(Acts 2:38) Is baptism necessary for salvation?

CLAIM: Peter states, “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 2:38). When Peter refers to baptism here, he no doubt is referring to water baptism. Does this imply that we need water baptism in order to be forgiven?

RESPONSE: A number of responses can be made:

First, the Bible nowhere teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation. This is quite a conspicuous silence, if baptism is necessary for salvation. Instead, the Bible universally teaches that salvation is by faith alone (Jn. 1:12; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:9). If baptism was necessary for salvation, then the thief on the cross would not really be saved, because he was never baptized. And yet, Jesus affirmed that he would be in heaven (Lk. 23:43).

Second, grammatically, Peter is not putting a condition on salvation. The Greek term for the word “for” is eis (pronounced ‘ice’), and it has a wide semantic range. BDAG translates it as “[an] extension involving a goal or place, into, in, toward, to, extension in time, to, until, on.” Greek grammarian Murray Harris explains that eis can be translated in three ways: (telic) “with a view to, for,” (consecutive) “resulting in,” or (referential) “with regard to.”[1] Thus, the Greek word eis (“for…”) can be rendered “with a view to” or “because of.” Bock agrees, “The response comes ‘with a view to’ or ‘on the basis of’ forgiveness of sins.”[2] In other words, grammatically, Peter is saying that they are getting baptized because they are already forgiven, rather than the other way around.

Third, contextually, Peter and Paul never make baptism a condition in their other sermons. Earlier in this same teaching, Peter said that the only condition for being “saved” was to “call on the name of the Lord” (Acts 2:21). In the very next chapter, Peter tells the people at the portico of Solomon only about faith in Christ—not baptism (Acts 3:12ff). Luke tells us that Cornelius received the Holy Spirit and was saved before he ever was baptized. He writes, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” (Acts 10:47) Moreover, when the Philippian jailor asked Paul what he should do to be saved, he simply said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). That is, Paul didn’t add the condition of baptism, either.

[1] Murray J. Harris, Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012. 227-230.

[2] Bock, D. L. (2007). Acts (p. 143). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.