A long time ago in a blog far, far away I wrote about today’s subject as part of a larger article. It seems like an appropriate moment, given the topic of yesterday’s post, to return to the passage I discussed in part of that old essay.
St. Peter preached his first sermon on Pentecost not long after the Holy Spirit had come upon him and the rest of the disciples (Acts 2:1-4). His message (Acts 2:14-36) was powerful and efficacious. The response of the crowd was this:
Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and they asked Peter and the other apostles, “What are we to do, my brothers?” (Acts 2:37)
So here Peter stands after giving the first evangelistic message of the Christian era, and he has been asked by his audience what their response to the Gospel should be. I think that it is safe to say that if there is ever a time in the Bible when — if it was true — we should expect to hear an apostle resoundingly announce the doctrine of sola fide justification: if there is ever a time to hear it, surely it is here.
Except we don’t.
Peter [said] to them, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
And later we see that this is exactly what happened: three thousand were baptized that day (Acts 2:41).
Now it would be plainly absurd if we were to suppose that St. Peter’s words here mean that faith is not necessary in order to be saved just because he did not mention it. We know that faith is necessary for salvation. And, dear reader, it would likewise be plainly absurd if we were to suppose on the contrary that repentance and baptism are not necessary for salvation! After all, these are the only two things St. Peter saw fit even to mention!
Consider: St. Peter preaches the first sermon ever, and he is asked what response to the Gospel is required. He is asked this by people who are prone to locate justification in the things that they do, which is why they asked the question that they did (“What are we to do?”). Does he tell them, “You do not have to do anything. Indeed, you must not. You must only have faith in Christ alone for your salvation.” Is what he said on that day anything like this?
Of course it isn’t.
And so it is clear that it would be a mistake to say that St. Peter’s message is a message of justification by faith alone (as the Protestant would have it). To the contrary, there are at least two other things that are necessary.
- Repentance. This is nothing more than what Jesus said, as we saw yesterday. We must (at the least) be truly sorry for our sins against God and determined to live a new life ordered to holiness, to loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
- Baptism. This is nothing less than what Jesus commanded before He ascended (Matthew 28:19), and nothing other than what He said to Nicodemus (John 2).
Whatever else St. Peter might have said or could have said, it is surely safe to say that what he did say is true. He didn’t get things wrong on that first Pentecost Sunday. No, he got them right.
Well, so what?
Well, the so what is this: in the light of what St. Peter says in Acts 2:38 it is unreasonable to conclude that the Gospel may be rightly summed up as “justification by faith alone,” or “Jesus plus nothing.” It is unreasonable to say that there is nothing which we must do that must accompany our faith. We must repent. We must be baptized. These things being so, it is reasonable to conclude that the sine qua non of Protestantism is incompatible with what St. Peter said on Pentecost just as it is incompatible with the message that Jesus preached (as we saw yesterday).
[Update, 20 March 2016]
On the same subject we also find the words of the Lord Jesus in Mark 16:
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. (verse 16; emphasis added)
Jesus says in effect that faith and baptism go together. You can’t have one without the other.