Does Acts 2:38 Teach That Baptism Is Necessary for Salvation?

Some people say that Acts 2:38 teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation. Here are several reasons for why Acts 2:38 is not teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Baptism
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The argument

Some people argue that Acts 2:38 teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation.

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. (Acts 2:38)

First, we need to clarify the debate

A better question

The question, "Is baptism necessary for salvation?", is misleading. We believe that baptism is "necessary" for salvation in that baptism is commanded by God, and thus one who refuses baptism demonstrates a lack of true saving faith. A better question to use for framing this debate is, "At what point is a person saved: upon having faith, or upon being baptized?"

The key issue

The key issue is not these individual passages, but rather, answering the question, "Does the Bible teach that salvation is through faith alone?" If the answer to that question is "Yes," then the question is, "What exactly does it mean to be saved through faith alone?"

The value in debating these individual passages is simply to demonstrate that they do not contradict the doctrine of salvation through faith alone. However, we do not build our theology of salvation upon these individual passages. They are peripheral to the key issue, which is the doctrine of salvation through faith alone.

Responding to Acts 2:38

"for" can mean several things

The key to Acts 2:38 is understanding exactly what the Greek word translated, "for," really means in the context of this passage.

Those who say that baptism is necessary for baptism assert that it means, "in order to get." However, in both the Greek and English language, "for" can mean several things, so there are other interpretations of this passage that do not result in the conclusion that baptism is necessary for salvation. Here are two definitions for the word "for" from Merriam-Webster:

  1. used as a function word to indicate an intended goal ("be baptized for the goal of the forgiveness of your sins")
  2. because of ("be baptized because you have been forgiven of your sins")

What does "for" mean in this passage?

To determine what the word "for" means in Acts 2:38, we need to look back to the original language. The word translated "for" in Acts 2:38 is εἰς (eis). εἰς is used 1,774 times in the New Testament, and it is translated several different ways.

So, how do we determine what εἰς means in Acts 2:38? Well, there are several similar passages in the Bible where it is clear that εἰς means "because of":

  1. Matthew 12:41 - "The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at (εἰς) the preaching of Jonah..."

    In Matthew 12:41, the Greek word εἰς is translated, "at," and it is clear here that the people of Ninevah repented because of, or as a result of, the preaching of Jonah.

  2. Matthew 3:11 - "I baptize you with water for (εἰς) repentance"

    Here, it is clear that people are baptized with water because they repented, not in order to get repentance.

  3. Romans 6:3 - "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into (εἰς) his death?"

    Again, it is clear here that people are being baptized because of Jesus' death, not in order to receive his death, which would not make any sense.

  4. 1 Corinthians 10:2 - "and all were baptized into (εἰς) Moses in the cloud and in the sea"

    In this passage, it is clear that the Israelites were baptized because Moses was their leader and had led them out of Egypt, not in order to get Moses to be their leader.

The last three passages above are the only other passages, besides Acts 2:38, where the Greek word εἰς is used in conjunction with "baptism." There are additional passages we could reference in which εἰς clearly means "because of," and not "in order to get."

To summarize, although it is possible that the word "for" in Acts 2:38 could mean "in order go get" (from a translation standpoint), due to the passages we mentioned above, it is far more likely that the word "for" actually means "because of" in this passage.

Plural and singular pronouns

There is something else about Acts 2:38 that supports the position that the passages does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. In this passage, there are two different kinds of verbs and pronouns: 1) second person plural, and 2) third person singular.

Repent (second person plural) and be baptized (third person singular) every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your (second person plural) sins (Acts 2:38)

Notice that "repent" and "the forgiveness of your sins" are in the second person plural, and "be baptized" is in the third person singular. This suggests that "repenting" and "the forgiveness of your sins" are directly connected in this passage, while "be baptized" is an act that is separate from those two things.

In other words, we can paraphrase Acts 2:38 this way: "You all repent for the forgiveness of all of your sins, and let each one of your be baptized."

The Negative Inference Fallacy

Another problem with the argument that Acts 2:38 teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation is the Negative Inference Fallacy, which says that just because a statement is true, that does not mean all opposites of that statement are true.

For example, if I say, "Eat an apple to be healthy," that does not mean that if a person does not eat an apple he will not be healthy.

Likewise, Acts 2:38 says that a person who is baptized has received the forgiveness of sins. However, this does not necessarily mean that a person who has not been baptized has not received the forgiveness of sins.

To put this concept in a different way, there is a difference between the fruit of salvation and the cause of salvation. Baptism and good works are the fruit of salvation and are "necessary" in the sense that a person who is truly saved will desire these things. However, the cause of salvation is faith, which means that a person is saved before baptism and obedience to God occur. So, a person who is not yet baptized or has not yet begun obeying God with good works can still be saved.

Later in Acts: Cornelius

Another argument that Acts 2:38 does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation is what we read later in the book of Acts itself. In Acts 10:43, Peter says this:

To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.

Here, Peter tells Cornelius that "everyone who believes" in Jesus "receives forgiveness of sins through his name." He does not mention baptism being required in order to receive forgiveness of sins.

After Peter says this to Cornelius, Acts 10:44 says this:

While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word.

Then, after this, the Cornelius and the Gentiles are baptized:

Then Peter declared, "Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (Acts 10:46-47)

So, the order of events is this:

  1. First, Cornelius and the Gentiles believe, receive forgiveness of sins, and the Holy Spirit falls on them.
  2. Then, after all of these things happen, Peter recognizes that since they have received the forgiveness of their sins, they should be baptized.

Conclusion

For all of the reasons above, it is clear that Acts 2:38 does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.

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