Does Acts 2:38 Teach that Baptism is Necessary for Salvation?
by Cooper Abrams
The teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation has been an issue for centuries. It is one of the core beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, most Protestant denominations as well as many Christian cults such as Mormons (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), Jehovah's Witnesses, United Pentecostals, Church of Christ and most Pentecostal churches. However, most Baptists and many other sound biblical churches strongly affirm that the God's word teaches baptism is not necessary for salvation.
The teaching is called Baptismal Regeneration, and claims that passages such as Acts 2:38, Acts 22:16, Mark 16:16, Titus 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21 demands that a person be baptized in order to have their sins remitted and be saved. The position is that the point in which a person actually receives salvation is the moment when the ritual of baptism is preformed. The teachings holds that a man may believe and put his faith in Jesus Christ, but only when he submits to baptism is he born again and receives everlasting life. Therefore these groups teach that the act of baptism must be added to one's faith in order to have one's sins forgiven and receive eternal life. This position can be summed up as teaching that grace alone is not sufficient for salvation, A person must also add their work of baptism to God's grace. In applying the teaching it is held that if a person believes, places his faith in Jesus Christ for his salvation and dies before he is baptized he would be lost and go to hell. These churches hold that only faith accompanied by baptism effects forgiveness of sins. This teaching also believes that a person even though he believes and is baptized can lose their salvation if they do not continue to be faithful to the Lord. Both teachings are false.
The question that must be resolved is "Does the New Testament teach baptism is necessary for salvation? The problem that has complicated resolving the matter is that many individuals and churches have not used biblical exegetical hermeneutics in fixing the meaning of passages such as listed above. When proper hermeneutics (biblically interpreting the Bible) are applied the matter is clearly resolved and the word of God is known. The heart of the error is found in that many do not properly understand God's word and in particular salvation itself.
Baptism clearly is commanded by God for those who have believed and been saved. (Matt. 28:19-20) There is no question that baptism is an important act of obedience of the one who has believed in Jesus Christ and received forgiveness of sin and eternal life. However, baptism as presented in the New Testament always follows belief and never is the basis for receiving salvation. Baptism in the Scriptures was part of one's outward public profession of belief in Jesus Christ as one's Savior and it initiated one into the local body of believers. (See Acts 2:41-47) Although these verses seem to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation an exegetical study will show that these interpretations are in error and that the Bible does not teach that salvation is contingent on baptism.
This paper will show the Bible does not teach baptismal regeneration and in fact resoundingly teaches that no work, ritual or act of man is necessary for or can affect salvation. It will be shown that Acts 2:28 which is used to support baptism regeneration is misunderstood and misused.
One must begin with an understanding that baptism is not presented in the New Testament as a part of the saving Gospel. 1   Paul plainly stated what the Gospel that he preached in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, that "by which you are saved."
Paul further defines the Gospel in his Epistle to the Romans:
To the Corinthians Paul explains his calling and purpose of ministry:
Clearly, the act of baptism is not part of the saving Gospel that Paul preached. Jesus commanded His disciples after teaching the Gospel to baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Paul taught that baptism was important in the life of a new believer, but that baptism has nothing to do with one's being born again, receiving forgiveness of sins, and eternal life. Over sixty times in the New Testament belief in Jesus Christ is said to be the way salvation is received and baptism is not mentioned. The truth is that no work of man saves is plainly stated in Ephesians 2:8-9:
The certainty that salvation is received by belief alone was stated by the Lord Jesus Christ in John 3:36. He said that if a person believed they have everlasting life and further states that if a person does not believe they do not have life and will see the wrath of God.
"He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36).
The New Testament overwhelmingly presents salvation as being received by faith alone without any mention of baptism. The question is, "How does one explain that Acts 2:38 seems to teach that baptism is necessary for the remission of sins?" The answer is that if we apply biblical principles of hermeneutics the verse does not teach that baptism is necessary for the remission of sins. The problem is that some misinterpreted the verse and in doing so teach a false doctrine. We need to understand that Acts 2:28 is a translation in our English Bible from the Greek text.
God cannot contradict Himself and that means we must interpret the scriptures within the analogy of the faith. The analogy of the faith means that any interpretation to be true must be in agreement with everything else the Bible says on the subject. An interpretation of a verse or passage of Scripture cannot contradict another passage. Truth is absolute meaning it stands without contradiction. In applying this biblical principle of hermeneutics to this verse, our interpretation to be valid cannot ignore that the Bible teaches that Jesus alone made the sacrifice for the sins of the world. It was His suffering and sacrifice on the cross that paid the penalty for sin. Jesus was God incarnate in flesh, and only our Perfect God and Creator could atone for sin. Therefore no one can earn or merit salvation by any act he preforms. Man has no righteousness of his own and therefore cannot offer his corrupt works to atone for his sins. Baptism is a work, an act, a ritual a man performs. Being a work of man it cannot save. Baptism is always seen in the New Testament as a public ritual and part of a man's testimony of having believed and received Jesus Christ as his Savior and been spiritually born again. Baptism always follows belief and salvation. Baptism cannot be a testimony to something that has not occurred.
Secondly, a passage must be correctly interpreted within its grammatical, historical and cultural setting. Grammatically, it can be shown that Acts 2:39 does not support baptismal regeneration. Historically, Acts 2:38 is a part of an address that Peter made on the Day of Pentecost when he preached to an all Jew audience. In order to know the correct interpretation this passage one must consider the context in which the statement was given. That means to whom was it addresses and why. Applying these three basic principles of hermeneutics is vital to understanding the correct interpretation of the verse. Further, many have ignored these elements in determining what Peter meant by his statement in Acts 2:38 and have misused God's word to misled thousands into believing in a false doctrine. It is a serious matter to mishandle the precious word of God. There is ample grammatical, historical, cultural and contextual information available from the New Testament itself to overwhelmingly preclude that anyone would mistakenly misunderstand the plain teaching of this passage.
The central verb of this vers is the word "Repent ye" (metanoêsate). According to A. T. Robertson, renowned Greek scholar, the word is first aorist (ingressive) active imperative.2   The term first aorist means the verb or action is simply stated, but not defined. By being further defined as "ingressive" it denotes a further state or condition. The verb "repent ye" is ingressive and emphasizes the action is an "entrance" into something. An example is found in John 1:1 "The Word became flesh." 3   The verb "became" is aorist ingressive. It states that the Word, which was Jesus Christ, entered or made entrance into the flesh, meaning He became a man.
Further the verb "Repent" is active imperative meaning it is a command. The definition of the word means literally "perceive afterward" implying a change of one's mind or purpose. 4   Vincent collaborates this meaning saying it refers "to think differently afterward." 5   Thus, Peter was commanding the Jews to perceive again and rethink and turn from their pervious action of rejecting Jesus Christ as their Messiah. (See v36-37) Peter eloquently presented the irrefutable evidence from the Old Testament that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. He showed these Jews that Jesus absolutely fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies concerning the promised Messiah. The Jews in hearing this were "pricked" or stunned by the realization that Peter was right and they had made a terrible mistake. They then asked Peter, "What shall we do?"
You cannot ignore who was asking the question or the circumstances of those asking and understand Peter's statement. It was the Jews of Jerusalem that Peter addressed and the situation was that about fifty days earlier they had consented to Jesus' crucifixion. These Jews had taken part in crucifying their Messiah! The event of Jesus' crucifixion followed Jesus' three year ministry in Israel in preaching repentance, salvation through faith, and presenting Himself as the promised Messiah. There were no Gentiles present and therefore contextually Peter's response must be accepted as applying to these Jews in the context of their current circumstances.
One must understand the statement as a Jerusalem Jew would understand it. Peter said to these Jews, "Repent ye and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ." We must look back into the events of Jesus' ministry to properly understand Peter's statement. Here lies the key to understanding this statement. When John the Baptist appeared on the scene some three years earlier he announced and declared that Jesus was the Christ the Son of God. He proclaimed that Jesus was the "Lamb of God that will take away the sins of the world." (John 1:29) John the Baptist preached "Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand."6   Those that turly repented turned from their sins and submitted to baptism in anticipation of coming of the promise Kingdom. They were identifying themselves with the coming promised Messiah and His kingdom. Their submitting to baptism was an outward testimony that they had repented in their hearts and were looking for their Messiah. They were not baptized to be saved or to enter into the promised Kingdom. Baptism therefore was a sign of their belief and faith in God. Baptism did not change them spiritually, but publicly demonstrated their belief.
The Kingdom of Heaven is the kingdom that God repeatedly and in great detail, promised the Nation of Israel. The kingdom would come with the appearance of the Messiah or Savior of Israel. Israel was under the heavy hand of the Roman domination. They were captives in their own land and subjects of Romans who were oppressing them. Thus, when John the Baptist began to preach it caused a stir among the Jews.
John not only preached repentance in preparation of the coming kingdom, but he baptized those that repented and presented themselves. Jewish baptism or immersion began long before John the Baptist. The ritual involved the use of a Mikvah (or mikveh) which is a specially constructed pool of water used for total immersion in a purification ceremony within Judaism. Prior to John the Baptist the only people who were baptized were Gentile proselytes to Judaism and the ceremony is called a "tevillah." Throughout Israel's history ceremonial washings by immersion was done by the High Priest before he entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. This ceremonial washing was also practiced by those participated in the Temple worship. Pilgrims and worshipers would enter a mikveh (baptismal pool) and dip themselves before entering the Temple. Immersion in the mikveh would show the convert's transition between his old identity and his new identity as a Jew. In other words, immersion in water symbolized birth as a Jew. 7 There were many mikvahs around the Temple in Jerusalem in Jesus' day which were used for this purpose. Josephus wrote that the laws of the rite of immersion were strictly followed in Temple worship. 8   However, these washings were not the same as John's baptism. John was doing something completely new among the Jews.
John the Baptist was preaching repentance and he was physically standing in the water with the one who was submitting to baptism and with his own hands immersing them into the water. The cleansing ceremony practiced by the Jewish worshipers was to enter the mikveh, and by bending down immerse themselves. Thus, John's baptism and preaching was so different it was causing quite a stir among the people.
To the proselyte to Judaism the mikveh was an important ritual signifying the spiritual purification and cleansing that had occurred in his life. It was seen not as the means to remove impurity, but was symbolic of the inward process that had all ready taken place. The proselyte would first accept Judaism and would request that he be officially accepted by the Jews. He would then prepare himself, by cleaning himself before this ceremony. He would groom himself and then present himself at the mikveh. He would make a "profession of faith" before those who were officiating the mikveh and then would step into the pool and submerge himself completely in the water. 9   It was understood that by the act he was publically showing he was a committed convert to Judaism. Upon his immersion the convert would be accepted into the Jewish community. It was evidence to the Jewish community that the person being baptized was serious and was not devoted to following the teachings of Judaism. This would certainly be in the mind of the Jews to whom Peter spoke and who was being commanded to be baptized in Jesus' name.
This can be seen in John 1:19-25. The Jews in Jerusalem sent a delegation to John the Baptists seeking to find out who he was, and by what authority was he baptizing Jews? These religious leaders were inquiring as to why John was changing the custom and by what authority? John preached that all the Jews should repent and afterwards he baptized them in this outward show that true repentance had occurred. This is verified by Matthew's account of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to the River Jordan seeking baptism. Matthew records, "But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance?" (Matthew 3:7-8). There can be no doubt that true repentance and change of heart had to occur before John's baptism to be legitimate. Only those who were already converted were accepted by John for baptism. They had already repented being convicted in their hearts by John's message, and they had a change of heart. They were now looking for the Messiah.
Therefore, Peter's statement to the Jews, fits perfectly the message they heard from John the Baptist and that Jesus Himself preached at Matthew 4:8. These Jews fully understood that acceptance by God was brought about by true repentance and was followed by a public testimony or show to this having happened. Peter was not telling them that they were to be baptized in order to have their sins removed, but rather they were to submit to baptism as a testimony they had believed and God had already remitted their sins. Peter's message had a twofold invitation. One to believe and thereby repent and have their sins remitted. Secondly, Peter was presenting Jesus to the Jews as their Messiah and stating to them God's offer of the promised kingdom.
Teach Baptism is Necessary for Salvation.
The grammatical the structure of words in the sentence plainly does not support the idea that Peter was teaching that baptism was necessary for repentance of sin. Greek scholar A. T. Robertson makes the following statement:
". . . This first. And be baptized every one of you (kai baptisthêtô hekastos hûmôn). Rather, "And let each one of you be baptized." Change of number from plural to singular and of person from second to third. This change marks a break in the thought here that the English translation does not preserve. The first thing to do is make a radical and complete change of heart and life. Then let each one be baptized after this change has taken place, and the act of baptism be performed "in the name of Jesus Christ" (en tôi onomati Iêsou Christou).
In accordance with the command of Jesus in Mt 28:19 (eis to onoma). No distinction is to be insisted on between eis to onoma and en tôi onomati with baptizô since eis and en are really the same word in origin. In Acts 10:48 en tôi onomati Iêsou Christou occurs, but eis to onoma in Acts 8:16; 19:5. The use of onoma means in the name or with the authority of one as eis onoma prophêtou (Mt 10:41) as a prophet, in the name of a prophet. In the Acts the full name of the Trinity does not occur in baptism as in Mt 28:19, but this does not show that it was not used. The name of Jesus Christ is the distinctive one in Christian baptism and really involves the Father and the Spirit. . . ."Luke does not give the form of words used in baptism by the Apostles, but merely states the fact that they baptized those who acknowledged Jesus as Messiah or as Lord" (Page). Unto the remission of your sins (eis aphesin tôn hamartiôn hûmôn).
This phrase is the subject of endless controversy as men look at it from the standpoint of sacramental or of evangelical theology. In themselves the words can express aim or purpose for that use of eis does exist as in 1 Cor. 2:7 eis doxan hêmôn (for our glory). But then another usage exists which is just as good Greek as the use of eis for aim or purpose. It is seen in Matt. 10:41 in three examples eis onoma prophêtou, dikaiou, mathêtou where it cannot be purpose or aim, but rather the basis or ground, on the basis of the name of prophet, righteous man, disciple, because one is, etc. It is seen again in Matt .12:41 about the preaching of Jonah (eis to kêrugma Iôna). They repented because of (or at) the preaching of Jonah.
The illustrations of both usages are numerous in the N.T. and the Koiné generally (Robertson, Grammar, p. 592). One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not. My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the New Testament taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission.(emphasis added) So I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received. The gift of the Holy Ghost (tên dôrean tou hagiou pneumatos). The gift consists (Acts 8:17) in the Holy Spirit (genitive of identification)." 10
Grammatically Robertson shows that the use of the preposition "eis" can be equally understood as meaning either that baptism was for the remission of sin or that baptism followed true repentance and did not cause the remission of sins. Therefore as Robertson plainly says, one must decide on which is true based on what other passage say about the subject. In other words, if one accepts that baptism remits sin, then that must be attested to by the analogy of the faith. It must be supported by the preponderance of the teaching in the rest of the New Testament.
Strong's says that "For" (as used in Acts 2:38 "for the forgiveness...") could have two meanings. If you saw a poster saying "Jesse James wanted for robbery", "for" could mean that Jesse is wanted so he can commit a robbery, or is wanted because he has committed a robbery? The later sense is the correct one. So too, in this passage, the word "for" singifies an action in the past. Otherwise, it would violate the entire tenor of the New Testament teaching on salvation by grace and not by works." 11
Peter makes an important statement in Acts 2:41 that affirms what he meant in verse 38. "Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls." (Acts 2:41) Peter says that those who believed and gladly received his word were baptized. Clearly, these who were baptized had already believed and repented of their sins and on this basis they were baptized. Baptism is not stated as being the basis of salvation.
Going back to Acts 2:36-37, it says that these Jews were "pricked in their hearts." They were under deep conviction and were asking what should they now do. It seems clear they had already experienced conversion. Peter, following in the footsteps of John the Baptist and Jesus Himself told them to "repent and be baptized." There were asking what should they now do because they had believed. How should their belief then be reflexed in their lives.
The Kingdom of Heaven was being offered to Israel even though they had rejected Jesus as the Messiah. These Jews who heard Peter now repented and believed in Jesus as the Messiah. In Paul's preaching he emphasized this stating, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." (Romans 1:16) The kingdom was being offered to Israel. This was the whole point of Peter's message to the Jews in Jerusalem. They had denied their Messiah, but Peter said they should now believe, repent and be baptized in Jesus' name. During that period, Philip too preached about the kingdom as Acts 8:12 states. Paul and Barnabas also preached the kingdom and was attacked and stoned by some unbelieving Jews. (See Acts 19:21-24; 20:25, 28:31-32) Paul used the term "kingdom of God" which clearly referred to the coming kingdom of Jesus Christ. (See Eph. 5:5, Col. 1:13, 4:11, 2 Tim. 4:1, 4:18) James also spoke of the kingdom (See James 2:5) as did Peter (See 2 Peter 1:11).
The first Gentile saved after Pentecost was Cornelius the Roman centurion. Acts 10 records the events of his salvation. Acts 10:44 says as Peter spoke the words, telling Cornelius and his family of who Jesus was and of His salvation. The Bible says, "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost." (Acts 10:44-45) After they believed and the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them and then they were baptized. If the baptism is necessary for the remission of sin and receiving the Holy Spirit how could Cornelius receive the Spirit before he was baptized. The Holy Spirit is never received by unbelievers who have not been saved. Further, the Holy Spirit is only given when the person believes and has his sins forgiven and is born again. Therefore, the New Testament gives us a plain record that baptism is not necessary for salvation and the remission of sins. Cornelius and his family had believed and been saved and forgiven. Because they had been saved they were baptized. This means Peter's statement must be understood as meaning that these Jews in Acts 2:38 were being told to repent of their sins and then having repented and been saved by God's grace, they should then be baptized in Jesus' name. The verse is not saying that baptism remitted their sins.
When Jesus spoke to Nicodemus the Pharisee in John 3 what did He tell him about salvation. He said first that Nicodemus needed to be "born again" meaning spiritually born. Nicodemus thought his birth as a Jew and keeping the Law would give him entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus said, "No so." Nicodemus needed to be spiritual born. Then how did Jesus explain this new birth could occur? "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:15-16). In John 3:36, Jesus concluded His statement to Cornelius saying, "He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him" (John 3:36). Jesus was telling this Pharisee the most important message of the man's life. Why did Jesus not mention the need for baptism if baptism is necessary to remit sin? The answer is obvious. Jesus would not have left out baptism in explaining salvation if it was a part of being saved and having one's sins forgiven. Jesus never once mentioned baptism in regards to salvation. Several times Jesus did miracle healings in which He first forgave the person of their sins. Here again you have remission of sin and no baptism.
Jesus said undoubtedly what remitted sins. He said, "For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins" (Matthew 26:28). Jesus shed blood was the means of remitting sins and of His suffering and sacrifice man has no part. Remission of sin is totally the work of God.
Peter later in the Book of Acts states what he was commanded by God to preach. He stated, "And he commanded us to preach unto the people, and to testify that it is he which was ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead. To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins" (Acts 10:42-43). Peter does not mention baptism as being what he was commanded to preach or that it was necessary to have one's sins forgiven. If Peter understood that baptism was necessary for the remission of sin why did he not mention this?
Paul states the remission of sins was through faith and he never mentions anything about baptism. "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God" (Romans 3:24-25) Paul says that the payment for sins (a propitiation) is set forth by God to be received by faith in Jesus' blood and that this is the basis for the remission of sins. He does not mention baptism.
In Colossians 2:11-12, Paul parallels baptism with circumcision. "In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead." (Colossians 2:11-12) Here Paul emphasizes that the rite of circumcision did not save, but that it was Jesus Christ that took away one's sins.
In Romans 4:9-12, he refutes the idea of grace plus works for salvation. "Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. "(Romans 4:9-12)
Paul stated that Abraham was justified by God before he was circumcised. The practice of circumcision was commanded by the Lord for Israel. It was an outward act that identified the person circumcised a being a Jew and by this sign showed that he had identified himself with God and God's chosen people. Circumcision never made anyone a Jew and likewise baptism does not make anyone a child of God. Like baptism, circumcision was an act of identification. Paul is making the point that submitting to circumcision did not remits and neither does baptism.
If baptism is necessary for salvation why is that in the New Testament over sixty times belief or faith is presented as the requirement to be saved and have one's sins remitted and there is no mention of baptism. The reason is obvious to any honest student of the Bible. The analogy of the faith clearly shows that God's plan of salvation is that a person repent of their sins and in belief and faith received Jesus Christ as their Savior. Baptism is an important act that follows salvation and attest to the submission of the now child of God. That new creature (2 Cor. 5:17) then willingly identifies himself with Jesus Christ and the local congregation of believers by being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Interpreting Acts 2:38 grammatically, historically and contextually in the analogy of the faith shows clearly this verse is not saying that baptism is necessary for remission of sin and salvation.
1   The term "Gospel" in the New Testament is used to refer to two things. One is the saving Gospel or the Good News that a person must believe in order to be saved. The second is that the word Gospel is often used in reference to the whole of New Testament Doctrine.
7   Rabbi Maurice Lam,MyJewishLearning.com, "Mikveh" Immersion in the Ritual Pool", http://www.myjewishlearning.com/lifecycle/Conversion/IdeatoRealization/RabbinicRequirements/Mikveh.htm .