Have you obeyed the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

The Gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). If you wish to know God now and for eternity, then you must repent and believe the Gospel (Mark 1:15). This is of the utmost importance. The Apostle Paul said that there will be a day “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” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8). You may think that you have already obeyed the Gospel, and I hope you have, but I present to you now the words of the Apostle Paul: “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Examine yourselves.” (2 Corinthians 13:5). The Lord Jesus said there will be a day when many who thought they were his disciples will find out that they were not (Matthew 7:13-23). The Lord goes on to tell us in this same passage exactly how to be among those who are his disciples: hear and obey his word (Matthew 7:24-27). Therefore, I urgently invite you to review this examination of the scriptures and prayerfully consider whether you have obeyed Christ’s word by obeying his Gospel.

Before I provide a concise definition of the Gospel and an answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?”, I think it is necessary to think about these issues in the historical context of the life 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. In John 7:39, John tells us that those who believe in Jesus will receive the Spirit. In Acts 5:32, Peter and the apostles with him said that God gives the Holy Spirit “to those who obey him”. Surely, this is not contradiction. To believe is to obey; to obey is to believe. Consider these words of the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.

Now, 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). The promise Jesus mentioned throughout his ministry and reiterated in Acts 1 is the selfsame promise given centuries before by God through the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-29): that God would pour out his Spirit.

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 we just pointed out 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 when he was exalted to the right hand of God the Father (Acts 1:9; 1 Timothy 3:16). So, we know that this experience of being baptized in the Spirit that would bring believers into the Body of Christ would not take place until after Jesus’ ascension. The sequence of events in Acts demonstrates that this is so: after Jesus reiterates the promise of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5-8) he ascends to heaven (Acts 1:9) and the Spirit is poured out soon after (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.

“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. This experience is none other than 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?”

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. 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 the 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 understood 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; 1 Peter 1:23). Theologians use the word “regeneration” to refer to this new birth, this being born again, which literally means “a creating again” (See 2 Corinthians 5:17). 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 that is for all the Lord calls (Acts 2:39) and that will be experienced by all who believe in Jesus (John 7:39).

But, what of the “birth of water”? 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. Furthermore, baptism was part of his preaching that was intended to provide his hearers with the way they were to “save themselves” (Acts 2:40). 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. This conception of baptism producing “an appeal and pledge of a good conscience to God” fits with the connection Peter made between repentance and baptism and the remission of sins. When we are baptized our sins are remitted and our consciences are thus cleared of guilt; when we are baptized we are pledging ourselves 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 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. 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 and through faith. 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. Clearly the faith response to the grace of God that is the gospel includes 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.

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, our sins are remitted and we are brought into the Kingdom of God and to life in Christ.

In summary:

  1. What is the Gospel? Answer: God has provided the way of salvation through the work of Jesus Christ.
  2. What must I do to be saved? Answer: Obey the Gospel. This means to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

I think there are two more question which must be addressed in order for us to have a complete understanding of obedience to the gospel:

  1. How should I be baptized?
  2. How will I know that I have received the gift of the Holy Spirit?

If we need to be baptized and need to receive the gift the Holy Spirit, it seems that we need to know exactly what each of these things looks like.

With respect to baptism, it is clear that the only Scriptural manner in which a person was baptized was by immersion in water. John came baptizing and he administered baptism by immersion in water (John 3:23). Jesus was baptized by immersion in water (Matthew 3:13-17). The apostles and other leaders in the New Testament church baptized exclusively by immersion in water (Acts 8:36-38; Romans 6:3-6). In spite of these facts some insist that other methods are acceptable. The fact is that we have no precedent in the apostolic church as seen in the New Testament for any other method than immersion in water. To insist on an alternative method is to remove oneself from under the authority of the apostolic church. Furthermore, it is to insist on a different manner than the one in which Christ was baptized. If we are baptizing differently than Christ and the apostles, we have removed any justification to call our baptism “Christian baptism”. The facts are clear: Christian baptism, apostolic baptism, is baptism by immersion in water. To these facts some say that the method or manner doesn’t really matter. It seemed that the New Testament church thought it mattered. That fact alone should be enough to refute this notion. Again, as I said just above, if we are baptizing differently than Christ and the apostles, we have removed any justification to call our baptism “Christian baptism”. Sure, it is some kind of baptism, but it isn’t the baptism we read about in the New Testament, the one Christ commanded, and the one the apostles practiced.

Another subject to consider is baptismal formula. The majority of Christianity today baptizes with a “triune-name” formula, that is, they accompany the ceremony with words such as: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. They do this because of a trinitarian reading of the Scriptures, particularly Matthew 28:19. The fact is that in the New Testament we have no record of a baptism accompanied by this formula. In every case of a recorded baptism in the New Testament, all of which occur in the book of Acts, the name of Jesus is associated with that baptism, used in a similar construction as we see in Matthew 28:19, such as “in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of the Lord [Jesus]”. 1 Corinthians 1:13 also references baptism in Jesus’ name. We know from Acts 22:16 and James 2:7 that the name of Jesus was orally invoked at baptism, which we can safely conclude was the standard practice of the apostolic church. Therefore, it seems clear that the apostolic precedent for baptismal formula is baptism in the name of Jesus which meant with the oral invocation of the name of Jesus.

With respect to receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit, we note that in almost every case where it is explicitly stated in the book of Acts that someone received the Holy Spirit it is also explicitly stated that they spoke in tongues (Acts 2:1-4; Acts 10:44-46; Acts 19:1-6). The only exception to this pattern is in Acts 8 where the Samaritans are explicitly stated to have received the Holy Spirit but are not explicitly stated to have spoken in tongues. However, as many scholars have recognized, the Samaritans very likely spoke in tongues when they received the Holy Spirit. In Acts 10, Peter and the other Jews present with him knew that those present had received the Holy Spirit “for they heard them speaking in other tongues” (v.46). Therefore, I conclude that this is apostolic precedent for knowing one has received the Holy Spirit: they will speak in tongues. A quick note on speaking in tongues. According to Acts 2:4, speaking in tongues is the supernaturally inspired utterance of a language previously unknown to the speaker. It is not a language that a person learns to speak themselves; it is not gibberish that one makes up. It does not originate from the human heart but rather originates from the Spirit of God.

Let us now conclude. One will know that they have obeyed the Gospel when they have turned to God in repentance and faith by being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ and have received the gift of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.

It is at once apparent that the majority of Christianity both in history and currently has not emphasized or experienced this message. This should be no surprise to us. Jesus predicted that there would be many who would consider themselves Christian but who would not be so truly (Matthew 7:13-23). Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude all warned against false teachers who would lead many astray. Paul even experienced perversions of the Gospel in his day. I submit that any purported gospel that does not include baptism in the name of Jesus Christ or receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues is a false gospel. As I’ve argued in this post, this is the Gospel that the apostles preached and experienced.

Therefore, if you are a person who has not repented, been baptized in Jesus’ name, or received the gift of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues, then I would urge you to seek God for the completion of your faith, lest your faith be in vain. To be clear: I am not suggesting that you “seek tongues” as if the speaking of tongues is the key to your salvation. I am suggesting that you seek God to give you the gift of his Holy Spirit which, according to the pattern we see in the scriptures, will be accompanied with speaking in tongues. God promised that he would give his Spirit to those who obey him (Acts 5:32). If you turn to God in genuine repentance and faith, then he will give you his Spirit. And, you will experience that which was experienced by the New Testament Church: you will speak in other tongues as the Spirit gives you the ability.

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, we need to take a second look at what we think the Gospel is and how we are supposed to obey it.