By Brannon Howse
The Scripture: Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.”
The Twist: If there is a proof text for those who say baptism is required for salvation, this is it. They go here to try prove salvation is tied to baptism, to support the (unbiblical) belief known as baptismal regeneration.
Here is the implication of this scripture twist: You want to have your sins forgiven and enjoy the remission of sins? Then you better be baptized. That’s what “baptismal regeneration” people say. And at first blush, Acts 2:38 could certainly seem to support the idea. But it doesn’t. I’ll explain why.
To understand issues such as this, we sometimes have to use the wonderful tools available to us—like Bible commentaries, and concordances—that help us examine Scripture in the original languages and get to the intended meaning. When one verse seems to contradict another biblical passage, we know the problem is with the translation or our interpretation or both. That’s why we need to use good hermeneutics (Scripture interpretation) in order to arrive at a genuinely biblical meaning of a passage. Exegesis is the process of studying the Bible in context—using Scripture to interpret Scripture. Exegesis also includes hermeneutics, studying passages in the original Greek or Hebrew to see more clearly what the passage says.
So when we read Acts 2:38 and think, “It says that if you want to have the remission of sins, you have to be baptized. Doesn’t that contradict Scripture?”, you had better dig in and see what that verse really means, word for word, in the original. Often, even the prepositions are important in a scripture like this. A preposition in the original language can change the entire meaning of the verse. That’s the time to go get some of our tools—concordances, New Testament commentaries—and look deeper. If you study this passage, you’ll find out the original scripture doesn’t actually say “baptism for the remission of sins.” In the original Greek it reads “because of” or “on the occasion of the remission of sins, be baptized.” In Word Pictures in the New Testament, A. T. Robertson points out:
While the preposition which would be spelled E-I-S for the word “for” can mean “for the purpose of,” it can also mean—quote—“because of”—end quote—or “on the occasion of.”
So the verse can be translated more accurately, “You should be baptized because of, or on the occasion of, the remission of sins.” Once you have repented of your sins and placed your faith and trust in Christ, there is remission of sins. And because of the remission of sins, or on the occasion of the remission of sins, you should be baptized.
Walking through the process as we have just done here is an example of correct exegesis. We dug into the Scriptures to find the true meaning of a scripture. We went back to the text in the original language and took into account how even the preposition was used, in order to garner the correct meaning. As a result, we brought the true meaning of the Scripture to bear on this text and did not rely on our opinions. This is why I encourage everyone to have commentaries on books of the New and Old Testaments as well as complete Bible commentaries and concordances, so you can look up a verse and see the context in the original language of Greek or Hebrew.
Another reason we know baptism does not save is that if it did, Simon the sorcerer, in Acts 8, would be a Christian. But he wasn’t. Acts 8:9-13 reads:
But there was a certain man called Simon, who previously practiced sorcery in the city and astonished the people of Samaria, claiming that he was someone great, to whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, “This man is the great power of God.” And they heeded him because he had astonished them with his sorceries for a long time. But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized. Then Simon himself also believed; and when he was baptized he continued with Philip, and was amazed, seeing the miracles and signs which were done.
If we stopped reading at this point in the passage, we would believe Simon the sorcerer believed, was baptized, and was a true believer. But here again, we can’t take just one passage of Scripture and stop there; we have to read it in context. In this case, you’ve got to go over to verse 18 to read the full report on Simon.
Remember, if salvation is really through baptism, then Simon the sorcerer would truly be saved, right? I can show you, though, that he wasn’t, therefore proving that baptism doesn’t save. Here’s what we learn in verse 18: “And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money.”
And verse 19 adds that Simon asked for more:
“Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
But Peter said to him, “Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money!”
Interestingly, J. B. Phillips translates this more bluntly. When Peter says, “Your money perish with you,” J. B. Phillips translates it as, “To hell with you and your money.” That’s what Peter said—“You’re going to hell because you thought the gift of God could be purchased with money.” Peter continues with this in verse 21-23:
You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is
not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity.
Does that sound like Peter is talking to someone who is saved? Hardly! Simon the sorcerer was a false convert, a tare among the wheat or a goat among the sheep. He claimed to believe the Gospel, and he was baptized. But we should wonder, “Okay, let’s test the fruit. Jesus Himself said, ‘You’ll know them by their fruit.’ Let’s watch his life and see what fruit comes forth. Good fruit comes from a good tree, and bad fruit comes from a bad tree. So, let’s watch the life of Simon.”
The disciples didn’t have to watch Simon very long. As Simon traveled with them, it quickly became evident to Peter and John that the sorcerer was a false convert. But if baptism itself had the power to save, then Simon the sorcerer would have been a Christian because he had been baptized. Since he clearly wasn’t saved, though, this passage clearly shows that baptism does not save you—nor do any other works, rituals, or ceremonies—but only faith and repentance. Baptism is important, but it’s not what saves you. The baptized-but-unsaved Simon was on his way to hell.
Let’s also look at Acts 10:47-48 because it reveals that the biblical process is salvation and then baptism, not baptism and then salvation. Acts 10:47-48 reads:
Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized, because they received the Holy Spirit, just as we have?” And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay for a few days.
Peter insisted that these people should be baptized because they had been saved already, not so that they could become saved.
You see the pattern here? Salvation, receiving the Holy Spirit, then baptism. That’s the pattern today, but the Scripture—just so you’ll know—does record two exceptions: the Jews in Acts 2 and the Samaritans in Acts 8. Acts 2:38-42 shows that the Jews repented, were baptized in water, and then received the Holy Spirit. And the Samaritans in Acts 8:14-17 repented, were baptized in water, and then received the Holy Spirit—the same pattern.
There’s a good reason for these two exceptions compared to the pattern that has been in place since Acts 10:47-48. At the time the conversion of these Jews and Samaritans took place, there had been for years great tension and fighting between the Jews and Samaritans. Samaritans were only part Jewish. While they had originally been fully Jewish, they married and had children with Gentiles. So the Samaritans were “half-breeds.” This caused great friction. The Jews who were 100 percent Jewish looked down on the half-Jewish Samaritans.
This conflict affected the preaching of the Gospel. As the two groups came to faith, the apostles were concerned that if the Jews were treated differently than Samaritans, or the Samaritans differently than the Jews, then the apostles will end up with two separate churches in Jerusalem, and God did not want two churches. He wanted just one in which the people were “neither Jew nor Greek nor Gentile nor Samaritan.” He wanted all believers in one Church. Galatians 3:28 reflects this when it declares: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As a result, the Jews needed to receive the same experience—the same validation, if you will—as the Samaritans, and the Samaritans needed to receive the same validation with their conversion.
When the apostles show up to this group of Jewish believers and baptize them in water, they lay hands on the Jews, and then the Jews receive the Holy Spirit. This same thing happens with the Samaritans so as to put an end to the conflict between the two groups. It means there can be one Church, not two, in Jerusalem. From then on, the process we see with the Gentiles—in Acts 10—is the pattern that continues to this day: repent, receive the Holy Spirit, and be baptized in water.
The act of being baptized symbolizes your spiritual death, burial, and resurrection through Jesus Christ. Romans 6:3-4 speaks to this experience Christians share when they place their faith and trust in Jesus Christ and repent of their sins:
Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
If anyone has repented of his or her sins, placed faith and trust in Jesus Christ, then thank the Lord that the person’s salvation is secure. It is not dependent on works—including baptism—but only on the grace of Jesus Christ and His atoning work on the cross. What a relief to untwist that one!