When Peter, in response to his sermon, was asked on the Day of Pentecost, "What must we do?", he replied: "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 2:38).
Two questions are raised by this passage.
First, what is baptism "in the name of Jesus Christ"? Two things are in view. (1) To be baptized in Christ's name is to be baptized by his authority, as if Christ were himself performing the rite. (2) It also signifies the intention of the believer to be committed to and identified with Jesus. It is, in effect, the Christian's pledge of spiritual allegiance.
Second, is Peter saying that one must be baptized in water to be saved and to receive the forgiveness of sins? Five views of this passage have been articulated.
(1) Some respond to the question with a simple Yes! They argue that water baptism is in fact necessary for salvation and the forgiveness of sins. If true, this would certainly undermine any notion of salvation by faith alone through grace alone (sola fide, sola gratia).
(2) Some point out that the preposition translated "for" in v. 38 (Greek, eis) can also be translated "because of" (it may be used this way in Matthew 3:11; cf. also Mt. 10:41; 12:41). Thus the idea would be that a person should be baptized not in order to be saved and forgiven of sins but because they are already saved and forgiven. Although this is grammatically legitimate, it would be rare and unlikely. As Dan Wallace has concluded, "Such a view is an acceptable way of handling eis, but its subtlety and awkwardness are against it" (370).
(3) A few argue that these people in Acts 2 were already saved. The "forgiveness" they seek is not for salvation but for restoration of fellowship with God that had been broken by their sin of crucifying the Messiah.
(4) Others have pointed out that there are certain grammatical features in the text that might help explain it. The exhortation to "repent" is a second person plural. The command "be baptized," however, is third person singular. "You shall receive" is again second person plural. The argument is that the clause introduced by the preposition eis is subordinate to the command to "repent" rather than to the command that they "be baptized". In other words, the "forgiveness of sins" is predicated on repentance, not on baptism.
(5) The view that is most consistent with what we read elsewhere in the New Testament is that Acts 2:38 says nothing about the relationship between baptism and forgiveness but everything about the relationship between baptism and repentance.
Let's look at three lines of evidence.
First, the Gospel of John is explicitly an evangelistic book (cf. John 20:30-31). Yet there is not one word in it concerning Christian baptism (not even John 3:5; see my extensive study of that passage at www.SamStorms.com). If one studies merely through the sixth chapter of John it is clear that faith or belief is stated to be the condition on which we are saved (see John 1:7,12; 3:16,18,36; 5:24; 6:40,47; needless to say, there are countless other texts in John that affirm this same truth).
Together with the rest of the NT, there are almost 150 passages that speak of faith/repentance as the sole condition for justification and forgiveness of sins. If water baptism were absolutely essential for salvation, how do we explain its omission in these numerous texts?
Second, in 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul actually contrasts water baptism with the gospel: "For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel . . ." If water baptism were essential to the gospel, essential to salvation, Paul could hardly have said this. Baptism is not the gospel. Faith in the blood of the cross of Christ is (1 Cor. 1:18).
Third, two things are important to note in the book of Acts itself.
(a) In the early church, baptism in water was the normal, routine response to faith. In fact, sometimes it appears that faith has its climactic expression in baptism. It is the occasion on which the sinner calls upon the Lord and commits himself/herself to the Lord. See especially Acts 2:41; 8:12-13, 36-38; 9:17-18; 10:44-48; 16:14-15, 30-33; 18:8. Thus the idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the NT. If you are a believer and have not been baptized, you are saved but you are also in sin!
(b) Nowhere in Acts (or anywhere in the NT) is baptism set forth as the sole prerequisite or condition for forgiveness and justification. But frequently faith/repentance is (see Luke 24:47; Acts 2:21; 3:19; 4:4; 5:31; 9:42; 10:43-48 [cf. 15:8-9]; 11:21; 13:38-39; 14:1; 16:31; 17:12,30,34).
What do these two lines of evidence in Acts tell us? First, we see that forgiveness and justification are God's gift to those who believe. We are justified by faith alone! Second, the normal, routine, virtually unspoken expectation was that everyone who believed would be baptized. Why? Because baptism is the outward expression of an inward faith. Faith without baptism was like joy without a smile. Baptism symbolized everything that faith secured. Baptism visibly and publicly proclaimed everything that faith invisibly and privately achieved.
Forgiveness is promised to whoever is baptized, not because baptism secures forgiveness, but because baptism signifies faith.
Peter includes baptism in Acts 2:38 not because baptism is related to forgiveness but because baptism is related to repentance. Baptism is critically important not to forgiveness but to faith.