Since some sincere people question the role of baptism in conversion, salvation, or regeneration we are going to briefly study Acts 2:38 in its context to see if this passage sheds any light on the matter. This verse is within the sermon preached by the Apostle Peter on the first Pentecost following the resurrection of Christ.
The Pentecost Sermon
Just before His ascension in Acts 1:9 Jesus had instructed His Apostles to remain in Jerusalem until the power of the Holy Spirit came upon them.
Jesus had previously given His Apostles instructions to go into all the world, preach the Gospel, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching the new disciples to observe all the things He had taught them (Mark 16:15-16, Matthew 28:18-20.
Then in His last instructions regarding the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles, He commissioned them to begin witnessing for Him (preaching the Gospel concerning His death and resurrection) in Jerusalem; then to spread out into Judea, Samaria, and ultimately to the end of the earth (that is to the Gentiles) with the Gospel (Acts 1:8).
The scene in Acts 2 moves to the Day of Pentecost. The eleven Apostles now become 12 again (Matthias was appointed to take Judas' place). They are somewhere in Jerusalem (the exact location is not important to Luke's narrative) when the Holy Spirit fell on them and they began speaking in tongues. In spite of charismatic intentions, Luke explains in Acts 2:8 that the crowd heard the Apostles speaking in "their own native language." The Greek actually says "in their own native dialect." Jewish men gathered from far distant regions (Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Jews from Mesopotamia, from Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus,, Asia, Phrygia, and Arabia) heard the Apostles speaking to them, telling in their own tongues the mighty works of God -- presumably the death and resurrection of Jesus. It must have been an amazing and impressive scene!
Other Jews, perhaps not understanding what was being said, or because of the hardness of their hearts, accused the Apostles of being drunk. Peter responded that this was not the case, but what they were experiencing was a fulfillment of Joel 2:28, where God through Joel had prophesied that in the last days He would pour out His Spirit on all flesh. This prophesy of Joel was well known and one which many Jews looked forward to with keen anticipation, for it spoke to them of God restoring His kingdom to Israel.
Peter then continued by proclaiming that God had taken the one they had crucified, raised Him from the dead (citing Psalm 16:8-11) and made Him both Lord and Christ (v. 36). So impressive was Peter's sermon that many of these serious and spiritually minded Jews (the fact that they had come from such distant lands for the feast of Passover and Pentecost indicates their commitment to their faith) believed Peter and were "cut to their heart." They asked Peter and the remaining Apostles what they should do.
Peter responded with the text that we are examining in this study:"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" (38).
Following additional preaching Peter exhorted the group of believing Jews "Save yourselves from this crooked generation."Then "those who gladly received his word were baptized" (38-41).
Comments on the Sermon and its Results
Luke is beginning his account of how the message of Jesus spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, including Rome where his narrative closes with Paul, although apparently under house arrest, preaching the message of the kingdom of God and of Jesus' death and resurrection (Acts 28:23-31).
Luke records that Jesus had instructed the Apostles to wait in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit was poured out on them. When this happened in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost the Apostles, empowered by the Holy spirit, began to speak to the crowd in their own native dialects. Peter took advantage of the unusual circumstances of the occasion to preach the first Gospel sermon recorded in Acts or Church History. The sermon focused on Jesus' death and resurrection.
That Peter preached the first sermon of the Christian age was in keeping with Jesus' promise to him in Matthew 16:19 that he, Peter, would be given the keys of the kingdom, meaning that Peter would "open the door" to the kingdom.
Peter's message was that God had made Jesus whom the Jews had crucified both Lord and Christ.
Serious minded Jews heard Peter's message, believed it, and were "cut to their heart"! In other words, they believed that they had crucified the Messiah! They now believed in Jesus!
One would assume from some evangelical views that these Jews were now saved because they believed in Jesus! But according to Peter and Luke this was not the case! Apparently Peter did not think they were yet in a saved condition, for Luke records that Peter instructed them after they had believed to save themselves from their crooked generation! They were still lost, or else Peter was mistaken and wrong! However, we believe that Peter, speaking under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, was neither mistaken nor wrong!
Peter's first response to the believing Jews' question "Brethren what shall we do?" is interesting! The tense of the verb "do" here is an aorist subjunctive which implies "Brethren, what should we do!" One excellent commentator (Joseph Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible Commentary) has translated this "What are we to do, Brothers?"This little question indicates that they recognized that there was something they needed to do in response to their believing that they had crucified their Messiah. (For those familiar with Greek, the future tense shall is related to the aorist subjunctive should, but the aorist subjunctive is a little stronger than the future tense.)
Peter continues in response to the Jews' question, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit..."
"Repent" is an aorist imperative verb implying that something must be done! To repent means to change ones lifestyle completely in response to a change in mind. They had changed their mind and now believed in Jesus. This change of mind must lead to a changed life. (To simply change ones mind is a different word, metamelomai, from the word used by Peter here,metanoeo.) Peter intends that a complete change of life is necessary, not simply a change of mind or regret.
"Be baptized" is likewise an aorist imperative verb, but it is in the passive voice which implies that the person involved must submit to being baptized.The Greek word baptidzo means to immerse. Baptism as practiced in the New Testament was by immersion in water (see Acts 8:38-39: "And he [Phillip] commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water..."The reason the verb be baptized is in the passive voice is that the baptized person does not baptize himself/herself, but issubmitting to being baptized by someone else. Furthermore, Paul explains in Colossians 1:12 that when a person is baptized, it is God who is doing the saving work, not the individual being baptized! Some have argued that since the verb repent is in the plural and the verb be baptized is in the singular they should be separated. This is simply not the case! The reason be baptized is in thesingular is because the each one of you in the following clause demands the singular verb and not the plural verb
"And" -- The little coordinating conjunction and is important! It coordinates, that is, it ties together the two verbs on either side of it, repent and be baptized. These two verbs must be connected in regard to the result following, namely "the forgiveness of sins."(See article A Brief Study of Baptism on this site.)
"Every one of you" simply means that Peter intended every one of those believing Jews to repent and be baptized! Repentance and baptism was not only for those who thought it a good idea, but was for every one of them! Who should repent and be baptized? Every Jew that believed in Jesus as their Lord and Messiah. Repentance and baptism are not optional, but mandatory for every one!
The introduction of the expression in the name of Jesus Christ is very significant! It does not simply mean by the authority of Jesus. Although it would include that thought, it is far deeper than merely by the authority of. The Greek preposition translated in is epi. Epi has a wide range of meanings including in, upon, on, at, over. When it is used with the locative,/instrumental/ dative noun, especially in a formula type expression as is the case here in Acts 2:38, it carries with it the meaning of "in connection with, by the use of, upon, or even calling on.We find a similar case in Romans 10:12-14: "For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him. 13 For, 'every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.' 14 But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?"Here in Romans 10 Paul is making the promise that those who believe on Jesus need to call on Him or His name. Those who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved! It is obvious in Romans 10 that calling on the name of the Lord is more than merely believing in Him! In Acts 22:16, Ananias says to Saul of Tarsus (Paul) "And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name."There are some scholars (G. E. Beasley-Murray and Robert H. Stein, et al) who believe that calling on the name is associated with the confession that is made at baptism that Jesus is Lord and Messiah. We are inclined to agree with this. However, we believe that both the confessing and the being baptized are made or submitted to in connection with the death and resurrection of Jesus. "The name" is a Hebraism (Hebrew idiom) for the person with regard to whom the name refers. In the name of Jesus, or upon the name of Jesus, or in connection with the name of Jesus, has reference to the person of Jesus -- all that He is and stands for. It focuses on Jesus' death and resurrection. We believe that being baptized in the name of Jesus, or calling on the name of Jesus, has reference to His death and resurrection. We are baptized with reference to His death and resurrection. We believe in Him with reference to His death and resurrection. What this does is shift the power of salvation from our faith, repentance, confession, and baptism, and places the power of salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So when Peter tells the Jews who have believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, he is telling them to do this with reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus in which the power of their salvation lies.
Peter instructs the Jews to "repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins."The little preposition ”for” (in Greek, eis) gives the reason for the repentance and baptism. There are some evangelicals who would translate the Greek preposition eis as “because of” rather than ”for” in Acts 2:38. No major English translation does this! Every major English translation renders it as either for or unto!Technically, the Greek preposition eis when accompanied by a noun in the accusative case (as in Acts 2:38 in which the noun forgiveness is in the accusative case) simply limits or points in the direction of the action of the verb. In Acts 2:38 Peter is explaining the reason for their repenting and being baptized -- it is for the forgiveness of sins!
The forgiveness of their sins is based not simply in their faith, repentance, and baptism, but in the person of Jesus -- that is, His death and resurrection which was for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness as mentioned above is in the accusative case which limits or indicates the direction of the verbal action in the sentence. The verbal action in this case is repent and be baptized.
Peter then adds, "and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit." There are questions in the mind of some as to whether this refers to a gift the Holy Spirit gives (in which case of the Holy Spirit would be a Subjective Genitive implying that the Holy Spirit is the giver), or whether of the Holy Spirit is in fact the gift given (in which case of the Holy Spirit would be an Objective Genitive - the difficulty is that the Subjective and Objective Genitives look exactly the same!) How do we sort this one out! By solid exegetical means. We have to ask whether there are similar references in Acts to such giving involving the Holy Spirit. Acts 5:31 provides us some direction. Here Luke records Peter as saying, "And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him." This seems to indicate that it is the Holy Spirit that God gives to those who repent and are baptized in obedience to God's commands. So, in the case of Acts 2:38, to what does the gift of the Holy Spirit refer? We believe that it refers to the fact that God gives His Holy Spirit to those who repent and are baptized. But what has this to do with repenting and being baptized? Everything! In 2 Corinthians 3:6 Paul explains that "the written code kills, but the Spirit gives life."In God's scheme of redemption the Holy Spirit is the life giving principle or power. In John 3:3-5 Jesus explained to Nicodemus that unless one is born anew of water and the spirit one can neither see nor enter the kingdom of God. Some would separate the water and spirit here into two actions, referring the water to physical birth and the spirit to spiritual birth! This is simply not grammatically possible, nor is it necessary. Water refers to baptism and the spirit refers to the work of the Holy Spirit in the new birth and baptism (the early Christians, in their writings, are unanimous in this ”position”). The Holy Spirit is the life giving power of the new birth which takes place in the process of believing, repenting, and being baptized. In Titus 3:4-5 Paul repeats almost verbatim what Jesus had told Nicodemus! "But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, 6 which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior..."The words renewal and regeneration are synonyms for the new birth! God our Savior saved us not by our efforts but by His grace and mercy. This He did through the washing of renewal (our submission to baptism) and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit (the work of the Holy Spirit). Notice as well that Paul stresses that the Holy Spirit is the gift that God gives us through Jesus our Savior! In other words, there can be no salvation, no new birth, no regeneration if the Holy Spirit is not present and active. It is for this reason that Peter explains to the Jews on the day of Pentecost that in their repenting and submission to baptism the Holy Spirit is given to them by God to empower their salvation and new birth. This would not have been difficult for the Jews to understand for they had been longing for centuries for God's Spirit to be poured out on them in their redemption. Notice Joel 2:28-32: "And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. 29 Even upon the menservants and maidservants in those days, I will pour out my spirit. 30 "And I will give portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that all who call upon the name of the Lord shall be delivered; for in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls." Again, in Acts 10:44-48, when Luke recounted the conversion of the Gentiles (Cornelius and his household) he added, "While Peter was still saying this, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 "Can any one forbid water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days. " In Acts 11:15-18 Luke adds to the discussion the reflection of Peter of this conversion: "As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 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 withstand God?"In this little narrative of the conversion and baptism of Cornelius and his household we see the dynamic connection of believing, repentance, baptism, and the giving of the Holy Spirit. The circumstance is exactly parallel to the Day of Pentecost and the conversion of the Jews. There can be no forgiveness or new birth unless faith, repentance, and baptism are dynamically connected to calling on the name of Jesus (referring to his death and resurrection) and the presence and life giving activity of the Holy Spirit.
Notice Luke's record of Peter's concluding words of exhortation to the Jews gathered on the Day of Pentecost who had believed they had crucified the Lord and Messiah. Referring to Joel 2:28 which he had used at the beginning of his sermon (Acts 2:16-17) Luke adds Peter's words "For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him." 40 And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”The promise here refers to the promise of the Holy Spirit who would be poured out on all flesh referred to by Joel in 2:28, and to which Jesus had referred to in Acts 1:8. Apparently Peter did not consider these Jews saved until they had repented and been baptized, even though they obviously believed, for he adds the exhortation, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." As a result of Peter's exhortation, about 3000 Jews who received Peter's words were baptized. Why? To be saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus and the life giving power of the Holy Spirit!
Conclusion to this brief study on Acts 2:38
What does Acts 2:38 teach those who believe in Jesus and want to be saved? Every one should repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins?
This forgiveness of sins is empowered not by their faith, repentance and baptism, but by calling on the name of Jesus (believing, repenting, and being baptized with reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus), and the life giving power of the Holy Spirit.
The new birth from above takes place only by the death and resurrection of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.