You’ve Got Questions: Does Acts 2:38 Mean That Baptism is Necessary for Salvation?
“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 2:38)
Peter in his sermon at Pentecost connects baptism to the forgiveness of sins. Does baptism really forgive sins? If so, what about the unbaptized? The connection of baptism with the forgiveness of sins has already occurred in Luke-Acts, for in Luke 3:3 the author has already mentioned “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (see also Mt. 3:6; Mk. 1:4). What is more, baptism is connected to salvation in 1 Peter 3:21. Thus what we are looking at is not an isolated text, but the function of baptism, not only in Acts, but also in other New Testament documents. In effect, we are asking about the process of Christian initiation in the New Testament: how does one come into the Christian faith?
In Acts Peter outlines the process in logical steps. First, there is repentance. That is, one first realizes that he or she is in a bad position. Repentance in general is turning from one’s own way because now he or she knows that it is not God’s way. The second step could be broken into two parts. Peter expresses it as being “baptized. . . in the name of Jesus Christ.” If repentance is a turning from, this is a turning to. It is not enough to simply reject one’s former way of life as not being God’s way; a person must turn to go God’s way. What constitutes God’s way is Jesus Christ (John 14:6). The early Christian confession was “Jesus is Lord” (Rom. 10:9, 10). “Faith in Jesus” could also be translated “commitment to Jesus” or “trust in Jesus.” In other words, the person acknowledges and Jesus is indeed the Messiah, God’s designated ruler (not a criminal justly condemned), and Jesus is living and worthy of obedience and worship.
If that is the commitment, how does one make it? The answer given by Peter is baptism. It is in baptism that the early Christian (and in many places, the Christian today) made his or her official pledge of allegiance to Jesus. That is why 1 Peter 3:21 refers to a “pledge of a good conscience,” that is the pledge to God to follow Jesus made, not deceptively, but in a good conscience. It is no wonder, then, that baptism is connected to the forgiveness of sin, and this is the normal way in the New Testament to make that commitment. In other words, baptism is viewed in Acts something like a marriage ceremony: it is the time when one takes the pledge of identity with Jesus. It is how one expresses faith.
The third step in the process is not one which the person does, although on at least some occasions in Acts the leaders of the church do function as vehicles for it (Acts 8:17; 9:17; 19:6). In this step God grants the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul will argue that a person can know that they are truly a Christian by the fact that they have received the Spirit (Rom. 8:9), and Acts agrees. With this response of God, the process of Christian “initiation” is complete. The person is a full part of the church, equipped for all that God has called him or her to do, although there will certainly be a process of learning and maturing to go through as they begin to live out the new life.
The reason that Peter’s statement in Acts seems so strange to us is that in the modern church we sometimes do things differently. Because so many different understandings of baptism exist, evangelists who work across denominational lines generally avoid talking about it. Even those working within a single denomination often separate baptism from the conversion process. Thus in some Baptist groups one “prays a sinner’s prayer” and/or signs a “decision card” at the point of conversion and then may be baptized as part of “joining the church” or “giving a public testimony” to one’s faith. Yet the individual is recognized as a full Christian even without baptism. On the other hand, some (but by no means at all) people baptized in mainline denominations may have grown up in families that rarely attended church. They come to adulthood with a baptismal certificate and no conscious faith. Then they hear an evangelist and make a conscious commitment to Christ. They too prayer a prayer and/or sign a card. But unless they decide to leave their old denomination, they will not be baptized. They will perhaps say, “I have finally personally actualized those vows that my parents spoke over me.” In either case the prayer and decision card substitute for the role of baptism in Peter’s speech.
So what of the unbaptized believer? The critical issue is the making of a pledge in a good conscience. God looks on the heart. This verse in Acts in no way indicates that baptism is the means by which you receive the Spirit of God into your heart in life or the justification for sin. As an old preacher once said, “Baptism isn’t a have to thing, but it is a need to thing.”
Recommended Resource: Hard Sayings of the Bible