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Acts 2:38 Revisited

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 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 2:37-38

I really had no intention to write about this subject since I previously addressed Acts 2:38 in a blog called When Do You Received The Holy Spirit? (October 2021). My wife was listening to a sermon last night. She shared part of it with me. The pastor preached a really good message on salvation - that it is a free gift from God (Romans 6:23), we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8), etc. Near the end of this sermon, the pastor told us how to get this free gift from God - you must be baptized to have your sins forgiven and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). He called baptism by immersion in water a covenant. Where did he get this idea from scripture that baptism is a covenant?

The only New Testament covenant that I know of is the new covenant that Jesus made with His blood which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins (Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20). The LORD actually made the new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah approximately six-hundred years before instituting it the night before He was crucified:

Jeremiah 31:31-33 - “Behold, days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the LORD. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the LORD, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people."

The new covenant that the LORD made with the house of Israel and the house of Judah is unilateral - no conditions, including baptism by immersion in water, were placed on the houses of Israel and Judah in order for the LORD to fulfill His covenant. He will write His law within them and on their hearts. He will be their God and they will be His people. This covenant will ultimately be fulfilled when Jesus returns physically and gloriously to earth where He will literally reign for one-thousand years (Matthew 24:29-31; Matthew 25:31-32; Revelation 19:11-21; Revelation 20:1-10).

A very simple reading of Acts 2:38 would lead someone to the following conclusion - you must be baptized in order to have your sins forgiven and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. I can understand how one can come to this conclusion. However, is this actually taught in this passage? Does the rest of the New Testament teach that you must be baptized by immersion to be saved (i.e. Baptismal Regeneration)?

A Closer Look at Acts 2:38

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.

>> and each of you be baptized... for the forgiveness of your sins.

The interpretation of Acts 2:38 all hinges on one little word: 'for.' If water baptism is necessary to have your sins forgiven, then 'for' must be translated 'to acquire' or 'to obtain.' For example you tell your daughter "I want you to go to the store for your mother." In other words "I want you to go to the store 'to acquire' your mother."

In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist declared, As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance. If John was baptizing people in 'order to obtain' repentance, then he would not have turned away the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3:7-10). He told them to produce fruit in keeping with repentance (v. 8). In other words, “if you are coming here to be baptized by me then you need to show that you have repented of your sins."

The preposition 'for' in the Greek is 'eis'. It means 'in favor of', 'affecting or with regard to', 'on behalf of or to the benefit of.' It does not mean 'to acquire' or 'to obtain.' If Luke (the author of Acts) meant 'to obtain' he would have used the Greek word 'ktaomai' instead of the preposition 'eis'. This word means 'obtain', 'acquire', 'win' and is used a few times in Acts.

Acts 1:18 - Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out.

Acts 8:20 - But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money."

Acts 22:18 - The commander answered, “I acquired this citizenship with a large sum of money.” And Paul said, “But I was actually born a citizen.”

Acts 26:22 - “So, having obtained help from God, I stand to this day testifying both to small and great, stating nothing but what the Prophets and Moses said was going to take place"

>> Repent... for the forgiveness of your sins.

>> and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

The verb 'Repent' and the pronoun 'your' are plural. The imperative 'be baptized' is singular. Thus, 'Repent' must go with the plural clause 'forgiveness of your sins'. The singular clause 'and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ' stands alone. It does not go with the plural clause 'forgiveness of sins.'

This is consistent with Peter’s statement in Acts 10:43 - "All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." This is also consistent with what Jesus proclaims in Luke 24:7 - “and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.”

>> and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The gift of the Holy Spirit is God’s promise to all who put their faith in Christ (John 7:39, Galatians 3:14). Repentance is the human side of salvation. The promised gift of the Holy Spirit is the divine side of salvation. Peter puts both sides together in Acts 2:38-39 and we see the gift of the Holy Spirit being poured out on those who came to faith in Christ (Acts 8:14-17; Acts 10:43-48; Acts 19:1-6).

Baptismal Regeneration is Not Consistently Taught Throughout the New Testament

Peter declared the following during his second sermon (Acts 3:11-26) - “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord" (Acts 3:19). Noticeably missing are the words 'be baptized' before the clause 'that your sins may be wiped away.'' Such an omission dictates that baptism by immersion is not required to have your sins forgiven. But repentance is. The verb 'repent' in the Greek is metanoeō. It literally means to change one's mind and turn back to God. It's an action that results in a life that is radically changed forever.

"Repentance means changing one’s mind so that one’s views, values, goals, and ways are changed and one’s whole life is lived differently. The change is radical, both inwardly and outwardly; mind and judgment, will and affections, behavior and life-style, motives and purposes, are all involved. Repenting means starting to live a new life."

J.I. Packer

The word repent is used fifty-six times in the New Testament with ten occurrences in Acts. Besides Acts 2:38, there are only two other occurrences of 'repent' and 'baptize' used in the same verse in the New Testament and both have to do with John's baptism of repentance.

Matthew 3:11 - “As for me, I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, and I am not fit to remove His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

Acts 19:4 - Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in Him who was coming after him, that is, in Jesus.”

Those that teach baptismal regeneration either dismiss the narrative of Acts 10:43-48 or call it an exception.

Acts 10:43-48 - “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 Gentiles in the household of Cornelius believed (came to faith) in Jesus. Their sins were forgiven. They received the Holy Spirit. They were then baptized.

Closing Remarks

If baptism by immersion is absolutely necessary to be saved, then the apostle Paul must have been a heretic. He wrote, "Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one would say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void" (1 Corinthians 1:13-17).

Paul made it very clear that baptism and the gospel of Christ are two separate entities. Jesus commanded us in His great commission to “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). He didn't command us to baptize unbelievers. His command was to make disciples (followers of Christ) and baptize them.

I had a brief conversation with a gentleman on Facebook a few weeks ago. He was telling everyone to get baptized to have their sins forgiven. I asked him one question: is it repentance or is it baptism that results in the forgiveness of sins. He didn't answer this question. Instead he said just do it because God commanded it. My response was this: I was baptized by single immersion in a Baptist Church when I came to faith in Christ over fifty years ago (I was twenty years old). I was also baptized by triune immersion in a Grace Brethren Church several years later. Do I need to come to your church to be baptized again? He never responded.

Unless otherwise noted, all scripture cited in this post is taken from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update.

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