Then those who gladly received his word were baptized. There were added that day about three thousand souls.
It is traditional for preachers of the gospel to use something called “the plan of salvation” or “the steps of salvation” in the process of teaching the gospel to someone. Many preachers have the custom of putting a slide similar to this one at the end of their slide presentations as a way of “extending the invitation.” To be sure, this list has been useful in clearly listing the actions that are necessary to get into Christ. However, I wonder if we have become excessively wedded to this single presentation of the gospel.
There are a couple of reasons for asking this. The first (and perhaps most obvious) is that these specific steps never appear in any single passage of Scripture together in this way. There’s a reason why the various steps are demonstrated by multiple passages. Certainly, we can collect two or three under a single heading (for instance, belief and baptism with Mark 16.16, repentance and baptism with Acts 2.38, or belief and confession with Romans 10.9-10), but one is hard-pressed to capture all of these steps explicitly with a single passage. So, we might ask why we force all these steps together into one list and always list all of them when the examples we have in the book of Acts never do this.
The second is perhaps more subtle. When we consistently present these things as discrete steps (and many times as a rote listing of steps without much explanation), I wonder if we’re presenting an intellectual hurdle for some people in obeying the gospel. Let me explain. By listing belief, repentance, confession and baptism into discrete steps, we’ve really divorced the last three from the first. We’ve made repentance, confession and baptism what you do after you believe, rather than what you do as you believe. Thus, we’ve made the plan of salvation as we present it easy fodder for those who want to parade John 3.16 and similar verses as the beginning, middle and end of the plan of salvation. Because we’ve stripped out the actions that are a part of belief and almost without fail talk about them as separate entities, we’ve turned “belief” into the very thing that we frequently denounce in the popular construction of it: an intellectual acceptance of certain facts, and not the acceptance of biblical truth to the point where we do something about it.
I really like the way Luke described salvation here in Acts 2.41. Peter had preached the message of the gospel–the word–and thus Luke summarized what happened by saying that “those who gladly received the word were baptized.” This really gets to the heart of how people respond to the gospel. Peter’s words included an admonition to repent. There was an admonition to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Those who “gladly received” those words did exactly those things. Notice in particular that if someone received the gospel, they were baptized. There was no need to talk about a progression from belief to baptism. They just did it. On that day, there was no one who received the word who was not baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and there was no one who was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ who did not receive the word gladly (if they had not received the word gladly, then why were they baptized?).
There are only two responses to the gospel; we either accept it or we reject it. In rejecting the word, it doesn’t matter whether we’ve dismissed it as untrue, true but not applicable, or true but not obeyed; we’ve still rejected that the word of Christ has a bearing on our lives. Those who “gladly receive” the word are going to follow it. They’re going to do what it says, because they accept that God has spoken.
- Hear the word,
- Receive the word.
Receiving the word includes believing in Christ (accepting the truth about Him), repenting of sins (because we discover through the word that our will is not aligned with God’s will), confessing Jesus Christ (because of the importance of the word) and being baptized (because that’s what the word tells us to do).
This may seem like an oversimplification, but here’s the logic. If we receive the word, we will do whatever it tells us. If we accept that the Bible is the inspired word of God, then if we see that we need to do something, we will do it. Period. It doesn’t matter what we think is necessary. It doesn’t matter what we think God will or will not judge us for. Our answer needs to be the same as the children of Israel as they prepared to enter into a covenant with God: “All that Yahweh has spoken we will do” (Ex 19.8). Did Yahweh say it? If He did, then we need to do it. We haven’t received the word until we have.
This idea of hearing and receiving the word is a never-ending, cyclical process. When we normally present the “steps of salvation,” we make it a very linear process. Once we’re baptized (once we’ve checked off all the steps), then what? Typically, we will include an additional step to “remain faithful,” citing Revelation 2.10. What does this mean? What happens if we aren’t faithful at some point? Is that the end? Have we fallen off the wagon, never to get back on? Also, once we’ve repented of sins and confessed Christ before baptism, does that mean we never have to repent and confess after?
This process of hearing and receiving the word is one that we apply every time we open God’s word. If we read God’s word long enough, we will inevitably come to something that we fall short in. We’ll find something that we should be doing that we aren’t, or something that we shouldn’t be doing that we are. When we receive the word, we will make whatever corrections in our lives are necessary to draw closer to what God would have us be. All the while, in our going back to the word, both privately and publicly, we are confessing Christ as our Savior and our standard of authority. It doesn’t matter whether we’ve never started receiving the word or whether we’ve been gladly receiving the word for decades. We hear it, then we receive it.
The enumerated plan of salvation as we’ve described is an expediency. It is a convenient tool for explaining to someone what God expects us to do. It does have a purpose, and I plan to continue it when it is beneficial to do so. I am currently preaching a series about salvation, and I am using these steps as a convenient organizational tool. However, let us not become too bound to any one way of presenting what God requires of us for salvation, whether it is a five-step plan or a two-step plan. Let us carefully consider, each time we talk about the gospel–whether in private or public conversation–what is the best way to present God’s plan for that audience, and in that circumstance.