An examination of Acts 2:38
By C. David Ragland, Jr.
a tribosblog.org contributor
Does Acts 2:38 state that Baptism is necessary for salvation? Many believe that it does and also believe that Baptism is a sacrament (a formal religious act conferring a specific grace on those who receive it). Yet, the Bible is clear that Salvation was obtained for us by Christ Jesus on the Cross. (Matt. 26:28)
Regarding this error, Charles Haddon Spurgeon writes, “A man who knows that he is saved by believing in Christ does not, when he is baptized, lift his baptism into a saving ordinance. In fact, he is the very best protester against that mistake, because he holds that he has no right to be baptized until he is saved.”
It this essay, we endeavor to demonstrate that Baptism is the first work assigned to a new convert and not at all a component of Salvation itself. Without repentance and belief in the work that Christ did on Calvary’s Cross, one can be baptized ‘til they know every fish in the river by name to no effect.
Before we proceed, please let it be understood that we do not in any way mean to suggest that Baptism is not important or not to be shown due reverence. Of a certainty, we should act in obedience always. In fact, we concur with the following quote:
“It is my first public declaration that a thing which looks to be unreasonable and seems to be unprofitable, being commanded by God, is law, is law to me. If my Master had told me to pick up six stones and lay them in a row I would do it, without demanding of him, ‘What good will it do?’ Cui bono? Is no fit question for soldiers of Jesus. The very simplicity and apparent uselessness of the ordinance should make the believer say, ‘Therefore I do it because it becomes the better test to me of my obedience to my Master.’” When you tell your servant to do something, and he cannot comprehend it, if he turns round and says, “Please, sir, what for?” you are quite clear that he hardly understands the relation between master and servant. So when God tells me to do a thing, if I say, “What for?” I cannot have taken the place which Faith ought to occupy, which is that of simple obedience to whatever the Lord hath said. Baptism is commanded, and Faith obeys because it is commanded, and thus takes her proper place.” – Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Pastor.
Likewise, we should also agree with another pronouncement regarding Baptism:
“Our justification from sins takes place at the point of saving faith, not at the point of water baptism, which usually occurs later. But if a person is already justified and has sins forgiven eternally at the point of saving faith, then baptism is not necessary for forgiveness of sins nor for the bestowal of new spiritual life. Baptism, then, is not necessary for salvation. But it is necessary if we are to be obedient to Christ, for he commanded baptism for all who believe in him.” – Wayne A. Grudem, Thoelogian and Professor
There is no denying the importance of Baptism, but to elevate its importance without Biblical authority or underpinning is quite wrongheaded. So, let’s address this error and clarify Baptism’s place in the Christian experience.
To be certain, God’s grace is Amazing and one can’t help but sometimes feel that repenting and believing the Gospel couldn’t possibly be enough for the remission of sins (Just look at all we’ve done!) However, Jesus Himself said it is so. In Mark 1:15 we read, “And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Does it not logically follow that, Jesus would have clarified this matter, if Father God required more?
As mentioned on our opening statement, the scripture which seems to be misread/misapplied on this issue is Acts 2:38 where we read, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Those who argue that Baptism is a necessary part of Salvation, will point to the usage in this verse of the Greek preposition “eis” which, translates to “for” in English. They argue that the usage of eis means the text is to be understood as saying, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ (in order to obtain) the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Houston, we have a Greek problem
This interpretation is refuted easily when we look closer at the Greek word “eis” and learn that it has at least 16 meanings in scripture. And yes, the meanings differ depending on where you find eis used. Greek scholars agree that, where the preposition pertains to baptism, “eis” means: ‘because of’, not ‘in order to get’.
Additionally, the English word “for” is used differently as well. Consider, “I am going to give you a pill ‘for’ your illness”, as opposed to “I am giving you a degree ‘for’ your hard work in college” The former suggests that the pill will effect a remedy. The latter explains that one is being ceremoniously recognized for a work already completed. That is, the degree doesn’t make them a graduate, their degree worthy work does. Likewise, Baptism isn’t something a person does to be saved, it’s something a saved person does.
Did not John himself, tell the unbelieving Pharisees and Sadducees who came to his Baptism of Repentance, they needed to produce works that demonstrated repentance? He did not tell them that his baptism would produce repentance. Repentance first, then baptism was the message. (See Baptism, John’s)
So, Peter is simply listing Baptism, not as a necessity for Salvation, but as work done in abidance to an ordinance. Moreover, he is presenting to would be converts, the entire process and not at all suggesting that the waters of Baptism are in any way the finishing ointment of Salvation.
In Acts 19:1-5, Paul gives this same instruction explaining it step by step and seeing the Disciples through the process. Did he suggest to the Disciples he’d found that they weren’t yet fully saved because they’d not been baptized? No, he did not. In fact, he referred to them as believers and we are taught in Scripture that we believe unto salvation. (John 3:16, Romans 10:8-10 just to name two!)
As seen above, a principle, necessary work of sound Biblical exegesis is to interpret an individual verse or passage using other relevant parts of Scripture. In other words, look at what the Bible teaches, as a whole, on a given subject to make a determination, not what one cherry-picked verse may ‘seem’ to suggest.
Let’s go to yet another example of utilizing scripture to shed light upon scripture: When we look at Acts 2:38 ‘alone’, one can perhaps understand how a person may get the wrong idea about the importance and place of Baptism. However, let’s prayfully enter Ephesians 2:8-9 to the examination table. Here we read, “8 For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God:9 Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
The message here is that God’s grace saves us via faith; not because of us, but in spite of us. No good works or commandment keeping can possibly replace the soul saving actions of our Redeemer. Nor are they necessary to for salvation to occur. And no, we are not suggesting that we make a proclamation of faith and sit upon our blessed assurances. (Faith without works is dead!)
We are here saying, God gave His only begotten that we can be saved through faith in Him, not faith plus a dip in the baptismal. Grace plus ‘nothing’ redeems, justifies and saves sinner from damnation, period.
In conclusion, consider there are many things we are instructed to do in our Christian walk. We have the ordinance of Communion, an obligation to love our Brethren as Jesus loved us, the instructions of the Great Commission and so on. If we take Acts 2:38 or any other verse regarding Baptism to mean that we ‘must’ do this to be saved, then we ‘must’ do all good works mentioned in the Bible to be saved.
Human history, as well as personal life experience teaches us that we are wholly incapable of scoring high enough on the works scale to earn our own way into Heaven. Therefore, the work of the Cross of Calvary was necessary to save us. We can never be righteous enough of our own volition and power. Observe: Isaiah 64:6 But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
For those who still believe that Baptism is necessary for Salvation, we have questions for them to consider. What if a truly penitent new believer dies and doesn’t make it to a scheduled Baptism subsequent to their public profession of faith? What about death bed conversions? Does repentance and faith in what Christ did work, ‘only’ if we are Baptized in spite of extenuating circumstances? The Bible teaches that we are Baptized in obedience to God, but the power to save us is in the Blood, not the Baptismal.
C. David Ragland, Jr.