We’re working through a study of water baptism. In Part 1 and Part 2 we saw that water baptism in the New Testament was used as a public expression to identify a person as a believer in Jesus Christ. The early Christians baptized people by immersing them in cold, flowing water (like a river or stream). Not until the 2nd century do we find anything suggesting a non-immersion method, like pouring, and that was only when they could not find enough water for immersion. The best and natural method for water baptism is full-body immersion.
In Part 3 we began to explore the passages that people use to prove that water baptism is actually necessary for salvation or at least the means by which a person can be saved. What we found was just the opposite. Water baptism always followed belief in Jesus Christ – never before and never in place of.
But there are three passages that tend to stump people more than others, so we should focus on them in Part 4 (in sub-parts so it doesn’t get too long).
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one 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
If we try to understand the Bible literally, which we normally do, this seems to say, “Repent…and be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins…” Sounds pretty straightforward to me.
But, as I taught on Sunday, we also must take into account the historical nature of the Bible text, especially when the account has to do with a specific event. In this case, we have a Jew talking to Jews.
In the Jewish mind set, repentance and baptism went hand-in-hand; that is, the spiritual event and physical expression were closely connected. Baptism was such a natural assumption as the next step after repentance that they often happened at the same time.
John the Baptizer was a perfect example of this. We’re told that he preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). That does not mean that he preached that baptism did forgive sins. In fact, Matthew tells us quite the opposite: “He was baptizing them in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins” (Matthew 3:6).
We still see this happen today. There are many churches that baptize people immediately following the worship service where they accept Christ. Do they believe that if the people leave without being baptized, their salvation is in jeopardy? Some, maybe, but not most. They just want the church to be able to celebrate that person’s salvation with him or her.
Peter’s message was not that water baptism forgave sins, but that if a person was not willing to identify with Christ through water baptism, their “repentance” was questionable. You can’t say that you will follow Christ as your God and Lord, yet not be willing to actually follow in public. Water baptism is the first major step in a person’s following Christ after salvation.
Peter’s theology (as seen in his other messages) and the theology of the book of Acts both point to baptism as a follow-up to repentance and salvation, not the other way around. Water baptism as a means of salvation does not fit with Peter’s theology or practice throughout the Scriptures, and this passage does not support that teaching.