“How,” inquires a correspondent, “do you explain the command given to Saul of Tarsus to ‘Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord’ (Acts 22:16)?”
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The context of this passage suggests that Saul experienced a cleansing subjectively in his own conscience. At the time these words were spoken to him, Saul of Tarsus was a man heavily weighted with guilt, spiritually convicted of enormous crime against the Risen Christ, physically blind and completely bereft of hope. Ananias’ words would come as a great relief to him — to think that he could be cleansed of sin!
The emphasis in Ananias’ command is clearly the final phrase — “calling on the name of the Lord.” For “the Lord” is the very Jesus whom Saul has been persecuting, whose followers he had violently attacked, arrested and helped to kill. Now this same “name” of Jesus will become the basis of Saul’s hope, the motivating factor of his life, the focus of his energies. For this name he himself will now have to suffer, as he proclaims it under his own new name “Paul,” to Gentiles across the Greek-Roman world. And it is this “name” to which Saul submits himself with all his sin-ridden heart, as he receives that symbolic washing in water which constitutes Christian baptism.
It is only the blood of Jesus, symbolizing his perfect life and atoning death as the Lamb of God, which “cleanses” us from sin (1 John 1:7). With trust in that finished atonement, which is certified as sufficient by Christ’s victorious resurrection from the dead, we ask God in baptism to give us a clean conscience (1 Pet. 3:21-22). Then (borrowing imagery from the Old Testament tabernacle rituals) with hearts sprinkled clean and our bodies washed in water, we “draw near” to God without fear (Heb. 10:22). Looking back, we can say that Jesus “cleansed” us with the “washing of water by the word” (Eph. 5:26). Focused in this way on the gospel facts, and trusting only in Jesus Christ the Savior, the believer today can easily say, as one imagines Saul of Tarsus exclaiming, upon emerging from under the water, “I have never felt so clean!”