Does Water Baptism Save?


A Biblical Refutation of Baptismal Regeneration


8.    Passages That Seem to Teach that Water Baptism Saves (continued)

Acts 2:38


“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” (Acts 2:38).

This passage has become one of the favorite verses of those who teach baptismal regeneration. In a motel room there was a Gideon Bible and near the front it had a section with John 3:16 written out in many different languages. In this particular Bible someone had crossed out all of the John 3:16 verses and in big letters had written ACTS 2:38. The person who had defaced this Bible was communicating something like this: “You are deceived if you think that John 3:16 presents the true gospel. It doesn’t present the true gospel at all. It’s not enough to believe in Christ. To be saved and to be forgiven a person also needs to be baptized in water. The true gospel is much better presented in ACTS 2:38!”

When it comes to having sins forgiven, what must a person do? The Bible teaches that it is faith and repentance that brings about forgiveness. Repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have true repentance without having true faith. You can’t have true faith without having true repentance. They go together. The Bible sometimes mentions repentance as the only condition of salvation. One example of this would be Luke 13:3, “I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” See also Luke 15:7,10 and Acts 17:30. A few times both repentance and faith are mentioned in the same verse (Mark 1:15; Acts 20:21). There are many, many verses which mention only faith as the condition of salvation (John 1:12; 3:16; 5:24; Acts 16:31; etc.). When only repentance is mentioned, faith is implied or assumed. When only faith is mentioned, repentance is implied or assumed. Where you have one you must have the other.

What is repentance? The word means “a change of mind.” It means to change your mind about sin, self and the Saviour. It especially has to do with one’s recognition of his true condition before God. One Biblical definition of repentance is found in Job 42:4. Job said, “Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” According to this verse, to repent is to abhor oneself, to discover how vile we are (see Job 40:4), to discover our utter wretchedness and sinfulness. No one can be saved unless he changes his mind about sin and self and recognizes how sinful he really is in God’s sight.

Harry Ironside explained repentance as follows: ““Repentance is just the sick man’s acknowledgment of his illness. It is simply the sinner recognizing his guilt and confessing his need of deliverance....(repentance) is judging oneself in the presence of God; turning right about-face, turning to God with a sincere, earnest desire to be completely delivered from sin. And when a man takes that attitude toward God and puts his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, he finds salvation” (Luke, pp. 253-254).

In another place Ironside said, “Literally [repentance] means ‘a change of mind.’ It actually implies a complete reversal of one’s inward attitude. To repent is to change one’s attitude toward self, toward sin, toward God, toward Christ....So to face these tremendous facts is to change one’s mind completely, so that the pleasure lover sees and confesses the folly of his empty life; the self-indulgent learns to hate the passions that express the corruption of his nature; the self-righteous sees himself a condemned sinner in the eyes of a holy God; the man who has been hiding from God seeks to find a hiding place in Him; the Christ-rejector realizes and owns his need of a Redeemer, and so believes unto life and salvation” (Except Ye Repent, pages 15-16).

True faith requires repentance because to be saved a person must recognize his lost estate and see himself as lost and helpless and vile and wicked and utterly sinful. True repentance requires faith because the man who repents believes what God has said about his true condition (Romans 3:10-23) and he also believes that God has provided a perfect solution in the person of His Son, God’s only Saviour.

Now let us return to our discussion of Acts 2:38. We have already seen that faith (which would include repentance), not baptism, is essential for the forgiveness of sins. This is clearly seen in Peter’s very next sermon, found in Acts 3:19—“Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out.” Notice that in this verse Peter says nothing about water baptism. If water baptism is essential for the forgiveness of sins, why did Peter say nothing about this in Acts 3:19? If water baptism is essential for forgiveness of sins, why did Peter say nothing about this in Acts 10:43 (“To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission (forgiveness) of sins”). If water baptism is an essential part of the preaching of salvation, then why does Luke 24:46-47 mention repentance and the remission (forgiveness) of sins but say nothing about water baptism? Even in the days of John the Baptist, it was repentance that was for the remission of sins, not water baptism (see Mark 1:4).  John's baptism was an outward demonstration to show publicly that repentance had already taken place.

Forgiveness is received at the point of repentance/faith, not at the point of water baptism. Those who are not forgiven should not be baptized. They are yet in their sins. One simple parenthesis helps us to understand what Acts 2:38 is really saying, “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.”


The real question centers on the meaning of the preposition eis (translated "for" in the KJV).  It is possible to show examples where eis can mean "because of" (Matthew 12:41--"at") or "on the basis of" or "with reference to," and all of these are certainly grammatically possible.  However, it seems more natural and more probable that in Acts 2:38 this preposition indicates purpose or result.  Peter was preaching to unsaved Jews who were guilty of crucifying Christ.  They desperately needed the forgiveness of sins (as we all do).  Peter was telling them what they must do in order to have forgiveness (see Acts 2:37---"What shall we do?").


The translations seem to support this meaning.  The KJV, NASB, Amplified, NEB, RSV all give the rendering "for."  The Revised Version has "unto."  The NIV has "so that your sins will be forgiven" (although in later editions this was changed to "for").  You can see how a person believing in baptismal regeneration could easily use all of these translations to support his view.


The lexicons seem to support this meaning.  Arndt & Gingrich say that the preposition here denotes purpose ("in order to") and they render the phrase:  "for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven."  Thayer has a similar rendering "to obtain the forgiveness of sins" (his discussion under baptizo).  Thus those who believe that a man is saved by water baptism would gladly appeal to these authorities.


Acts 3:19 seems to support this meaning.  This is the very next sermon that Peter gives, and again he tells the Jews what they must do to have forgiveness.  We would expect that what Peter told the Jews in Acts 3 would be similar to what he told them in Acts 2.  In both cases he was preaching to unsaved Jews under similar circumstances.  In Acts 3:19 once again the preposition eis is used, and the KJV translates it "so that your sins might be blotted out."    Of course, those who teach baptismal regeneration do not make much of this verse because water baptism is not even mentioned.


The grammarians also concede that the preposition may be translated "for the purpose of' or "in order that" (see Dana & Mantey, p. 104).  Those such as A.T.Robinson and Julius Mantey who render it “because of” or “on the basis of” do so primarily on the basis of theology, not grammar.  They suggest a rare usage for the term in order to make the verse not teach baptismal regeneration.  But are we really forced to depart from what seems to be the more natural and more common rendering?


Most commentators, regardless of the view they hold, understand the prepositional phrase ("for the remission of sins") as belonging with the verb "be baptized."    It is possible, however, that the phrase is actually part of a chiasmus (inverted parallelism) and should be connected not with the command "Be baptized" but with the command "Repent."  The verse contains two commands and two prepositional phrases which can be represented by the following chiasmus:


                A         Repent

                            B        Be Baptized

                            B        In the  Name of Jesus Christ

                A          For the remission of sins


In English we would best represent this structure by using a parenthesis:  "Repent (and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ) for the remission of sins."  This is exactly what Acts 3:19 teaches (only Peter there omits the parenthesis).  In Acts 3:19 Peter could have said, "Repent (and be baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ) so that your sins may be blotted out!"


Indeed, the Bible consistently connects "repentance" with "the forgiveness of sins" (see Luke 24:47 where Peter received his commission; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; Acts 5:31).  On the day of Pentecost the Jews would have understood this because the only baptism that they knew about was the baptism of John which was a baptism of repentance UNTO (eis) the remission of sins.


The strengths of the view which sees "for the remission of sins" as part of a chiasmus are as follows:  1) it is theologically sound and avoids the error of making water baptism a condition for forgiveness;  2) it harmonizes with the other passages which speak about repentance and the forgiveness of sins;  3) it understands the preposition eis in its most natural meaning (though other meanings are possible);  4) it agrees with the parallel passage of Acts 3:19;  5) it best suits the context of Acts 2:38 where Peter is offering forgiveness to Christ-rejecting Jews.  Peter was not speaking  "with reference to" or "because of" or "on the basis of" a forgiveness which they did not yet have!  6) it employs a figure of speech (chiasmus) that was not uncommon or unusual to the Semitic mind, though in English it may seem somewhat awkward.   For a detailed study of Chiasmus, see our study entitled Englishman's Greek.


Stanley D. Toussaint (The Book of Acts in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, p. 359) gives several reasons why the parenthetical view is the correct view:


Several factors support this interpretation:  (a) The verb makes a distinction between singular and plural verbs and nouns. The verb "repent" is plural ["repent ye"] and so is the pronoun "your" in the clause, "so that your sins may be forgiven" (lit., "unto the remission of your sins," (eis aphesin ton hamartion humon). Therefore the verb "repent" must go with the purpose of forgiveness of sins. On the other hand the imperative "be baptized" is singular, setting it off from the rest of the sentence.  (b) This concept fits with Peter's proclamation in Acts 10:43 in which the same expression "sins may be forgiven" (aphesis harmartion) occurs.  There it is granted on the basis of faith alone.  (c) In Luke 24:47 and Acts 5:31 the same writer, Luke, indicates that repentance results in remission of sins.



Does Water Baptism Save?

A Biblical Refutation of Baptismal Regeneration

  Go to Next Chapter
Return to Main Index


The Middletown Bible Church
349 East Street
Middletown, CT 06457
(860) 346-0907
More articles under Salvation


Doctrinal Studies


Home Page