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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Infant Baptism: A Study in Three Parts. Part 1: The Great Commission and Apostolic Practice.

When I was a young student at a Baptist Bible college, I came across a book entitled, “The Biblical Basis FOR Infant Baptism,” by Dwight Hervey Small.  It shook me to my very core because I couldn’t answer his reasoning.  In further study on the subject, I came across a book entitled, “Baptism Not For Infants,” by T. E. Watson, in which he showed that Reformed scholars themselves answer, or rather, contradict, the teachings of other Reformed scholars.

In looking at Small’s book now, some 50 years later, I see that it’s all marked up.  His reasoning is no longer compelling, as it once was.

Why would I get into such a divisive topic?  Why would I go against the practice of almost the entire professing Christian world?  Who cares?  Sadly, few do.  I do, because, as you may have seen in other posts, my concern isn’t, “What does a church teach?” but “What does the Scripture say?” Romans 4:3.  It isn’t about what different scholars say on the subject.  I’ve read books from authors on both sides of the question who once held the other view.  Scripture stays the same.  What was true in the apostles’ day about baptism is true in our day.  “The church” has neither the right nor the authority to do anything else but what the Scripture teaches – in those cases where it teaches.  For example, the Bible says nothing about the use of computers.  We have perfect liberty, except in those areas where God has spoken through His Word.  The problem is that most Christians apparently don’t read it – all of it.  A few verses here and there don’t usually give us the whole Biblical teaching on any subject.

I’ve divided this study into three parts because of its length. I had intended to post all three at the same time, but decided it would be better to post them a day or so apart.   These studies are as follows:
I.   The Great Commission and Apostolic Practice.
II.  Circumcision, Passover, Baptism and Communion.
III. Israel, the Church, and the Covenants.

I. The Great Commission and Apostolic Practice. 

Matthew 28:19, Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (NKJV and everywhere, unless otherwise noted).

This familiar verse is part of the Lord’s final instructions to the disciples before He ascended into Heaven.  In the Book of Acts, we see how the disciples understood His instructions about baptism, which are the only such instructions anywhere in the Bible.  Please note in the context of this study that when we use the term “Reformed,” we are referring to Protestants, who practice infant baptism.  “Reformed Baptists” would agree with us on the topic of baptism, but differ on other areas.  Nor are we talking about the Roman Catholic practice which is unScriptural as well, but has a different emphasis.

– Examples in Acts

Acts 2:41, Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.

This dramatic climax to Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost shows that those baptized “gladly received his word.”

Acts 8:12, But when they believed Philip as he preached the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, both men and women were baptized.

Here again we see “believing” preceding “baptizing.”  In the words of the first example, they “gladly received his word.”  The additional detail tells us that both men and women were baptized.

Acts 8:38, So he commanded the chariot to stand still.  And both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water, and he baptized him.

This is the familiar story of the Ethiopian eunuch, a high government official in his own country, who had come to Jerusalem to worship, v. 27.  On his way home, he was reading a copy of Isaiah, no small feat in a day when there were no printing presses or bookstores.  In the providence of God he was reading a portion we know as Isaiah 53 and so Philip had a ready made platform beginning at this Scripture to preach Jesus to him, v. 35.  This resulted in the eunuch wanting to know why he could not be baptized.  Some versions have Philip requiring a profession of faith; others leave that out.  Whichever is true, the eunuch’s faith in the Lord Jesus is implicit even if not specifically stated.  He, too, “gladly received” the word.

It’s interesting that these three instances cover the scope of instructions the Lord left with His disciples, and thus His church, in Acts 1:8 where He said, “You shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  Acts 2:41 is Jerusalem (Judea).  Acts 8:12 was in Samaria.  In Acts 8:38, the eunuch represents the ends of the earth.

Acts 18:8, Then Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord with all his household.  And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized. 

Here again are the familiar elements of “hearing,” “believing,” and being baptized.

These verses give us examples of the understanding of the early New Testament church as to “baptism.”  It was given only to those who gladly received the word, that is, they “believed.”  Both men and women were baptized.  In one case, it was considered important enough for a question as to whether the person asking it could be baptized. Nowhere is it said that children, let alone infants, were baptized.

– Yes, but….

In the very first sentence of his book, Small says, “The majority of Christian churches in the world practice baptism by sprinkling, including the children of professing believers in what is commonly called ‘covenant baptism’.” (p. 5.).  Yet Louis Berkhof, a distinguished Reformed scholar, admits in his “Manual of Christian Doctrine,” p. 319, “There is no explicit command in Scripture to baptize children; nor is there a single instance in which we are plainly told that children were baptized.”  However, he continues, “But this does not necessarily make infant baptism un-Biblical.”  This brings us to

– Household baptisms.

On p. 321, Professor Berkhof says, “Whole households were repeatedly baptized [sic], and this is represented as something perfectly normal.  It is but natural to assume that there were children in some of these households.  We know that in the second century children were baptized.”

With regard to his last sentence, it doesn’t really matter what happened in the second century.  Reformed teachers commonly refer to “the early Church fathers.”  We only comment that in going to the New Testament for our beliefs, we are simply returning to “the ‘original’ Church fathers.”  Their writings alone are authoritative.  Later writings may be interesting and even informative, but they have no authority.

Even the New Testament tells us that error began to infiltrate the churches before it was completed.  Many of the NT books were written to combat these errors, e.g., Galatians. Even Small in his book (p. 184) laments “an incredible need for reformation began in the church in the generations immediately following the apostles….  The need for reformation was present at the beginning of the second century, and the subsequent history of the church only reveals a progressive departure.”  Perhaps a large contributing factor to this decline was the introduction of unregenerate persons into the church by means of infant baptism.

With regard to the assumption “that there were children in some of these households,” we quite agree.  However, it is just as easy to “assume” that the apostles and others would have been obedient to the plain command of their Lord and baptized only those who professed faith in Christ.  Let’s look at the instances of “household” baptism in the NT.

Acts 10:44, 46, 47, While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word….  Then Peter answered, “Can any forbid water that these should not be baptized…?”  

There are several interesting things in this account – a watershed event in the NT: the first record of the salvation of a Gentile after Pentecost (Acts 10:1-11:18).  Cornelius, a Roman centurion, was a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, 10:2.  He was sent a vision from God in which he was told to send for Peter to hear words from him, v. 22.  When Peter and those who were with him got there, they discovered that Cornelius was waiting for them, and had called together his relatives and close friends, v.24.  Peter began to tell them about the Lord Jesus, vs. 34-43, and while Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word, v. 44.  Then Peter said, “Can any forbid water, that these should not be baptized…?” v. 47.

This whole thing created a furor in the church at Jerusalem and so a meeting took place to discuss it, Acts 15.  There are many things here, but we’ll look only at vs. 17, 18, where Peter concludes his account:  “If God therefore gave them [that is, those with Cornelius] the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”  When they [that is, the others at the meeting in Jerusalem] heard these things, they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” 

There is nothing here that is different from the first accounts we looked at; these, too, “gladly received” the word.

Acts 16:14, 15, Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us.  She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshipped God.  The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.  And when she and her household were baptized, she begged us, saying,”If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” 

Like Cornelius, Lydia was already “devout.”  Each Sabbath, likely, she would meet with other women who would gather to pray, not in a synagogue, but by a river.  And like Cornelius, God sent someone to her to tell her about the Lord Jesus.

There is so much here.

The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul.  Here is the ministry of the Holy Spirit, doing His work so that people understand the Word of God is the Word of God, not just another set of religious instruction that is really no different than that of any other religion.

Here is the baptism of Lydia and her household.  We’re told nothing about this household, but there’s no reason to assume that there was something different here.  No doubt, Lydia would have explained what had happened to her and why Paul and his company were with her.  We’re not told if these were only adults, or if, indeed, there were infants and children present.  Some believe that these were the servants and retinue of a businesswoman in a city not her home.  Possibly.  We just don’t know.  In any event, even if there were infants and children there, as we said before, it’s just as easy to believe that Paul would have been obedient to his Lord and baptized only those who professed faith in Christ.

In no instance in the NT is baptism separated from the prior faith of the one being baptized.  There are no instances of “second-hand” baptism, no “proxies,” based on the faith of someone else, parents or otherwise.

Acts 16:31-34, So they said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.  Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.  …And immediately he and all his family were baptized.  …and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

Here again are the common elements preceding the baptism of these folks.  “All who were in the house” heard the Word and the jailer rejoiced, “having believed in God with all his household.”  Like all the others before them, “they gladly received the word.”

Reformed scholars argue that the Greek indicates that only the jailer believed.  The verb is singular.  The ESV translates v. 34, And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.  The verb is also singular in v. 31: “believe”.  However, if all that’s indicated is that only the jailer believed and yet his whole household was baptized on that account, why are we told that Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house?

Since “household baptism” is one of the arguments for “infant” baptism, are we to believe that only infants were in this “household”?  Certainly not.  Why then, if the “household” were baptized on the faith of the jailer alone, and if the household consisted of more than infants, why then don’t the Reformed also baptize all members of a new believer’s household:  infant, child, teen or adult?  WHY ISN’T “HOUSEHOLD BAPTISM” HOUSEHOLD BAPTISM?  Why is it restricted to infants?

The truth is, we aren’t told everything that happened in this household prior to its baptism.  No doubt, the events that transpired with the jailer and his former prisoners at the house gave the opportunity we read of for Paul and Silas to witness about the saving grace of God.  Even though we’re not told directly about the household’s response to this witness, based on every other baptism in Acts, we may infer that the “household” believed along with the jailer.  As far as the mention of “his” faith, it is mainly “his” story.  As for his household rejoicing that he had believed [why would unbelievers rejoice at that?], couldn’t it simple be that they were happy he had indeed believed, and then brought the good news home to them with Paul and Silas so that they, too, “the household,” could hear and believe?

There is one more instance of “household baptism” in the NT.

1 Corinthians 1:16, Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas.  

Paul refers to these people later in the epistle:  you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and they have devoted themselves to the service of God, 16:15 (ESV).  Even in these brief verses, we can trace the NT pattern of faith before baptism.

On p. 42 of his book, Small claims that “baptism becomes a seal of the blessings which rightfully may be expected when in later years the child confirms his baptism by his act of personal faith.”  This is completely contrary to the NT, in which baptism is the confirmation of faith, not the other way around.

There is one more verse often used to support infant baptism.

– What about…? 

Acts 2:39, For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar, as many as the Lord our God will call.

In a note on this verse, the “Reformation Study Bible,” R. C. Sproul, editor, says, “Peter proclaims that salvation through God’s Messiah is promised to the Jews, their children, and to all those far off (i.e., the Gentiles, Eph. 2:11-13).”  Commenting on this verse, Small (p. 43) says, “One of the very first concerns [of new Jewish believers who were parents] would be whether or not the provisions of the covenant continued with respect to their children….  Peter first assures the Jewish believers that the promise is still in effect…the covenant promise continues to be in force for their children,” although he also says that an entirely new principle is added to the covenant in that it is extended to those who are afar off, Gentiles.

In common with his fellows, Small takes no notice of the qualifying phrase at the end of this verse: as many as the Lord our God will call.  In other words, the promise is only to those who are “called,” that is, “saved.”  Only those who are “called” are the subjects of this promise, and they alone are the only ones who should be baptized.

Next:  Circumcision, Passover, Baptism  and Communion.