Understanding Acts 2:38

24 10 2019

“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” (Acts 2:38)

There is a lot of controversy surrounding a particular verse in Acts 2. Many false churches fixate on this verse as the main source of their doctrines. When I come across people from these churches their social media normally has this text prominently displayed, even some churches put it right out on their sign.

There is a danger in what is commonly called proof texting. The Bible is to be understood and interpreted in context. Scripture should be interpreted in light of Scripture. The Bible was never intended to be chopped up in such a way that one verse cancels out another or entire doctrine could be built on the foundation of a single verse without respect to the context the verse is in.

This is called proof texting. It’s dangerous because it always leads to error. Every denomination that calls itself Christian yet veers from orthodoxy does so because they proof text particular verses. I remember door to door witnessing with a pastor and after going to the door of one of these people he moved on and the person followed him down the street yelling “believe Acts 2:38.”

When this happens it’s easy to lose balance and to fixate and even base your entire faith on one particular verse or doctrine. So what does Acts 2:38 mean? Does it cancels out other verses?

Consider Matthew 28:19:

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

Some would say that baptizing in the name of all 3 persons is based on this one verse and yet it’s not. Salvation is a work of all 3 members of the Godhead. The Father decreed it, the Son accomplished it and the Spirit applies it. It follows that the sign and seal of our salvation would be in the authority of all 3 persons.

The Acts 2:38 proponents have one basic problem: the deny the Triune nature of God. I don’t have space to delve in here but the Scriptures teach extensively on the doctrine of the Trinity so this is not a stand alone verse but a verse that can be clearly understood in accord with other Scriptures. Notice the individuality of the persons and yet the singular use of the word “name.”

It’s not the “names” of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It says in the “name” singular of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. They are individual persons but one God, one substance, one essence, one nature.

Does Acts 2:38 change that by saying in Jesus name only? No it doesn’t because you have to understand this verse in context. In this sermon Peter is pointing out that they had rejected Jesus and had crucified Him yet God overruled their objection and raised Him from the dead.

They had rejected the authority of Jesus as Messiah and King at His crucifixion. Now they must be baptized in the authority of this man whom they had rejected. He is not ignoring the words of Jesus in Matthew but speaking to the specific attitude of the crowd in front of him.

It would be like me preaching to Roman Catholics and telling them to reject the system of penance and repent of their sins. I don’t mention anything about the Trinity because they have a different issue. When I speak to a follower of the Watchtower I will address their need to recognize that Jesus is God and never mention Rome’s system of penance. It’s about speaking to the needs of the crowd.

Does this verse teach a works salvation? The answer is no because the message of the Bible is one of salvation by grace through faith. We see it in the salvation of Abraham in Romans 4, and it’s heavily emphasized in Ephesians 2 and Colossians 1. We see it also throughout the book of Acts like Acts 8, 10, and 16. We see it again in Romans 3, 5, 8 and 10.

To take this single verse and teach salvation by baptism would be to cancel out all of the passages on faith alone. So we must interpret this verse in light of the overwhelming evidence in the other passages. So what is Peter saying here? I want to use experts from my book “Understanding Believer’s Baptism” which will be available soon from this website.

“A second point pertaining to this verse is the term “for.” This word is often highlighted to demonstrate that the baptism was for or to cause the remission of sins. The problem is that there are several Greek and English uses for the word “for.” The word can also mean, “in order to get” (which is what these folks are saying) or it can mean, “because of, as the result of.

So is Peter saying they must be baptized in order to get forgiveness of sins? If he is then he is contradicting Paul who simply told the jailer in Acts 16:31 to believe.

Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.

If I say “take two aspirin for a headache” am I saying to take two aspirin in order to get a headache? Of course not. I’m saying it because you already have one.

The same applies if I said I’m going to Grandma’s house for her birthday. Will she not have a birthday or even a party if I don’t go? Of course she will. My going is not to give her a birthday but because she is having a birthday. This is the clear use of the phrase in this passage.

Salvation is a free gift given by God to those who believe. We are commanded to have repentance toward God and faith toward Jesus Christ (Acts 20:21). We are saved through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8-10).

Peter is not contradicting these passages. He is not saying you must be baptized in order to complete remission of your sins. He is saying to be baptized because you have remission of sins.”

We know that baptism does not contribute to salvation because Paul clearly separated the Gospel from baptism. We all agree that the Gospel is what saves us the Bible says in Romans 1:16 that the Gospel is the Power of God to salvation so anything necessary for salvation is in the Gospel and yet Paul said God sent him not to baptize but to preach the Gospel.

“For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.” (1 Corinthians 1:17)

In that verse in Romans 1 Paul says the Gospel is the power of god to salvation for everyone who believes, once again it’s faith alone that saves. In fact the passages that mention salvation apart from baptism are numerous while the baptismal regeneration proof texts are about 3 or 4. It’s more probable that 3 or 4 verses are being misunderstood than that the hundreds of other verses are.


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