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Acts 2:38, "Peter said to them, 'Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins ; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'"

John 1:12, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name . . .."

How do we interpret Acts 2:38 which seems to require baptism for forgiveness of sin, compared with John 1:12 which simply requires belief in Christ?

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Acts 2:38 uses 2nd person imperative for Repent "All of you repent" and third person SINGULAR Indicative (NOT Imperative) for "baptized". This does not come out easily in English, but may be best understood as "All of you repent and then let him who does repent then be baptized (also)." So baptism in water is not necessary for salvation. See Acts 10 also as Gentiles received the Holy Spirits (baptism of the Holy Spirit) prior to being baptized in water. –  Narnian Jun 3 '14 at 14:58
@Narnian: Huh? Are you saying that βαπτισθήτω is conjugated in the indicative mood and not imperative mood? –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jun 3 '14 at 18:25
@H3br3wHamm3r81 oops... still imperative, you're right... just third person Passive, I believe. –  Narnian Jun 3 '14 at 18:47
@Narnian, Even if what you're saying were true, it wouldn't mean what you want it to. Frequently in languages other than English only the main verb takes an imperative while supporting verbs might take an indicative and yet also be imperative in meaning. Big deal. –  david brainerd Jun 4 '14 at 3:48
@davidbrainerd The significance is that the verbs are not in parallel, and that does impact the interpretation and meaning. And it is true that the verbs are not the same conjugation. –  Narnian Jun 4 '14 at 13:05

4 Answers 4

Peter does not say "and if you don't get baptized you won't be saved".

Almost all Christian denominations take the view that baptism is the normal thing to do, and that Christians should do it. That doesn't imply that failing to do so for some reason invalidates your faith or excludes you from salvation. Likewise there is nothing in the Acts passage that implies that.

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The verse in Greek appears as follows:

Acts 2:38 (GNT)
38 Πέτρος δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς μετανοήσατε φησίν καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν καὶ λήμψεσθε τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος

There are two imperatives in this verse. The first is the verb μετανοέω, which occurs in the second person plural. The second is the verb βαπτίζω, which occurs in the third person singular.

The difference between the second person and the third person imperative is significant. According to Smyth (1920) the differences are as follows:

That is, the third person is the hypothetical imperative, which does not communicate an imperative per se, but an assumption, concession, or the granting of permission. In the three examples cited by Smyth, each of the verbs he used in his examples of the hypothetical imperative are in the third person singular (viz., ἔστω, ἐχέτω, and δειξάτω).

In summary, the command to repent is direct (second person), while the command for baptism is indirect (third person), which expresses an assumption or wish. That is, baptism is an assumption to occur after repentance. Repentance, on the other hand, is what is "commanded," because the command appears in the second person.

Smyth, Herbert Weir (1920). Greek Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 409.

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Baptismal regeneration (BR) has been a "hot topic" among Christian denominations for hundreds of years. The following quotation, taken from gotquestions.org, provides a good summary of what BR is:

Baptismal regeneration is the belief that baptism is necessary for salvation, or, more precisely, that regeneration does not occur until a person is water baptized. Baptismal regeneration is a tenant [sic] of numerous Christian denominations, but is most strenuously promoted by churches in the Restoration Movement, specifically the Church of Christ and the International Church of Christ. Read more: http://www.gotquestions.org/baptismal-regeneration.html#ixzz33aab5xcV

The denomination in which I grew up (even though it insisted, as many denominations do, it was nondenominational!) did not believe in BR. To this day, I agree with their stance on this controversial issue, and for good hermeneutical reasons.

Perhaps the simplest (some would say simplistic) way of looking at the physical act of water baptism--and for purposes of argument I'll assume our point of reference is the baptism of a person who has the intellectual wherewithal to confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, is summed up in the following sentence:

Christian baptism does not M-ake a Christian; Christian baptism M-arks a Christian.

Water baptism is biblical, to be sure, commanded and sanctioned by the one in whose name Christians are baptized:

"And Jesus came up and spoke to [the eleven], saying, 'All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with always, even to the end of the age'" (Matthew 28:18-20 NASB).

There are, however, at least two truly crucial baptisms in the Second (i.e., the New) Testament, and one is primarily metaphorical, and one is primarily literal. I say primarily, of course, because there will always be some overlap between the metaphorical and the literal.


The metaphorical baptism is by nature an invisible process, though its reality is perhaps more "real" than the literal process of being dunked in (or sprinkled by, or poured over with) water. This baptism, though not explicitly mentioned in John 1:12 and 13, occurs when a person both receives and believes in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.

The Holy Spirit, not a man or woman, is the one who baptizes in this way. This baptism is metaphorical because there is no literal water involved; rather, it is a waterless baptism which is every bit as real as water baptism. Why? Because this baptism is the one through which we are united to Christ through faith. This baptism is not the work of human instrumentality; it is a work of God in the heart of an individual.

This baptism is what M-akes a Christian. At least three scriptures address this baptizing work of the Holy Spirit:

1 Corinthians 10:2 - ". . . and all were baptized into Moses"

1 Corinthians 12:13 - "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body . . . [and] all made to drink of one Spirit"

Galatians 3:27 - "For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ"

This baptism is a baptism into Christ.

BAPTISM BY ________________

The second crucial baptism is a literal baptism in or with water by a human instrumentality. That is why the heading, above, has a blank after the word BY. A number of people in the Second Testament performed this rite, which many Protestant Christian denominations call an ordinance (the other being the breaking of bread, or the Lord's Supper).

John the baptizer, of course, performed this baptism, which was a baptism of repentance. Jesus Himself baptized (John 3:22) for the very same reason. The purpose of this baptism was to M-ark a person who publicly acknowledged his or her sin and their willingness to do an about-face in life in accordance with the message of John and Jesus.

Baptism, as performed by John, Jesus, and Jesus' disciples was always preceded by their preaching the message of repentance. See, for example, Matthew 3:2,8,11 (John); 4:17 (Jesus); Mark 1:4 (John); 1:15 (Jesus); Luke 3:3 (John); 13:3 (Jesus); and John 3:22,23 (John and Jesus and the disciples). There was nothing "magical" about being baptized by either John or Jesus or Jesus' disciples; rather, it was symbolic of a person's willingness to repent in obedience to the message preached:

"And [John] came into all the district around the Jordan [River], preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3).

"From that time Jesus began to preach and say, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand'" (Matthew 4:17).

There were others who baptized penitents who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, but their names are few, which suggests to me the relative unimportance of who did the baptizing and the importance of who was being baptized and why! Named baptizers included Paul, Ananias (probably), Philip, and Silas (probably).


Coming full circle, we can conclude on a fairly safe hermeneutical basis that being baptized has both metaphorical (figurative) and literal aspects.

  • Metaphorically, when a person places his or her faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, he or she is baptized into Jesus Christ and into His body, the church universal. Put differently, through saving faith people are made to drink of one Spirit, and that Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, who is the eternally satisfying water of life (1 Corinthians 12:13; see John 4:10 ff., and 7:37-39). This baptism M-akes a person a Christian.

  • Literally (but also symbolically), when a person enters into (or is touched by!) the waters of baptism and is baptized by another believer (a minister, priest, elder, deacon, rector, or fellow Christian), she or he becomes a M-arked Christian. In other words, this person is affirming publicly that he or she is now a follower of Jesus Christ. Baptism for them is an outward act which bears witness to an inner spiritual transformation. See especially Romans 6:3 ff., which is read quite aptly at a baptismal service, but which speaks more of the metaphorical baptism than the literal.

In conclusion, water baptism of a believer in Christ "in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," is good, proper, and necessary, especially since our Lord commanded it of His disciples in His "great commission" to them (Matthew 28:19). Does it "contribute" to our salvation in any way? No, because we are saved by God's grace through faith; our salvation is not of works, for if it were, then people could boast (Ephesians 2:8,9). Water baptism is a good work, but it is a work nevertheless. There is not a single, solitary work any of us can do to add to what Christ has already done on our behalf at the cross, where He cried with a loud voice,

"It is finished."

Our part in this great salvation wrought for us is to believe in the name of Jesus, and all that that entails, and to receive Him into our lives by faith. Water baptism for believers is good, but it is icing on the cake of our initial obedience to the gospel message, which occurs within our hearts.

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Read John 1:12 again.

John 1:12, "But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name"

When they believed, they received the RIGHT to become children of God. They didn't become children of God yet, but only received the RIGHT to become such. Hmmmmm.... So how do they use that right?

Galatians 3:26-27

For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

The right to become a child of God is received at the point of belief, and is used at the point of baptism.

Now to bring in Acts 2:38 we first bring in John 3:5

Jesus answered, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.

How is a man born of water and of the Spirit at the same time? Acts 2:38 answers that question. For when a believer (who has received the right to become a child of God) gets baptized in water, they receive the Holy Spirit as a gift, and are thus born of both water and of the Spirit at once:

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.

This is a position that would be held by a few, but very few, denominations, including the "churches of Christ" that came out of the Restoration Movement. Most denominations prefer to ignore the connections between these verses and focus more on Romans 4 using it to obliterate the connections here.

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Galatians says baptised into Christ not water, so I'm happy to interpret that as metaphorical baptism rather than physical. I believe that "of water" in John 3:5 is referring to the spirit. That said this answer presents its perspective very clearly, even though I disagree with it, so thanks. –  curiousdannii Jun 3 '14 at 15:09
This answer impresses me as a good summary of the BR position. I suspect it was downvoted because of disagreement only. It would be a better answer with links to one or several essays from groups holding to BR; preferably with short quotes and/or your summary. –  disciple Jun 3 '14 at 20:20
@disciple, Personally I would save the term "baptismal regeneration" for those who believe in infant baptism, as what is normally meant by the term is that baptism itself regenerates apart from faith. Its a libel on anyone who holds that baptism is essential, but is nonetheless a credobaptist, to call them a "baptismal regenerationist." –  david brainerd Jun 4 '14 at 3:45
@david brainerd: I will have to investigate this further. My understanding is that "regeneration" is near-synonymous with salvation. Many Calvinists teach (I think) that regeneration occurs first, then faith unconditionally happens. Some credobaptists believe (I thought) that when faith exists and then one is baptized, regeneration occurs. Does regeneration precede baptism, yet baptism is essential to salvation according to some? Is there a name for what happens during baptism? –  disciple Jun 4 '14 at 15:10
@disciple, "Regeneration" in Calvinism refers to an enabling to believe, and most of Protestantism follows Calvinist definitions. I would reject the term "baptismal regenerationist" for myself for that reason, and because I've seen it mostly used as a pejorative to allege that people believe baptism is magic water that doesn't require faith. Baptismal rebirthism would be a better term, since 'regeneration' can be confused with the Calvinist 'zapping' but 'rebirth' cannot. Certainly I believe the rebirth takes place in baptism. –  david brainerd Jun 6 '14 at 3:05

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