Cornelius Revisited, or, Must We Be Baptized to be Saved?

A few weeks ago, I did a post on Cornelius, the Roman centurion in Acts 10.  I told of the lady I’d worked with who believed that baptism was necessary for salvation, and who had no answer for Acts 10.  I mentioned that in all the time since then, no one who believes as she did has ever had an answer to that chapter of the Bible.

That is no longer true.  Now someone has, or so they believe.

For a while, I belonged to a Bible study group on facebook.  The subject of baptismal salvation came up and someone attempted to answer the idea that Acts 10 forever rejects the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation.  This person had several remarks.  I’ve seen him in other groups, as well, saying the same things.

First, he seems to think that Cornelius and his people speaking in tongues was no different than Balaam’s donkey talking to Balaam.  He believes that the speaking in tongues was simply God’s way of showing Peter that it was ok to preach the Gospel to Cornelius.  As for the first thing, I really don’t know how to answer such a preposterous idea, except to say that it is preposterous.  To compare Balaam’s donkey’s temporary ability to speak with the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in a fair-sized group of people is beyond preposterous.  It seems to me perilously close to blaspheming the Spirit.  As for the second idea, the vision given to Peter in the earlier part of the chapter was God’s telling him it was ok to go to Cornelius’ house.  Otherwise, Peter would never have gone to the house of a Gentile.  As it was, he had some difficulty interacting with Gentile believers even after this, Galatians 2:11, 12.

Peter certainly thought that Cornelius and his associates were saved.  In Acts 10:47, he asked, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”   He didn’t ask that these be baptized in order to be saved.  They were already saved, as proved by the presence of the Holy Spirit – unless we are to conclude that the Holy Spirit can be received by lost people, or if we are to demean and dismiss their experience as nothing more than what happened to Balaam and his donkey.

There are two or three other verses that this gentlemen and those who believe like him use.

Perhaps the most familiar is Acts 2:38 (NKJV), where this same Peter had earlier urged a Jewish audience to, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

“See,” they say, “‘Be baptized for the remission of sins.’  You have to be baptized in order to be saved.”

The main difficulty with that is that you cannot take a specific command to a specific group of people and turn it into a general command for everyone.  Peter was speaking to a specific group of people, many of whom had seen the crucifixion of Jesus with its attendant unusual occurrences.  He charged them with being guilty of the murder of Jesus.

They became convicted of their guilt and asked, “What shall WE do?” (emphasis added.)  Since they had rejected and crucified their Messiah, they were concerned with what could be done for them to obtain forgiveness.  Could they even obtain forgiveness??  They weren’t asking a general question about salvation, but a specific question about theirs.

Peter’s answer?

“Repent, and let EVERY ONE OF YOU be baptized….”  (emphasis added).  In spite of what some claim, this is not a general command.  He never said it again, and certainly not to Cornelius, whose salvation, and that of his household and friends, forever denies the idea that baptism is necessary for salvation.

In the case of Peter’s audience in Acts 2, they were to be baptized in order to identify with Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.  He had been officially rejected by the leaders of the nation, who had demanded His crucifixion.  These to whom Peter was speaking were, in effect, to reject the leaders of their nation and receive this One whom the leaders had rejected.  Baptism was the sign that they had done so.

The verse itself tells us that baptism isn’t necessary for salvation.  The word translated “for” – “eis” – is a very common preposition, occurring more than 1700 times in the New Testament.  It has a variety of meanings, only one of which is “for the purpose of.”  This is the meaning that would be required if Peter were telling his audience to be baptized “for the purpose of” receiving, or “in order to” receive, remission or forgiveness of sins.

However, the word also means, “because of.”  For example, it is used like this in Romans 4:20 (NKJV) in speaking of Abraham, he did not waver at the promise of God through [“eis” – “because of”] unbelief….  

This is the meaning of “eis” in Acts 2:38.  Peter was requiring his audience to be baptized in order to show that they had repented of their rejection of Christ, had turned to Him and had therefore received the forgiveness of sins.

This is verified in an earlier occurrence of baptism, in fact, the first in the New Testament record.  Matthew 3 is Matthew’s account of the ministry of John the Baptist.  Multitudes came to John, and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins, v. 6.

Included in the crowds coming to John were many of the Pharisees and Sadducces, v. 7.  Seeing them, he said to them, “Brood of vipers!”  Who has warned you to flee from the wrath to come?  Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance…,” v. 8.

 John required repentance before baptism.  So did Peter.

To say that it is baptism that brings forgiveness of sins and not repentance and faith is to deny the entire teaching of the New Testament that we are saved by grace through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  To require baptism for salvation is really to say that we are saved by faith in baptism, not in the Lord Jesus.

To require baptism for salvation is to be lost.

There are other verses that are used in this erroneous teaching.

One of them is in Acts 22, where Paul is describing his conversion to the Sanhedrin.   In v. 16, he quotes Ananias as telling him, “Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord Jesus.”

“See,” say the proponents of baptismal salvation.  “Wash away your sins by being baptized.”

I attended some Bible studies by an elder of the Boston Church of Christ.  One evening, he baptized a young lady in the swimming pool of the house where we met.  There’s nothing wrong with using a swimming pool for baptism.  But after the young lady came up out of the water, the elder said something to the effect that her sins were now at the bottom of that pool.  I’ve referred to this elsewhere, also my reaction that I certainly didn’t want to go into THAT water!

We can say the same thing about Acts 22 that we did about Acts 2.  It’s a specific situation, not a general teaching.  Paul’s own teaching on this is instructive.  Writing to the Corinthian church and discussing reasons for the divisions in it, one of which seems to have been about who was baptized by whom, Paul wrote, I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 1 Corinthians 1:14, though he did add the household of Stephanas in v. 16.  He concluded in v. 17, for Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel,…lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.

“Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel….”

For those who believe in baptismal salvation, to preach the gospel is to baptize!

The Gospel isn’t about baptism; it’s about blood.  It’s about the Cross of Christ, on which He paid the penalty for sin and secured the salvation of all for whom He died, of all who believe on Him for salvation.

Another verse these folks really like is 1 Peter 3:20, where Noah and his family were saved by water (KJV).  The above-mentioned gentleman has used this in a couple of places I’ve seen.

Both times I’ve pointed out, apparently to no avail, that one should really read the whole verse, not just three words taken out of context.  The verse actually says, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls, were saved by water.  The NKJV translates it, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, IN WHICH a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water (emphasis added).  Peter is clear that THE ARK was the means of deliverance, not the Flood.  In fact, those in the water perished.  Those in the Ark – before the Flood came – were spared.  Those in the Ark didn’t get there by swimming to it and somehow getting into its closed interior after the Flood came.

In his second epistle, Peter wrote that the flood was to destroy the world of the ungodly, 2 Peter 2:5.  It had nothing to do with the salvation of Noah and his family mentioned in that same verse, except perhaps that they were saved from it by the Ark.  The Flood itself, the water, was not how they were saved.

Baptism isn’t how folks are saved, either.

In fact, requiring baptism for forgiveness of sins is to add sin, not get rid of it.  It’s sin because it denies the sufficiency of the life and death of the Lord Jesus to save sinners.  Saying that baptism is necessary for salvation is to add something to repentance and faith in the Lord.  It’s saying that we have to do something to be saved besides believe, that faith in what the Lord did isn’t enough.

This teaching is so pervasive, it’s unbelievable.  I watched a movie on Netflix about a lady who had to leave a career elsewhere and go back home because her father died.  It wasn’t even really what you could call a “religious” movie.  The gist of the movie is that the lady found out that’s where she belonged, though she did turn out to be wildly successful in her former life, as well.  The thing is, at the end of the movie, leading into the credits, this lady sang a song about going back home.  The first verse was really good, but the second verse mentioned “being baptized in the creek to wash away our sins.”

Friends, you can be baptized in a creek, in a baptistry, in a swimming pool, or in the Jordan River itself every day for a hundred years and never wash away a single sin.  In fact, you’re just adding to your sins.

Though baptism does have a place in the Christian life, it isn’t the obtaining of that life.