It is written:
Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
The next passage which we will investigate in our study of texts about New Testament baptism is Acts 2:38.
The Apostles of Christ had spent forty days with the resurrected Lord (Acts 1:1-4), and then witnessed His ascension into Heaven (Acts 1:9-11). They had then been baptized in the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4), and this was demonstrated this by their speaking in tongues (the languages of other nations which they had not previously studied and learned-Acts 2:5-13). This was designed by God to be an evidence of the Gospel, the Lord confirming the Word through these signs and wonders (Mark 16:17-20). Those gathered on the Jewish holy day of Pentecost (Acts 2:5) were the recipients of the first Gospel sermon, the Apostles preaching about Jesus’ Deity as demonstrated from His miracles (Acts 2:22), HIs fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Acts 2:16-21, 25-28, 34-35), and His resurrection from the dead (Acts 2:32). Those who were cut to the heart (convicted of their sin) cried out to Peter and the rest of the Apostles, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), demonstrating that they were now believers in Jesus (cf. Acts 2:36). This then promoted Peter’s answer in Acts 2:38.
The first part of Peter’s command is for the Jews on Pentecost to repent. This Greek word carried with it the idea of a change of mind and direction which would bring about a change of life. Christ Jesus had declared that those unless we repent, we will perish (Luke 13:3). This command is then joined with the further command for them to be baptized, and when they meet these conditions, they will receive the remission of sins. The phrase “for the remission of sins” carries with it the idea of “having your sins forgiven” (we provided extensive documentation of the meaning of this phrase in Lesson Five of this series).
However, some have claimed that the phrases “repent” and “be baptized” may not be joined together in the Greek New Testament to the phrase “for the remission of sins.” Ferguson explains:
“Some, however, have sought to separate “repent” from “be baptized” and construe the “for forgiveness of sins” only with “repent” (“ repentance for forgiveness of sins” occurs in Luke 24: 47 according to the preferred text534). The grammatical basis for this exegetical move is that “repent” is a second-person plural second aorist imperative and “be baptized” is a third-person singular aorist passive imperative. However, the combination of a second-person plural imperative with a third-person singular imperative is common in the Septuagint and early Christian literature and serves to individualize and make emphatic the need for each individual to do what is commanded. 535 Another effort to break the connection between the forgiveness of sins and the command to be baptized appeals to the second-person plural pronoun “your” with sins, arguing that this does not agree with the third person singular “each one” be baptized. 536 However, the singular “each one” occasionally serves as the antecedent of a plural pronoun (as in Acts 3: 26). 537” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 3610-3622 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
Ferguson points out several passages from the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint) and from the Apocrypha which use this same combination of verb tenses. He notes:
“Carroll Osburn, “The Third Person Imperative in Acts 2:38,” Restoration Quarterly 26 (1983): 81-84, citing Exod. 16:29; Josh. 6:10; 2 Kings 10:19; Zech. 7:10; 1 Macc. 10:63; Didache 15.3; Ignatius, Magnesians 6.2.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 2241, Footnote 535 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
When Baptist preacher L.S. Ballard attempted to raise this objection against Acts 2:38 in his debate with Thomas B. Warren, Warren responded with this:
“All right. Next he came up here and brought up an argument on Acts 2: 38, that we could not connect both of those verbs with the expression “unto the remission of sins.” Now, I went to the trouble to find out what men who are real grammarians say about that. These men are recognized in the outstanding schools of our nation. They are men who, by reason of academic attainment, are recognized by their fellow-men to be the greatest among us today. I want to show you what they say about it. I have never put myself up as a Greek scholar, but I here and now say that I shall not allow Mr. Ballard to misuse it. I am not a Greek scholar, but I know where to go to those men who are scholars on these technical points. Mr. John Reumann of Luthern Theological Seminary, “In that passage cited, Acts 2: 38, I see no grammatical reason why one couldn’t take the phrase ‘eis aphesin hamartion,’ ‘for the forgiveness of sins,’ with both verbs, repentance and baptism.” Marvin K. Franzmann, Concordia Seminary, “As regards the expression in Acts 2: 38, it is grammatically possible to connect ‘eis aphesin’ with both verbs.” D. A. Penick of the University of Texas, in reference to my diagram where I’ve connected both of those verbs with the expression “unto the remission of sins,” says, “your diagram is correct.” Carl H. Morgan, dean of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary, “I would agree with the statement which you quote from Mr. H. B. Hackett, where he says, ‘we connect naturally with both the preceding verbs’.” Notice again the statement of Thayer in which he says, “the ‘eis’ expressing the end aimed at and secured by”—what—” by repentance and baptism, just previously enjoined.” Again, D. A. Penick, University of Texas, ” ‘Repent ye,’ the writer then wishes to be more emphatic, so he says ‘hekastos baptistheto’ ‘let each one of you be baptized.’ This distribution of a plural subject and predicate by the use of ‘hekastos’ and a third person singular is quite common in all Greek, and is frequently used in the New Testament.” H. B. Hackett, foremost Baptist Commentator, says in his Commentary on Acts, “We connect naturally with both the preceding verbs.” J. W. Wilmarth, a great outstanding Baptist scholar, “This interpretation compels us”—that is, to try to separate the two verbs—” either to do violence to the construction, or to throw the argument or the course of thought in the context into complete confusion. Indeed we can hardly escape the latter alternative if we choose the former. For those who contend for the interpretation ‘on account of remission’ will hardly be willing to admit that Peter said ‘Repent’ as well as ‘be baptized on account of remission of sins.’ This is too great an in-version of natural sequence. Yet to escape it we must violently dissever ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized’ and deny that ‘eis’ expresses the relation of ‘repentance’ as well as ‘baptism’ to forgiveness of sins. But the natural construction connects the latter with both the preceding verbs. It enforces the entire exhortation, not one part of it to the exclusion of the other, as Hackett says.” Ballard says you can’t, but these men—scholars, recognized to be among the greatest in the world—have said that you can connect, that it is possible, to connect both of them. Henry J. Cadbury, member of the Revised Standard Version Committee, which Ballard introduced a moment ago, has this to say, (reading from a letter) “The gram-mar of the sentence in Acts 2: 38 is perfectly regular and better Greek than if the author had kept the second person plural ‘baptize’ after using the singular ‘each.’ I have no doubt that another author would have written ‘Do ye repent,’ and ‘be ye baptized,’ each of you. But this writer seems to have preferred the less loose construction. I think that there would be no essential difference in meaning.” Whether you said “Do ye repent, and be ye baptized each of you,” or as it stands exactly, there would be no essential difference in meaning. Now, Mr. Ballard says, “Why, you can’t do that! According to Greek grammar you can’t do it.” Well, it’s strange that all of these men who are outstanding in their field—Greek grammar—say that you can. They say that there is absolutely no reason why you couldn’t do it!” (Thomas B. Warren & L.S. Ballard, Warren – Ballard Debate on the Plan of Salvation, 2047-2077 (Kindle Edition); National Christian Press)
So, the people on Pentecost were told that they needed to repent and to be baptized “for the remission of their sins.” This identical phrase is used in Matthew:
Matthew 26:28-But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”
Just as Jesus shed His blood so that people’s sins could be forgiven, so those on Pentecost were commanded to repent and be baptized-in order that their sins could be forgiven. This also makes sense when we consider that the prophecy of Joel (quoted in Acts 2:16-21) referenced the command for them to call upon the name of the Lord to be saved (Acts 2:21). Acts 2:38 tells us how the people called on the name of the Lord-by repenting and being baptized into Him (Acts 2:38, 41).
Is this command to be baptized referencing water baptism?
Several lines of evidence suggest that it is.
The first is that this is a command to be obeyed. The Greek verbs translated as “repent” and “be baptized” are in the imperative mood, which indicates command. As we have noticed previously, the baptism of the Holy Spirit is always a promise to be received and never a command to be obeyed (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; 24:49; John 1:33; Acts 1:4-5). One cannot be commanded to be baptized in the Holy Spirit! Therefore, the baptism of this passage must be water baptism.
Second, this baptism helps to secure the forgiveness of sins. This is par real to baptism in water as prescribed in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15-16). Since the baptism on that occasion referenced water baptism, so also does the baptism of Acts 2:38.
Cottrell provides further insights:
“Such an idea is not very well thought out, however. Peter must have meant water baptism for the following reasons. First, he must have been speaking of the same baptism prescribed in the Great Commission, which had to be water baptism because it was something the apostles themselves were to administer. Second, the baptism prescribed by Peter was something the sinners themselves were to do (“ What shall we do?”); it was their decision and initiative. A purely spiritual baptism would be at God’s initiative. Third, Peter’s language would have immediately called to his audience’s mind the baptism of John (which was “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Mark 1: 4), which was known to all as water baptism. Finally it should be noted that there was ample water in the Jerusalem area (it did not have to be in the temple area) for immersing 3,000 people.” (Jack Cottrell, Baptism: A Biblical Study, 665-670 (Kindle Edition): Joplin, Missouri; College Press Publishing Company)
The text tells us that this baptism is “in the name of Jesus Christ.” It is appropriate at this juncture to point out again that the phrase “in the name” used throughout Acts is not a verbal formula:
“If Luke was so concerned about the correct formula, such that it was essential for salvation, he did not demonstrate that concern in his writings. He used several different variations of the terminology in the different contexts. If one were looking for a “verbatim” baptismal formula in Acts, it would be difficult to decide which exact terms one should use. This is because there are four different phrases in the five different passages in the Book of the Acts. Three different prepositions in the Greek introduce each phrase: 1) en = in, 2) eis = into, and 3) epi = upon. The phrases, themselves, are quite different. Acts 2: 38—Upon the name of Jesus Christ Acts 8: 16—Into the name of the Lord Jesus Acts 10: 48—In the name of Jesus Christ Acts 19: 5—Into the name of the Lord Jesus Acts 22: 16—Calling upon His name If the exact formula is so very important because eternal destinies are at stake, and if the Book of the Acts is the basis of the true baptismal formula, then which formula is the proper one?” (Bruce Tucker, Oneness Pentecostal Churches:Their Doctrine and Practice, 597-603 (Kindle Edition); Xlibris Corporation)
Not only is the promise of remission of sins grated here to the believer who repents and who is baptized, but so also is “the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Now, this raises serious questions, because the only other time that this phrase is used in Acts seems to be in reference to Holy Spirit baptism. Speaking of the household of Cornelius being baptized in the Holy Spirit, Luke tells us:
Acts 10:44-45-While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. 45 And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also.
Notice how Luke specifically uses the language of the baptism of the Holy Spirit (“fell upon,” “poured out,” “gift of the Holy Spirit,”) to describe both the household of Cornelius (Acts 10:44-45) and the Apostles on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4, 16-21).
Does this mean that the people on Pentecost who repented and were baptized in water received the baptism of the Holy Spirit? That is certainly a possibility, even though some disagree. Ferguson, for example, has written:
“The use of this same phrase in Acts 10: 45, taken with 11: 17, identifying the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Cornelius with the experience on Pentecost in Acts 2, raises the question, Does Peter offer to the converts in 2: 38 the same experience he and others had in 2: 1-4? Such may not be a safe inference. That experience, as we have seen, is described as a baptism in the Holy Spirit. In the present text (2: 38) the baptism is “in the name of Jesus Christ” (a water baptism) and is distinguished from the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. It may be, therefore, that 10: 45 is not an exact parallel to 2: 38. In both cases the Holy Spirit is given, but in 10: 45 the emphasis is on the manifest results of the coming of the Spirit, the “speaking in tongues” (10: 46) comparable to 2: 4, whereas in 2: 38 the results are left unspecified (and many varied manifestations of the working of the Spirit were possible, as we know from Paul, e.g., 1 Cor. 12). If the gift of the Spirit promised to baptism in Acts 2: 38 is different from the baptism in (or with) the Holy Spirit in 2: 1-5 and 10: 44-46, then several problems are avoided (see further below on Acts 10 and on the Holy Spirit and Baptism).…The water baptism is distinguished from the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, which here precedes it. The pouring out of the Spirit is done by God; the result on the recipients was a baptism in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was given in order to convince Peter to baptize Gentiles. The event is identified with what happened to Jesus’ disciples in Acts 2: “these have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (10: 47); “The Holy Spirit fell on them just as upon us at the beginning” (11: 15). And that coming of the Holy Spirit was described as “being baptized in the Holy Spirit” (1: 5; and see discussion of 2: 1-4 above). Peter linked this event with the Pentecost occurrence, both fulfilling Jesus’ words, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with [βαπτισθήσεσθε ἐν] the Holy Spirit” (11: 16). The coming of the Holy Spirit produced evidence available to the senses, the speaking in tongues—as at Pentecost—so that others knew it had happened. The coming of the Holy Spirit on Jews in Acts 2: 1-5, 17-18 and on Gentiles in Acts 10: 44-46 (11: 15-17) is in both cases the premise for the offer of baptism and salvation (2: 38; 10: 47 and 11: 14). The purpose of this special occurrence of the coming of the Spirit is evident from the use made of it in 11: 1-18. It justified to the other apostles and brothers in Jerusalem Peter’s going to the uncircumcised and eating with them (11: 1-3). The point of criticism was not that “Gentiles had accepted the word of God,” but that they had been received while uncircumcised and had participated in table fellowship. The problem was the conditions under which they received the word and how they were to be treated by observant Jews. In the making of proselytes the decisive step was circumcision, and when proselyte baptism became normal it followed on circumcision. But Peter reasoned that to withhold baptism from these uncircumcised Gentiles would be to “hinder God” (11: 17). The elaborate divine efforts to bring about the offer of salvation to Gentiles and the extraordinary outpouring of the Holy Spirit accompanying Peter’s message showed that God had declared Gentiles “clean” (10: 14, 28; 11: 9). As with the spread of the gospel to Samaria, so with its spread to Gentiles, 563 there was an unusual manifestation of the Holy Spirit accompanying the event and giving divine certification to the development.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries, 3802-3821 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)
However, even if the 3, 000 in the second chapter of Acts did receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit or not, the Book of Acts seems to suggest that these events were limited to the occasion of Pentecost and the baptism of Cornelius’ household.
Acts 11:15-17-And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning. 16 Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, ‘John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?”
Peter is here defending his actions at Cornelius’ household, and he refers to how the Gentiles received the baptism of the Spirit. However, notice what he says in verse 15-this all happened as it did to the Jews “at the beginning.” There is a definite reference to Pentecost in these words.
“As on us at the beginning” refers to the “beginning” of their life as a community of believers in 2: 1–4; “at the beginning” appears occasionally as an idiom (Phil 4: 15; Dan 9: 23).[ 907] That Cornelius’s household and friends experienced the gift of the Holy Spirit “even as” (ὥσπερ) the Jewish believers had (Acts 10: 47; 11: 15, 17) refers to the one sign from Pentecost that is repeated—namely, tongues (2: 4; 10: 46; on the function of tongues as a frequent sign of the Spirit’s empowerment for inspired cross-cultural evangelism in Acts, see comment on Acts 2: 4). “As on us at the beginning” might also echo the suddenness of the Pentecost narrative (2: 2), emphasizing divine initiative.” (Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 2: 3:1-14:28, 20868-20873 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)
Peter ties the events of Cornelius’ household together with the events of Pentecost, demonstrating the uniqueness of these events. This goes to suggest that the baptism of the Spirit was limited to the events of Acts 2 and 10 (except in the cases where the Apostles laid their hands on individuals who then received the baptism of the Spirit).
Some suggest that the baptism of the Spirit happens with every Christian when they are baptized in water, and yet the Apostle Paul emphatically declares that there is only one baptism common to all believers (Ephesians 4:5). Since water baptism and Holy Spirit baptism are always shown to be separate events in the New Testament, then obviously every Christian doesn’t receive both. Since water baptism is the baptism which lasts til the end of the age (Matthew 28:19) and is also referenced later by Paul in Ephesians (Ephesians 5:25-27), then water baptism is the one baptism that is common to all Christians.
Even if the 3, 000 on Pentecost received the baptism of the Holy Spirit, there is no evidence that this phenomenon is for every disciple of Christ-and there are many reasons to believe that it isn’t.
While the Spirit works in and through the water by applying the blood of Christ to the repentant believer in Jesus (John 3:5); but this does not appear to be the same as Holy Spirit baptism.
So what does Acts 2:38 teach us about baptism?
First, baptism is for those who have heard the Word of God.
Second, baptism is for those who believe in Jesus Christ (especially His death, burial, and resurrection on the third day).
Third, baptism is for those who are cut to the heart (convicted of their sin).
Fourth, baptism is for those who repent of their sins.
Fifth, baptism is performed by the authority of Jesus Christ.
Sixth, baptism precedes (and secures) the forgiveness of sins.
Seventh, those on Pentecost who were baptized may have also received the baptism of the Holy Spirit-yet this would not mean that this baptism is for every Christian who is baptized in water.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.