It’s possible to make the Bible teach anything, no matter how wrong it might be. It is easy to take verses out of context or misunderstand them by ignoring the rest of Scripture.
One verse that is frequently misunderstood and misused is Acts 2:38. Located at the climax of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Peter calls on his listeners to respond to the message he had just given, declaring, “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” (Acts 2:38). Bible readers are frequently confused by this verse. In fact, this verse raises three specific questions. First, are people required to repent of all their sins to be saved or is faith alone in Jesus the only necessity? Second, in addition to faith, is baptism necessary for salvation? And third, are people to be baptized “in the name of Jesus” or “in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19)? Let’s look at each of these questions in order.
The issue of the need for repentance is so crucial that this book devotes a whole question to the relationship of repentance to faith. Still, since it’s clearly mentioned in Acts 2:38, I’ll address it here briefly. One of the clearest teachings of Scripture (Eph. 2:8–9) is that people are saved by God’s grace (undeserved kindness) by faith in Jesus (trust in His death and resurrection for us). Yet, here it seems that Peter’s exhortation calls for his listeners to repent, not just to believe. As a result, it is commonly expected that if someone wants to come to know the Lord Jesus, they must turn away from all their sin, or at least feel badly for their sins. I would maintain that, although turning from sin and sadness for sin are both good and proper, they are not essential for salvation.
“Turning to Jesus in faith is what saves us, and baptism isn’t required for remission of sins.”
Resolving the difficulty with this verse is in recognizing that the word “repent” used in Acts 2:38 does not mean to feel remorseful. As used here, the word “repent” means to “change your mind.” In this context, Peter is calling on his Jewish audience to move from their previous rejection of the Lord Jesus to trust in Him as their Messiah. He is saying, “Change your mind about Jesus—move from rejecting Him to trusting Him.” In reality, repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. The repentance side demands that we stop trusting what we previously thought and the faith side demands that we trust in Jesus. Repentance as found here doesn’t mean we must feel bad about our sins but rather we need to change from rejecting Jesus to believing He is both Lord (God) and Messiah (cf. Acts 2:36).
The second issue in this verse is that Peter seems to be saying that baptism is a required part of the repentance and faith process. When he said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized . . . for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38), it seems that, according to Peter, baptism is an added requirement. Of course, the Bible consistently teaches that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, “not as a result of works” (Eph. 2:9; cf. John 3:16, 36; Rom. 4:1–17; Gal. 3:8–9). Requiring baptism for salvation would add a work on our part to God’s grace. Moreover, when the Lord Jesus promised the thief on the cross that they would be together in Paradise, He didn’t demand that the thief get off his cross and be baptized first. The thief ’s faith alone in Jesus alone was enough. By faith, he would join the Lord Jesus in eternity (“Paradise”; Luke 23:42–43).
So how should we understand this call to baptism? One possible explanation is to translate the word “for” in the phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” as “on account of.” That would make Peter’s message, “Repent and be baptized on account of forgiveness of your sins.” This ties forgiveness of sin to turning to Jesus and then makes baptism a consequence, not a cause, of that forgiveness. This translation is possible because the Greek word (eis used with a noun in the accusative case) is used that way elsewhere in Scripture (Matt. 3:11; 12:41; Mark 1:4). The problem with this explanation is that this grammatical usage is quite rare and only found in the Gospels, never in Acts.
A second, and better option, is to understand the call to be baptized as a parenthetical thought. This idea is also consistent with the Greek grammar. The command to repent is a plural verb in Greek. Similarly, the pronoun “your” in “forgiveness of your sins” is also plural, linking these two concepts together. But the command to be baptized is singular, as evident in the phrase “each of you be baptized.” So here is a paraphrase of Peter’s point: “Repent all of you (and if an individual does so, let each one be baptized) for the forgiveness all y’all’s sins” (a little Southern slang clarifies this verse). The main thought of the verse is “All of you repent for the forgiveness of all y’all’s sins.” The parenthetical idea expressed here is that “if someone does repent, that individual should be baptized.”
This interpretation fits well with the rest of Luke’s writings. For example, Luke writes, “everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:43) and there is no mention of a need to be baptized. Also, Luke declares that repentance (the other side of faith) brings forgiveness of sins to Israel (Acts 5:31) with no mention of baptism. The same idea is found in Luke 24:47, saying that “repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed” to the nations (without including baptism). Taking the command for individuals to be baptized as a parenthetical statement in Acts 2:38 makes the most sense because it’s in harmony with the Greek grammar and with the other statements in Acts, mentioned above. So Peter is calling people to believe in Jesus as their Messiah, and then, in recognition of this commitment, to be baptized.
The third issue has to do with the formula for baptism. In the Great Commission, the Lord Jesus called on His disciples to “make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19). This is the clearest baptismal formula. When we baptize new followers of Jesus, we declare this Trinitarian statement. Yet, in Acts 2:38 (cf. Acts 8:16; 22:16), Peter says that individuals who repent should be “baptized in the name of Jesus.”
Calling for people to be baptized in the name of Jesus is not to be considered a formula but rather an explanation of baptism. We need to remember that the apostles were Jewish men raised in first-century Jewish culture. In Judaism, whenever a person took an action or gave a teaching, they didn’t do so on their own. Rather, they acted or taught “in the name of ” their rabbi or teacher. So, in rabbinic writings, it might say, “Rabbi Gamaliel taught in the name of Rabbi Hillel” or “Rabbi Shimon took this action in the name of Rabbi Jochanon.” In this way, they identified their own teacher and master.
The call to be baptized in the name of Jesus was a way of saying that a person was identifying with the Lord Jesus as his or her master. It was a public declaration that “I have become a follower of Jesus!” The formula used in baptism was the Trinitarian one but the actual act of baptism was a symbol of public identification with the Lord Jesus as their Messiah and Lord.
There are differences of opinion about baptism. Some sprinkle water while others practice full immersion. Some baptize infants while others only baptize believers. I happen to fall on the “immersion in water for believers, not babies” side of this debate. But here’s what we all can agree on: That turning to Jesus in faith is what saves us, and baptism isn’t required for remission of sins. Also, we can know that baptism is an outward symbol of salvation, not a requirement for it. Further, we can all recognize that when we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are publicly identifying the Lord Jesus as our eternal Redeemer and the Master of our lives.
by Michael A. Rydelnik
You’ve got Bible questions. We’ve got answers. The Bible is full of great truths for our lives . . . and also, if we’re being...
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