Those who teach that water baptism is a requirement for salvation will oftentimes use this passage for support. But is this really what Peter is saying? The word “for” in this verse is the same word translated “because” in Matt 12:41, referring to the Ninevites who repented in response to the message given by Jonah. The Bible does not teach that salvation is something we earn, like working “for” a paycheck. Rather, justification is called a “gift” that comes by grace through faith alone (Gal 2:16; Eph 2:8-10). While every Christian should get baptized because it is a biblical command, we must realize that good works—which are the fruit of a Christian’s life (Eph 2:10; James 2:20)—are done “because of” and not “for” our salvation. If Peter really meant that baptism is a requirement to come into relationship with God, then it is strange that he doesn’t even mention baptism in his next sermon. Acts 3:19 reads, “Therefore repent and turn back, that your sins may be wiped out…”
A common passage used to support the view of baptismal regeneration (the necessity to be baptized in order to be saved) is Acts 2:38. It reads, “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 disagreement between Christian and LDS theology stems from the use of the word for in this verse. Those who accept baptismal regeneration argue that this means baptism grants remission of sins. However, the Bible emphasizes that it is the blood of Christ that cleanses a person from sin, not the water of baptism. For example, Colossians 1:14 says, “In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins.” First John 1:7 adds, “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”
Because the meaning of a word is tied to its context, it can readily be seen how the Greek word translated “for” (eis) in Acts 2:38 cannot mean “in order to obtain” but rather “in view of” or “because of.” The usage indicates “the ground or reason for the action. It answers the question, Why?”(Brooks and Winbery, Synatx of New Testament Greek, 60) Consider a similar usage found in Matthew 12:41: “The men of Nineveh shall rise in judgment with this generation, and shall condemn it: because they repented at [eis] the preaching of Jonas [Jonah].”
Are we to assume that the people in Nineveh repented in order to obtain the preaching of Jonah? Or was their repentance in view of, or because of, Jonah’s preaching? The latter interpretation makes more sense. Explaining Acts 2:38, Christian commentator Richard N. Longenecker writes,
“In trying to deal with the various elements in this passage, some interpreters have stressed the command to be baptized so as to link the forgiveness of sins exclusively with baptism. But it runs contrary to all biblical religion to assume that outward rites have any value apart from true repentance and an inward change.” (“Acts” in Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:283-84).
Following his sermon in Acts 2, Peter stated in Acts 3:19, “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord.” No mention of baptism is made here. Longenecker noted,
“This shows that for Luke at least, and probably also for Peter, while baptism with water was the expected symbol for conversion, it was not an indispensable criterion for salvation.”
Christian theologian G. R. Beasley-Murray explained,
“At the close of his address on the same day, Peter calls for his hearers to repent and be baptized, with a view to receiving forgiveness and the Spirit.” (Baptism in the New Testament, 105)
The act of baptism is not something that saves a person but is an action that comes out of belief. Beasley-Murray wrote,
“Baptism is an overt, public act that expresses inward decision and intent; since it is performed in the open, and not in secret, it becomes by its nature a confession of a faith and allegiance embraced.” (Ibid., 101)
Another biblical passage that should be considered is Acts 16:30–31, where the Philippian jailor asked Paul and Silas what he had to do in order to be saved. They told the jailor simply, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house” (v. 31). Paul and Silas eventually explained the “word of the Lord” to the jailor and “all that were in his house.” As a result of their saving faith, they were baptized (vv. 32–33). Consider Acts 10:44–48 as well. Here, Peter delivered the gospel of truth to the Gentiles, and before anyone from his audience was baptized in water, the “Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (v. 44 esv).
Believing Jews who witnessed this event “were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles” (v. 45 esv). As a result, Peter asked the crowd, “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (v. 47 esv). Peter obviously recognized the Spirit’s coming upon them as God’s confirmation that the Gentiles were a part of the church, just as the Jewish believers were part of the church. It would be strange indeed for the Holy Spirit to fall on these Gentiles if they were not already believers. But as previously stated, it is not baptism but faith alone that justifies a person before God.
Mormons might argue that if this is the case, they too are qualified for salvation since they also “have faith.” There is a difference, however. The Christian’s faith is based on the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice paid the entire debt of sin. Nothing more can be added to a debt that has been paid in full. Mormon leaders have argued that Christ’s sacrifice was not all-sufficient. As James Faust, a member of the First Presidency, stated,
“All of us have sinned and need to repent to fully pay our part of the debt. When we sincerely repent, the Savior’s magnificent Atonement pays the rest of that debt.” (“The Atonement: Our Greatest Hope, Ensign, November 2001, 18)
Christians agree in the importance of baptism, but they disagree that this work somehow sets in motion the requirment for eternal life. The Gospel message is quite simple:
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
For a look at 1 Peter 3:21, click here.