There is more than one way of adding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and distorting it — making it of no effect (Galatians 1:6-10; 2:16). Faith plus baptism for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life is one of them.
Recently in a Baptism and Membership class, questions came up about Acts 2:38. It seems to teach water baptism is required for the forgiveness of sins. Other religious groups in our community teach that.
Before I address that verse, here is what our church’s statement of faith says about baptism:
“We believe that Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are ordained by God for the people of God in this era that began at Christ’s ascension into heaven. Christian baptism is the immersion in water of a believer, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, symbolically indicating one’s personal faith in the crucified, buried, and risen Christ, and the sinner’s death to sin and resurrection to a new life in Christ. We believe that water baptism is a prerequisite to the privileges and responsibilities of church membership.“
We teach that it is believers who are baptized in obedience to Christ’s command (Matthew 28:18-20). We teach water baptism does not contribute to our salvation. Rather, it is the right response on the part of those already saved through faith alone in Christ alone.
Here are three other ways baptism is spoke of in relation to salvation:
Many of the churches that are part of the ‘Christian Church’ and Restoration Movement teach ‘baptismal regeneration.’ That is, water baptism is necessary for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Here is one local church that is part of that movement and what it states regarding salvation. “Salvation is by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. By trusting in the gospel of Christ, repenting of sins, and being baptized into the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, believers are promised eternity with the Father.” (Acts 2:38-40, Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:8-9).
Note the first verse they use is Acts 2:38
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that through water baptism a person receives spiritual life. “By the sacrament of Baptism, whenever it is properly conferred in the way the Lord determined and received with the proper dispositions of soul, man becomes truly incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ and is reborn to a sharing of the divine life” (Vatican II, Decree on Ecumenism, chap. 3, II, 22, p. 427).
Mormons, Latter Day Saints teach “…being born again is a process of spiritual rebirth and refinement. It begins with a sacred covenant or commitment to change our lives, which is formally entered into at baptism, and then it requires lasting faith, repentance, and spiritual purity on our part—in both actions and intent. In order to facilitate the process of spiritual refinement, the gift of the Holy Ghost is conferred upon all those who are baptized (see Moroni 2; 3 Nephi 19:20–22). In response to our sincere and persistent efforts to exercise faith and repent, our hearts will be spiritually transformed through the power of Christ…” l
Why Acts 2:38 CANNOT teach water baptism is required for salvation
Here is the text from the New American Standard Bible: 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.
I intentionally highlighted the word ‘for” in the text. It appears Peter is teaching that one must be baptized IN ORDER for their sins to be forgiven. That understanding of “for” in English (as well as the Greek word ‘eis’ that is translated ‘for’) is certainly possible. But it is not the only way the word ‘for’ is used. Consider the following:
If your doctor tells you, “Take two aspirin for your headache,” does he mean that, in order to get a headache, you should take two aspirin? If he does, better consult a veterinarian! What he means is that, as the result of you having a headache, take two aspirin.
That is what Peter meant in Acts 2:38. “Repent from trusting in anything else but Christ and you will receive forgiveness of your sins. As a result, be baptized.”
We know this is what he meant because if baptism is required for the forgiveness of sins, Peter makes no mention of it in his next two sermons (Acts 3:12-26; 4:8-12). That would be of serious error having been promised by Christ that the Holy Spirit would lead him into all the truth and would enable Peter to recall everything Jesus had taught his disciples (John 16:13; 14:26). If Jesus had taught water baptism is necessary for the forgiveness of sins, then Peter, filled with the Spirit, would have necessarily taught that to all sinners.
We know this is what Peter meant because this is what he taught Cornelius. Without any prior reference to baptism, Peter states in Acts 10:43 – “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” It is only after there is evidence these Gentiles believed they underwent water baptism (10:44-48).
We know this is what Peter meant because of what the Apostle Paul taught the believers in Ephesus.
Ephesians 2:8-9 – For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. – Ephesians 2:8-9
We know this is what Peter meant because of what Christ’s apostle Paul taught Titus.
Titus 3:5-7 — He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
We know this is what Peter meant because of what Paul taught the Romans.
Romans 3:21-28 — But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, 22 even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; 25 whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; 26 for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
27 Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? Of works? No, but by a law of faith. 28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.
Water baptism is the obedient response on the part of those already saved through faith alone in Christ alone. Those who count Christ worthy for what He has fully provided in His sinless life and perfect substitutionary sacrificial death on their behalf will humbly and gladly choose to be baptized since the One who bought them with His blood commanded it (Romans 12:1-2; 6:1-7; Matthew 28:18-20; I Peter 1:19).