Acts 2:38—Did Peter declare that baptism was necessary for salvation?
Problem: Peter seems to be saying that those who responded had to repent and be baptized before they could receive the Holy Spirit. But this is contrary to the teaching of Paul that baptism is not part of the Gospel (1 Cor. 1:17) and that we are saved by faith alone (Rom. 4:4; Eph. 2:8–9).
Solution: This is resolved when we consider the possible meaning of being baptized “for” the remission of sins in the light of its usage, the whole context, and the rest of Scripture. Consider the following:
First, the word “for” (eis) can mean “with a view to” or even “because of.” In this case, water baptism would be because they had been saved, not in order to be saved.
Second, people are saved by receiving God’s word, and Peter’s audience “gladly received his word” before they were baptized (Acts 2:41).
Third, verse 44 speaks of “all who believed” as constituting the early church, not all who were baptized.
Fourth, later, those who believed Peter’s message clearly received the Holy Spirit before they were baptized. Peter said, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47)
Fifth, Paul separates baptism from the Gospel, saying, “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the Gospel” (1 Cor. 1:17). But it is the Gospel which saves us (Rom. 1:16). Therefore, baptism is not part of what saves us.
Sixth, Jesus referred to baptism as a work of righteousness (Matt. 3:15). But the Bible declares clearly it is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5).
Seventh, not once in the entire Gospel of John, written explicitly so that people could believe and be saved (John 20:31), does it give baptism as part of the condition of salvation. It simply says over and over that people should “believe” and be saved (cf. John 3:16, 18, 36).
In view of all these factors it seems best to understand Peter’s statement like this: “Repent and be baptized with a view to the forgiveness of sins.” That this view looked backward (to their sins being forgiven after they were saved) is made clear by the context and the rest of Scripture. Believing (or repenting) and being baptized are placed together, since baptism should follow belief. But nowhere does it say, “He who is not baptized will be condemned” (cf. Mark 16:16). Yet Jesus said emphatically that “he who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18). So neither Peter nor the rest of Scripture makes baptism a condition of salvation.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.