In reading the Book of Acts, I am impressed that Dr. Luke most frequently reports what we call conversions by saying that people “believed” or “believed on the Lord.” Sad to say, I do not know any folks today who regularly talk that way. Most evangelicals say that people “got saved” or “accepted Christ.” Others report that people “obeyed the gospel,” “were baptized,” or “became members of the church.” Luke does not use any of those terms by themselves in the book of Acts to report conversions during the first gospel generation.
What must one know in order to “believe on” the Lord Jesus? Primarily, according to reports in the Book of Acts, that God raised Jesus of Nazareth from among the dead. That fact, in turn, gives mind-boggling meaning to his otherwise senseless death. Jesus’ resurrection means that God has given him the positions of Lord, Christ (Messiah), Prince of Life and final Judge, and to believe on Jesus is also to embrace those declarations as true. This calls for a change in mindset (repentance) to reflect a new purpose, direction and manner of life (discipleship}. And, as part of the conversion process, Luke repeatedly says that new believers were baptized,giving visible expression to their repentance and faith, and openly signalling their commitment to follow Jesus Christ.
All this is rooted in Jesus’ charge to his first disciples to be his coworkers in mission (“commission”), as reported by Matthew (28:18-20), Mark (16:14-16) and Luke (24:44-47). According to the three Gospel-writers, Jesus specified that his followers proclaim internationally the good news (Mark) that the Messiah foretold by the Hebrew prophets has come, and that he has suffered and risen from the dead (Luke). Through him, those who repent are promised forgiveness of sins (Luke). Such believers (Mark) or disciples (Matthew) are to be baptized (Matthew, Mark), then are to be further instructed in everything that Jesus himself had taught (Matthew). This all is part of the conversion process, which, in the larger sense, is really an ongoing transformation that continues as long as we live.
Jesus told his apostles to baptize believers and the Book of Acts says they did that promptly and without delay (Acts 8:35-39; 10:42-48; 16:25-34). When the dust has settled, most Christians stand together on these points — and most, by New Testament standards, have room for improvement. Some groups preach the good news about Jesus, but are careless about promptly baptizing those who believe. Others are diligent to baptize, but are careless about first preaching the good news. As we all learn to obey Christ in both regards, we will also eliminate the confusion which generated our inquirer’s question.
The apostolic teaching firmly connects faith and baptism in the process of turning to God. Unlike many Christians today in various camps, the New Testament never views faith and baptism as adversaries or as competitors. The New Testament never envisions an unbaptized believer — any more than it envisions a baptized unbeliever. The word “converted” appears twice in the Book of Acts (3:19; 28:27), and some translations use “turn” or “turn again” in both places. The word “conversion” appears once in Acts (15:3). Interestingly, neither of these texts specifically mentions either faith or baptism, yet the whole Book of Acts constantly reports converts experiencing both.
The fact is that conversion is a process, not a single act or event. As a Southern Baptist pastor friend of mine once put it, “Conversion begins with a U-turn, by which a person who was going away from God turns the other direction and moves toward God. Going into the U-turn is repentance, and coming out of the turn is baptism.” I believe that Luke would agree with that assessment. We do not need to nitpick the process or to argue about which part of it is more important. We have enough to do proclaiming the good news of a Savior and faithfully baptizing all who believe.