Baptism and Acts 2:38

by Matt Slick

"Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized 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).

Acts 2:38 is one of the more controversial verses in the Bible regarding baptism and whether or not it is the requirement for salvation.  Some use this verse to say that one must be baptized in order to be saved.  But when you look at the verse, and others, you will see that it does not teach baptismal regeneration, that baptism saves, or that baptism is necessary for salvation.

First of all, rarely is doctrine ever made from a single verse.  We need to look at all of what God's words says about a subject in order to accurately understand what it teaches.  I will briefly tackle this verse in the following manner:

  • Examination of the verse's syntax, grammar and structure.
  • Examine other verses dealing with the forgiveness of sins.
  • Examine the verse in its covenant context.

Grammar and Structure of Acts 2:38

In Acts 2:38 the main verb is metanoesate (change mind), the aorist direct imperative (a command) of metanoeo which means to repent (change mind).  This refers to that initial repentance of the sinner unto salvation.  The verb translated "be baptized" is in the indirect passive imperative (a command to receive; hence, passive voice in Greek1) of baptizo, which does not give it the same direct command implied in "repent."  The preposition "for" in the phrase "for the remission of sins" in Greek is "eis," unto or into, and it is in the accusative case (direct object).  It can mean "for the purpose of identifying you with the remission of sins."  It is the same preposition we find in 1 Cor. 10:2 in the phrase "and were baptized unto Moses."  Note that both contexts are dealing with baptism and identification.  In 1 Cor. 10:2 the people were baptized or spiritually identifying themselves with the purposes and vision of Moses.

Repentance, therefore, is presented as identifying an individual with the remission of his sins even as baptism following repentance provides an external identification visible by others.  Repentance is something that concerns an individual and God while baptism involves others.  That is why baptistheto (let be immersed) is in the passive voice indicating that one does not baptize himself but is baptized by another usually in the presence of others.  Repentance, however, is an act taking place within a person's heart as the Holy Spirit moves in the sinner.

Graphic of Acts 2:38 in Greek and English

But, all this Greek stuff may be confusing.  Let me break it down.  All people are commanded to repent for their sins.  This is what believers have already done by becoming Christians.  Baptism, then, is the outward identification with being a Christian for those who have already repented.  Also, as the Israelites were "baptized into Moses" (1 Cor. 10:2), so too, Christians are baptized into Jesus.  That is, they are identifying themselves, publicly, with Christ.  Likewise, in Rom. 6:1-5 where baptism is related to death, burial, and resurrection, it is again an identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.  That is why it is said of Christians that we have died to sin (Rom. 6:2, 11; Gal. 2:19-20; Col. 2:20; Col. 3:3; 1 Pet. 2:24).

This verse is not demonstrating that baptism is essential for salvation, but that baptism is the thing which we receive in order to publicly identify ourselves completely and totally with Christ as a manifestation of the inward work God has done within us.

Other verses dealing with salvation

Justification is the work of God where the righteousness of Jesus is reckoned to the sinner; so the sinner is declared, by God, as being righteous under the Law (Rom. 4:3; 5:1,9; Gal. 2:16; 3:11).  This righteousness is not earned or retained by any effort of the saved.  Justification is an instantaneous occurrence with the result being eternal life.  It is based completely and solely upon Jesus' sacrifice on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24) and is received by faith alone (Rom. 4:5; 5:1; Eph. 2:8-9).  No works are necessary whatsoever to obtain justification. Otherwise, it is not a gift (Rom. 6:23).  Therefore, we are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1).

Nowhere in the Bible does it state that we are justified by grace and baptism or faith and baptism or faith and anything else.  On the contrary, baptism is excluded from the gospel message.  Paul said that he came to preach the gospel--not to baptize: "I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name.  (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don't remember if I baptized anyone else). For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel..." (1 Cor. 1:14-17).

Likewise, Paul told us exactly what the gospel that saves is; he said in 1 Cor. 15:1-4, "Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, 2 by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain.  3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."  Note what Paul states in the gospel, and that he did not include baptism in the definition of the gospel.

So, we must ask if baptism is necessary for salvation, then why did Paul downplay it and even exclude it from the description of what is required for salvation?  It is because baptism isn't necessary for salvation.

Further proof that baptism is not a requirement of salvation can be found in Acts 10:44-46.  Peter was preaching the gospel, people became saved, and then they were baptized. Acts 10:44-48 says,

"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles.  For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.  Then Peter said, Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?  They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.'  So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days." (NIV).

These people were saved.  The gift of the Holy Spirit was on the Gentiles, and they were speaking in tongues.  This is significant because tongues is a gift given to believers, see 1 Cor. 14:1-5.  Also, unbelievers don't praise God.  They can't because praise to the true God is a deep spiritual matter that is foreign to the unsaved (1 Cor. 2:14).  Therefore, the ones in Acts 10:44-46 who are speaking in tongues and praising God are definitely saved, and they are saved before they are baptized.  This isn't an exception.  It is a reality.  This proves that baptism is not necessary for salvation, and that Acts 2:38 is not teaching it is necessity either.  But, if it isn't saying that, then why is baptism mentioned here?

Biblical Covenant Context

A covenant is a pact or agreement between two or more parties.  Very often, covenants have visible signs to represent them.  The elements of bread and wine used in communion are good examples of this.  Circumcision was both a covenant sign and and the initiatory rite into the Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 17:10).  But this covenant sign did not save anyone.

God said to Abraham, "I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you." (Gen. 17:7, NIV).  God later instructed Abraham to circumcise not only every adult male but also eight-day-old male infants as a sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:9-13).  If the children were not circumcised, they were not considered to be under the promissory Abrahamic covenant.  This is why Moses' wife circumcised her son and threw the foreskin at Moses' feet after Moses failed to circumcise him (Exo. 4:24-25).  She knew the importance of the covenant between God and her children.  At the same time, we must understand that circumcision did not guarantee salvation to those who received it.  It was a rite meant only for the people of God, who were born into the family of God (who were then the Jews).  It was an outward sign of the covenant promise.  To reject it was to reject the covenant, but accepting it did not guarantee salvation.

Another theological debate at risk here

There is debate within Christianity on the nature of baptism and to whom it may be administered.  I am not herein trying to convince anyone of the proper objects of baptism whether it be infant baptism or adult-only baptism.  I only present the following information as a proof that baptism is a covenant sign and not essential to salvation.

In the New Testament, circumcision is mentioned many times.  But with respect to baptism, it is specifically mentioned in Col. 2:11-12: "In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead." (NIV).  In these verses, baptism and circumcision are related.  The extent of that relationship is still being debated.  Nevertheless, Paul also says in Rom. 2:29, "But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God." As you can see, for the Christian, circumcision is of the heart.  And because it is, we Christians are now included in the Abrahamic covenant where before, we, the Gentiles, were not.  "Remember that you were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world." (Eph. 2:12, NASB).

In Gal. 3:8-9, Paul calls the promise of the Abrahamic covenant the gospel.  He says, "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'All the nations shall be blessed in you, 9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.'"  So, Paul calls the Abrahamic covenant the gospel.  The sign of this Abrahamic covenant was circumcision.

Here is the catch.  Since the Abrahamic covenant is still valid (we are justified by faith--Gal. 3:8), then is there a covenant sign for us today?  I think the answer is a resounding yes.  I believe that baptism replaces the Old Testament covenant sign of circumcision because 1) there was a New Covenant in the communion supper (Luke 22:20), and 2) in circumcision there was the shedding of blood, but in baptism no blood is shed.  The covenant sign has changed now that the Law has been fulfilled in Christ.

If you understand that baptism is a covenant sign, then you can see that it is a representation of the reality of Christ circumcising our hearts (Rom. 2:29; Col. 2:11-12).  It is our outward proclamation of the inward spiritual blessing of regeneration--of "heart-circumcision."  It comes after faith which is a gift of God (Rom. 13:3) and the work of God (John 6:28).  Again, baptism is the covenant sign of our covenant with God.

Acts 2:39 and "The Promise"

This would explain why Peter in verse 39 of Acts 2 says, "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself." What promise is Peter speaking of when he says "the promise?"  Notice that he does not say "this promise" but "the promise."  If Peter was referring to baptism as the promise, he would have said "this promise."  Instead, he used a phrase "the promise."  This is significant.

The phrase "the promise" occurs in 26 Bible verses in the New Testament.  It is used in reference to several different topics.

  1. The Holy Spirit, (Luke 24:49; Acts 2:33; Gal. 3:14).
  2. God's promise to Abraham to multiply his descendants in Egypt--physical as well as spiritual (Acts 7:17; Heb. 6:13, 15, 17).
  3. The promise of the Messiah, (Acts 13:32; Acts 26:6-7; Rom. 4:13, 14, 16; Gal. 3:17, 19, 22; Eph. 3:6; 2 Tim. 1:1).
  4. The promise of eternal redemption (Heb. 9:15; 1 John 2:25).
  5. The promise that Sarah would have a child (Rom. 4:20; Gal. 4:23).
  6. The promise that through Isaac the world would be blessed. (Rom. 9:8).
  7. The promise of Jesus' return (2 Pet. 3:4).
  8. The promise to kill Paul by Paul's adversaries (Acts 22:21).

But we are most interested in its context in Acts 2, which begins with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-13).  Peter then preaches a sermon and quotes many OT scriptures (Acts 2:14-35).  In verse 2:22 Peter specifically says, "Men of Israel, listen to these words . . . "  Peter is speaking to the Jews.  It was to the Jews that "the promise" of the outpouring of the Spirit was given.  Peter is speaking the covenant language of God as He quotes the OT.  Since Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:17-18, we can easily see what Peter is talking about when speaking of "the promise" in Acts 2:39.

  • "And it shall be in the last days, God says, that I will pour forth of My Spirit upon all mankind; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams, Even upon My bondslaves, both men and women, I will in those days pour forth of My Spirit." (Acts 2:17-18).
  • See also, "For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring, And My blessing on your descendants." (Isaiah 44:3).

Peter states in Acts 2:38, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." Peter is clearly speaking of the promise of God to grant the Holy Spirit in a new and better way; but is he saying that people become saved by baptism in water, or that baptism is part of salvation?  Not at all.  Peter is simply speaking covenantally about the covenant sign.  Baptism!

Consider this proof, from Peter, that people are saved before baptism:

"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message.  45And all the circumcised believers who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also.  46For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47"Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?"  48And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.  Then they asked him to stay on for a few days." (Acts 10:44-48).

Notice that Peter had been preaching the gospel, and the Holy Spirit fell upon the people.  In verse 45 we see that "the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the Gentiles also." These people were saved.  The gift of the Holy Spirit was on the Gentiles, and they were speaking in tongues.  This is significant because tongues is a gift given to believers, see 1 Cor. 14:1-5. Also, unbelievers don't praise God.  They can't because praise to the true God is a deep spiritual matter that is foreign to the unsaved (1 Cor. 2:14).  Therefore, the ones in Acts 10:44-48 who are speaking in tongues and praising God are definitely saved, and they are saved before they are baptized.  This simply isn't an exception.  It is a reality.

Conclusion

Acts 2:38 so closely ties repentance and baptism because it is contextually covenant language and covenant concept.  It is not stating that you must be baptized in order to be saved.  It is saying that baptism is the complete and total covenantal identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.  It is not the covenant representation (baptism) of what Christ did that saves us but the reality of His sacrifice which we receive by faith (Rom. 5:1; Gal. 3:8).  That is why we can see a group of people in Acts 10:44-48 who are saved before they are baptized.

Baptism is not what saves.  It is not part of salvation.  It is something someone does who is already saved.

 

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  • 1. Active voice is "I hit the ball."  Passive voice is "The ball hit me."  Middle voice is "I was hit by the ball."  In active voice, "I" performed the action.  In passive voice, "I" received the action.  In middle voice, "I" did something to myself.

 

 

 

 
 
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