Is Acts 2:38 referring to the baptism of the Holy Spirit rather than water Baptism?

by Luke Wayne

In Acts 2:38, Peter tells the crowd to express their repentance in water baptism. There is no doubt that the context here is referring to physical baptism in water and not the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Teachers who attempt to say otherwise are generally either trying to promote the false premise that water baptism is unimportant in the New Testament, or else they are trying to uphold their own (generally false) definition of "baptism of the Holy Spirit" as a necessary supernatural experience required for salvation. Either way, they are incorrect. Acts 2:38 is plainly talking about water baptism. The verse says:

"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).

Peter tells them to repent and be baptized. He then promises that they will receive the Holy Spirit. These statements are distinct, connected by the word "and." They are two separate things. He doesn't say "be baptized BY receiving the Holy Spirit." He says, "be baptized AND you will receive the Holy Spirit." Peter does not equate these two things. The command to be baptized is not identical to the promise that they will receive the Holy Spirit. We see this even more plainly as we look at the broader context. The book of Acts does use the term "baptize with the Holy Spirit," but it is always in the same formula:

"John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit," (Acts 1:5, 11:16).

Outside of these two references to the words of Jesus, the context makes clear that Acts is talking about water baptism. Note, for example, when Phillip preaches the gospel to the Samaritans:

"But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike," (Acts 8:12).

Like with Peter in chapter 2, the author simply says that they were "being baptized" without clarification. Does that mean with water or Spirit here? The answer becomes obvious a little later in the chapter:

"Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus," (Acts 8:14-16).

So when Acts tells us that people received Baptism, it is not the same thing as receiving the Holy Spirit. It is outward, water baptism. Likewise, later in the chapter, when Phillip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch, we are told:

"As they went along the road they came to some water; and the eunuch said, 'Look! Water! What prevents me from being baptized?'” (Acts 8:36).

The man heard the gospel and wanted to "be baptized," so he looked for water. They then go down into the water for Phillip to baptize him. Again, the normal use of "baptized" in Acts is water baptism, and water baptism is a response to the gospel just as Peter was calling for in Acts 2:38. To cite one more example, when Peter preached the gospel to the Gentile house of Cornelius in Acts chapter 10, they respond in faith and immediately receive the Holy Spirit. Afterward, Peter responds to this by saying:

"'Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?' And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days." (Acts 10:47).

Again, we see Peter preaching the gospel, just as he did in Acts chapter 2. When people respond in faith, he has them baptized, and that baptism is plainly not the receiving of the Holy Spirit, which had already happened. He calls for water. It is water baptism.