What does Acts 2:38 mean?
Acts 2:38 states, "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."
This verse is used by many groups as an important proof text for their doctrine. It is therefore important to look at the context and meaning of this verse. Peter is speaking on the day of Pentecost ten days after Jesus had ascended up into heaven. He is speaking to a group of Jews who have come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Jewish feast of weeks--also called Pentecost. At the time Peter preaches this message, he still does not think that a Gentile can get saved without first becoming a Jew (see Acts 10). He is also looking for the kingdom to be restored to the Jewish people at any moment (Acts 1:6; 3:19-21). He does not understand the grace age doctrine that will be established within the next few years. His purpose is to bring the Jewish people to know their Messiah so that He will return and establish the kingdom for Israel.
When these Jews hear the message of what Christ has done and suffered and how He is risen from the dead and sitting on the right hand of God until His enemies are His footstool (Acts 2:32-36) and how they are responsible for crucifying Him (v.36), they are pricked in their hearts and cry out, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (v.37). In other words, they want to know what they can do about their part and guilt in rejecting the Messiah. Peter answers them with a three-step program:
- Be baptized (a) In the name of Jesus Christ, (b) For the remission of sins
- You shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost - The first two steps match the requirements of the baptism of John, which was later practiced by Jesus and His disciples. It is called "the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins" (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). That is, they were to repent of their sins. Then, they were to be baptized as an act of repentance so that they could have their sins remitted. Consider the following points about the baptism of repentance:
- It was preceded by repentance (Matthew 3:7-11)
- It was accompanied by confession (Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5)
- It was followed by remission (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3)
- It was to lead to faith in Christ (Matthew 3:11; Acts 19:3-5)
- It's order was changed when God turned to the Gentiles (Acts 10:44-48; Acts 16:30-33)
The first three points are fairly simple. Let us consider the last two. The baptism of repentance was given to the Jewish people for the purpose of turning them back to God and preparing them to accept their Messiah. It was a Jewish baptism given to lead the Jews to Jesus. John always pointed people to the One who would come after him (Matthew 3:11; John 1:26-27).
When John the Baptist was born, his father Zecharias gave a wonderful prophecy concerning him which says in part, "And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins" (Luke 1:76-77). Notice, the knowledge of salvation comes by the remission of sins. That is, when their sins were remitted, they were ready to learn about the true gift of salvation. The baptism did not save them. It only made them ready to be saved. As Jews, they had already broken the original covenant of life that God had made with them (the law). They had to receive remission for this disobedience before they were ready to understand the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ.
This purpose for the baptism of repentance is seen in another Bible record. In Acts 19, Paul met certain disciples who claimed to have been baptized with John's baptism. In other words, they had been baptized with the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. Paul then told them the true purpose of John' s baptism--"Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus" (Acts 19:4). In other words, the purpose of John's baptism was that it might lead the people (a reference to the Jews) to believe on Jesus Christ.
Over a period of time, the purpose of baptism changed. It ceased to be an act of repentance that prepared souls to believe in Jesus Christ and became an act of obedience that pictured what Christ did in a believer at the point of salvation. We can see this change of order in the record of the book of Acts. In chapter 2, when the message is still being given only to the Jews, they were commanded to be baptized in order to receive the Holy Ghost. However, when God had Peter go to the Gentiles in Acts 10, He changed the order for all time. Peter was still preaching Christ to Cornelius and his household when they believed and automatically received the gift of the Holy Ghost. Peter and the Jews who came with him did not know what to do. The Gentiles had not followed the Jewish order. They had believed and received the Holy Ghost before they were baptized. So, they had to baptize them after the fact (see Acts 10:44-48).
From this time on, this becomes the pattern for coming to the Lord. When the Philippian jailer asked what he must do to be saved, he is not told to be baptized initially. Rather, Paul and Silas say, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house" (Acts 16:31). He believed and was saved. Then, afterwards, he was taken to be baptized. His baptism had nothing to do with his salvation.
As the Jewish apostles and leaders began to deal with the influx of Gentiles as believers in Christ, they had to deal with this issue. Was baptism a preliminary to salvation or was it a picture of a salvation that had already occurred? They came together with Paul and Barnabas in Jerusalem to discuss the issue as recorded in Acts 15. Peter gives the final conclusion to the matter when he states, "But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they" (Acts 15:11). That is, all men come to the Lord in the same way now and the pattern they use is the Gentile pattern that works through grace. You see, Peter is a Jew. When he spoke of how "we" get saved, he is referring to the Jews. When he spoke of the Jews getting saved "even as they," this means that the pattern of salvation for all men is the way the Gentiles got saved. That is, they believed, got saved, received the Holy Ghost, and then followed the Lord in baptism.
Those who follow Acts 2:38 as a plan of salvation for today are ignoring the plan teaching found in the remainder of the book of Acts. They are also going against the teaching of Peter in Acts 15:11. We do not come to God as those Jews did. We are not in the same situation as they were.