What Peter says in Acts 2:38 has become a controversial declaration in the religious world. What does it mean that Peter would say to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins? I think the discussion about baptism has been often misrepresented and misunderstood. I think in many ways the discussion about baptism has caused people to speak past each other, rather than coming to a common point of understanding. Because of these misunderstandings, I think it is important slow down in this paragraph and talk clearly about the meaning of baptism. I hope that you will set aside any of your preset beliefs and openly listen to what God is picturing through baptism.
Baptism Is a Response From Faith
What we see in Acts 2 is that the command for baptism is to come from an individual’s faith response. When the people ask what they should do in verse 37, Peter’s answer is not merely baptism. Repentance is necessary, which means that there is a necessity of faith. Baptism does not bring about the forgiveness of sins outside of having faith. We cannot put people who does not love the Lord, do not believe in Jesus, or do not have faith into a body of water, baptize them and say that they are saved. Baptism is not a sacrament. Baptism alone does not forgive sins. Baptism alone does not save. Baptism is a response from faith which is what we see the people in Acts 2 doing as well as others throughout the book of Acts.
It is important to see that there is a journey of faith that everyone must take. We begin by learning about our sin condition and believing that we need a Savior from our sins. We move on to realize that we cannot keep on sinning but must turn our lives to Jesus (repentance). We admit and proclaim our sinfulness and also proclaim that we will follow and obey Jesus as our Lord. Then we move to baptism because this is a picture of our sins being washed away and being raised to a new life. We will speak more about this in a moment. But I want us to see that baptism is useless without faith. Baptism is useless without repentance. Baptism is useless without truly believing and living with Jesus as your Lord. It is just water and you are just getting wet if this is not part of a journey of faith.
With this in mind, I think we should consider what a great mistake that can be made in pressuring people into baptism as if you are saved or forgiven by jumping immediately to this step. Convincing people to be baptized is not the goal. The apostle Paul even said this in 1 Corinthians 1:17. Christ did not send him to baptized but to proclaim the gospel. Why? Because baptism is a response to the gospel and not the goal of the gospel. The goal of the gospel is to cause the world to see Jesus as their Lord who loves them and came to save them which will lead to changing of the person’s heart to love Jesus with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength which will bring about obedience that comes from faith. We cannot jump to the end of the process and just get baptized because that does not do anything. Baptism is like repentance and confession: a response that comes from faith. There are teaching resources among our brethren that are used to try to get a person baptized in the very first study. We should teach them so they will have faith that will bear fruit in repentance and baptism. We should not press our children to be baptized but to love God and have faith in him so that this faith will respond with repentance, confession, and baptism. We should never teach baptism apart from a person’s faith responding to God’s love and God’s will for their lives. I hope we have been able to be clear as we begin. Baptism is nothing if it is heartless, faithless, or not a response to the love of God as seen in Jesus.
Is Baptism Necessary?
But this has led to another curious teaching. There are many who will teach that baptism is not necessary for the forgiveness of sins or for salvation. I will quote one author who I think fairly represents the common mentality about baptism.
“So baptism is not a prerequisite for salvation (the repentant thief on the cross was assured of his place in paradise, but was in no position to be baptized, Luke 23:40-43). The New Testament, however, doesn’t recognize any unbaptized believer. Baptism is a necessary sign of obedience and discipleship. We do not need to be baptized to be saved, but if we are saved, then we will get baptized.” (Mohler, Acts 1-12 For You, 38-39)
I hope we can see the utter confusion of such declarations. In one sentence he declares that baptism is necessary and in the next sentence says that baptism is not necessary to be saved. He also states that the scriptures do not recognize any unbaptized believers. Such a thing does not exist yet then states it is not needed. This is the kind of confusion that is happening in the religious world that I find troubling. The problem such writers are trying to avoid is the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church which baptizes people without faith. Infants are baptized and they do not have saving faith. People are baptized to belong to their church but have no faith in Jesus or love him. So they are trying to deal with this problem but this confusion is not the way to handle it. It is caused generations of people to believe that baptism is not necessary.
So let’s take a step back and see if we can clean this up and make this clearer than what has been commonly taught. First, if baptism is not necessary, then why did Peter say it in Acts 2:38? We cannot erase what Peter said. We cannot change the meaning of what Peter said. The people ask what they are to do. Peter’s answer is very clear: repent and be baptized (2:38). Not only this, but notice that 3000 people welcomed that message and were baptized. If baptism is not part of our response of faith, then why did Peter say it? Why did 3000 people submit to baptism if it was not necessary?
Sometimes writers and preachers will say that baptism is important and not necessary. Please think about this for a moment and see if that makes any sense. What statement have you ever made that is important but not necessary? If we tell our children to not play in the street, does that mean it is not necessary? Or it is important to love God but not necessary? What do we do in life that we are told something is important but it is not necessary? If it is important, then it is necessary. That is why it is important. It is not important if it is not necessary. What Peter is teaching is necessary and that is why he tells these people to repent and be baptized. If it was not necessary, why did Peter say it?
Second, do we need to do all we can to obey every command of the Lord? As a disciple of Jesus, are we supposed to do all we can to obey every command? Let me say this another way. If we willingly choose to not obey a command of the Lord, can we really say that we are a disciple? Can we really claim to be a follower of Jesus if we are willfully choosing to disobey something commanded? Friends, I do not have faith if I am unwilling to submit to what God says to do. I do not have faith if I am only willing to submit to some of the things God says to do. It is easy to keep some of God’s laws. But that is not what God said to do. Faith desires to do everything God says. What command did God give that we are allowed to ignore? What did God tell us to do what we can decide if it is optional? If Peter said to repent and be baptized, then we must repent and be baptized. True faith always has a response. Faith always has fruit. If we have true faith, then it will be observed in our response of repentance, confession, and baptism. There is no command of the Lord that we can willfully choose to disobey and think that we are still a child of God.
The Beauty of Baptism
I think it is important to see the beauty of baptism so that we can appreciate what God is trying to show us. I will not spend much time of these passages for the lack of time. But listen to some of the pictures that the scriptures give to see the beauty of baptism.
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. (Galatians 3:26–27 NIV)
Clothing yourself with Christ is an identification with Christ. It is a picture of a change that has occurred as you are now covered with Jesus. But please consider: are you clothed with Christ if you are not baptized? Baptism is this identifying process through faith. Paul uses the same idea in his letter to the Romans.
Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:3–4 NIV)
Notice that Paul again speaks of baptism as an identification process. We are joined with Christ in his death when we are buried in the waters of baptism. We are joined with Christ in his resurrection when we are raised from the waters of baptism to live a new life. Baptism is picturing that we are dead to sin and alive in Christ. Is the old way of life dead and are you alive to the new life without baptism? Baptism is the beautiful picture of coming alive to a new life in Christ. By the way, it is important to see that baptism is not sprinkling but immersion in water.
In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11–12 NIV)
Notice that baptism pictures a surgery that you are going through. But it a spiritual circumcision when Christ is cutting off the life what was ruled by the flesh. This putting off the old self happened when you were buried with Christ in baptism and raised through faith in the working of God. Please listen to the apostle Paul. Baptism is not your work. Baptism is God’s work that you are submitting to through faith. Your faith is exercised in God when you are buried in baptism.
This is also what we see in Acts 2:41. Those who received Peter’s teaching were baptized and there were 3000 people added to Christ and to the body of Christ.
Baptism alone does not save. Baptism must be generated from faith in Jesus and a heart that desires to be joined with him. There is no command of the Lord that we can leave off and think that we are saved before the Lord. We cannot think that we are saved if we refuse to repent of our sins. We cannot think that we are saved if we refuse to confess our sins or confess Jesus to be our Lord who rules our lives. We cannot think that we are saved if we refuse to be baptized.
This is one of the critical distinctions between most churches. If you want to know about the differences between all the different churches out there, this is number one on the list and it is the most important difference. To teach people that they do not need to do something that is clearly commanded is deplorable. Who are we to say which commands of Lord are necessary to follow? We do not have that right! True faith will submit to everything that our Lord tells us to do.
Finally, I would like for us to appreciate and savor the experience of baptism. When we are baptized, we are symbolizing the burying of our old life and our old way of living. We are symbolizing the sins of the old life being put away from us. We are symbolizing our union with Christ, raising up to walk a new life with him. We should live our lives in a way to reflect what our baptism symbolized. We do not live the way we did before coming to Christ. We do not live like the world. Let’s end the lesson with how Paul spoke about the meaning of baptism in the life of Christian and the hope it gives to us.
We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:4–7 NIV)
If we have been united in a death like his (baptism), we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. If you have been baptized, you have a visible symbol of what Christ will do for you in the end: raise you from the dead to life. This is our hope and the beauty of baptism.