Sometimes we confuse two closely related issues, making them identical, ignoring the differences. This is especially true when it comes to matters of the faith. For instance, salvation and works. Good works do not save us, but we do good works because we are saved, in grateful response to what God has already done. Just read James 2:14-23 and Ephesians 2:1-10.
Perhaps two concepts that have become even more synonymous with each other are belief and baptism. All throughout the New Testament, you see these two elements paired with each other over and over again, and it is easy to begin thinking that baptism is actually a part of salvation. After all, Peter said, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). Let’s take a closer look.
The context of this citation from Peter is “the beginning” of the Church, the falling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4; 11:15). The great multitudes in Jerusalem were hearing the believers speaking in tongues, and they begin arguing about what it meant (Acts 2:5-13). In response, Peter stands up and gives a magnificent sermon (Acts 2:14-36). Then we read this—
“Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ 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.'”Acts 2:37, 38
Notice that central to all of this context is the Holy Spirit. Even in Peter’s sermon, he stresses the outpouring of the Spirit by quoting Joel 2:28-32 (Acts 2:16-21). This should not surprise us, for the Spirit plays a prominent role in the New Testament, especially in the epistles. In Ephesians, we are told twice that we are “sealed” by Him (Ephesians 1:13, 14; 4:30). He is the “pledge of our inheritance” (Ephesians 1:14; 2 Corinthians 5:5). He adds believers to the “one body” of the Church (1 Corinthians 12:13). Paul would even tell Titus that God has “saved us … by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). So absolutely, Peter should have made a big deal about the Spirit.
But how does this tie into baptism? Back to Acts. Flip over a few chapters, and we find Peter giving another sermon, but this time, it is to the household of a Roman centurion. Look closely at the order of events in this passage—
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, ‘Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?’ And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days” (Acts 10:44-48).
The Holy Spirit came upon these Gentiles before they were baptized, not after. If you look at the context, Peter was hesitant about accepting Gentiles, but he could not deny the proof of their salvation, and that before any immersion in water. Here’s a few more examples. When the Philippian jailer saw the difference in Paul and Silas, he falls to his knees, asking, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Their response is simple: “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). The thief on the cross, not having any chance to be baptized after he believed, was told by Jesus, “Today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).
But there’s another objection with Peter. In his first epistle, Peter writes, “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21). Now, before we can jump on that, we must again look at all that he was saying. He starts off this portion by calling us to look to the example of Christ, who “died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust, so that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). He then describes how God preserved Noah and his family in the flood (1 Peter 3:19, 20). Then he says, “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21).
Notice that he rejects the idea that water baptism saves us. Instead, he is speaking of the Spirit baptism. Being added to the Church is described in these terms, for Paul says, “By one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Corinthians 12:13). This does not refer to sprinkling, pouring, and dunking with water, but instead to the work of the Spirit in our hearts by which we die to sin and live to God (Romans 6:1-11).
Is baptism important? Absolutely. Jesus commanded us to baptize in some of His final words to the apostles (Matthew 28:18-20). Baptism is a practice the early Church carried on (Acts 8:38; 9:18; 16:33; 19:5).
But does it save us? No, faith in Christ alone does that. Salvation is not based upon anything we do, but by His “grace” (Ephesians 2:8, 9). Rather, baptism is a work of obedience, of identifying ourselves publicly with Christ, and a call to accountability with other believers. We should not think that we can get saved and be baptized only if we feel like it. If we choose to not be baptized, we are being disobedient.
But the point is that we should not think a person is only partially saved until they are baptized. Think of it like circumcision for the Jews. Abraham’s justification by faith was well established before “he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had” (Romans 4:3, 11). That is what baptism is: it is a sign and an obedient act we do because we are saved.
I know this can be a touchy subject, and there are strongly opposing views, but this is what the whole New Testament teaches. If we look at a few verses in isolation (ironically, all coming from Peter), we might come to another conclusion. Yet as we compare Scripture with Scripture, we find this truth. Jesus Christ saves us, and after we accept His grace, we are baptized in obedience to His command. He is our Lord, our Master, so we should long to be identified with Him. And when we come down to it, this is what baptism truly represents.