“Hear, believe, repent, confess, and be baptized” is the standard formula often cited as the gospel plan of salvation, sometimes accompanied by a single-verse Bible reference for each step. While we would never want to complicate what ought to be clear and easy, at the same time surely we do not want to oversimplify something so important that it could result in the premature baptisms of those insufficiently taught. The bottom line is, what exactly is to be heard and believed?
A Condensed Gospel Message
It is a mistake to presume that if one learns what people were taught in any given conversion account in the book of Acts, then he/she necessarily knows enough to fully obey the gospel. The fallacy of this reasoning is twofold.
First, not everyone is at the same place in his/her spiritual journey when the message of Christ is first encountered. The Jews in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (chap. 2) and the Ethiopian official on the road to Gaza (chap. 8) were already deeply committed to God and to the authority of the scriptures, whereas the Philippian jailer (chap. 16) and the Athenian philosophers (chap. 17) were not. Still today each prospective convert is unique, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach that is suitable for every person.
Second, the Acts narrative is not an intricately detailed report of all that was said and done in each recorded event. In fact, thirty-two years of history have been compacted into only twenty-eight chapters!
Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost, which led to the conversions of about 3,000 souls, is boiled down to merely twenty-six verses (which can be read or quoted in less than two-and-a-half minutes!). These verses do not contain the sum total of the apostle’s message, as our inspired historian clearly explains: “And with many other words he testified and exhorted them . . .” (Acts 2:40 NKJV, emp. added KLM).
The next recorded gospel sermon is summed up in only fifteen verses (3:12-26), even though it appears to have lasted for several hours. While the events that instigated this evangelistic opportunity started around 3 o’clock in the afternoon (3:1), the preaching continued on into the evening (4:3).
By limiting our focus to the individual conversion stories, we might wonder why baptism is mentioned in chapter 2 but not in chapter 3, or why repentance is emphasized in chapter 3 but not in chapter 8. But if we can appreciate that Luke, with the limited space of a single papyrus scroll, has given selective highlights rather than comprehensive details, we will want to view his record as a whole and consider the collectivity of information in order to get the full picture.
The Commitment Requirement
If Luke could have taken for granted that the readership of Acts was already familiar with his “former account” (1:1), what would the “many other [unrecorded] words” of the Pentecost-day sermon likely have included? Since the message of Luke 14:26-35 is important enough for Jesus to have affirmed three times that one “cannot be My disciple” without it, surely it ought to be taken into account. The imperative of counting the cost of discipleship accompanied by total allegiance to the Lord is not an optional matter.
Seeing that Peter and his fellow apostles were divinely commissioned to “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19), would this critical teaching have been omitted? The point is, we do a grave disservice when we try to rush people into the baptistery who are not entirely committed to the Lord and are uninformed about what is expected after baptism.
The Indispensable Kingdom
What else may have been included in the “many other words” of Acts 2:40? What about instruction concerning the divine kingdom? While the kingship of Jesus is implied and his lordship affirmed in Peter’s discourse (vv. 30, 36), should we expect more explicit information to have been communicated?
Luke’s “former account” is replete with teachings about the imminence of God’s kingdom (Luke 4:43; 8:1; 9:2, 11, 27; 10:9, 11; et al.), and for several weeks leading up to the Day of Pentecost, the apostles were continually reminded “of things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Beyond Acts 2, the Lord’s kingdom was obviously an important part of the evangelistic message.
Prior to baptism, the Samaritans “believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God . . .” (Acts 8:12a). During the first missionary campaign to southern Galatia, hearers were warned: “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God” (14:22b). The first three months of Paul’s mission to Ephesus were devoted to “reasoning and persuading concerning the things of the kingdom of God” (19:8), while the next several months were also spent “preaching the kingdom of God” (20:25). The apostle initiated his outreach in Rome by testifying “of the kingdom of God, persuading them concerning Jesus” (28:23), and he spent the next two years “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ . . .” (v. 31).
Undoubtedly the same religious teaching was disseminated “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; cf. Galatians 1:8-9). What, then, is this doctrine of God’s kingdom that was consistently taught? The very purpose for which Jesus was sent to earth was to “preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:43; 8:1; 9:11), and he commissioned his disciples to do the same (Luke 9:2; 10:9, 11). The Lord promised that during the lifetime of his immediate followers, they would actually see God’s kingdom (Luke 9:27) having come with power (Mark 9:1).
The power came on the Day of Pentecost, as the divine message was preached and obedient souls were forgiven of sins and added to the Lord’s church (Acts 1:8; 2:1-47). Thereafter it could be affirmed that God “has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14). As disciples of Jesus we are citizens of God’s kingdom (Ephesians 2:19) and members of Christ’s body (Romans 12:5), which is his church (Colossians 1:18).
Since we are “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3), surely we would not attempt to immerse someone who has not yet learned about Christ. Why, then, would we consider immersing a person who has not yet learned about Christ’s church, seeing that penitent believers are “baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13)?
Proclaiming the Full Gospel Message
By examining all the conversion accounts in the book of Acts and harmonizing the teachings, what is the overall message? It begins with the one true and living God, the creator and sustainer of all things, who has worked through history to bring about his redemptive plan.
God’s ultimate purpose has been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, who was anointed with the Holy Spirit and divinely attested by miracles, wonders, and signs. He is the Christ, the Son of God, who died by crucifixion, rose from the dead after burial, and is now exalted to the Father’s right hand where he reigns with all authority over God’s spiritual kingdom, the church.
To Jesus Christ complete loyalty is to be given: calling on his name (reliance) by trusting in him (faith), acknowledging him as Lord (confession), turning away from sinful living (repentance), and being immersed in water (baptism) to have past sins forgiven. This enables salvation within God’s kingdom – the church, the community of the saved – where righteousness is practiced and eternal life promised in view of the coming judgment. Discipleship also involves continuing in the faith and proclaiming Christ’s saving message to the rest of the world.
There might be a place for brevity and simplification, but there are no legitimate short cuts when it comes to teaching and obeying the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only by declaring “the whole counsel of God” are we truly “innocent of the blood of all men” (Acts 20:26-27).