Sunday, May 28, 2017

Baptism: An Appeal for Mercy

Baptism is one of many Bible topics that suffers from a particular kind of blindness. 

It happens most frequently to important topics.  Once long ago a teacher, an honest and dedicated person, summarized that important topic in one specific way.  He taught that to his followers.  It became a rallying cry, then a way of differentiating themselves from everyone else.  Was the teacher wrong? Not necessarily.  Perhaps not at all.  Yet these pithy ways of explaining complex topics are like a door-one that either opens up clarity into the text or one that closes the door to searching out the Word.     

I want open doors into the Word. I think you do too.  So the only thing is to lay aside what I think I know and go straight to the Bible and ask God some direct questions.  You may be as surprised by the answers as I was. 

What does Baptism do? 

Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him  (1 Peter 3:21).

What does baptism do? Saves us.

How?  By cleansing us-not like a bath-like asking God for a good conscience.

Through what power?  Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  

That's what the Bible says. 

Let's ask another question:  Is there a practical example in the New Testament of someone appealing to God for a clean conscience through baptism?   

In Acts 2 Peter is addressing the Jews gathered at the temple to celebrate Pentecost (The holiday 50 days after Passover).  He preaches a straightforward sermon to them.  Here's the one line summary: "God sent the Messiah He promised, but you killed Him and now God has raised Him from the dead."  Do you remember what the hearers of that first Christian sermon said?  

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do? (Acts 2:37)

They feel guilty and scared.  God has been angry with Israel many times but there is no wrath to compare with the wrath of God when you murder His most precious and long awaited gift to the world, His only Son.  They need to beg God's mercy. They need a clean conscience.  And they need it now.  

Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:38-39).

Peter, who would later write that baptism is an appeal for a good conscience, tells them to do two things and they would receive two things.  First, they needed to repent and be baptized.  Second, they would receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In the amazing infinite mercy of God, Peter offers them not just an escape from the guilt and consequence of their horrific murder, He offers them a full part in the life of God, the indwelling Spirit.  

So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls (Acts 2:41).

As a I studied I kept coming back to the word "appeal."  I have heard folks talk about baptism as if it were a "work" and that doesn't fit with the idea of an appeal at all.  See "work" implies we are owed something.  

If you work for 10 hours for 10 dollars an hour, then the boss OWES you 100 dollars.  You don't appeal to the boss and ask for a 100 dollars, he owes it to you.  When we are late for work the third or fourth time and we beg the boss not to fire us, that's an appeal. 

When those 3,000 souls were baptized they stood 100% guilty.  Did a little dunk in the water mean that God suddenly owed them salvation?  

Let's go to the Word and ask!

For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:3-7).

Did God save us through righteous deeds?  No.  God saved us by His mercy.

Did you notice the parallel?  Just like Peter said we appeal for a clean conscience, Paul says we we are saved according to His mercy.  Just like Peter says we repent and are baptized to receive forgiveness and the gift of the Spirit.  Paul says that we recieve the washing of regeneration (our baptism) and by the renewing of the Spirit poured out in Jesus.  And all this—the forgiveness, the regeneration, the washing, the Spirit—is it owed us?  No!  It is mercy.  God's mercy.  


I was.  I knew how important baptism was.  And I understood that baptism was an act of faith and not any kind of "works".  But I had reasoned and twisted and appealed to a pithy saying or two.  And despite reading Acts 2, Titus 3 and 1 Peter 3 many times, I had never begun to understand the connection between appealing for mercy on behalf of our blackened conscience and our baptism.    

When a person is baptized, in effect  he or she is going to God and saying, "Would you, Lord, in your mercy give me the clean conscience I need so desperately?  I believe in you, in your power, that you reward those who seek you.  I believe that Jesus was your son and you raised him from the dead."  Baptism is an entreaty, a plea for mercy, not a work of personal righteousness. 

I know that any time we stray, even a little, from the rallying cries of the teachers of the past we invite controversy.  And sisters, if you would like to talk these scriptures over, I'd love to talk with you.  Leave me a comment, email me, whatever you'd like.  I'd only ask that you leave the pithy sayings aside and let’s focus together on the Word of God.


Our congregation meets two Sunday nights a month to discuss a question.  Anyone young or old can put their question in the box then my husband and the rest of the us study up and everyone discusses what they learned.  The question last Sunday night was on baptism.  What I shared here comes directly from the discussion in class. My thanks to my husband, Kevin Smith and classmates Jim Handley and Lucas Necessary whose comments inspired these thoughts.


  1. An excellent article. I pray for a wide distribution of your thoughts. It is especially good because you kept going to the Bible for each point. Good work!

  2. Bryant, thank you for your kind words. As we study really we are just privileged to be reading and absorbing the thoughts of God!

  3. Becoming a new creation starts with our confession and baptism. I love being directed to the Bible and seeking truth directly from Scripture. Thankful to stop by your site, Helene. God bless!

    1. Stephanie, I know exactly what you mean. People have wisdom but when our wisdom comes from living in the Word and walking in His truth it is "the wisdom that comes from above." I'm glad you stopped by too!

  4. We really need biblical clarification on this topic, so thank you!

    1. More and more Michele, I see folks rely on mottos and sayings, the pastoral "helps" that explain some aspect of truth to the sheep. But a help to understand the truth isn't necessarily the same as the truth. It is the baby food of Christianity. We've got to dig in and be mature believers who rely on the Word!