There are churches which use Acts 2:38 to build an entire case that baptism is required for salvation. It 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.’” If we knew nothing about the rest of the New Testament, we might read this verse and think that it is repentance and baptism which are necessary for forgiveness. We might think also that baptism is required in order to receive the Holy Spirit. Neither of these beliefs, however, are taught in the rest of the Bible.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” The message here is clear that we are saved by faith in Christ, not by any works that we could do. The Catholic church teaches that grace is imparted to us as we do good works. Thus, we end up earning the grace of God through righteous deeds. I don’t believe that we bring any goodness to the table (Isaiah 64:6). I believe we come as empty beggars pleading for the grace of God (Romans 5:8, 3:23). We must realize the seriousness of our sin and then ask God to forgive us and give us the free gift of eternal life. A gift is not a gift if we labor for it. It must be free. Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Salvation is not by works but by faith.
Here are a couple more verses to emphasize this truth. Romans 3:28 says, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” And Galatians 2:16 says, “Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.” In other words, the only “work” that man can do to receive the favor of God through grace in Christ is to believe. Our belief in the truth about Christ causes us to repent of our sins and to surrender to Him as Savior and Lord. As Jesus said in John 6:29, “Jesus answered and said to them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’” The clear Biblical truth is that we are justified by faith, not by works. Works follow as a result of saving faith, but we cannot be made righteous by doing good. Why? Because we are born with a sin nature and are unable to please God (Romans 5:12).
Based on this, we know first and foremost that baptism is not something that can save us, or we will contradict all the verses that we have already mentioned. Some try to get around this by saying that baptism is not a work, but then I must ask “What is?” The bottom line is that merely being immersed in water doesn’t save anybody. The issue is the sin of the heart, not the dirt of the body. 1 Peter 3:21 makes this abundantly clear saying, “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you-- not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience--through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Does water baptism save us? Peter says “no.” Asking God to forgive us of our sins by faith does. This is the type of “baptism” that Peter says we need. We need to be immersed, so to speak, into the righteousness of Christ so we can be made clean from the inside out. After all, if baptism saves us, then Jesus Himself wasn’t even saved before His baptism at age 30. The thief on the cross who repented was never baptized, but Christ promised that He would arrive in paradise. To say that one must be water baptized for salvation just isn’t a Scriptural position.
We need to use 1 Peter 3:21 and 1 Corinthians 10:2 as examples for understanding what Peter is saying in Acts 2:38. There is a water baptism of immersion, and then there is the figurative, spiritual baptism of being immersed into Christ. Romans 6:4 says, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” This is speaking of a spiritual baptism of dying to sin and being made alive with Christ that happens when we are saved. When we are baptized into Christ as Peter exhorts the crowd in Acts 2, we repent of our sin, recognize that we cannot keep the Law of Moses, and we ask Christ to forgive us and justify us because of His righteous life, death, and resurrection which fulfilled the Law and conquered sin and death. Thus, Peter’s point is that we repent and are baptized into Christ spiritually. Water baptism then follows as it did for the 3,000 converts in Acts 2:41. The point is that some were baptized into John’s baptism of repentance, but they needed to be baptized into Jesus’ baptism by faith in Him. This is a spiritual reality as Romans 6:4 explains. Even John’s water baptism was a public declaration of a heart that had repented in preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Simply showing up and being dunked under the water by John did not cause someone to repent. He preached about sin and repentance, and water baptism was their chance to testify to an inward commitment. The same principle applies to baptism in Jesus. The water baptism is an outward testimony of an inward faith and repentance.
If we have repented of our sins and put our faith in Christ to forgive us, then we have been baptized into Christ and have fulfilled the requirements of Acts 2:38. Thus, we also have the Holy Spirit within us Who comes before water baptism and at the point of salvation. Acts 10:43-48 illustrates how some Gentiles were saved and received the Holy Spirit prior to their water baptism. It says, “‘Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.’ While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, ‘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.” The Holy Spirit came when they asked for forgiveness of sin, and water baptism occurred after the fact. Nothing could be more clear that baptism follows salvation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is worth noting that these saved individuals desired water baptism because they wanted to make a public declaration that they were Christians and followers of Christ. Thus, Peter says that we dare not refuse them the water baptism. Implied is the fact that the early believers understood that coming to Christ involved being willing to confess Him before men no matter the cost.
Taking the whole account of Scripture, it is clear that salvation is by faith alone, not by any works, water baptism included. Water baptism is important, but we must understand its proper purpose.