Updated: Jun 6
I've been asked this question on several occasions. My answer is always this: the moment you come to faith in Christ Jesus. It is as simple as that. Yet there are those who teach otherwise, and they often go to their favorite scripture: 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."
If this passage was taken by itself, it is very easy to see that there is a four step process:
Be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ
Your sins will be forgiven
You will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit
If these four steps were required throughout the scriptures in order to be “born again” (John 3:3-8) then I would wholeheartedly agree that one must be baptized by immersion in water to receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Book of Acts
Acts was written around 62 AD. Its author, Luke, documents the birth of the New Testament church from Pentecost to Paul's arrival in Rome. So often individuals and some denominations use the Book of Acts as a basis for some of their doctrines. The events recorded in Acts occurred early in the first century as Jesus was laying the foundation of His church (Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 2:18-22). The church was in its infancy. The gospel message was new and very radical, especially to the Jewish religious leaders of the time. The New Testament scriptures we have today were just starting to be written. As a result, it is not a good idea to develop doctrine from this book.
Is the Acts 2:38 four step process consistently taught throughout the Book of Acts? The answer is obviously no, and here is why.
In verses 11-18 Peter was preaching to their fellow Israelites who handed Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified. Peter told the crowd “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord."
It is clear from this passage that repentance means to turn away from your sins and “turn to God” so that your sins will be “wiped out” (completely forgiven and removed). Nowhere in this passage do we see baptism by immersion in water as a requirement to have your sins forgiven.
In verses 14-16 Peter and John were sent to Samaria because this region “had accepted the word of God” (v14). The “Holy Spirit had not yet come on any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (v16). Peter and John “placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit” (v17).
Is laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit another step after being baptized? The fact that Peter and John, both Jews, were even in Samaria was uncommon. There were irreconcilable differences between the Jews and the Samaritans. In fact, the Jews regarded the Samaritans as “demon-possessed” (John 8:48) and had no dealings with them (John 4:9).
The fact that the Samaritans received the Holy Spirit by the apostle’s hands being placed on them was for the sake of Peter and John. We do not see that they received the Holy Spirit when they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This account is similar to what occurred in Acts 8:14-17. Paul was in Ephesus. He asked some of the disciples there “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” (v2). They answered no because they “have not heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (v2). The text reveals that they only received John’s baptism of repentance. Paul baptizes them in the name of the Lord Jesus, then “When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came of them, and they spoke in tongues” (v6).
Paul expected these disciples to have received the Holy Spirit when they believed. Paul baptized them only because they were first baptized by John’s baptism of repentance and not the baptism that Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19.
Peter was called to go to the household of Cornelius who was a centurion and a “righteous and God-fearing man” (Acts 10:22). Peter was a Jew and Cornelius was a Gentile. I could only imagine Peter’s hesitance to go into the household of a Gentile! While Peter was preaching the good news about Christ to Cornelius and his household “the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (vs 44-45). Peter baptized these new believers with water because “They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (vs 47-48).
The Gentile believers received the gift of the Holy Spirit when they heard and believed the gospel of Jesus Christ before they were baptized by immersion in water. Is this God’s plan for all who come to faith in Christ today?
What Does Acts 2:38 Actually Teach?
“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 'in order 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 'in order to obtain' your mother."
In Matthew 3:11 John the Baptist states "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” (v8). 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 'in order to obtain.' If Luke meant 'in order to obtain' he would have used the Greek word 'ktaomai' instead of the preposition 'eis'. This word means 'obtain', 'acquire', 'win' and is used several times in the New Testament, twice in Acts.
But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money" (Acts 8:20).
“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" (Acts 26:22).
>> "Repent, and each of you be baptized... for the forgiveness of your sins"
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 and 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 come to faith in Christ in the Book of Acts.
How does John’s baptism of repentance differ from Christ’s baptism of the Holy Spirit?
John the Baptist makes a very clear distinction between his baptism and Christ’s baptism (Matthew 3:11-12, Mark 1:8, Luke 3:16-17, John 1:33). “As for me, I baptize you with water; but One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16).
John baptized with water and Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit. The word baptize means to immerse or submerge into, with the goal of identifying with the person or institution you are part of. John was baptizing sinners who repented. Jesus had no need to be baptized by John because he is God in the flesh and without sin. By being baptized Jesus identified with sinners for whom he came to die! Likewise, when new believers are baptized by immersion in water, they are publicly identifying with and testifying about the one who died for their sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead (1st Corinthians 15:1-4). Jesus’s great commission in Matthew 28:19 tells us to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. One God, three unique persons! All three play a crucial role in turning a lost sinner into a follower of Christ.
What does Paul teach us in his letters?
Paul tells in Romans 6:3-4 “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 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."
Did Paul have in mind baptism by water or baptism by the Spirit in the passage?
If it was immersion in water, then no one can be united with Christ in his death and resurrection until they are baptized. They would not be set free from sin (Romans 6:7). In fact, they would remain dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1) and under God’s wrath (Ephesians 2:3) until they are baptized in water, regardless of whatever confession of faith in Christ they make before being baptized. Paul himself would have been negligible because he only baptized a few people and was glad that he did not baptize others (1st Corinthians 1:13-17).
Paul tells us in 1st Corinthians 12:12-13: “For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit."
The answer to the question is obvious: we are united with Christ Jesus in his death and resurrection by the Holy Spirit, not by immersion in water. But when are we baptized by the Holy Spirit? The answer is found in Ephesians 1:13-14.
"In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation—having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory."
We are baptized into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit the moment we respond to the gospel of Christ by faith, the moment we believe in our hearts that Christ came to die for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead on the third day (Romans 10:17, 1st Corinthians 15:3-4).
"For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Him. If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you" (Romans 8:5-11).
Romans 8:5-11 teaches us that we are either of the flesh or we are of the Spirit. Either the Spirit of Christ lives in us, or the Spirit of Christ does not live in us. It is impossible to be someone who claims to be walking in Christ but does not receive the gift of the Holy Spirit until that person is immersed in water. I have actually heard a pastor tell us that the person he was about to baptize walked with Christ. This person will now receive the gift of the Holy Spirit through water baptism!
I hope you find this post helpful in my understanding of what the scriptures teach concerning this confusing topic. A lot of the confusion of this and other doctrinal areas are often cleared up by asking questions (as I have done) then carefully and systematically studying the scriptures to find the answers. Notice that I did not say “find the answers you are looking for.” Why? Because you will be looking for a specific answer to back up something you believe that may or may not be true. This is often the approach used by those who intentionally or unintentionally teach false doctrine.
I have mentioned baptism by immersion several times. It is not my intention to discourage believers from being baptized. Public baptism is a beautiful testimony to those who are witnessing it. It testifies to the fact that, as a believer, you have died with Christ, were buried with Him, and were raised to new life in Christ. You have publicly identified with who He is, the Son of the Living God, by being baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit!
"Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth"
2nd Timothy 2:15
All scripture cited in this post is taken from the New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update.