sense of togetherness.
But why do 21st century churches not follow this 1st century church example? Why do not we who believe live “together and [have] all things in common…selling [our] possession and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any [has] need” (2:45-46). In this example, we recognize that the church is just beginning and growing. As the church developed, this communal functioning (perhaps partly inspired by a belief that Christ’s return would be soon—within their lifetime) was altered, doubtless when its practicality was challenged. The point is that although a church practice is described, it is not prescribed. The church was developing, and Luke merely recounts the development—not insisting that all local churches mimic its development. And this fits in well with the NT and New Covenant as a whole.
We find much by way of specific ordinance in the OT. In the NT, however, the emphasis is that the Lord “will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). We see in the NT that most specifics are gone and principles remain. It is, of course, easier to live by command than by thoughtful consideration. That is one reason the legalist feels more comfortable in his set of rules. The more we can codify of NT living, the more we can slide into a rut, thinking ourselves pious, without embracing a motivation beyond duty to love (relationship) devotion.
This even encroaches into our church practice as well. Consider the widespread call among evangelical Christians to worship according to the regulative principle. The regulative principle, simply put, is to structure our church worship according to only those elements prescribed in Scripture. This opposes the normative principle, which allows other church practices not necessarily prescribed in Scripture so long as they do not violate Scripture (in specific command or principle). The regulative principle of worship was definitively expressed in the Westminster Confession, chapter 21, paragraph 1. As Dr. Sam Waldron, academic dean at Midwest Center of Theological Studies and a pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Owensboro, Kentucky, states: “It seems that one of the major intellectual stumbling blocks which hinders men from embracing the Regulative Principle is that it involves the idea that the church and its worship is ordered in a regulated way different from the rest of life. In the rest of life God gives men the great precepts and general principles of his word and within the bounds of these directions allows them to order their lives as seems best to them. He does not give them minute directions as to how they shall build their houses or pursue their secular vocations. The Regulative principle, on the other hand, involves a limitation on human initiative in freedom not characteristic of the rest of life. It clearly assumes that there is a distinction between the way the church and its worship is to be ordered and the way the rest of human society and conduct is to be ordered. Thus, the Regulative Principle is liable to strike many as oppressive, peculiar, and, therefore, suspiciously out of accord with God’s dealings with mankind and the rest of life.”
Although Dr. Waldron is an advocate for the regulative principle, his statement points out my very concern. Arguing for a separation of the secular and sacred within a Christian’s life seems to me an argument against the NT emphasis. Both personally and corporately we are the temple of God—meaning that God is with us always. Therefore, the resultant conclusion should be that our gathering together holds little difference, rather than greater difference, from the rest of life in regard to our worship. The fact that the mundane of life seems so different is a fault of the mundane, not an indication that our gathering must be piously elevated. (And piously is not meant to be pejorative.) The NT and New Covenant emphasize principled living for God. God generally leaves the specifics to us to formulate intentionally based on those principles and God-pursuing honor that he has rested on our hearts.
Of course, the advocate of the regulative principle will argue that it is only principle that is the concern for them as well. After all, churches today following the regulative principle do not look in form much like the 1st century church, except that things such as preaching and Scripture have prominent roles. And that preaching and Scripture have prominent roles is the principle from which we then structure the specifics. But this is misleading. The regulative principle was established in opposition to Roman Catholicism and its imposed rites of tradition. But as the doctrine in opposition to Roman worship formed, Calvin and Luther found themselves on opposite sides. Calvin insisted that formal worship could include no more than Scripture prescribed. Luther argued that the church could establish other necessary elements of worship so long as Scripture did not condemn them (as he believed it did the Roman practices). But notice carefully here that the argument is over the imposition of necessary rites in the practice of worship. The centuries have morphed the controversy into one in which non-ritual components are debated (e.g., the use of drama within a service as illustration of Christian principle). Based on this alteration, people claiming a regulative principle may now assume instruments okay for use in worship, using a logical progression to justify their use although Scripture does not specifically mandate their use. Additionally, poetry could be used. (Could you imagine a church allowing the singing but disallowing the recitation of Amazing Grace?) But limits will be drawn in allowing drama because…well…because…it’s not…um…it’s not preaching! Yes, that’s it!
My point is that the regulative principle began hundreds of years ago to safeguard the church from Roman Catholic practices. But the church is not safeguarded by the regulative principle. It is safeguarded from RC practices by the fact that some of those practices are ANTI-scriptural. The regulative principle today is a shadow of its former self, used predominantly to regulate style rather than principle. Therefore, I reject the regulative principle because (1) it tends to develop a mindset difference in worship attitude between gatherings in a church building and Christian life apart from the building, and (2) its modern emphasis is largely stylistic rather than principled.
The events of Acts 3 seem to take place at least a few days after Pentecost. John and Peter are going to the temple to pray. As they do, a lame man is being carried in to be placed, as was his custom, by the Beautiful Gate so that he could ask alms of people as they passed into the temple. The temple grounds encompass a huge rectangular area that is predominantly open space. In the center of this large area is the temple proper, including an outer Court of Women, inner Court of Men, and the building within which is the Holy Place and Holy of Holies into which only the High Priest enters. The Beautiful Gate is thought to be the entrance to this area of the temple proper—into the Court of Women. It was in this court that the receptacles were kept for the offering to the poor.
Luke tells us that it was the ninth hour—about 3 PM. It was near the time when the daily sacrifice would be performed. The lame man strategically chose this time to sit outside the gate so that all who would be going to the sacrifice or depositing their gifts to the poor at this time would be filing through. Not only was the timing strategic, but the placement was as well. The south side of the greater temple court was called the Royal Portico. Along the eastern courtyard wall was Solomon’s Portico. In these areas the Jews would meet to discuss Law and life much the same as the philosophers did at the Areopagus in Athens. But the people there could easily ignore the man if he sat there. At the Beautiful Gate, many would likely see a gift of alms to the beggar, and if the Jews knew that others would see their righteous act, it was more likely to be performed.
But what were Peter and John doing at the temple at this time? Surely they were not interested in the daily sacrifice. It was the continuation of blood sacrifices in the temple that was the abomination that Daniel spoke of that would lead to desolation—the destruction of the temple in AD 70. Luke, surely to indicate that Peter and John had no intention of participating in the sacrifice, specifically state that they came at this time to pray. The Talmud mentions three times of daily prayer—dawn, dusk, and sometime during the day (i.e., the third time is not specific). But why then? Why did Peter and John stroll to the temple to offer prayers at this crowded time of sacrifice?
Remember that two months earlier Jesus appeared to them on the day of his resurrection. After that, Peter and John and others apparently decided that they still needed to make a living, so they went back to Galilee to do some fishing. Jesus appears to them there and has a discussion with Peter. Three times Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep—to give of himself based on his love for Christ to the pursuit of the kingdom. Peter agrees. Just before his ascension Jesus tells the rest of the disciples the same thing. They are to be witnesses of him. “Don’t go back fishing,” Jesus seems to say. “Wait here until the Holy Spirit comes, empowering you, and then be my witnesses.” This was to be their full time profession.
And so it is that Peter and John decide on this day to go to the temple, probably with much the same strategic plan that the lame beggar had. They were to witness of Christ. Where and when would be a good place to do this? At the temple at the time of the daily sacrifice when the most people were there seemed most logical. And so they came.
Notice that they do not immediately set up their soapbox and start preaching into a non-concerned crowd (as do many street preachers of our time). Peter and John go to the temple to pray, possibly praying for the Spirit to develop opportunity. And so it is that they meet the beggar.
We find that the miracle is performed on the basis of the beggar’s faith (3:16). Peter and John focused attention on him (3:4) in much the same way Paul did in 14:9b on the lame man he met. Apparently part of the apostolic gift was this discernment of faith.
It is this miracle, then, that is the answer to the prayer of Peter and John for opportunity. They leave the temple proper and go over to Solomon’s Portico with the healed man clinging to them. The miracle has attracted huge attention, and Peter uses that opportunity to preach the gospel to these people.
In both episodes of gospel witness thus far we see the same pattern. A miracle grabs the attention of the people, Peter speaks to that miracle, connecting it with Christ and his work. And Peter concludes by making the listeners understand that Christ is calling to them. Although these miracles do not occur today, the pattern seems to be one that we should follow. After all, this is the way that God works individually with people for salvation. It is God who first opens the understanding through his revelatory work. Only then does the result ensue of faith response (i.e., natural assent to revealed spiritual truth) or the act of will in rebelling against the revealed truth. Our work as witnesses of Christ should follow this pattern. Though we do not perform miracles, we act in specific Christ-commanded ways (Matthew 5 and 25) of kingdom living. To those who are attracted by the Spirit to these Spirit-coordinated acts, we present our witness. In this way we carry out Christ’s proclamation pattern as well as avoiding the casting of pearls before swine (7:6). But it then is most important that we recognize our lives as belonging to the service our Lord. We live for the purpose of testifying of him.