Acts 2:38

Does Acts 2:38 teach that (water) baptism is necessary for salvation?

“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

As with any single verse or passage, we discern what it teaches by first filtering it through what we know the Bible teaches on the subject at hand.

In the case of baptism and salvation, the Bible is clear that salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of any kind, including water baptism (Ephesians 2:8-9).

So, any interpretation which comes to the conclusion that baptism, or any other work, is necessary for salvation, is a faulty interpretation.

Why, then, do some come to the conclusion that we must be baptized in order to be saved?

Often, the discussion of whether or not this passage teaches baptism is required for salvation centers around the Greek word eis that is translated “for” in this passage.

Those who hold to the belief that baptism is required for salvation are quick to point to this verse and the fact that it says “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins,” assuming that the word translated “for” means “in order to receive.”

However, in both Greek and English, there are many possible usages of the word “for.”

As an example, when one says “Take two aspirin for your headache,” it is obvious to everybody that it does not mean “take two aspirin in order to get or attain a headache,” but rather to “take two aspirin because you have a headache.”

That being said, there are several possible meanings of the word “for” that might fit the context of Acts 2:38:

1–“in order to be, become, get, have, keep, etc.,”

2—“because of, as the result of”

3—“with regard to”

Since any one of the three meanings could fit the context of this passage, additional study is required in order to determine which one is correct.

First, we need to start by looking back to the original language and the meaning of the Greek word eis. This is a common Greek word used 1774 times in the New Testament and translated many different ways.

Like the English word “for” it can have several different meanings. So, again, we see at least two or three possible meanings of the passage, one that would seem to support that baptism is required for salvation and others that would not.

While both the meanings of the Greek word eis are seen in different passages of Scripture, noted Greek scholars, such as A.T. Robertson and J.R. Mantey, have maintained that the Greek preposition eis in Acts 2:38 should be translated “because of” or “in view of,” and not “in order to,” or “for the purpose of.”

One example of how this preposition is used in other Scriptures is seen in Matthew 12:41 where the word eis communicates the “result” of an action.

In this case it is said that the people of Nineveh “repented at the preaching of Jonah” (the word translated “at” is the same Greek word eis). Clearly, the meaning of this passage is that they repented “because of’” or “as the result of” Jonah’s preaching.

In the same way, it would be possible that Acts 2:38 is communicating the fact that they were to be baptized “as the result of” or “because” they already had believed and in doing so had already received forgiveness of their sins (John 1:12; John 3:14-18; John 5:24; John 11:25-26; Acts 10:43; Acts 13:39; Acts 16:31; Acts 26:18; Romans 10:9; Ephesians 1:12-14).

This interpretation of the passage is also consistent with the message recorded in Peter’s next two sermons to unbelievers where he associates the forgiveness of sins with the act of repentance and faith in Christ without even mentioning water baptism (Acts 3:17-26; Acts 4:8-12).

In addition to Acts 2:38, there are three other verses where the Greek word eis is used in conjunction with the word “baptize” or “baptism.”

The first of these is Matthew 3:11, “baptize you with water for repentance.” Clearly the Greek word eis cannot mean “in order to get” in this passage. They were not baptized “in order to get repentance,” but were “baptized because they had repented.”

The second passage is Romans 6:3 where we have the phrase “baptized into (eis) His death.” This again fits with the meaning “because of” or in “regard to.” The third and final passage is 1 Corinthians 10:2 and the phrase “baptized into (eis) Moses in the cloud and in the sea.”

Again, eis cannot mean “in order to get” in this passage because the Israelites were not baptized in order to get Moses to be their leader, but because he was their leader and had led them out of Egypt.

If one is consistent with the way the preposition eis is used in conjunction with baptism, we must conclude that Acts 2:38 is referring to their being baptized because they had received forgiveness of their sins.

Some other verses where the Greek preposition eis does not mean “in order to obtain” are Matthew 28:19; 1 Peter 3:21; Acts 19:3; 1 Corinthians 1:15; and 12:13.

The grammatical evidence surrounding this verse and the preposition eis are clear that while both views on this verse are well within the context and the range of possible meanings of the passage, the majority of the evidence is in favor that the best possible definition of the word “for” in this context is either “because of” or “in regard to” and not “in order to get.”

There is another grammatical aspect of this verse that we need to carefully consider—the change between the second person and third person between the verbs and pronouns in the passage.

For example, in Peter’s command to repent and (also) be baptized, in the Greek the verb translated “repent” is in the second person plural while the verb “be baptized” is in the third person singular. When we couple this with the fact that the pronoun “your” in the phrase “forgiveness of your sins” is also second person plural, we begin to see an important distinction that is being made that helps us understand this passage.

While this may be hard to follow, the result of this change from second person plural to third person singular and back again would seem to connect the phrase “forgiveness of your sins” directly with the command to “repent.”

Therefore, when you take into account the change in person and the plurality, essentially what you have is “You (plural) repent for the forgiveness of your (plural) sins, and let each one of you (singular) be baptized (singular).”

Or in other words: “You all repent for the forgiveness of all of your sins, and let each one of you be baptized.”

Another error that is made by those who believe Acts 2:38 teaches baptism is required for salvation is what is sometimes called the Negative Inference Fallacy. Simply put, this is the idea that just because a statement is true, we cannot assume all opposites of that statement are true.

In other words, just because Acts 2:38 says 'repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins” it does not by necessity mean that if one repents, but is not baptized, he will not receive the forgiveness of sins.

Here is should be noted that there is an important difference between a condition of salvation and a requirement for salvation. The Bible is clear that belief is both a condition and a requirement, but the same cannot be said for water baptism.

The point is that Bible never says that if a man is not baptized in water that he will not be saved. If that were true, Jesus would never have been able to assure the criminal crucified with Him that he would be with Him in paradise that very day (Luke 23:39-43).

One might add any number of conditions to faith (which is required for salvation) and the person can still be saved. For example if a person believes, goes to church, and gives to the poor he will be saved.

However, the error occurs is if one assumes that these other conditions, i.e. baptism, going to church, giving to the poor, are also requirements for one to be saved.

While these may be the evidence of a person's salvation, they are not a requirement for salvation.

The fact that baptism is not required to receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit should also be evident by simply reading a little farther in the book of Acts. In Acts 10:43, Peter tells Cornelius that “through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”

Up until this point, nothing has been mentioned about being baptized. And yet, Peter connects believing in Christ with the act of receiving forgiveness for sins. The next thing that happens is, having believed Peter’s message about Christ, the “Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message” (Acts 10:44).

It is only after they had believed, and therefore received forgiveness of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit, that Cornelius and his household were baptized with water (Acts 10:47-48).

The context and the passage are very clear; Cornelius and his household received both forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit before they were ever water baptized. In fact, the reason Peter allowed them to be baptized was that they showed evidence of receiving the Holy Spirit “just as Peter and the rest of the Jewish believers” had in Acts chapter 2.

(Added note from cofcdilemma.org)

Another point that must be considered is whether or not the baptism of Acts chapter 2 is referring to ”water” or “Holy Spirit” baptism.

In Acts chapter one Jesus said, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.

Once again we are making a distinction between real, actual, or Holy Spirit baptism and rite, ritual or water baptism, which gives testimony to it.

The Scripture continues and tells us that when the day of Pentecost came, the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

The God-fearing Jews were amazed and perplexed over this and began to ask, “What does this mean?”

Peter of course tells them that they are not drunk as they might suppose, but rather that this very event- the pouring out of the Holy Spirit- was spoken of by the prophet Joel:

Verse 17 ” ‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people, …’ “

Verse 18 ” ‘… I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.’ “

Verse 33 ” Exalted to the right hand of God, he (Jesus) has
received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit
and has poured out what you now see and hear.”

The point of all this is that Jesus predicted that they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit back in Acts chapter one, verses 4 and 5.

Another example can be found in Acts chapter 11 when the apostle Peter recounts the conversion of Cornelius to the Jewish believers who were skeptical that the Gentiles could be saved without becoming Jews first.

He says, “As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning (i.e. Acts chapter 2).

“Then I remembered what the Lord had said: ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 11:15-16

Again, the only reason Peter allowed them to be “baptized with water” was that they had already received Holy Spirit baptism just as the Jewish disciples had in Acts chapter 2, and note that Peter does refer to the Holy Spirit event as a baptism.

Jesus said, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this we know he meant the Spirit, “whom those who believed in him were later to receive.” (John 7:38-39)

So was the baptism of Acts chapter 2 “water” or “Holy Spirit” baptism?

The Bible teaches that when we come to trust Jesus Christ as Savior, we are baptized by the Spirit of God into the body of Christ. (1 Cor. 12:13)

As new believers we are ”water” baptized in obedience to our Lord’s command, which gives testimony to our true, actual, Holy Spirit baptism. (Matthew 28:19)

Other references to consider:

Isaiah 44:3, Ezekiel 36:24-27, Joel 2:28-29

1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:26-27, Eph. 1:13-14, Col. 2:11-14, Titus 3:4-6

Answers for other baptism passages: