Acts 2:37-39: “What Shall We Do?”

37] Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”

38] Then Peter said to the , “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.  39] For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” 

These verses record the response of the crowd to Peter’s impassioned explanation of what had happened earlier with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as well as his declaration that the One whom they had crucified was not a criminal, but was in fact their Messiah.

These verses are among some of the most well-known verses in Scripture.  But do they really teach what is so commonly said of them?

For example, I’ve heard a preacher tell his audience, “Repent, every one of you, and be baptized for the remission of sins.”  I was in a Bible study at a home and a young woman was baptized in the pool in the backyard.  When the ceremony was over, the teacher said that the young woman’s sins were at the bottom of that pool.  I’m afraid I didn’t appreciate the moment because my first thought was, “Boy, I don’t want to go into that water!”  It’s not really funny.

In the first place, this is not a general command for all audiences and all time.  Peter never repeated it in his preaching.  In fact, in his next recorded preaching, he told his audience, “Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out,” Acts 3:19.  In that lengthy record, there isn’t one reference to baptism.  And Paul one time said, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius,… For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, 1 Corinthians 1:14, 17.  This seems a strange statement if baptism is essential to salvation.

The question asked by these men is not, “What must we do (to be saved)?” but, “In regard to our guilt with regard to the crucifixion of Christ, what is to be done?”  It is a question in a specific historical context.  Messiah had been rejected by the nation, as represented by the high priest and other officials who had orchestrated His arrest and death.  Peter is saying that these men must reject the counsel of the nation and receive this One as their Lord and Christ.

As far as baptism goes, it is indeed important.  After all, it was commanded by our Lord, Matthew 28:19.  But Peter himself fixes its place regarding salvation once and for all, in Acts 10 and the account of the conversion of Cornelius the centurion.  Baptism is to be the believer’s “profession of faith,” not going forward or raising the hand or any of the many other things men have dreamed up.

Without getting into all of Acts 10, we read in v. 44, While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word.  Peter never got to “finish”.  He never got to give an altar call or an invitation.  He never got to ask if they would like to “accept Jesus,” the things we think necessary in our time.  But that they were saved was beyond doubt, for they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God, v. 46a.

Then Peter answered, “Can any forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”  vs. 46b-47 (emphasis added).

Unless we are to believe that lost people can receive the Holy Spirit, it seems to me that this verse forever puts to rest the idea that people must be baptized in order to be saved.

The other teaching that is used from these verses is found in v. 39, where Peter said, “For the promise is to you and to your children….”  Thus, we are told that just as children were included in the blessings of the Old Covenant – the Mosaic law and circumcision – so they are included in the blessing of the New Covenant – and infant baptism.

This view doesn’t recognize the differences in those two covenants.  Without going into great deal – we covered this in our series on infant baptism – the Mosaic Covenant, or the Law, was national and corporate.  The individual Israelite did indeed have a responsibility to obey Moses, but he had a “relationship” with God simply because he was a member of the nation.  Circumcision was the sign of that relationship, but had nothing whatever to do with the man’s spiritual condition.  Under the New Covenant, the relationship is individual and personal.  It has nothing to do with which “nation” you belong to, your heritage or your parents, and everything to do with your spiritual condition.  It was to one who probably had everything the Old Covenant had to offer, if we can put it like that, to whom our Lord said, “You must be born again.”

Beyond that, v. 39 itself has information about this:  “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as our Lord shall call.”  If we are to baptize our infants on the basis of this verse, then what are we to do with those who are “afar off.”  Are we to baptize them, as well?

You see the difficulty.  It seems to me from Ephesians 2:11-13, that Peter is including both Jews – “you and your children” – and Gentiles – those who are “afar off” – in the provision and possibility of “the promise.”  The early church, which was composed of Jews, had a hard time accepting the “availability” of the Gospel message.  After all, Israel had been the only nation God had chosen for Himself.  If one came to God, he had to do it through Israel.  It had been like this for centuries.  “Gentiles” were cursed and Israel had gotten into trouble more than once for being friendly with them.  It was a radical and unheard-idea for a Jew of that time that Gentiles could be blessed as “Gentiles”.

Besides, Peter himself continues with a qualification in this verse – “even as many as the Lord will call.”  In other words, those who have been saved.  They and they alone are the Scriptural and proper candidates for baptism.

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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.

Cornelius

Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is one of the most important people in the New Testament.  His conversion, along with that of his family and friends, recorded in Acts 10 and 11, was a watershed event in church history.

How so?

The early church had a really hard time accepting that Gentiles could be saved without first becoming Jews, and Peter perhaps more than most.  That’s why Peter received a special vision in Acts 10:9-16.  Three times he saw a sheet lowered from heaven, filled with all kinds of animals:  clean and unclean.  Three times he was told to rise and eat.  After all, he was “very hungry,” v. 9.  Three times, he said, “no,” that he’d never eaten an unclean animal:  no bacon, no rattlesnake, no kalimari.  Three times, he was told that what God had cleansed, he must not call unclean or common.

“What in the world?” thought Peter.

Just then, in God’s perfect timing, there was a knock at the front door, so to speak v. 17.  Three men – Gentiles – wanted to talk to Peter.  Now he understood.

Though a Roman centurion, Cornelius was what was known as a “God-fearer.”  Cf. Acts 13:16, you who fear God. These were Gentiles, like Cornelius, who had come to see the God of Israel as the true God.  They had not become “Jews” by being circumcised, but they still recognized and followed the God of Israel.

Cornelius was called a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms to the people, and prayed to God always, Acts 10:1.  For all that, he and his household still needed something.

God sent Peter to tell him of that something.

Several somethings.

1.  God acknowledged what Cornelius was doing, but it was not enough.  Lest some use these verses to say that we can be saved by our own works and doings, Peter said that there was someone else involved, vs. 34, 35.

2.  This someone else was the Lord Jesus, whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power.  He then went about doing good and healing, vs. 36-39a.

3.  In spite of all the good the Lord did, they killed Him by hanging Him on a tree, v. 39b.

4.  God raised Him from the dead, vs. 40, 41.  Jesus showed Himself to selected witnesses, among them Peter, who confirmed that He did indeed rise from the dead.  There are those who teach that He only rose “spiritually,” that His body remained dead, and is preserved somewhere, but He Himself proved His bodily resurrection by appearing to His disciples, telling them to touch Him and saying, “A spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have,” Luke 24:39.

5.  Jesus commanded His disciples to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead.  To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission [forgiveness] of sins, vs. 42, 43.

Peter never got to finish his sermon.

In thinking about current practices and teaching, it strikes me that Peter never did several things we do today.

1.  He never told Cornelius to “make his decision for Christ.”
2.  He never told Cornelius to “pray to receive the Holy Spirit.”
3.  He never told Cornelius to “repent and be baptized for the remission of sins,” (even though he had indeed said that to an earlier audience, Acts 2:38).

With regard to that last “omission,” when I was just a new believer, I worked with a lady who belonged to a group who insisted that baptism was essential to salvation.  They’re still around today – I see them on facebook quite often.  Even though I had pleased the little old ladies in my grandmother’s Sunday School class because I knew that “sanctification” means “to set apart” (though it means more than that), I really didn’t know much about the Bible.  I did know the story in Acts 10; I just didn’t know where it was.  I looked and looked and finally found it.  (Didn’t have my trusty Strong’s Concordance, then. 🙂 )  When I showed Acts 10 to this lady, she had no answer, though she wouldn’t receive what it said.

Play close attention to what the Holy Spirit wanted us to know about what He sent Peter to do:

While Peter was STILL SPEAKING these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were ASTONISHED, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out ON THE GENTILES ALSO.  For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God.  Then Peter answered, “Can anyone forbid water, that these SHOULD NOT BE BAPTIZED WHO HAVE RECEIVED THE HOLY SPIRIT JUST AS WE HAVE?” Acts 10:44-47, emphasis added

It seems to me that, unless one is willingly to believe that lost people can receive the Holy Spirit, the conversion of Cornelius and his family and friends puts to rest forever the false teaching that baptism is essential to becoming saved.

Having said that, it is essential for those who ARE saved – it’s their “profession of faith,” not walking an aisle or raising a hand.  It’s just never how you “get saved.”