“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. 39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call” (Acts 2:38, 39).
At a John Bunyan Conference, April 22-26, 2001, I was among a small group of Reformed minded Baptist pastors who lingered after a luncheon one day to share and visit about the things of the Lord.
This informal meeting was a profitable time except for one part. In the course of the conversation I asked the men what would be a good text to preach from about children for a baby dedication I would soon perform.
I was absolutely surprised at the response, and the discussion that followed. The general consensus was there are no texts to preach from in order to establish a relationship of children to the New Testament Church.
Even more alarming, there was a reaction against the practice of dedicating our children to the Lord. The eldest, and most respected of the pastors assembled, thought there was nothing wrong in dedicating children to Christ, but he did not encourage it to be done.
I must admit that my heart was hurting as I listened to the ministers. Upon reflection, it does seem that, little by little, the practices of God’s people are being abandoned. Cherished standards are no longer honored. Ancient promises are no longer believed, and holy customs that produce doctrinal continuity, and spiritual community, are encouraged to cease. A sense of the sacred is being lost in the name of spirituality.
What is forgotten, in part, is that God promised to write His law upon the hearts of His own. “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: 11 And they shall not teach every man his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. 12 For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:10-12).
At the luncheon table at the Pennsylvania Conference, one pastor mentioned Acts 2:39 as a passage to consider for a baby dedication, but then he quickly added that he would personally not use the text because it was given only to the nation of Israel.
When I asked how many other passages in the New Testament are not for all of God’s people, Jew and Gentile, there was no response. I know good men disagree on this point, but I am not persuaded there is a radical cleavage in Scripture between the true spiritual Israel of God, and the Church. Galatians 3:7 says, “Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.”
As a child of Abraham, by faith, I believe I can return to Acts 2:38-39 and find a passage that speaks to my heart, and to the subject under consideration. I can go back to the Day of Pentecost and listen afresh to Peter preach. As I listen, I hear Peter exhort everyone present to understand the gospel concerning Christ as “a man approved of God”. Peter commanded people to repent of sin in deep and genuine contrition, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38).
Is Peter saying that baptism saves? No, not at all. Peter is not teaching baptism regenerates. Regeneration is the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit.
Is Peter saying that we should be baptized in order to get salvation? Not at all. What Peter does teach is that we are to be baptized because of the removal of our sin by faith in Christ.
What is true is that in Scripture, baptism often stands as a synonym for salvation.
Perhaps an illustration will help.
Billy Sunday was one of the twentieth century’s best-known evangelist. By the time of his death in 1935, Sunday had preached to millions. It is estimated that three hundred thousand men and women were led to faith in Christ as he conducted more than two hundred campaigns. Billy Sunday was also recognized for his important contribution in passing the 18th Amendment, which prohibited “intoxicating liquors” in the United States. His famous “Booze” sermon remains a sensational message.
Sunday himself was converted at the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago (1886) while playing professional baseball for the Chicago White Stockings. In 1891, he left baseball to enter full-time Christian work, first at Chicago’s YMCA, and then working for itinerant evangelists. He held his first independent evangelistic crusade in Garner, Iowa, in 1896, beginning a career which spanned five decades.
Many of Billy Sunday’s early campaigns were held in tents, or temporary wooden structures, or tabernacles, built for the event. Sawdust covered the tabernacle floor. Those who responded to Sunday’s appeal to trust Christ walked up the sawdust covered aisles to shake the evangelist’s hand.
The newspapers coined the phrase, “Hitting the Sawdust Trial” to speak of those who came forward at the Sunday meetings, and the concept caught on.
Many people began to speak of the “Sawdust Trail” as another name for conversion, or salvation.
Someone might ask, “When were you saved” and the response would be, “I hit the sawdust trail when I was a boy of ten in McComb, Mississippi.” That, was the testimony of my father, Stanford William Murrell.
In the early church, someone might have asked, “Christian, when were you converted?” and the answer might be, “I was baptized in Corinth by Paul”, or something of that effect.
Peter does not teach that baptism saves but that baptism is the answer of a clear conscience before God (1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism is a picture of sins being washed away. Therefore, Peter exhorts individuals to come to Christ, repent of sin, and be baptized.
Why? Because a divine promise has been given “unto you and your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
I place myself in the audience in Jerusalem, and I take hope. I invite you to place yourself in the audience in Jerusalem, and take hope. If nothing else, we are among those who are “afar off”. If nothing else we are among those “whom God has called.” There are blessings for us, and promises for our children. There is hope that God will call souls to salvation.
But what does Peter mean when he speaks of God “calling” people. The answer is this. Peter means something very specific. The verb “to call”, is employed as a metaphor for God’s sovereign and effective action of bringing an individual to saving faith in Jesus Christ, and all its attendant blessings. Thirty-one times in the New Testament this word is used to speak of God’s way of salvation.
For example, in Romans 8:30 we read, “Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called them he also justified: and whom he justified them he also glorified.”
In Romans 9:11 the story is told of two children [Esau and Jacob] “being not yet born, neither having done any good or evil, [and yet Jacob is marked out by God for salvation] that the purpose of God according to election might stand, not of works, but of him that calleth.”
As God called Jacob so God calls you and me. “Even us, whom he hath called, not of the Jews only, but also of the Gentiles? (Rom. 9:24).
One of the most surprising truths among people today, is that God calls individuals to salvation.
Christian young person, you did not choose God, but He chose you, and called you to Himself. This call was effectual when it was internalized. You may have heard an external call of God to salvation. Many do.
In the external call, the gospel is preached to all people indiscriminately. Anyone can hear the call of God, but not all will respond to the spiritual truths communicated (Matt. 22:3-9).
In the external call of the gospel, the good news is sown. Gospel truth falls upon rocky soil, and good soil alike.
In the external call, the gospel is easily dismissed.
But the internal call of the gospel is different than the external call. The internal call of the gospel is the voice of the Holy Spirit effectively applying the gospel message to the hearts of individuals with sovereign power to produce repentance, faith, salvation, and service. Luke 5:32 I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
Peter was a sinner by birth, and by choice, and a fisherman by trade. One day he and his brother Andrew heard Jesus call out, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” And they straightway left their nets, and followed him. (Matt. 4:19,20).
James and John were sinners who needed to repent. When Jesus saw them fishing, the Bible says Jesus “called them: and they left their father Zebedee in the ship with the hired servants, and went after him” (Mark 1:20).
They who were physically alive, but spiritually dead, were changed in a moment. Such is the power of the call. The internal call gives spiritual power for the dead soul to live in order to believe the gospel. The internal call cannot be denied, nor does the renewed heart want to reject the gospel. There is the effective expression of faith by the Holy Spirit.
“But we are bound to give thanks always to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13).
If we ask on what basis the call to salvation comes, the answer is God’s sovereign grace. It is God “Who hath saved us, and called us with an holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace, which was given us in Christ Jesus before the world began” (2 Timothy 1:9).
If we ask for what purpose have we been called. The answer is found in 1 Peter 2:9. “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Peter 1:3).
If we ask the reason why so many can turn away from the Lord, and reject Christianity, it is because individuals have yet to hear the internal call of the gospel. But once the internal call is heard there is no effectual resisting.
Moreover, once the internal call is heard, there are ethical implications. A worthy walk is demanded, to be characterized by holiness, patience, and peace.
“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called” (Eph. 4:1).
“For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (1 Thess. 4:7).
“But as he which hath called you is holy, so be ye holy in all manner of conversation” (1 Peter 1:15).
“For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
“And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful” (Col. 3:15).
It would not be wrong to talk honestly to people, and ask them if they have heard the internal call of Christ, which converts the soul, and causes the heart to love Jesus.
The curse of the modern Church, is that people sit in pews, accepting the outward signs of salvation, while secretly being unsure whether or not Jesus is the Son of God, and the Savior of the world, who was crucified, buried, and rose again the third day. Have you ever asked the Lord to grant you that gospel grace of being able to hear the internal call to salvation?
Why do we stress this point?
First, because Peter did.
Second, because it is a constant theme throughout the Bible.
Third, because it is what we must share with our children.
Our children must hear the external gospel call as often as possible, for then, and only then, will the promise of God be realized in their lives. You and I have a responsibility to bring our children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). Unlike the Catholics, Reformed Baptist do not believe that original sin is removed by the baptism of infants. Unlike some Lutherans, or Presbyterian Protestant theologians, we do not believe that children are safe because of a physical linkage with believing parents so that covenant blessings are passed on to the children through the baptism of infants.
Our confidence is this. A divine promise has been made that God will save souls. A divine promise has been made that as many as God has called shall be saved.
But the call must be given.
Peter cried out to the people of his day, and we must cry out to the people of our day with this hope in our hearts: God will convert souls. And it is possible he will convert your child, and mine.
Our holy obligation is to bring the children under the sound of the gospel, and keep them there all the days of their lives that we can influence them. God entrusts children to our care. We want our children to know they have a connection to the church and to Christ.
What is the connection?
First, the association of children with the church and Christ is that of a student. In 2 Timothy 3:15 Paul says of Timothy “And that from a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
One of the first lessons a child could learn, is that before they were born, they were wanted and loved. And, after they were born, they were dedicated to Jesus Christ.
Why were they dedicated to Christ?
They were dedicated to Christ for a good a reason. Jesus loves children. “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).
“Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.
Red or yellow, black or white,
they are precious in His sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.”
Many Christian parents have a divine impulse to bring their children to the Lord to dedicate them. The Lord has written His law upon their hearts, and they want to obey that holy impulse.
Some believe the principle of child dedication was established during the Old Testament economy. In Exodus 13:2 we read, “Sanctify [consecrate, dedicate] unto Me all the firstborn, whosoever openeth the womb.” It was manifested by Hannah when she dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord. In that sacred hour Hannah said, “I prayed for this child, and the Lord has granted me what I asked of him. 28 So now I give him to the Lord. For his whole life he will be given over to the Lord.” (1 Sam. 1:27, 28, NIV).
When the Law was read, the little children were to be present. “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded, which Joshua read not before all the congregation of Israel, with the women, and the little ones, and the strangers that were conversant among them” (Joshua 8:35).
When the children had a question about the Law, the parents were to answer their question, and teach them. “And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 11:19).
The association of children with the church, and with Christ, is that of a student, dedicated to Him at birth, and nurtured, or instructed about Him in faith.
Second, the association of children with the Church, and with Christ, is that of a soul in need of salvation. The Church has been given a Royal Command to make disciples, and bring souls to the Savior.
A study of God’s Word leads to the realization that sin has entered into the world because of Adam, and death as well. There is a desperate need for proper instruction in righteousness to the children, showing their need of salvation.
Third, the association of children with the Church, is that of becoming a vital part of the organism by which new life is expressed in the sphere of faith after conversion.
May God bless those Christian parents who have a holy impulse to dedicate their children to the Lord, with a view to bringing them up in the nurture [education] and admonition [to call attention to; rebuke or warning] of the Lord. You do no wrong. There is a holy principle established, and practiced, in Scripture.
Satan does not want Christian parents dedicating their children to the Lord. The Devil wants to damn as many souls as possible, and so he comes to question God’s Word, mock God’s people of faith, and stop holy practices, Satan wants your children dedicated to him, by default, and neglect.
The world does not want Christian parents dedicating their children to the Lord. The world wants to press every child into its mold, from the cradle to the grave.
The Biblical mandate is to love not the world, nor the things that are in the world. Rather, love God. Give Him your own heart. Dedicate your children to God, and bring them up in the Lord. Make them wise unto salvation.
May the Lord enable us to teach our children they are heirs to the promises of God by faith in Jesus Christ. Amen.