Someone asked me if I could address the relationship between salvation and baptism in Scripture, because they have a friend who believes that you cannot be saved unless you are baptized. In this person’s view (and they are part of a denomination that believes this), the physical act of baptism washes you from your sin. They cite Acts 2:38: “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.”
For years I taught biblical interpretation at a Bible college. One of the things we discussed is that Scripture must always be compared with other Scripture. God doesn’t contradict Himself. The Bible is its own best interpreter. If a particular text, in this case Acts 2:38, seems to violate what many other texts teach, we need to question our interpretation of that text.
The many biblical texts insisting that we are not saved by works, but by faith, should lead us to seriously question an interpretation that says being baptized—or any other work we can do—is part of what saves us. Acts 10:44-48 is a key text because it’s so clear that these people were saved first, had already received the Holy Spirit, and only THEN were baptized.
First Corinthians 1:14-17 ends with “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel…” This clearly demonstrates that baptism is not necessary to salvation, because if it were, Paul would not separate it from the gospel message.
Acts 2:38 makes it clear that baptism is important, and it certainly is. But other passages show repentance involves placing saving faith in Christ. Granted, if Acts 2:38 stood alone, without taking other verses into consideration, you could conclude baptism is necessary for salvation. But there are many texts that call on people to repent and believe in Christ that make no mention at all of baptism.
Baptism is something we do, or choose to have done to us, and is therefore a work. Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:4-7, and Romans 5:1 are just a few of the verses that demonstrate salvation is by faith alone, not by works. Think of the thief on the cross who placed his faith in Christ and was promised by Jesus he’d go to Heaven. Obviously baptism wasn’t necessary, or even possible, for him.
As circumcision was a sign of the Old Covenant, baptism is a sign of the New Covenant. God makes clear that circumcision doesn’t save. Circumcised people can be lost; uncircumcised people can be saved. God says there is an inner circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit (Colossians 2:11-12; Romans 2:29). Likewise there is an invisible baptism of the heart into Christ that happens at conversion. Water baptism is an outward symbol of the inward reality that preceded it. The relevant point related to baptism and circumcision is that salvation is always a matter of the heart, not an external action.
If I had a friend who believed baptism is necessary for salvation, and is deeply ingrained in a denomination that believes this, I would gently challenge them to look at what Scripture actually says—ALL of Scripture, not just a few isolated verses.
While there are many things out there on this subject, here are the best three online resources I could find in terms of clarity and helpfulness:
First, if you share only one resource with a friend, I would go with this first one. It has a clear and accurate handling of the Greek language used in Acts 2:38: Does Acts 2:38 teach that baptism is necessary for salvation?
One of the main points, which I know from studying New Testament Greek, is that the Greek preposition EIS does not always mean “for/resulting in/to get” but often means “because of/as a result of.” Hence Acts 2:38 can be translated, as the Amplified Bible renders it, “Repent [change your old way of thinking, turn from your sinful ways, accept and follow Jesus as the Messiah] and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ BECAUSE OF the forgiveness of your sins…”
Second, this next article is good, but I would skip his handling of the Greek text at the beginning because he gets technical and confusing. But after that, it gets very good: Baptism and Acts 2:38
Third, this 10-minute video is helpful, though it would be better without using the King James Version which most people don’t use these days. Still, he makes some excellent points: Acts 2:38: Baptism for salvation? No!
Finally, here’s a blog I wrote on the meaning and importance of baptism. It was part a devotional series and includes a video of NFL linebacker Demario Davis talking about baptism.