To say that Peter’s Pentecost sermon was powerful and impacting would be an understatement. His listeners were so “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37, N.K.J.V.) that he didn’t even have to give an invitation to evoke a response from them. Instead, they voluntarily asked him and the other apostles, “What shall we do?”
The answer Peter gave has been debated for centuries and has become a cornerstone verse for more than one denomination. And what was that answer? It was: “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, N.I.V.).
Actually, he didn’t stop there. He also told them, “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off — for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:39, N.I.V.). Furthermore, he warned them with “many other words” and pleaded with them saying, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation” (Acts 2:40, N.I.V.). But it’s that part about repenting and being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins that gets all the attention. Here’s why those words are so debated:
- In John 3:16, the Bible’s most famous verse, Jesus teaches that salvation (eternal life) comes by way of belief in Him. So why didn’t Peter say, “Believe in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins”?
- Why did Peter stress the necessity of repentance?
- Why did Peter stress the necessity of water baptism?
- Why did Peter say that the water baptism should be done in the name of “Jesus Christ” when Jesus Himself had said that it should be done in the name of “the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”? (Matthew 28:19)
Now, it’s been said that the best commentary on the Bible is the Bible, and so the correct way to deal with all these questions is to interpret them through the lens of the rest of the Bible. When we do this, we find some real help. So let’s get to it.
First, there are over 100 passages in which the New Testament uses the words “believe,” “believed,” “believing,” or “believers” in regards to salvation. A handful of examples are: John 3:16; Acts 8:37; Acts 13:39; Romans 1:16-17; and Ephesians 1:13. And then there are approximately 80 New Testament passages that use the word “faith” in relation to salvation. Some examples are: Ephesians 2:8; Colossians 1:4; 2 Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 10:38; and 1 Peter 1:9. In light of all this, we are left to conclude that the New Testament uses the words “belief” and “faith” interchangeably when the subject is salvation. Four excellent proof texts for this conclusion are: Romans 1:16-17; Romans 3:22; Galatians 2:16; and 1 John 5:4-5. The upshot is that we shouldn’t trip over the plain teaching of dozens and dozens of verses just so we can make everything about Acts 2:38.
Second, Peter wasn’t the only person who tied repentance in with salvation. Both John the Baptist and Jesus did as well. (For your homework, read passages such as: Matthew 3:1-2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 13:3-5; 16:30; and 17:3-4.) Therefore, it seems that repentance and belief/faith are two sides of the same coin. Let me illustrate. Imagine that Jesus is walking west. Now imagine that a lost sinner is walking east. As Jesus approaches the lost sinner, He says to the sinner, “Follow Me.” Okay, what does the lost sinner have to do to respond to Jesus’ invitation? He has to change his direction. This, you see, is what repentance is. It is a change of direction. This means that if any lost sinner is going to get saved by believing in Jesus, that sinner is automatically going to have to show a degree of repentance (a changing of direction) in order to do that. Jesus and a lost sinner are never going in the same direction.
Third, there are multiple passages that expressly teach that baptism isn’t necessary for salvation. For example, John 4:2 says that Jesus didn’t personally baptize anyone. That’s an odd thing for the Bible to say if baptism is necessary for salvation. Likewise, in 1 Corinthians 1:13-16 the apostle Paul admits that he didn’t do much baptizing. He even says in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that Christ didn’t send him to baptize but to preach the gospel. Remember that this is the same Paul who also said, “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 1:18, N.K.J.V.). For that matter, even Peter himself didn’t mention the need for baptism in other teachings he gave on the subject of salvation (Acts 3:12-26; 5:29-32; 10:34-43; 1 Peter 1:3-12; and 2:7-10). And then there is the problem that if baptism is necessary for salvation, it means that God’s plan of salvation for the New Testament age is different than His plan for the Old Testament age, an idea the entire 4th chapter of Romans flatly refutes.
Fourth, before we take Peter’s Acts 2:38 answer ultra literally by baptizing specifically in the name of “Jesus Christ,” we’d do well to consult Acts 10:48, where he commands a group of Gentile believers to be baptized in the name of “the Lord” (N.K.J.V., K.J.V.). We also might want to read Acts 19:5, where we’re told that Paul baptized a group of Ephesian believers in the name of the “Lord Jesus.” Do you see what I mean? The New Testament doesn’t provide any consistency in regards to the precise words that should be said during a baptism. This shows us that there are no magic words that have to be spoken verbatim to make a baptism legitimate.
And so all of this circles us back around to the fundamental question: Why did Peter say, “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”? Well, that’s a legitimate question, one that has a legitimate answer, an answer that I’ll provide in my next post. So, until then, I’ll ask you one more time to stay tuned….