While there are many important and interesting topics within the realm of Christian theology, there cannot be one more important than the doctrine of salvation. It is this doctrine that tells us what the Gospel is and how we are to respond to this Gospel in order to be saved. What follows is, I pray, a succinct, practical, and true answer to the question posed in the title of the article.
Before I dig into answering these two questions, I think it is necessary to think about them in the historical context of the work of Jesus Christ and the birth of the New Testament Church. After Christ had been killed, buried, and resurrected, he spent 40 days with his apostles instructing them concerning things pertaining to the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). We even have some of the content of this instruction:
While he was with them, he commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “Which,” he said, “you have heard me speak about; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit in a few days.” So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:4-8
Notice with me what Jesus says about the Father’s promise: “…you have heard me speak about [it before]”. We surely have in John 7:37-39, 14:15-26, 15:26, and 16:13 instances of Jesus speaking about the same “baptism with the Holy Spirit” that he here mentions in Acts 1. Notice that, in John 7:39, John tells us that those who believe in Jesus will receive the Spirit. In what way is this promise Jesus here reiterates in Acts 1 “the Father’s promise”? The Father, speaking through the prophet Joel, said: “I will pour out my Spirit on all humanity” (Joel 2:28-29).
So, after his resurrection and before his ascension, Jesus informed his apostles that they would soon experience the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Joel and His own recent promise of the outpouring of the Spirit. We know that this prophecy and promise was fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost had arrived, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like that of a violent rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were staying. They saw tongues like flames of fire that separated and rested on each one of them. Then they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them. – Acts 2:1-4
After a crowd had gathered and asked what was happening, Peter explained by saying what I said just a moment ago: “…this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: And it will be in the last days, says God, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people…” (Acts 2:16-17). Peter also said: “Therefore, since he has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, he has poured out what you both see and hear.” (Acts 2:33).
This momentous occasion marked the beginning of the New Testament Church. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that it is by the baptism of the Holy Spirit that souls are brought into the “Body of Christ”; “the Body of Christ” is a term Paul often uses to refer to the Church (Romans 12:4; Colossians 1:18; Ephesians 1:22-23, etc.). When Jesus prophesied that believers would receive the Spirit in John 7:37-38, John clarified in v.39 that Jesus’ promise wouldn’t be fulfilled until after Jesus had been “glorified”. What was Jesus’ “glorification”? Truly, Jesus’ glorification involved His death, burial, and resurrection (John 17:5), but it culminated in his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:9; 1 Timothy 3:16). So, we know that this experience of being baptized with/in the Spirit, also referred to as receiving the Spirit, that would bring believers into the Body of Christ, or the Church, would not take place until after Jesus’ ascension. Sure enough, after Jesus reiterates the promise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5-8) he ascends to heaven (Acts 1:9), and shortly after that the Spirit is poured out (Acts 2:1-4).
After Peter had explained to the crowd that what they saw and heard was none other than the fulfillment of Joel’s ancient prophesy and Jesus’ recent promise and, furthermore, that they were all guilty for the death of Jesus Christ, they cried out, convicted of their sin, “What should we do?” Peter, standing with the other 11 apostles, and with their full approval, replied.
Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, each of you, 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 for your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, “Be saved from this corrupt generation!” – Acts 2:38-40
Before making any additional comments, I’d like to point out that this is the first message preached to sinners in need of salvation after the birth of the New Testament Church. It is the only example in the New Testament of all of the Apostles giving a unified answer to a direct question about how sinners were to receive salvation. In this narrative, we do not have the later theological reflection and doctrinal instruction we find in the Epistles; we have instead a Spirit-inspired account of exactly what the Apostle’s told people to do in order to be saved.
Notice a few things about this response. First, there seem to be three distinct elements Peter mentions in his response: repentance, water baptism, and receiving the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Second, he specifically refers to the “gift of the Holy Spirit” he is telling these people they will receive when they repent and are baptized as “the promise”. We know, therefore, that the gift of the Holy Spirit he is promising they will receive is the same gift he, along with the 120, had received in Acts 2:1-4. Finally, notice that he extends the promise to “as many as the Lord our God will call”. When we reflect on the fact that Peter here connects the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit to the “baptism of the Holy Spirit” Jesus had promised in Acts 1:5, we realize that “receiving the Spirit” (John 7:37-39), “being filled with the Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4), and “being baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5) are all one and the same experience of the outpouring of the Spirit upon all people promised by God in Joel and reiterated by Peter in Acts 2:16-17 and that is referred to in the Epistles as the Spirit baptism by which people are brought into the body of Christ (Romans 8:9; I Corinthians 12:13).
At this moment, I’d like us to remember that, prior to his ascension, Jesus was with his apostles instructing them about “the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). It seems appropriate now to remember some of the words of Jesus in John 3. Upon being approached by Nicodemus, Jesus decided to use this moment to teach about the Kingdom of God.
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” “How can anyone be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked him. “Can he enter his mother’s womb a second time and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” – John 3:3-8
Jesus clearly taught here in this conversation with Nicodemus that one must be born again, meaning born of water and the Spirit, in order to see or enter the Kingdom of God. Also, Jesus clearly taught here that this “new birth” was a spiritual birth, not a natural birth. So, what then did Jesus mean by “enter the Kingdom of God”? Well, first we must ask, “What is the Kingdom of God?” This is a wonderfully grand topic that I will not even attempt to comprehensively handle at this juncture. I will simply point to one verse of Scripture that provides sufficient illumination for the topic at hand.
…the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. – Romans 14:17
We know that the Kingdom of God will only be fully realized when this universe is cleared of sin and Christ sits on his permanent and physical throne with all of creation worshipping Him. However, the Kingdom of God is also a present reality (Mark 1:14-15; Luke 17:20-21). How? The Kingdom of God is a spiritual reality. It is something that we experience through the Holy Spirit. While the fully realized Kingdom of God will be the complete dominion of God over the entire universe, at present, the Kingdom of God is the rule and reign of Christ over those who place their faith in him through the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. However, while the Kingdom of God is a present, spiritual reality with a yet to come physical fulfillment, there is presently a physical reflection of the spiritual reality, namely, the Church. The Church is the body of believers who have been baptized in/with Spirit (I Cor. 12:13). This Church was born in Acts 2 when God poured out His promised Holy Spirit for the first time and baptized the first believers by the Spirit into His Body. We can be certain then that Jesus’ words in John 3 speak plainly to the issue of how one is to join the ranks of those who enjoy the rule and reign of Christ in their hearts today.
Having understand that by “the Kingdom of God” Christ was referring to the at hand but not yet spiritual reality that would begin to be realized at the birth of the Church, we may ask what did Christ mean by “born again”? We have already mentioned that this is a spiritual birth. Throughout the NT epistles, the state of a person prior to their salvation is referred to as a state of “death” and their salvation is referred to as a coming to life and even a “birth” (2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 2:1-4) Theologians use the word “regeneration” to refer to this new birth, this being born again, which literally means “a creating again”. The new birth, then, is the work of God whereby a sinner is regenerated, that is, made spiritually new and alive by the power of the Spirit.
When we reflect on all of this, we realize that in John 3, we actually have the words of Jesus about being saved and about entering His Church. And, what does he say? He says that this new birth is a birth “of water and the Spirit”. We can quickly recognize that the “birth of the Spirit” must be none other than the baptism of the Holy Spirit that was experienced by the 120 in Acts 2 and that will be experienced by all those who believe in Jesus (John 7:39) and by all those the Lord calls (Acts 2:39). But, what of the “birth of water”? Well, when we read the book of Acts, we quickly realize how important baptism in water was in the early Church. Peter commanded his listeners to “repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38). He links repentance and baptism together such that baptism is a part of turning away from sin and turning to the Lord and he links forgiveness of sins to repentance such that, in order to receive forgiveness of sins, one must repent and be baptized. Later, in Acts 10, he “commanded them [Cornelius and his household] to be baptized” (Acts 10:48). When Philip preached the word of the Lord to the Samaritans, they were baptized (Acts 8:12) and when he had preached to the Ethiopian, he was baptized (Acts 8:36-38). When Paul turned to the Lord, he was baptized (Acts 9:18; 22:16). When Paul had spoken the word of the Lord to the Philippian jailor, the jailor was baptized (Acts 16:33). When Paul came across some disciples of John the Baptist who seem to have believed in Jesus to some extent but had only submitted to John’s baptism, he commanded them to be re-baptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 19:1-6). We would be well justified from these facts alone to conclude that Jesus was referring to water baptism when he spoke of the “birth of water”. However, we need not stop here. We have also references in the Epistles that speak of the importance of baptism (Romans 6:3-4; I Peter 3:21). In this passage in Romans, Paul speaks of Christians being “buried with him [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead…so too we may walk in newness of life”. In Paul’s thinking here, water baptism is a symbolic identification with Christ in his death and resurrection. In going down into the waters of baptism we identify with the burial of Christ and in coming up out of the waters of baptism we identify with the resurrection of Christ. In the verse in 1 Peter, Peter says that “baptism, which corresponds to this [the flood waters] now saves you (not as the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge [or “appeal”] of a good conscience toward God) through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”. The correspondence of the baptism under discussion to the flood waters of the Genesis narrative and the parenthetical thought where Peter felt the need to clarify that the baptism under consideration isn’t meant to remove dirt from the body demonstrates that he is referring to water baptism. He suggests that the baptism under consideration is part of our salvation and, in effect, produces an appeal and pledge of a good conscience to God. More could be said, but I do not think more needs to be said to show that beyond a reasonable doubt the “birth of water” Jesus referred to in John 3 was water baptism.
So, it seems that, in light of the teaching and experience of the Church, Jesus taught here that in order to enter the Kingdom of God, both in its present reality in the Church and in its later fulfillment in the fully present and eternal Kingdom of God, one must be baptized in water and baptized in the Spirit.
When we think of this in relation to the answer given by Peter in Acts 2:38, his answer makes a whole lot of sense. In order to be saved, one must turn from their sin and turn to God in repentance. This repentance will be expressed by being baptized in water. And, God will give the repentant believer the gift of His Holy Spirit.
We see that throughout the book of Acts these elements of repentance, water baptism, and Spirit baptism are present. In Acts 2, Peter commands his listeners to be baptized and promises that they will receive the Spirit. They are later said to have been baptized and we know that they must have received the Spirit if they were saved (1 Cor. 12:13; Romans 8:9). In Acts 8, the Samaritans were baptized and received the Spirit. In Acts 10, the Gentiles received the Spirit and were baptized. In Acts 16, the Philippian jailer was baptized and, if we are to believe he was saved, he must have received the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13; Romans 8:9). In Acts 19, the believers in Christ who had been followers of John were baptized and received the Spirit. Many are said to have “turned to the Lord” or “believed” throughout Acts without further description. However, we shouldn’t conclude from the lack of further description that their experience of salvation was different from those in the references I’ve just mentioned; surely they were also baptized and received the Spirit.
Now, I believe we are ready to answer the question, “What is the Gospel?”
In 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Paul gives us “the gospel he preached”.
Now I want to make clear for you, brothers and sisters, the gospel I preached to you, which you received, on which you have taken your stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold to the message I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…
Here we can discern that “the Gospel” is really the good news about the work of Christ in order to redeem fallen humanity. Paul says elsewhere that “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). The Gospel is the news that through the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God has made provision for mankind to be saved, i.e., reconciled to Himself. This provision of God to mankind of the means of salvation (Jesus Christ) is the grace of God (Titus 2:5). God graciously sent Christ, and truly, God was in Christ, in order accomplish the work of salvation. The Gospel is the good news that this work has been done, that God has graciously made a way for us to be saved.
But, how are we to receive the work of salvation? How is this work applied to our lives? Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:8-9 that salvation is by grace (God’s provision) through faith (our response). We must accept God’s work of salvation by a faith-response to the Gospel. What does this look like?
The Bible is replete with references that connect obedience to faith and the Gospel (Romans 16:26; Romans 1:5; Acts 6:7; Romans 10:16; Matthew 7:21, 24-27; John 14:15; John 14:23; II Thessalonians 1:7-10; Hebrews 5:9; I Peter 4:17; I John 2:3-5; I John 5:1-3). There are two references there that specifically mention “obedience to the Gospel”.
This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels, when he takes vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus… – II Thessalonians 1:7-8
For the time has come for judgment to begin with God’s household, and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who disobey the gospel of God? – 1 Peter 4:17
Both of these references to “obedience to the Gospel” are in the context of judgment. The message is clear. We must obey the Gospel if we expect to be saved. In the larger context of Scripture and with respect to the fact that salvation is “by grace through faith”, we must recognize that a proper “faith response” to the Gospel will include obedience.
So, how do we “obey the Gospel”? I would like to argue that we have a three-fold witness from the mouths of Jesus, Peter, and Paul in John 3:3-8, Acts 2:38-40, and Acts 16:30-34 as to what saving faith looks like with respect to entering the Kingdom of God, being brought into the Church, and being saved.
I’ve already mentioned these things in this post but I’m hoping to bring the point home now. Jesus told us in John 3:3-8 that we need to be born again, that is to be born of water and of Spirit, in order to enter the Kingdom of God. Peter, with the approval of the other 11 apostles, concluded the first sermon of the Christian Church by answering a direct question of how to be saved and telling people to repent and be baptized in water in the name of Jesus Christ and promised they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul instructed the Philippian jailor to be baptized and we know he must have received the Holy Spirit if we are to believe he was saved.
When we examine these three passages and other passages where conversion is narrated we see the three elements we pointed out earlier present in all of them: repentance, water baptism, and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, I conclude that we “obey the gospel” by obeying the simple instructions the Apostles gave immediately following the birth of the Church. That is, by repenting and being baptized in water in the name of Jesus Christ, and by receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are brought into the Kingdom of God and to life in Christ.
So very much more could be said and for those who want a more in-depth treatment of this subject, I suggest “The New Birth” by David Bernard. However, I will conclude with this simple thought. It seems to me that if we are telling people how to “obey the gospel” and what we say and what they experience seems different than what we read about in the book of Acts, the only Spirit-inspired history of the early Church, perhaps we need to take a second look at what we think the Gospel is and how we are supposed to obey it.
May the Lord lead and guide us all in our search for truth.