Acts 2:38 and Baptism

Question

It seems that one has to be baptized in order to be saved (Acts 2:38) but I thought it was by faith alone?

Answer

Acts 2:38:

And Peter said to them, '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."

The Bible teaches that salvation is not by our works, but by grace through faith. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Baptism would be our “own doing” and eliminate the need of grace (cf. Rom. 11:6). So, being baptized in order to be saved, or baptismal regeneration, disagrees with what Paul taught.

In Titus 3:5 Paul also writes, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” While “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” are spiritual works (cf. John 3:1-8; 2 Tim. 2:24-26), physical baptism is righteous but physical work. However, we're not saved by “works done by us in righteousness.”

If we are saved by baptism, then this would negate the need for God’s mercy and make Paul, who was speaking in accordance with the Holy Spirit, a liar (cf. 2 Pet. 1:20-21; cf. 2 Tim. 3:16-17). As James teaches, “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (Jas. 1:18). Notice there is absolutely no mention of baptism. And since those born of the Spirit have living faith, they show it by their living works (cf. Jas. 2:14-26), which in the case of Acts 2:38 is the work of baptism. So, a person is not saved by baptism, but desires and shows forth their covenantal faith by being baptized.

The Bible tells us we are justified by grace through faith plus nothing else. Paul said that he came to preach the gospel (1 Cor. 1:4-7) . And Paul told us exactly what the gospel that saves is in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, and this text doesn’t include baptism. What was it that Jesus stated to the dying thief next to him? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This thief was never baptized, yet is in heaven!

Not only do we have theological evidence as seen above, we also have linguistic proof. One of the keys to understanding Acts 2:38 includes properly defining the Greek word eis. Depending upon its context, it may have three different meanings: (1) in order to become; (2) because of or as the result or in view of; (3) with regard to.

In Acts 2:38 Peter is saying to get baptized as the result of being saved. He’s most certainly not saying to get baptized in order to be saved. Consider this example: If a doctor tells you to take two aspirin for your headache, he’s not saying take two aspirin in order to get a headache. It’s rather apparent that he means to take the aspirin because you already have a headache. Similarly, this is what is being commanded in Acts as well. In this context, the use of the word eis clearly means “because of or as the result or in view of.” In other words, be baptized as a result of your profession of salvation.

We see a similar use of eis in Matthew 12:41 where it says the people of Nineveh repented as the result of Jonah’s preaching. In 1 Corinthians 10:2 we observe the phrase, “baptized into [eis] Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Again, in context eis can’t mean "in order to get" as the Israelites were not baptized in order to get Moses to be their leader, but because he was already their leader and had led them out of Egypt.

Besides the obvious considerations above, there is the change between the second person and third person in the text. Peter issues two commands: (1) “repent” which in the second person plural and (2) “be baptized” which is in the third person singular. Now look at the pronoun in the phrase, “forgiveness of your sins.” It is second person plural. So, we have a second person plural, then a third person singular, and then a second person plural. There is a very strong and distinct link between the phrase “forgiveness of your sins” (second person plural) and the command to “repent” (second person plural). So, essentially Acts 2:38 is saying all of you repent for the forgiveness of your sins, and then let each one of you be baptized.

A covenant is an agreement between two or more parties. Baptism is an outward representation of being in a covenantal relationship with God. It is the new covenant sign and seal, while circumcision was the old covenant sign and seal (cf. Col. 2:11-12). And in the old covenant Abraham was saved by faith, not his circumcision (cf. Gal. 3:8-9; cf. Rom. 2:29). In Romans 4:9-12, Abraham was credited as righteous well before he was circumcised. Let's look at the biblical facts:

Genesis 15:2-3 states Abram was childless: "for I continue childless" ... "Behold, you have given me no offspring."

Genesis 15:4-6 chronicles the promise to Abram that he would have an heir: "your very own son shall be your heir."

Genesis 16:16 reports "Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael" to him.

Genesis 17:24-27 affirms that Ishmael was 13 years of age when his 99-year-old father Abraham and his whole household were circumcised.

Therefore, assuming that Hagar was with child soon after Abraham's faith (Gen. 15:6), there is a space of at least 14 years between Abraham being reckoned to be righteousness and him being circumcised. While it may have even been longer, a time less than 14 years is literally impossible. So, uncircumcised Abraham was declared a righteous man well before he received the covenant sign and seal of circumcision. Paul tells us in Galations 3:6 Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Notice that Paul didn’t include Abraham’s circumcision. And what is true for Abraham is true for the new covenant believer – “if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). So, Abraham wasn’t saved by his circumcision and the new covenant believer in Jesus Christ is not saved by their baptism.

The Bible does not teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration. Salvation is not by works, but by grace through faith. To teach baptismal regeneration is to teach another gospel, which is no gospel at all (cf. Gal. 1:6-7).

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Mark 16:16 and baptismal regeneration?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).