A Study of Acts 2:38
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
Does Acts 2:38 Teach That One Must Be Baptized
in Water in Order to Be Saved?
A cursory reading of Acts 2:38 might seem to convey the notion that one must be baptized (literally, immersed) in water in order to be saved. And, it might also seem to reinforce the notion that the gift of the Spirit is dependent upon water baptism.
What the Roman Catholic Church Teaches
1213 Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life, the gateway to life in the Spirit (vitae spiritualis ianua),4 and the door which gives access to the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as sons of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church and made sharers in her mission: "Baptism is the sacrament of regeneration through water in the word."5
1226 From the very day of Pentecost the Church has celebrated and administered holy Baptism. Indeed St. Peter declares to the crowd astounded by his preaching: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."26 [Acts 2:38]
In the Catholic authorized New American Bible, Footnote 7 at Acts 2:38 reads as follows : Repent and be baptized: repentance is a positive concept, a change of mind and heart toward God reflected in the actual goodness of one's life. It is in accord with the apostolic teaching derived from Jesus (Acts 2:42) and ultimately recorded in the four gospels. Luke presents baptism in Acts as the expected response to the apostolic preaching about Jesus and associates it with the conferring of the Spirit (Acts 1:5; 10:44-48; 11:16).
What is the Context of Acts 2:38?
A superficial reading of Acts 2:38 seems to corroborate the notion that baptism is necessary for salvation, and, in fact, contributes to salvation. But before we jump to that conclusion, let us examine the context of Acts 2:38.
Acts 2:1-13 records Jesus' fulfillment of His promise to send his followers the Holy Spirit. In Acts 2:14-36 Peter explains the phenomenon of the believers speaking in foreign languages. First he identifies the tongues-speaking as a (partial) fulfillment of Joel's prophecy of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit with the potential for salvation (Acts 2:14-21). Second, he identifies tongues as the convincing proof that God had made Jesus (whom they had murdered) Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:22-36)! Acts 2:37-41 records the listeners' response to Peter's message.
When Peter informed these listeners (and "all the house of Israel") that God had made Jesus both Lord and Messiah -- and by the way, they had just crucified Him! (Acts 2:36), the people in the crowd were horrified. They "were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Brethren, what shall we do?'" (Acts 2:37). 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).
Taking a Close Look at the Greek Text of Acts 2:38
The English language does not do justice to the subtleties of the Greek text of Acts 2:38. Let me enumerate them. "Repent!" is an Aorist (point action) Imperative (command) 2nd person plural of the verb metanoéō (3340). Strictly speaking, it means "perceive afterward, with the implication of being too late to avoid consequences" (Friberg). In this context it means, "Change your mind about who Jesus is! The implication is that they had failed to perceive of Him as their Messiah, and they, along with their nation, had executed Him! Thus, they and their nation were in deep trouble! They needed to change their mind about Jesus and accept Him as their God-anointed King! This business of repenting about who Jesus is was a corporate (plural) responsibility.
The next part of Peter's instruction was, "...and be baptized (Aorist Imperative Passive 3rd person singular of baptídzō, 907), each (singular) of you (plural) in the name of Jesus Christ in view of [the most likely translation of the Greek preposition eis (1519)] the forgiveness of your (plural) sins, and you will receive (2nd person plural future of lambánō, 2983) the gift of the Holy Spirit" (author's translation). The sense is as follows (adapted from Thomas Constable):
Repent (second person plural)
be baptized (third person singular)
each (singular -- there is no person here in an adjective) of you (second person plural)in view of the forgiveness of your (second person plural) sins
and you will receive (second person plural) the gift of the Holy Spirit
According to this view, repenting (2nd person plural) (acknowledging Jesus as Messiah) is linked with forgiveness of your (2nd person plural) sins and receiving (2nd person plural) the gift of the Holy Spirit. Each person (singular) being baptized (3rd person singular) is a public testimony of one's repentance / faith.
This seems to me to be the best understanding of Acts 2:38. "Repentance demands the witness of baptism; forgiveness is followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit [i.e. Spirit baptism]" (Thomas Constable, quoting E. M. Blaiklok, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 60).
Peter urged the audience with many other words, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" (Acts 2:40). By this he meant that only by trusting in Jesus as their Messiah and publicly identifying with Him in baptism (this was the accepted method for Gentiles to become Jewish proselytes), could they extricate themselves from the terrible judgment that was coming upon Israel. [This judgment manifested itself initially in Rome's destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish temple in A.D. 70.]
Those who received Peter's word (i.e. they repented of their former stance and trusted in Jesus as their Messiah) were publicly baptized (Acts 2:41). Those converts amounted to about 3,000.
I do not see water baptism here in Acts 2:38 either as regenerating the believers or as being the method by which the Holy Spirit is imparted. Rather, I see it as a witness to their repentance toward and faith in Jesus, their Messiah. If one insists on reading baptismal regeneration into this text, making baptism a requirement for salvation, he somehow has to explain the many Scriptures which make forgiveness of sin and salvation in general, dependent on nothing but faith in Christ (e.g. Luke 24:47; John 1:11-13; 3:15, 16, 18, 36; 5:25; 6:29, 35, 40, 47; 7:38, 39; 11:25-27; 12:36, 46; 16:27; 17:8, 20; 20:30-31; Acts 10:43; 13:38-39; 16:31; 26:18; Rom. 1:16; 3:22, 28; 4:1-17, 24; 9:33; 10:4, 9-11; 11:6; 15:13; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 2:16; 3:6, 8-9, 22; Eph. 1:13, 19; 2:8-10; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 4:3; 11:6; James 2:23; 1 Pet. 1:5; 2:6-7; 1 John 3:23; 5:1, 5, 10, 13).
Moreover, it is clearly the Holy Spirit, not the ritual application of water, who immerses all believers in Christ into the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). If we learn anything from the actions of John the Baptizer (literally, John the Dipper) in the early portion of Matthew's Gospel (Matt. 3:1-12), the agent of water that John used was vastly inferior to the agents that the Messiah would use. He would baptize (immerse) with the Holy Spirit and Fire. Water Baptism is a ritual baptism. It symbolizes, but cannot accomplish anything. The water that John used could not make his adherents repentant. It symbolized their repentance. Likewise the water that Christians use in baptism cannot make them disciples of Christ; the water of Christian baptism merely symbolizes that one is a disciple of Christ. Man uses ritual baptism. Christ employs real baptisms. When Christ baptizes by means of the Spirit, people are actually saved and placed in God's granary of eternal salvation (Matt. 3:11-12). And when Christ baptizes by means of unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:11-12) people are deposited horribly and eternally in the Lake of Fire and Brimstone (Rev. 20:11-15).
(Scripture quotation taken from the NASB_1995.)
Updated October 22, 2022