Thursday, March 3, 2011

Water Baptism Does Not Save: Part 2: Acts 2:38

by Steve C. Halbrook

A favorite prooftext of baptismal regenerationists is Acts 2:38:
"And Peter said to them, 'Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'"
Baptismal regenerationists insist “for” here means “in order to,” or “in order to obtain”—so that baptism is performed “in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins.”[1]   

We will demonstrate that such an interpretation opposes both the immediate context and the full counsel of God.

The Meaning of “For”

The problem with insisting “for” must mean “in order to” is that this word can have different meanings. 

In English, when we say someone is arrested “for” murder, do we mean they are arrested in order to obtain murder?  Of course not.  They are arrested because of murder.  Similarly, when we laugh for joy, do we laugh in order to obtain joy? No—we laugh because of joy.

Indeed, Dana and Mantey in “A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament” hold that “for the forgiveness of your sins” in Acts 2 should be understood as “because of the forgiveness of your sins.”[2]

Let's give some biblical examples where “for” surely cannot mean “in order to obtain."  The first is Luke 5:13, 14:
And he put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will: be thou clean. And immediately the leprosy departed from him. And he charged him to tell no man: but go, and shew thyself to the priest, and offer for thy cleansing, according as Moses commanded, for a testimony unto them.” (KJV)
On this passage, Bob L. Ross writes,
1. He [the leper] was healed before he offered a sacrifice.

2. The offering was “for thy cleansing;” not to obtain it, but a formal declaration in ceremony that it was already enjoyed.

3. The offering was “for a testimony.” So is every formal ordinance, for they have no power to do anything else. … They [formal ordinances] show forth whatever it is that they are ordained to refer to.[3]
Ross continues: 
Baptism is just such an ordinance and ceremony, showing forth that it is in the death of Christ that we have the actual, literal remission of sins. Baptism is “for the remission of sins” only in the sense of a “testimony” referring to the death of Christ, just as the leper’s offering was “for thy cleansing” in the sense of a testimony.[4]
Another example where “for” surely cannot mean “in order to obtain" is Matthew 3:11:
I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” 
Notice how it somewhat parallels Acts 2:38, which we’ll quote again:
And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized … for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” 
Now, it would be absurd to argue that Matt. 3:11 means “I baptize you with water in order to obtain repentance.” This would mean—hocus pocus!—that water baptism causes repentance. 

(Just in case anyone actually believes this, keep in mind that when John the Baptist saw the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he told them to Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” [Matthew 3:8].  Baptism is not mentioned.  If water baptism produces repentance, it seems he would have said something like, “Get water baptized so that you can bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”)

And yet, for those who insist that the language of Acts 2:38 demands an interpretation that says “be baptized in order to obtain the forgiveness of your sins,” logical consistency requires them to likewise believe that the language of Matt. 3:11 also demands an interpretation that says, “I baptize you with water in order to obtain repentance.”

This results not only in absurdity, but contradiction.  The baptismal regenerationist must simultaneously hold that water baptism produces repentance and that water baptism produces the forgiveness of sins.  

Moreover, the baptismal regenerationist interpretation of Acts 2:38 says that repentance comes prior to water baptism; and yet, if consistent with this interpretation, the baptismal regenerationist interpretation of Matthew 3:11 must say that repentance comes after water baptism. 

Those who believe water baptism saves have no parallel passage about water baptism that line up with their interpretation of Acts 2.  But, as we see, we do have a parallel passage that opposes their interpretation of Acts 2.

At this point we must say that the baptismal regenerationist cannot rest his case on the word “for” without consideration to context.  This word has more than one meaning, and is thus never self defining.  The baptismal regenerationist must demonstrate through both the surrounding context and the full counsel of God that “for” means “in order to.”

 “Baptism” not Linked with Forgiveness of Sins 

According to the original Greek language, “be baptized” is not actually connected with “for the forgiveness of your sins.”  The former is actually a parenthetical statement, in between “repent” and “for the forgiveness of sins.”  

John MacArthur explains:
It is also possible to take the clause “and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” as parenthetical. Support for that interpretation comes from that fact that “repent” and “your” are plural, while “be baptized” is singular, thus setting it off from the rest of the sentence. If that interpretation is correct, the verse would read “Repent (and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of your sins.” Forgiveness is thus connected with repentance, not baptism, in keeping with the consistent teaching of the New Testament (cf. Luke 24:47; John 3:18; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18; Ephesians 5:26).[5]
Thus, since “be baptized” is singular, while “for the forgiveness of your sins” is plural, the baptismal regenerationist’s interpretation reduces to absurdity.  For this interpretation would have individuals being baptized for the sins of the entire group that Peter is addressing!

Robert Reymond also discusses the parenthetical nature of "be baptized" in Acts 2:38:
I would urge that that part of Peter’s admonition pertaining to baptism (“and be baptized, everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ”) should be construed as a subsidiary adjunct (to be mentally read as if it had parentheses around it) to the main thought, which is “Repent … for the forgiveness of sins.” I say this because neither in Luke’s account of Jesus’ commission to the church in Luke 24:47 nor in Peter’s later preaching in Acts 3:19 is anything said about baptism.  If baptism were essential to salvation or to the reception of forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit, omission of all reference to it in these contexts on the part of Jesus and Peter respectively [Luke 24:47, Acts 3:19] would be exceedingly strange if not totally irresponsible (see also Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 1:17, and his insistence upon the need only for heart circumcision, baptism’s Old Testament spiritual counterpart, in Rom. 2:26-29).[6]
Reymond's connection of repentance with the forgivness of sins (Repent … for the forgiveness of sins”) is harmonious with Luke 24:47, which reads:
“and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (NASB)
A word about repentance, since throughout this piece we stress that man receives forgiveness of sins through faith alone. What relationship does repentance have with saving faith?  Robert Reymond writes, "[I]n turning from our sins in repentance we turn to Christ in faith for salvation."[7]

However, repentance is not to be rested on for salvation; Christ, and Christ alone must be rested on for salvation.  As the Westminster Confession of faith (15:3) notes, 
Although repentance is not to be rested in, as any satisfaction for sin, or any cause of the pardon thereof, which is the act of God's free grace in Christ, yet it is of such necessity to all sinners, that none may expect pardon without it.
Check the Very Next Chapter

All we need to do is check the very next chapter to prove the water baptism salvation interpretation of Acts 2:38 wrong:
Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus …” (Acts 3:19, 20).
There is nothing here about water baptism.   Those who are saved repent (“Repent therefore”) and believe (“turn again”).  If Acts 2:38 conditioned salvation on water baptism, then in Acts 3:19, 20, water baptism would be connected with “that your sins may be blotted out.”  But it is not.  Instead, faith is.   

An Example in Acts of Water Baptism not Saving

In Acts 10, Peter speaks about Jesus Christ, and the text goes on to say:
While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.” (Acts 10:44-48)
Note: The Gentiles are clearly saved prior to water baptism.  Before being water baptized, they were baptized by the Holy Spirit and praising God.  Peter says they “received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”  Water baptism followed as an act of obediencenot as a condition for salvation. 

Peter discusses this situation in Acts 11:15-18:
‘As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?’ When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.’”
Again, the text is clear that water baptism plays no role in salvation: 
 “the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning”; 

 “to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
When Peter here describes the conversion event, water baptism doesn’t even enter the picture.  The Gentiles converted when they believed: “God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Those who believe water baptism saves often pose imaginative, question-begging arguments to get around the ramifications of this example. For instance, they might use Peter’s linkage of this event with Pentecost (Acts 11:16) to say that water baptism not saving here was the exception, not the rule.  (Even though they insist that water baptism was required for salvation at Pentecost, according to their Acts 2:38 interpretation!)

But this linkage with Pentecost actually proves that this example was actually the rule. (A rule that has no exceptions.) That this example is normative of conversions is evidenced in John 7:
On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” (John 7:37-39)
Note the connection between belief and Holy Spirit baptism of all believers from the time of Jesus’ glorification on.  And so as far as salvation in the New Covenant era is concerned, Acts 10 and 11 is not unique, but an example of how all salvations work.  Belief, Holy Spirit baptism, and salvation are linked; water baptism plays no role in salvation.

Of course, we can refute the argument that water baptism normally saves and Acts 10, 11 was an exception from Acts 10 itself.   Prior to the very verse that says “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word,” it says,
To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43)
Check the Very Next Verse

Let’s examine Acts 2:38 along with the very next verse:
And Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." (Acts 2:38, 39)
In this text, those who receive forgiveness of sins also receive the promise of the Holy Spirit.  If the baptismal regenerationist interpretation of Acts 2:38 is true, then only those who have been baptized in water receive the Holy Spirit.  And there would be nothing elsewhere in the Bible to contradict it. 

However, the Bible very clearly contradicts the baptismal regenerationist’s connection between water baptism and receiving the promise of the Holy Spirit.  

In our previous section, we have demonstrated that receiving the promise of the Holy Spirit is linked with belief, not water baptism.  The Gentiles received the Holy Spirit when they believed (Acts 11:17); and in fact this is the case with all believers (John 7:37-39).

Acts 2:39 also mentions that the promise of the Holy Spirit is for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”  Does the Bible link those whom God calls with water baptism?  No:  

And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (Romans 8:30)

The Bible links justification with those whom God calls.  And how is man justified?  Through faith:

What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: "Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin." (Romans 4:1-8)

Thus, all whom God calls comes to saving faith, the instrument through which man is justified and his sins are forgiven.  This contradicts the baptismal regeneration interpretation of Acts 2:38, which says sins are forgiven by water baptism.  One’s sins are forgiven not by water baptism, but through faith. 


As we have seen, it is impossible to interpret Acts 2:38 to mean that water baptism saves.  First, the word “for” can have more than one meaning.  This reason alone prevents one from insisting that the text must mean that water baptism saves. 

And whenever any particular text is unclear, one cannot speculate what it means, but must go to clearer texts.  Thus all we have to do is go to the very next chapter to show that water baptism has nothing to do with salvation (Acts 3:19, 20). 

And there is also the concrete example of water baptism not saving in Acts 10 and 11.  Moreover, this example, along with John 7:37-39, shows that Acts 2:39 (the very next verse after Acts 2:38) does not condition the promise of the Holy Spirit on water baptism.  Rather, the Holy Spirit is received by believers--regardless if they have been water baptized.

Moreover, the Greek in Acts 2:38 is constructed so that “be baptized” is a parenthetical statement between “repent” and “for the forgiveness of sins.” 

In light of all this, true Christians must affirm with Peter that one receives forgiveness of sins through faith, not by water baptism:   
To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:43) 
In their insistence that Acts 2:38 means that water baptism saves, baptismal regenerationists ignore 1) sentence structure (the plural and the singular); 2) that “for” has different possible meanings; 3) other texts that contradict the notion that water baptism saves; 4) that the promise of the Holy Spirit comes to all believers (regardless of water baptism); and 5) that those whom God calls are justified by faith.[8]

The baptismal regenerationist interpretation of Acts 2:38  ignores logic, grammar, exegesis, and the full counsel of God.

Posts in this series:
part 1: Mark 16:16 
part 2: Acts 2:38

     [1] Bob L. Ross, Campbellism: Its History and Heresies (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1981), 86.
     [2] Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1927), 103, 104.  Cited in Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Second Edition) (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), 952.
     [3] Ross, Campbellism, 87.
     [4] Ibid.
     [5] John MacArthur, Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation? (Sun Valley, CA: Grace Community Church, 1986). Retrieved February 25, 2011, from
     [6] Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 951.
      [7] Ibid., 725.
     [8] Campbellites have a further problem: they insist that Acts 2:38 means one must be baptized in water in order to receive forgiveness of sins since Acts 2:38 reads:
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins …”
And yet, compare this with Matthew 26:28:
for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Now, Campbellites hold that this passage in Matthew is speaking symbolically of the forgiveness of sins since it is about the Lord's Supper; that is, taking the Lord's Supper does not literally result in the forgiveness of sins. While they are right, considering the sentence structure of both passages (both say “for” the forgiveness of sins), their dogmatic insistence that Acts 2:38 teaches literal forgiveness of sins is logically inconsistent with their interpretation that Matthew 26:28 is symbolic of forgiveness of sins; if Acts 2:38 must teach literal forgiveness of sins (because it says "for"), then so must Matthew 26:38 (because it says "for"). On the other hand, if Matthew 26:38 does not have to be about literal forgiveness of sins, then neither does Acts 2:38.

1 comment:

The Schaubing Blogk said...

sorry for putting this here, but I have a question for your readers.

The Shorter Catechism and WCF state, without any sort of proof or explanation that I can find, that there were only two 'sacraments' in the OT. Would anyone care to explain/defend that view to a poor baptist?