There is, however, a third possible interpretation of Acts 2:38. In the end, it makes the most sense to simply take Peter’s words at face value: If the Jews at Pentecost were to be forgiven and receive the promised Holy Spirit, they must repent of their sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus.
In this way, the prepositional phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” modifies both the command to “repent” and the command to “be baptized,” and the preposition “for” (eis) indicates the purpose (or result) of repenting and being baptized in water. This view fits perfectly with the basic flow of Acts 2:14–38—Peter preaches the gospel to the Jews (vv. 14–36); the Jews ask how they must respond to the gospel (v. 37); Peter says they must repent and be baptized (v. 38a); and Peter says that if they do, they will be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit (v. 38b).
This, however, brings us back to the original question: In light of the clear biblical teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, why would Peter present baptism as a necessary response to the gospel?
The key is to understand this: To be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ was to publicly declare one’s allegiance to Christ and one’s desire to follow Him as a disciple. For this reason, when Peter exhorted the Jews to be baptized, he was commanding them to express their allegiance to Christ, an allegiance that was indeed a necessary response to the gospel. In this way, the command to be baptized incorporated both the physical act of water baptism and the commitment to Christ it symbolized. At the same time, as James Dunn writes:
It is false to say that water-baptism conveys, confers or effects the forgiveness of sins. It may symbolize cleansing, but it is the faith and repentance which receives the forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit who conveys, confers and effects it…. [In Acts 2:38], Peter’s basic and primary demand is for repentance; the forgiveness of sins can be promised to the [one who is baptized] only because his baptism is his act and expression of repentance.
In the context of Acts 2, then, an unwillingness to be baptized would have exposed an unwillingness to obey the gospel and become a disciple of Christ. In that sense, and for that reason, the Jews had to be baptized to be forgiven, for to refuse baptism was to refuse Christ and the salvation He offered.
As an illustration, consider the rich young ruler in Mark 10 who asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus told him: “One thing you lack; go and sell all you possess, and give to the poor and you shall have treasure in heaven” (Mark 10:21). This raises the question: Is giving away all your possessions a prerequisite for conversion? No. But Jesus knew that the chief idol in the heart of this man was materialism—his love for his possessions is what kept him from following Christ. Therefore, by exhorting him to give away all his possessions, Jesus was commanding him to repent of his sin, and repentance is a prerequisite for conversion. In this way, Jesus called for an external response that would indicate an internal reality, just like Peter did in Acts 2 by exhorting the Jews to be baptized as an outward expression of their repentance and allegiance to Christ.
Throughout the book of Acts, belief in Christ and baptism in His name were integrally related. As Richard Averbeck writes, the early church
could not conceive of a true Christian who was not willing to express commitment to our Lord [in baptism]. That was not one of the options given to the person being evangelized. He either trusted Christ and was baptized, knowing the implications in terms of commitment and lifestyle, or he rejected the truth.
Although its textual basis is disputed, this is reflected clearly in Mark 16:16: “He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.” Some respond to this verse by asking: But what about those who believe but are not baptized? The answer is that the idea of an unbaptized believer is completely foreign to the New Testament—it is not even entertained as a possibility. In the New Testament, a person was not baptized for only one of two reasons: either (a) he did not want to become a Christian, or (b) he believed in Christ and yet was physically unable to be baptized. In fact, the closest you find to an unbaptized believer in the book of Acts is the Ethiopian eunuch for whom water was not immediately available (Acts 8:26–40).
Robert Stein explains it this way:
In general a person could not be converted to Christianity in the New Testament apart from baptism. When individuals in the first century heard “Repent and be baptized” or “Believe in the Lord Jesus and be baptized,” none of them thought, “Can I do the first but not the second?” No one came to the conversion experience with questions as to whether baptism was necessary for becoming a Christian because the apostolic preaching stated that they must be baptized. Thus the rejection of baptism was a rejection of the divine program for conversion!
Baptism, then, was a necessary expression of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ without which they could not be said to have truly “believed.” Baptism without faith was meaningless, and faith without baptism was unthinkable—it was not even presented as an option.
To be concluded Friday with part 4.