1. Celebrating and Remembering: The World
We celebrate or remember events, these days, that are important to ourselves and to our community. Apart from the obvious, like births, deaths, and marriages, we set aside time for Australia Day, Anzac Day, the Queen’s Birthday, etc. We remember anniversaries of people and events. And we even have formalised celebrations to welcome new members to the various organizations to which we belong.
Of course not every ceremony is meant to be taken seriously. Indeed, as a new resident of a university college I was required to be “initiated” into the campus. I was given a silly task to perform. And having completed that, I was then required to be immersed in a bath full of kitchen scraps which had been allowed to ferment for a week.
University pranks aside, though, the celebration or remembrance of certain events—with the ceremonies that are attached—are a very important part of life.
2. Celebrating and Remembering: The Church
And just as that is true in our society as a whole, so is it true in the church today. Because in the church’s calendar we celebrate a number of festivals—festivals like Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Lent, Advent, etc. etc. And we have formalised ceremonies regarding the Lord’s Supper and the initiation of new members.
3. Celebrating and Remembering: Variations and Limitations
So in both church and the community, we both have commemorations and we both have ceremonies. Furthermore, we both enjoy a degree of flexibility in the way we do things. But then our remembrances need to be relevant to the particular organisation or community to which we belong—we need to allow for variety. And yet, we still need to work within certain parameters, to avoid the possibility of losing the point of the celebration. We need to have frameworks in which we can work.
And that is particularly true of Christian initiation. Because even though the traditions of our churches require some flexibility in styles, yet we still have a need for some basic guidelines to keep our celebrations on track. And fortunately for us, the Apostle Peter, in this passage from the Acts of the Apostles, has provided us with that very thing. Indeed, he makes it very clear the parameters under which we should work.
B. CHRISTIAN INITIATION – A NEW TESTAMENT EXAMPLE
1. What Happened (44-46a)
Now the background to the passage places Peter on his soapbox. And what he was doing was telling a captive crowd of gentiles everything that had happened in regard to Jesus. Indeed, he told the crowd the story from Jesus’s baptism by John the Baptist to Jesus’s resurrection. And he talked about what that implied in regard to Jesus being the Saviour of the world. However, at this point, while Peter was talking, the Holy Spirit came upon those who were listening.
Now this may not appear to us to be very significant. After all this wasn’t an isolated event in New Testament terms. But in this case, this was one of the most significant events of the New Testament. This was a group of gentiles, not Jews, and they were receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit too.
Now the New Testament shows us that only those who repent and believe the gospel receive the Holy Spirit (11:17f)—the very thing that Peter was talking about when the Spirit came upon them (43). So what we have here, is the very first recorded example of gentiles responding to the message of the gospel with faith, and God accepting them on exactly the same grounds as any Jew, by sealing their faith with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
So it is perhaps not surprising that Peter’s companions were totally taken aback by the events. After all, it was one thing to preach to the gentiles. It was quite another thing to see the gentiles being treated by God as if they were Jews.
Yet whatever their prejudices, there was no mistake about what had happened. Just as the first Jewish believers had received the Spirit and praised God on the day of Pentecost, so now the gentiles were receiving the same gift. A demonstration, once and for all, that God wanted to treat everyone the same.
2. The Church’s Response (46b-48)
The problem was, however, if God were going to accept the gentiles, would the church do too? Because if baptism was the outward sign of reception into the people of God for the Jews, then it had to be exactly the same for the gentiles too.
So from this moment on, for all believers—Jews and gentiles—baptism was to be the sign of cleansing from sin, of forgiveness (2:38), and as an outward sign of an inward reality. And having already been baptised by the Holy Spirit, Peter put, the controversial question to the Jewish Christians who were with him: “Can anyone object to these people being baptised with water?” Then with no objections raised, Peter gave instructions for the gentile converts to be baptised.
Now it’s an interesting little cameo, and one that sees the transition from the church being mainly Jewish to the inclusion of gentiles too. But it’s also a statement about the nature of Christian initiation itself, and the elements required in order for that initiation to be complete.
Because in this example, there were three things required: A commitment of faith and repentance; the receiving of the Holy Spirit; and the baptism with water. Three distinct aspects of Christian initiation. And, as our reading in the Acts of the Apostles goes, in perfect logical order.
But hold on a minute, unfortunately, as you and I know, things don’t always work out in such good logical order. And whereas that’s true of life as a whole, so it is true regarding Christian initiation too.
Indeed, in later examples in the Acts of the Apostles itself we have examples of whole families being baptised—and in those days that would have included children and slaves, some of whom may not have been in any position to make any commitment for themselves. In regard to a certain jailer we’re told that he, and his whole household believed, and were baptised (Acts 16:33). And we’re told that a woman called Lydia believed—but with no mention of her family believing—and yet her whole household was baptised (Acts 16:15).
D. CHRISTIAN INITIATION TODAY – THREE ASPECTS
So, what does all this mean? And how do we apply the practice of Christian initiation in the New Testament sense, so that it is relevant to church today?
Well, firstly we need to take seriously the three aspects described in that passage from the Acts of the Apostles.
1. The Need for Faith and Repentance
Firstly, Christian initiation involves an act of faith. It involves committing oneself totally to our Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation. And it involves not only being sorry and regretting the things that we’ve done wrong—where we’ve placed our own wants and desires before those of others or even God himself. But, with God’s help, having a willingness to refocus our lives in a completely different direction, and to commit ourselves to walk on the path that God leads.
2. The Reception of the Holy Spirit
Secondly, Christian initiation involves receiving God’s gift, which is nothing short of himself: the Holy Spirit who lives in every believer. And the Holy Spirit’s role is to teach and guide, as well as to correct; to show us not only where we’re going wrong but to nudge us back on track; and to empower and enable his people to carry out the work of God.
3. Baptism with Water
And, thirdly, Christian initiation involves being baptised with water, with the symbolic washing away of sin and the public commitment to put our past lives behind us, for a new life dedicated to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.
And all three aspects are essential for Christian initiation to be complete.
But the order in which they occur . . . Well that’s where the controversy comes in. Because as I said earlier, things don’t always happen in an ideal order, and in an ideal way. And they didn’t always happen in in an idealised order in the early church either.
After all, the New Testament ideal order of faith and repentance, followed by the receiving of the Holy Spirit, followed by the response of baptism, may be the ideal order for adults, who have never been baptised. But what about children? Because even in the New Testament, children (as part of families) were baptised.
F. CHRISTIAN INITIATION TODAY – INFANT BAPTISM
And this is where the whole thing gets far more complicated. Because in New Testament times infant baptism wasn’t an issue. Indeed, there are no instances recorded of babies being baptised on their own. Rather they were baptised at the same time as other members of their family.
However, at some stage it must have become an issue for believing families, who had already been baptised, particularly when new babies were born. Because by at least the third century, infant baptism was regularly practiced and was considered to be perfectly normal.
Now it must be said here that the practice of baptising infants has always been seen as only part of the Christian initiation rite. It has always been expected that when children grow up, they would make a stand regarding their faith too. And consequently the three aspects of: faith and repentance, reception of the Holy Spirit, and baptism—which was then practised as infant baptism with confirmation—would have kept intact the New Testament initiation model.
Unfortunately what happened in reality, is that bit by bit confirmation fell away or was reduced to a mere formality. And by the reformation in the 1500’s—in an age where there was a renewed emphasis on the insistence of personal faith and a conversion experience—the practice of infant baptism came into disrepute.
Consequently, the subject of “believer’s baptism” or the return to the more “ideal” order of faith and repentance, followed by the receipt of the Holy Spirit, followed by baptism in water of adults, and adults only, became to be practiced by the new non-conformist churches.
As a consequence, baptism of infants can only be justified if baptism and confirmation are looked upon together, as making up the one act in a New Testament sense. (However, it must also be said, that to be strictly biblical, the act of confirmation does not require the presence of a bishop, or the laying on of hands).
The order in which the three aspects occur then is not strictly important. However, on its own, infant baptism is a good work that has begun but has not been completed. And on its own it does not meet the New Testament requirements for Christian initiation. Furthermore, confirmation for the sake of confirmation—without the act of faith and repentance, and without the reception of the Holy Spirit—does not meet all the requirements of Christian initiation either.
Because whether one has been baptised as an infant or an adult, those three things: faith and repentance, the receiving of the Holy Spirit, and being baptised with water, are the three essential ingredients, regardless of which order they come, for Christian initiation to be complete.
Now, we live in a society that celebrates and remembers many things. Certain rites of passage are also considered to be very important. And we may even belong to an organization which has an initiation ceremony to some degree. But just as that is true of our society, so is it true of the church as well. And there can be no more important ceremony than that of Christian initiation.
However, in order for Christian initiation to be complete it requires those three essential ingredients: faith and repentance, receiving the Holy Spirit, and being baptised with water. And whilst getting the order right isn’t so important, we do need to be careful that we don’t just take part of it and pretend the rest doesn’t matter.
Posted: 1st January 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis