by Robert Brow
multitudes that came out to be
baptized"... bear fruits that
befit repentance' (Luke 3:7).
Peter said to them, 'Repent and
be baptized every one of you in the
name of Jesus Christ"
THE DECISION TO USE THE OPEN admission policy apparently typical of the churches of the New Testament raises a serious objection which must be faced: "Surely repentance and faith were and are required." I propose to look at the place of repentance in our ministry in this chapter, and then the various meanings of the word "faith" in the next.
The texts at the head of this chapter indicate that John the Baptist preached a message of repentance, which was continued in the preaching of Jesus (Mark 1:15). Repentance was also required by Peter of his listeners on the day of Pentecost. How may I reconcile the open admission policy of the discipleship model of baptism with this emphasis on repentance? To answer this we must distinguish some different meanings of the word "repent."
Consider, first of all, the idea of repentance in sackcloth and ashes. Job said, "I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6). Here it looks as if the ashes were a visible expression of deep self-loathing. Jesus said that if the cities of Tyre and Sidon had seen his mighty works "they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes" (Luke 10:13). In the Church, this kind of repentance is usually called penitence or contrition. I am going to argue that this has nothing to do with the kind of repentance which is connected with baptism. Seasons of deep conviction of sin, contrition, and penitence will be inevitable as our Christian experience deepens following baptism. In my own experience, my first turning to learn among God's people was early in October 1947, after leaving the army to study at Cambridge University. It was not until Easter of the following year when I attended a student conference that I began to see the extent of what was wrong in me and what Jesus Christ did on the cross to deal with it. This, I suspect, is the experience of most Christians. The sense of contrition is a comparatively late fruit which seldom appears in the first few hours of instruction. How then could it be made a requirement, when large numbers were suddenly added to the Church for teaching?
The second meaning of repentance is that of changing one's mind, and/or regretting one's past attitudes or actions. Thus the King James Version states that "it repented the Lord that he had made man," which is properly changed to "the Lord was sorry" in the RSV (Gen. 6:7). Though theologians may find it difficult to explain how God could be said to change his mind, or regret an action, it should be obvious enough that God is not repenting in sackcloth and ashes in such references. When God was concerned in case the children of Israel might "repent when they see war, and return to Egypt" (Exod. 13:17), the Hebrew verb nakham is the same as in the case of Job's contrition, but the sense is totally different. Similarly in the Gospel we read of the son who first refused to work for his father, and then "repented and went" (Matt. 21:29). There is no need to introduce the thought of breast beating, self-flagellation, or tearful contrition: the boy merely changed his mind, and began to work. In the case of Judas' repentance (Matt. 27:3) there may have been either a note of Penitence, or merely of regret or change of mind. He certainly did not turn to learn from God, which is the sense of the term when connected with baptism.
Third, we have the idea of turning in a different direction, or to something different, or towards someone. The Hebrew verb shub (return, turn, turn back) is translated "repented" in Solomon's great prayer at the dedication of the temple. "If they lay it to heart in the land to which they have been carried captive, and repent; ... if they repent with all their mind," then God will hear and forgive (1 Kings 8:47-49). This Hebrew verb has no connotations of sackcloth-and-ashes penitence, nor of change of mind, but of decisively turning in the direction of God. I suggest that the repentance spoken of by John the Baptist and the repentance connected with Christian baptism is a turning toward God, and in particular a turning to learn from him.
The second sense of repentance, meaning a change of mind, or regret, is expressed in the New Testament by the Greek verb metamelomai. The verb metanoeo and the noun metanoia can mean either the sackcloth-and-ashes type of penitence, or simply a turning or change of direction to learn from God. Which of these two meanings is connected with baptism must be determined by what actually took place. In particular we must ask what signs of repentance were looked for. Did the apostles, and John the Baptist before them, look for evidence of deep heart penitence and contrition before baptism, or did they baptize those who were simply turning to learn from God? It is by discovering what kind of behavior preceded baptism that the question must be settled.
It has generally been assumed that John the Baptist looked for evidence of contrition, or fruits of repentance, before he baptized those who came to him. But how would he carry out such an investigation? "And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan" (Mark 1:5). There is no need to make "all" mean every single man, woman, and child in Judea and Jerusalem, but at least it means a considerable number of people. How does one look for fruits of repentance in such a vast crowd?
Many also take it for granted that John the Baptist turned away the Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming to him for baptism. "...when he saw many of the Pharisees and Saducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance, and do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father;' for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Matt. 3:7-10; Luke 3:7-9). Thus David Pawson writes, without justifying his assertion, that "John the Baptist delayed baptism by sending the candidates away until their lives showed more evidence of being ready." Quite apart from the huge problem of doing such an investigation, the sense of the passage is quite different. A literal translation would be: "The crowds kept coming out to be baptized, and he told them to produce fruits worthy of their change of direction" (Luke 3:7-8). The natural consequence was that as a result of John's preaching people all over the country realized that they were in no fit state to welcome the Messiah. They came to John wanting to learn how to prepare, and he baptized them, enrolling them in his school so that they could learn to turn their lives toward their coming Messiah. They would then remain for several days by the river Jordan as John explained to them the kind of behavior which was appropriate.
In Luke's account of John the Baptist's teaching we are given examples of what people in general were to do, as well as what people in specific professions such as tax collectors and soldiers were to do. In each case the appropriate behavior would have to be put into practice back in their homes and in their jobs: sharing with the needy, avoiding extortion in tax collecting, avoiding violence. Surely John did not send spies back with them to see if they actually did this before letting them present themselves for baptism! Thus baptism was immediate and was followed by teaching as to what was required of the baptized, and the people would then go home to practice what they had been taught. Matthew tells us that John spoke strong words to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to him for baptism, but there is no suggestion that he refused to baptize them and sent them home to improve first. The repentance connected with John's baptism is a turning to be taught, not a penitence to be evidenced by sufficient contrition. How on earth would one check up on "sufficient contrition"?
We can now see that repentance has the same meaning in the practice of baptism all the way from John the Baptist to the apostolic baptism in the book of Acts. We begin with Paul's account of his preaching to King Agrippa: "that they should repent and turn to God and perform deeds worthy of their repentance." Were these deeds appropriate to repentance investigated as evidence that the hearers were now fit for baptism? Evidently not, as we concluded in previous chapters, since all the recorded baptisms were immediate.
The worthy deeds and appropriate behavior were taught to the disciples or learners after baptism. They were the necessary outcome and consequence of learning from Christ by the Holy Spirit. Thus Paul clauses to have persuaded people to turn away from the teaching of the idol temples, false religions, Judaizing religion, or other forms of heterodoxy, to turn to learn from God. Examples of such turning are found at Lystra in Acts 14:15, and in the founding of the church in Thessalonica: "you turned to God from idols" (1 Thess. 1:9). And once the turning had taken place, and the hearers had been persuaded to enroll in the church by baptism, they were taught the appropriate conduct for living in this new way.
The idea of turning to learn a new way is very familiar to modern man. People turn to astrology, and begin learning about horoscopes. Many have turned from dead Christian churches to TM or to a Hindu guru for help in learning to meditate. Why should it only be the oriental religions, scientology, and other cults which enroll disciples? They charge a fee, which learners are glad to pay. We put them off with confused ideas about repentance, and demand that they swallow doctrine and adopt behavior which most of us learn with difficulty in a lifetime.
Paul reminded the Ephesian elders that he had testified to Jews and Greeks "of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:21). The literal translation is "the into God repentance," or even more simply "the turning to God." The idea of turning to God as a verbal equivalent for being baptized, or becoming a Christian, or becoming a disciple, is found in the book of Acts. James said, "My judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God" (Acts 15:19). We have an example of two whole towns becoming Christians: "And all the residents of Lydda and Sharon saw him, and they turned to the Lord" (Acts 9.35). Similarly the first baptisms and the establishment of the church in Antioch is described by the words "a great number that believed turned to the Lord" (Acts 11:21).
On the Baptist model it is suggested that each one of these large numbers of people made an informed and individual act of faith. But we have already seen that the actual baptisms described in the book of Acts were immediate, without any probation or catechumenate, so there was no time to examine a change of behavior before baptism. What is stressed is that there was tremendous teaching activity after the turning. "A large company was added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul; and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church, and taught a large company of people; and in Antioch the disciples were for the first time called Christians" (Acts 11:24-26). The natural interpretation is that in these mass or group movements people in considerable numbers turned to learn from Jesus Christ; they were enrolled by baptism; and they were then taught intensively for a long period.
This explains why the proclamation of the resurrection was so important as a motive for baptism. Who would turn to learn from a bunch of uneducated Galileans, whose leader had recently been ignominiously crucified? If, however, Jesus was recognized not only as the one who had taught up and down the country for three years, but also as the one who was attested as God's Messiah by the resurrection, then the situation was very different. Furthermore Jesus was still alive, in personal control of his new schools of disciples, and present to teach, through his own Spirit, wherever they gathered and in whatever language.
The evidence of this was that the ascended Christ had given the Holy Spirit, not just to a few picked prophets, as in the Old Testament, but to all the men and women, boys and girls, who were willing to learn in these amazing new schools. The apostolic preaching, therefore, first announced that the risen Messiah was now teaching in person by the Holy Spirit. Those who believed the proclamation and wished to be taught turned to be enrolled as disciples by baptism. Immediately there followed the intensive teaching of all who had thus been added to the church.
Another consideration seems to me to be decisive. We know that Peter and several others of the disciples had been disciples of John before they followed Jesus. Let us assume that John did have some system of checking up on worthy deeds before baptizing the multitudes who came to him. Let us also assume that Jesus approved this investigation and the rejection of all the unworthy, and that he continued this practice in the baptisms performed by his disciples. Then came the day of Pentecost, and three thousand asked for baptism on one day. If he had been trained so rigorously by both John and Jesus in ascertaining fruits before baptism, how could Peter suddenly baptize so many, so suddenly, and without apparently rejecting anyone? Merely to pose the question in this way surely reduces our first two assumptions to absurdity.
The natural interpretation of the baptisms on the day of Pentecost, and the previous ones by John the Baptist and Jesus' disciples, is that there was no investigation before baptism. The baptized were taught in the fellowship of their teacher the fruits which were appropriate after their baptism (Acts 2:42).
We can now tie together the idea of repentance as a turning to learn, baptism as an enrollment in a school to learn from the Messiah, and the rebaptisms which are otherwise so perplexing, for rebaptism raises the question: How is Christian baptism related to the baptisms of John the Baptist?
John's gospel tells us that several disciples of John the Baptist left him to follow Jesus (John 1-35-41). We are also told that before John was put in prison, baptisms were being performed both among those who wanted to follow John the Baptist and among those who followed Jesus (John 3:22-24). There is the third suggestion that John's disciples were upset that the number of people becoming disciples of Jesus was greater than the number joining their own group. John the Baptist humbly tells them that this is the way it should be, since "he must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:26-30).
It has already been noted that, according to John's gospel, baptism was the means used to make disciples both in John's circle of disciples and among the disciples of Jesus. "When the Lord knew that the Pharisees had heard that Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples), he left Judea" (John 4:1-3). The words in parenthesis inform us that presumably after the first one or two disciples had been baptized the actual rite could be performed by those already in the circle, rather than by the teacher himself. Paul makes a similar point when he admits that though he did perform one or two baptisms in Corinth, most of the actual baptizing was performed by others. (1 Cor. 1:13-17).
Scholars all agree that John the Baptist baptized followers and that there were Christian baptisms after the day of Pentecost. Those who question the historical accuracy of John's gospel usually assume that Jesus did not baptize, and the texts we have quoted were inserted for polemical reasons. The reason given is that there is no statement in any of the three synoptic Gospels that Jesus baptized or made disciples by baptism. Our main source of information about the first Christian baptisms is the book of Acts. Since Luke is assumed to be the author of both the Gospel of Luke and Acts, why does he not mention baptisms by Jesus if in fact such baptisms took place?
Those scholars who accept the fact that perhaps there were baptisms in the circle of Jesus' disciples have a further problem about the relationship of any of Jesus' baptisms to John's baptisms, and the relationship of both of these to the baptisms after Pentecost. There seem to be six possibilities, as shown in the table below:
|1||Jesus did not baptize, and the Acts baptisms were a continuation of John's baptism||B||-||B=A|
|2||Jesus' baptism and the Acts baptisms were the same as John's baptism||B||B=C||B=C=A|
|3||Jesus continued the same baptism as John's but the Acts baptisms were a new development different from both||B||B=C||A|
|4||Jesus' baptism was different from John's, and the Acts baptisms were a new development different from both||B||C||A|
|5||Jesus did not baptize, and the Acts baptisms were a new development different from John's baptism||B||-||A|
|6||Jesus' baptism was different from John's baptisms, and the Acts baptisms were a continuation of Jesus' baptism||B||C||C=A|
** In this chart, "B" stands for John's baptism; "C" stands for Christ's baptism - a blank indicates that Luke does not want us to believe that Jesus' baptized, "A" stands for the baptisms in the book of Acts. An equal sign (=) indicates that for the author of Luke-Acts the two kinds of baptism are equivalent, similar, or have the same purpose. The lack of an equal sign indicates that, for Luke, the baptisms are viewed as different or discontinuous.
If our only sources are the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, can we settle which of these six possibilities was in the author's mind?
The first two possibilities are easily dispensed with, if only from the decisive case of the rebaptisms in Ephesus: "He found some disciples. And he said to them, 'Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?' And they said, 'No, we have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.' And he said, 'Into what then were you baptized?' They said, 'Into John's baptism.' And Paul said, 'John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.' On hearing this they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 19:l-5). We have already noted that Luke begins the book of Acts with a statement that he is writing a continuation of what Jesus began to do and to teach. But, in his gospel he has already indicated that Jesus' lifestyle and teaching were radically different from John's. "They said to him, `The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink'" (Luke 5:33). From the parable that follows it is clear that the new wine of Jesus' teaching did not and could not fit the teaching of the Pharisee and Baptist groups of disciples (Luke 5:36-37). When the two disciples of John are sent to inquire if Jesus is the Coming One, Jesus tells them to report back his deeds and the preaching of good news to the poor (Luke 7:18-23).
Evidently Luke wants to portray Jesus as doing works and preaching a gospel of which John knew nothing. Jesus then goes on to explain that although John is a great prophet, the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he (Luke 7:24-28). The two kinds of are quite different. For example, John is an ascetic, but Jesus eats and drinks with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 7:33-34). If the disciples in Jesus' school are to be taught along such different lines, then obviously the baptisms of John and Christian baptism are performed with different purpose in mind.
Although the Ephesus rebaptism are dealt with under our third possibility, the arguments which showed the total difference in ministry suggested by Luke are sufficient in this case also. In addition, we have the problem of explaining a completely new kind of baptism invented by the early churches, which had no similarity to the previous baptisms. If Luke had wanted to show that the early church baptisms were different from Jesus' baptisms, at least he would have had to mention Jesus' baptisms and to indicate on what new principle the baptisms in Acts were administered.
The fourth possibility gives full weight to the radical difference suggested by Luke between John's ministry and Jesus' ministry. But it shares with the third possibility the difficulty that if Jesus baptized, and the Acts baptisms were on a different principle, then surely Luke would have indicated this. Why begin the Acts narrative with the statement that Luke was about to describe a continuation of what Jesus had begun to do and teach, if in fact the new baptisms were meant to function in a totally different way?
We are therefore left with two possibilities: either Luke meant to indicate that Jesus did not baptize, and the Acts baptisms were a new development different from John's baptisms, or Jesus' baptism was different from John and the baptisms in the book of Acts were a continuation of his ministry.
While possibility five solves some problems, it raises others. If Luke was suggesting that Jesus and his disciples never baptized, how then can he explain the origin of Christian baptism? The book of Acts begins with a strong statement of continuity. "In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach". In his gospel, Luke had already stated that Jesus had "a great crowd of disciples" (Luke 6:17). Presumably there was some method used to enroll these, and if baptism was not used, what other method of enrollment did Jesus use? And if another method of enrollment was used, why was a new Christian baptism invented to enroll disciples for a purpose quite different from John the Baptist's school of disciples? Would those previously enrolled as Jesus' disciples now need the baptism which they had never had? When, for example, were Jesus' twelve apostles baptized, on such a hypothesis?
Our sixth option has a beautiful simplicity and elegance. The first and last verses of the book of Acts, and all that come between, suggest the continuity of Jesus' ministry. Having been anointed by the Spirit, Jesus enrolled disciples by baptism and taught them. In turn, when anointed by the Spirit, the disciples continued Jesus' work of baptizing and teaching throughout the world.
Our interpretation would then explain why Paul rebaptized the disciples of John in Ephesus. Paul expressly asked them "Into what then were you baptized?" because he was puzzled as to how they could be disciples without the Spirit. When they said they were baptized "into John's baptism," Paul explained that John's baptism, or school of disciples, was merely to teach concerning the one who was to come later, namely Jesus. Obviously, therefore, they should be baptized again, but this tune into (eis) the name of the Lord Jesus. Presumably they immediately joined the new Christian school in Ephesus and began their life in the Spirit (Acts 19:1-7).
The model also suggests a possible interpretation for the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. Mark gives US no explanation for the baptism of Jesus, nor does Luke. Matthew's gospel states that John the Baptist objected "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" On our model this would mean that John felt he ought to become Jesus' disciple; how could the voice that merely prepared the way function as the teacher of the Lord? But Jesus answered, "Let it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness" (Matt. 3:14, 15). Could this be an echo of the truth behind Paul's teaching that Jesus "was born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law" (Gal. 4:4)? The suggestion would imply that Jesus, having been raised by Mary, and taught as a child according to Jewish law, then completed his training as man by enrolling himself as a learner from the last of the Old Testament prophets. But instead of being taught by John, he was immediately led away by the Holy Spirit to be prepared for his ministry. Only then did he begin to function as a rabbi to enroll his own disciples.
I have argued that in both John the Baptist's baptisms and in the baptisms into Jesus' circle of disciples before and after Pentecost the meaning of the word "repentance" means a turning to learn about or from the Messiah. However, the lifestyle taught after baptism is quite different among Jesus' disciples when compared with John the Baptist's ascetic, old covenant ministry.
Having said all this, we may still have the gut feeling that repentance somehow includes an element of contrition and commitment to costly service. Consider the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18). He was told, "Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me." Based on this text and the Practice of Christian communism in the book of Acts, some sects have required a selling of all possessions in order to join one of their groups. Even those who do not go that far claim that, just as the rich young ruler had to face his own kind of costly repentance, all candidates for baptism must have been faced with the cost of discipleship.
As we have already seen, it would be impossible to check how many of the three thousand on the day of Pentecost were rich, and whether they had actually sold their possessions, before being baptized. My suggestion would be that the cost of wholehearted, total commitment should indeed by presented in the church, but the timing is important. It should not be emphasized until the Christian disciple has received sufficient teaching. In the school analogy, the cost of graduate and Ph.D. studies need not be mentioned as the child enters kindergarten.
Looking at the text more carefully we find that the young man already seemed to be a disciple of Jesus, since he called him "good teacher." In our model he would already have been baptized into the circle of Jesus' learners. There is also the suggestion that he had already learned much, and progressed to the point where "only one thing" was still lacking. Perhaps, having received many months of basic teaching, he now hoped to travel around on a full-time basis as a member of Jesus' preaching band. He would have needed the reminder that "foxes have holes and birds have nests," but missionaries of the gospel must not expect a bed for the night. Similarly, the injunction "leave the dead to bury their own dead" was spoken to a man who was invited to "follow me" (Luke 9:59-60).
We have already noted Luke's version of the parable of the church's banquet. Many are invited, but many of those who could be expected to come make trivial excuses. Since there is still room "the poor and the maimed and blind and lame" are to be brought in, and if that does not fill the church others are to be compelled to come in from "the highways and hedges" (Luke 14:15-24). This parable serves to justify an open admission policy at the point of baptism. Repentance before admission is no more than accepting the invitation by turning to come in.
The counting the cost that comes later is to be looked for among the baptized. Having received freely, having tasted the grace of God, having discovered the resources available to all Christians, we then come to decide our response. "Here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, ourselves, our souls and bodies" are words spoken by those who have already taken communion. Luke immediately follows the open admission policy of the banquet parable with sayings about bearing the cross, counting the cost before building a tower, and a king who wonders if he can win against severe odds. The conclusion is "whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:25-33). This final verse could be used as a requirement for repentance before baptism, but what church has ever been so consistently rigorous? Admittedly Luke uses the word "disciple," but the context immediately after the parable of the banquet indicates that this is not cost-counting before baptism.
We should all take seriously the costly response that is implicit in discipleship. In that sense we cannot learn in the school of Jesus without sooner or later facing the cost. Enrolling in the beginners' class at a mountain climbers' school may eventually lead to counting the cost of an Everest expedition, but the principle of learning is "one thing at a time." Luke's point is that admission for beginners is incredibly wide open to all and sundry, but cost counting is inescapable. A wilderness survival school may be open to any who care to enroll. They cannot possibly understand, much less face, what they will, after some training, be called upon to do. But by the time they are invited to undertake the rigorous solo segment of the program, they will already have received the preparation needed to face it, succeed in it, and enjoy it.
As any serious follower of Jesus knows, even if he counted the cost before baptism, there are further calls to commitment, self-denial, and cross bearing (Luke 14:25-33). If all the cost were set out before we received the love and help and spiritual power, who among us would ever have the courage or commitment to begin? The parable of the sower warns us that wealth will totally choke out some of the seed in the Kingdom, and in his aside about the rich young ruler, Jesus certainly warns that wealth is a tough handicap. But what we cannot do is refuse baptism and teaching by the Holy Spirit to a wealthy person just because he has not yet repented in the sense of being ready, there and then, to give up all he owns.
In the final chapters of this book we will consider the teaching program needed in the churches after baptism. In the Old Testament the priests often failed to teach God's law, and similarly Christian churches have often degenerated into a perpetuation of ignorant darkness. in such cases the fruits of repentance rarely appear Where the Word of God is taught and applied we inevitably see among the baptized the beautiful fruits of penitence and contrition, followed by amendment of life. But such fruits take time. They cannot be forced by misguided inquiry as to counting the cost, penitence, and assurance of perseverance before baptism. If turning is taught, that is sufficient, and that is what repentance means in connection with baptism. The fruits of repentance, including penitence and dedication, will follow later.
"Thank you, O God, for enrolling me in the school of Jesus' disciples. I am beginning to see some of the cost. Strengthen me to tackle future tough assignments in your kingdom."