This passage is often quoted by some who teach what is commonly called baptismal regeneration. Usually the teaching goes like this: to be saved you must repent (turn from your sins) and be baptized in water. When you meet these conditions (and usually a few others as well) you will receive "remission of sins."
On the surface this may seem to be a reasonable interpretation — until you begin doing some biblically guided thinking. For instance, it is most striking that nothing is said in the verse about believing in Christ, and belief in Him is the key gospel word throughout the New Testament (over 160 times). Would Peter, particularly after emphasizing the person of Christ, His death and resurrection, now tell these concerned Jews to quit sinning and be baptized in water to be saved, and not even mention the absolute need to believe in Him? Not likely, especially since his message is divinely inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Some Key Observations
If the above interpretation is correct then we have a major problem of the Bible contradicting itself because elsewhere Scripture is clear that salvation is not by man's works or merit; it is the gift of God received by faith alone in Christ. What then must we conclude? Either the Bible is contradictory or those who see baptismal regeneration in Acts 2:38 are mistaken as to its meaning. I, of course, take the latter approach. Let's examine a few things in the passage.
What had Peter been telling them? He reminded these men that they knew God had confirmed Jesus' true identity by "miracles, wonders, and signs" (v. 22); he made it plain that though God had predetermined that His Son would die as prophesied, they had "taken by lawless hands, [and had] crucified and put Him to death" (v. 23); but God had raised Him up (v. 24). Peter's powerful conclusion was: "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ [or Messiah]." (v.36). Note carefully the reaction to these now convicted Jewish men: "Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?'" (v. 37). Peter's answer to their question is the verse we are considering.
The first thing Peter tells his listeners to do is to repent. The literal meaning of the Greek words translated repent or repentance is to reconsider, to change the mind or attitude, and that is exactly what Peter is telling these distraught men to do. His preaching had convincingly demonstrated that this Jesus is both Lord and Messiah — something they had not previously known (see 1 Corinthians 2:7–8). So now he urges them to change their minds about Christ, the One whom they had a hand in crucifying. He's telling them to see Him for who He really is, their promised Messiah, the Lord Himself. The Jewish leaders as a whole had rejected Jesus as their Messiah, but now Peter is inviting these individual Jews to receive Him.
Later, the apostle Paul described the message he preached in these telling words: "I…taught you…testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 20:20–21). Repentance may involve changing one's mind concerning sin, but in salvation the change of mind that is absolutely necessary is a change of attitude toward God Himself.
As with repentance, we have read into baptism what essentially is not there. For instance, there are at least eleven* baptisms in Scripture, and water was by no means the element employed in many of these instances. The word baptize is not really a translation of the Greek word baptizo. It is a transliteration. If it had been translated consistently throughout the New Testament it would have been translated (depending upon the context in which it was used) as to dip, to immerse, to submerge, to cleanse, to wash, to make clean, to wash one's self, bathe, or to overwhelm (Thayer, and Arndt & Gingrich).
I understand the primary meaning of the phrase "be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" to mean, "be cleansed in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [pardon] of sins." Here's why I take this position.
First, a legitimate meaning of baptized is to be cleansed. Consider one example as an illustration: Mark 7:4 states:
Second, they were told to be baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ." This is not the baptismal formula given by Christ in the Great Commission. There the eleven were commanded to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19).
In Acts 2:38 the admonition is to be cleansed in Jesus' name, not in a pool of water. This is consistent with all other New Testament passages on this subject. For instance:
Third, the apostles and the multitude were in a house (Acts 2:1–2), perhaps in the Temple area. If these Jews were being told to be water baptized, where could a minimum of 3,000 new converts have been immersed? Certainly not in a house, nor in the area of the Temple (check any map of that area).
A parallel situation is seen in Acts 22. It is commonly taught that Paul was saved on the Road to Damascus, but what of his own testimony? He was told to go to Damascus where Ananias came and said, "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized [cleansed], and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (v. 16). Ananias and Paul were also in a house. Paul was to arise and be cleansed of his sins right then and there. How? By calling on the name of the Lord, not by water.
A fourth reason to question that the baptism in Acts 2:38 is water baptism: A two-fold promise was given: 1) forgiveness of sins, and 2) receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. Neither forgiveness nor the Holy Spirit is ever given on the basis of one being baptized in water. Forgiveness comes to us as Acts 10:43 says:
Paul preached the same message in Antioch when he said:
And the Holy Spirit is also received by believing in Christ:
There is no Scripture that offers forgiveness or the Holy Spirit through water baptism. God's salvation is always received through faith in Christ alone.
It is an unalterable rule to never interpret clear, literal statements of Scripture by the vague or unclear; instead always interpret the ambiguous or unclear by what is crystal clear. This is especially true when an interpretation seems contradictory to many other verses. It's not the Bible that is wrong in such instances, but one's understanding.
Baptisms in Scripture
- John's (Luke 7:29; Acts 19:3–4)
- Christ's (Matthew 3:13)
- Of fire (Matthew 3:11)
- With the Holy Spirit (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8)
- Of death (Luke 12:50)
- For the dead (1 Corinthians 15:29)
- Of water (Mark 1:8)
- Of repentance (Mark 1:4)
- Traditional Jewish (Hebrews 6:2, 9:10)
- By Moses in the cloud (1 Corinthians 10:2)
- Of household items and utensils (Mark 7:4–8)