(37) Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (38) And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:37-38 ESV).
Acts 2:37-38 is one of the most controversial set of verses in the New Testament. Particularly in verse 38, the larger issue concerns the order of salvation; that is, what is the process by which a person becomes saved? This doctrine of ordu salutis, from the Latin, has been discussed in various ways by different Christian traditions, ranging from Catholic, to Calvinist, to Wesleyan. We will save this bigger question for a later discussion but will focus here on one narrower, particular part of the puzzle, namely water baptism.
Does water baptism save a person? According to some traditions, such as a few branches of the Churches of Christ in Protestantism, water baptism is a requirement for salvation. In fact, in some cases, if you are not water baptized in certain churches, then these church traditions will not consider you to be a true Christian. This doctrine of baptismal regeneration argues that Acts 2:38 describes a sequential process prescribing what salvation entails, specifically, that water baptism leads a person to be forgiven of their sins.1
Critics of baptismal regeneration say that this flips the New Testament teaching on salvation by faith, and not by works, upside down, suggesting that the physical act of baptism is somehow a work that saves a person. How can this be?
If baptism can save a person, what does this mean?
Baptismal Regeneration: Being Made “Born Again” Through the Waters of Baptism?
Clearly, some exception has to be made for this type of logic. For example, what about the thief on the cross, who made a confession of faith that Jesus affirmed, moments prior to death (Luke 23:43)? The repentant thief was a bit “tied up at the time,” that would have prevented him from “going down to the river,” to get baptized, as some might say.
The early church father, Cyprian of Carthage, argued that the thief on the cross was baptized through his own blood, as a martyr. This gives rise to the idea of “baptism of/by desire,” whereby someone might have the desire to be water baptized, but that they lack the practical opportunity to do so. But is baptismal regeneration really being taught in Acts 2:37-38?
The difficulty is mainly focused around the preposition that links Peter’s reference to baptism with the forgiveness of sins, in verse 38:
… be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ <for> the forgiveness of your sins …
This gets a bit technical, but see if you can follow me. Daniel Wallace, the chief Bible scholar behind the online NET Bible, shows that this word “for” actually has a rather flexible meaning in the text (see note 84). Most translations use the English word “for” here in a general, ambiguous sense, without any strict type of order involved. In other words, Peter’s instruction is for the people to be baptized, for, or simply, in reference to, the forgiveness of sins.
If taken as some type of chronological, or logical ordering, this “for” could be understood in the sense of “unto,” or, “in order that.”
… be baptized … in order that you may be forgiven of your sins…
This is what advocates of baptismal regeneration might argue, but the presence of repentance, an admittedly inward disposition, is typically linked with the concept of baptism. In other words, Peter considers repentance and baptism to be inseparable. It is like a one-two punch, repentance and baptism go together:
… Repent and be baptized… for the forgiveness of your sins …
To separate repentance from baptism, and the faith that is associated with that repentance, would run counter to the theology of Luke in Acts. For example, in Acts 10:43, Peter again speaks of “the forgiveness of sins,” but says nothing of baptism, instead emphasizing having faith:
…To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”2
Another alternative to resolving the controversy has been suggested. It is possible to interpret the “for” of Acts 2:38 in a causal sense, such as:
…Repent and be baptized … because of the forgiveness of your sins …
In this manner, the forgiveness of sins precedes repentance and baptism. Baptism, then, would be a response to the forgiveness of sins, thereby removing the association of baptism with a type of “works righteousness.” However this might be possible, Daniel Wallace notes that the Greek construction is still not clear, which is why you rarely see a mainstream Bible translation expressed in this way.
Yet another alternative might resolve the problem. The actual word ordering in our English translations does not reflect the grammatical flow of the verb tenses, as found in the original Greek, which shifts from second person plural, to third person singular, back to second person plural again.
…. Repent (second person plural) and be baptized everyone of you (third person singular)… for the forgiveness of your sins(second person plural) …
Read grammatically, in a consistent flow of the verb tenses, the order would be rearranged:
… Repent for your sins(second person plural), and let each one of you be baptized (third person singular)….
While this translation is possible, and resolves the difficulty, it is also rather awkward.
What does all of this mean? Well, unfortunately, Acts 2:37-38 is simply not clear enough, standing on its own, to completely resolve the controversy once and for all. Where do we go from here?
Reading Acts 2:37-38 in Context
This leads us to consider a very important principle in Bible interpretation. While it is important to believe in the clarity of Scripture, such a belief does not imply that every single verse or passage in the Bible is clear on its own. Instead, we must look at those passages that are clear, and use those verses to help us to interpret passages, like Acts 2:37-38, that are not as clear. Two contextual examples come to mind that might help in gaining a clearer understanding of how baptism and the forgiveness of sins related to one another, in Acts 2:37-38.
First, consider this question: How do we know that the “baptism” being referred to in Acts 2:37-38 is water baptism? The fact is that water baptism is never specifically mentioned in this passage. But if you read this passage within the context of the first few chapters of Acts, a broader picture emerges.
In Acts 1, Jesus has appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection. But Jesus urges the disciples to wait in Jerusalem to receive the promise of the Holy Spirit to be given to them:
…”for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5)
We know from the Gospels that John the Baptist’s baptism, was a water baptism, but it was also a baptism of repentance. By endorsing John’s baptism, Jesus is affirming the link between baptism and repentance.
But water baptism is not the whole story. The disciples are to wait for the “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” This is exactly what happens in Acts 2, at the miracle of Pentecost. At Pentecost, the disciples are “filled with the Holy Spirit,” speaking in the many languages of the Roman empire, that they would not have naturally known (Acts 2:4). Peter understands this as a fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy, that the Spirit of God would be poured out upon the people of God, an inward, transforming work of God (Acts 2:16-21).
It is therefore reasonable to conclude that the baptism being spoken of in Acts 2:37-38, at the end of Peter’s Pentecost sermon, is not simply a reference to water baptism, but rather, it would also involve this inward, “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” We see this elsewhere, as the New Testament often treats the inward work of baptism, with the Holy Spirit, and the outward sign of baptism, by water, interchangeably (see Acts 22:16 and Galatians 3:27, for general, non-specific examples).
Think of it this way: The baptizing work by the Holy Spirit is the inward reality of the follower of Jesus having their hearts and conscience cleansed of sin, directly associated with the forgiveness of sins. Water baptism, on the other hand, is the outward expression, or sign, signifying the inward reality of the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit. We simply can not rule out the inward, baptizing work of the Holy Spirit, as being a least part of what Peter is talking about.3
Unfortunately, the debate over baptismal regeneration often comes down to a confusion between the sign (water baptism) and the thing signified (the inner, cleansing work of the Spirit).4 Keeping a distinction between the two really helps us in our understanding.
There is still one other thing to consider with how to understand baptism in Acts 2:37-38. How do we know that Peter, for sure, was not requiring water baptism as a means of salvation? 1 Peter 3:21 gives us the appropriate context for Peter’s thought. In this passage, water baptism is explicitly distinguished from the inward reality:
… Baptism…, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…
Notice here that baptism is explicitly compared in terms of, an appeal to God for a good conscience, and its outward expression, removal of dirt from the body. This should resolve the matter, as Peter clarifies that it is not the physical water washing that saves you. Rather, it is the inward work of God, in terms of having a good conscience, that gets at the real heart of what baptism, in terms of its spiritual reality, is all about. It is God’s work, by His Spirit, to cleanse us from the inside out, that saves us, and not by some outward ritual of water washing. Water baptism was never intended to be a short-cut around the inner transformation of the human heart by God. Regeneration, or being made born again, is an act of God in us, grounded in the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
…According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (1 Peter 1:3 ESV).
However, this should not disparage the believer from getting water baptized. The ritual washing of baptism with water was a well-known practice in first century Judaism, for those who converted from paganism to Judaism, as well as a type of ritual purification among many Jews themselves. Though modified somewhat, the New Testament maintains this practice for new believers. The act of water baptism, in the New Testament, signifies that the Christian is making a pledge, or appeal before God, that they are publicly identifying with Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior. Christians, those who are washed by the Spirit on the inside, should not refuse water baptism! It is an act of loving obedience to the Lord and Savior.
Resolving the Ambiguity over Baptismal Regeneration
Back to the original question of, does baptism save a person? The answer is “yes” and “no.” If by baptism. you mean the inward work of God, by the Holy Spirit, cleansing our hearts from sin, then the answer is “yes.” If by baptism, you mean the physical act of getting wet, through a water baptism ritual, then the answer is “no.”
Water baptism is still important, and there is no viable warrant to think that the many who came to Christ at Pentecost, in Acts 2, were not physically baptized. However, the salvation moment that Peter’s audience were experiencing was ultimately the result of God’s inward working in their lives, by being “cut to the heart,” asking Peter and the others about “what shall we do.” Then they responded to Peter’s call by their repentance, and by becoming baptized, in terms of the inward work of the Spirit, and outwardly expressed through the obedient act of water baptism, publicly identifying them as believers in and followers of Jesus Christ. These people were saved by their faith, and not by their works, and it is in this sense, we are to follow their example today.
1. Some other Christian traditions even extend this teaching from a detail in the very next verse: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39 ESV). As highlighted above, some say that this includes a rationale for infant baptism, and linking it to baptismal regeneration, by which the sprinkling or pouring of water on an infant child, belonging to a believing parent, is an effective means of cleansing that child of original sin. This is sort of like a “salvation by proxy,” whereby the child can be saved by way of the faith of the parent, or in general, the faith of the believing community.↩
2. It has not really helped, that in the history of the Western church, many have followed the lead of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate (mis)translation of Acts 2:38, that exchanges the inward disposition aspect of “repent,” with the more works-oriented concept of “do penance,” as reflected in the old Douay-Rheims translation of this verse here: But Peter said to them: Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins: and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. As an evangelical Protestant Christian, I follow the evangelical, Protestant consensus. It should be noted that contemporary Catholic Bibles are now starting to translate the term as “repent” these days, as has been done in Protestant Bibles. I am not sure how my Eastern Orthodox friends would address this, as they are not as heavily influenced by Jerome, in the discussion.
3. This raises an entirely different issue, namely is the “baptism with the Holy Spirit,” the same as regeneration, or is the “baptism with the Holy Spirit” a type of second blessing experience, distinct from regeneration? That is another ball of yarn that would require a separate blog post to untangle. For the purposes of the current blog post, I am assuming “baptism with the Holy Spirit” to be synonymous with regeneration; that is, to be born again or spiritually born from above, or anew.↩
4. Some, like this Church of Christ blogger, argues against such a distinction, maintaining that Spirit baptism and water baptism are entirely bound together, such that you can not have one without the other. The example of the thief on the cross mitigates against this view. Furthermore, an examination of church history indicates that the associated link between Spirit baptism and water baptism is not consistently maintained. The failure to maintain the distinction, probably explains why the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, with respect to water baptism, eventually got encrusted in tradition over time, in the history of the Christian faith. Because of this, water baptism often effectively replaces Spirit baptism, because of baptism’s ritualization, in the practice of many churches. That is why it is worth taking a new look at water baptism, in the light of what authoritative Scripture teaches. Also, considering this distinction between the sign and the thing signified, helps to also understand those traditions that practice infant baptism. It is important to remember that infant baptism does not stand alone in most traditions that practice it. Rather, baptism is intricately linked with the concept of confirmation, whereby an adult (young or old), at least in theory, comes to having faith in Christ, experiencing that inward transformation of the Spirit, thereby “confirming” what was experienced at their infant baptism. This does not answer the question of the validity of infant baptism, Biblically speaking, but it at least gets at the idea that infant baptism does not necessarily require the additional belief of baptismal regeneration for it to be practiced, at least in certain traditions. In other words, a proper understanding of such baptism includes two parts: part A in infant baptism, and part B in confirmation of that baptism. Sadly, the alternative view, that ties infant baptism tightly together with baptismal regeneration, leads to the idea of what I call “salvation by proxy,” which though it may provide pastoral comfort to some, it is actually a recipe for spiritual confusion and disaster. In a different contrast, other traditions practice “believer’s baptism,” whereby only consenting adults or mature children may be water baptized. Infant versus believer’s baptism is another topic for another blog post.↩