Wash Your Sins Away

John and Pharisees-Tissot

“Behold, The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!”

“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)

James Jordan has observed that Abraham’s “calling on the name of the Lord” was in fact evangelical proclamation of his faith. Abraham’s witness to the Canaanites was something for which they would be held accountable when Israel returned to claim the land. Chris Wooldridge sees this “vocal allegiance” as the key to understanding the meaning of the washing away of sins in the New Testament. Seen in the context of the last days of the Old Covenant, this was not baptismal regeneration but a public identification by the Jewish worshiper with the final sacrificial lamb (Leviticus 1:1-9).

Chris writes:

What does the book of Acts mean when it speaks of Baptism as the means by which sins are “forgiven” (Acts 2:38) or “washed away” (Acts 22:16). What does this mean and how do we reconcile it with the fact that we are justified by faith alone? When confronted with passages like this, there is often a tendency amongst evangelicals to overlook or avoid the obvious connections being drawn. But this is not the answer. In order to understand a passage like this, we need to consider its Covenant context.

Acts 2 records a sermon given by the Apostle Peter to a Jewish audience who were gathered together for the feast of Pentecost. The sermon begins by warning of a coming judgement. Peter, quoting from the book of Joel, proclaims:

And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. (Acts 2:19-20).

The first century Jewish audience, steeped in the Old Testament, would easily have understood the language of cosmic upheaval to be referring to a national judgment (e.g. Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7), with the sun and moon representing the rulers of nations.

But this was not to be a judgment of any old nation. No, this judgement was a curse meted out against Israel for her rebellion against God. Peter made it clear that Jesus was a righteous prophet like no other, “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know” (2:22). And how did Israel respond? By handing Jesus over to be crucified (Acts 2:23, 36). And now, this very same Jesus had been raised from the dead and set up as God’s judge and right-hand man.

No wonder the men were “cut to the heart” (2:27). They knew what happened when Israel disobeyed God and killed His righteous prophets. As Deuteronomy 28 made clear, when the people disobeyed God, the covenant curses were to be poured out upon them: famine, foreign invasion, exile and death.

It is in this context that we discover the reference to the “forgiveness of sins.” The “sins” in question are specifically transgressions against the Law of Moses and the “forgiveness” in question entailed a release from the consequences of those transgressions. For the Jew, Baptism was a public identification with Christ which washed away sin in a way no Levitical washing or atonement could. It declared openly a submission to a higher priest than the one in the Temple and an allegiance to a higher king than the one in Jerusalem. This is why it was performed “in the name of Jesus Christ.”1Other New Testament passages, such as Romans 6:3-4 and Galatians 3:27, also speak of Baptism as a public identification with Christ.

For any Jew, quietly apologising for what they had done was never sufficient. A public rite was required. Now that rite was an act which made one an ally with the exalted Christ in order to be saved from the final curses of the Law. In forty years’ time, those Jews who wanted to affirm Christ without publicly identifying with him (and therefore against his enemies) were trapped in the city of Jerusalem when the armies of Titus Vespasian besieged the city.

Acts 22:16 is written in a similar context. Paul had unjustly murdered and imprisoned many Christians (Acts 9:1-2), but upon being confronted by the risen Christ he immediately realised his wrongdoing. For him to quietly return to being a Pharisee was impossible. He needed to publicly identify with Christ and with the Church which he had persecuted, in order to be saved from the wrath to come. This was the meaning of his Baptism.

So what does Baptism mean for us today, since we have no “Mosaic” curses hanging over us? 1 Peter 3 tells us that Baptism means than when others revile and slander us for our faith (3:9, 3:14), we can stand firm and identify with Christ (3:15-16). We know that God will judge the wicked and vindicate his people in history, if we are patient. Baptism assures us that, though the nations rage against Christ, he will have the final word. Baptism is not like Old Covenant rites which simply “put away the uncleanness of the flesh.” It is the legal “testimony of a good conscience before God” (3:21), an act which shows that we are not ashamed of Him, that He might not be ashamed of us.

Christian, remember what you declared at your Baptism.

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1. Other New Testament passages, such as Romans 6:3-4 and Galatians 3:27, also speak of Baptism as a public identification with Christ.

2 Responses to “Wash Your Sins Away”

  • Chris W Says:

    As a ‘Levitical’ washing performed outside of the temple and by non-Levites, Baptism was in itself a testimony that the old temple and priesthood were now redundant. John’s Baptism in the river Jordan was a similar testimony, hence why he also warned of the wrath to come against Israel.

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Yep. It did start with a Levite, though – John.