Some argue that Acts 2:38 teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation. However, clearer Scripture passages definitively teach that baptism is ”not” necessary for salvation—since justification is by faith alone—and there is a very reasonable of Acts 2:38 that does not contradict with the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
And Peter said to them, “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
Those who argue that baptism is necessary for salvation argue that it is only after baptism that one receives the forgiveness of sin.
There are several reasons to believe that Acts 2:38 does not teach that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Those who argue that Acts 2:38 teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation say that “for” must mean “in order to receive.” However, in both Greek and English, the word “for” has a range of meanings, and there is one possible meaning of “for” that does not imply that baptism is necessary for salvation.
Merriam-Webster has these two definitions for “for”:
We believe that the second definition of the word “for” above is what Acts 2:38 is communicating.
First, here are several other passages in Scripture where the word “for” (εἰς) means “because of,” rather than “for the goal of receiving.” The significance of the latter three passages is that they are the only other passages, besides Acts 2:38, where the Greek word εἰς is used with “baptism.” Many other passages could be cited, but these should provide sufficient support for our position.
These verses (and others) demonstrate that although it is certainly ”possible” for the word “for” to mean “for the goal of receiving” in Acts 2:38 (from a technical standpoint), it is ”far more likely” that in this instance, the word “for” means “because of.”
The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented ”’at”’ (εἰς) the preaching of Jonah…Matthew 12:41
The people of Ninevah repented ”’because of”’ the preaching of Jonah, not ”’for the goal of receiving”’ the preaching of Jonah.
I baptize you with water ”’for”’ (εἰς) repentanceMatthew 3:11
People were baptized ”’because”’ they repented, not ”’for the goal of receiving”’ repentance.
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized ”’into”’ (εἰς) his death?Romans 6:3
People are baptized ”’because of”’ Jesus’ death, not ”’for the goal of receiving”’ Jesus’ death.
and all were baptized ”’into”’ (εἰς) Moses in the cloud and in the sea1 Corinthians 10:2
The Israelites were baptized ”’because of”’ their leader Moses, not ”’for the goal of receiving”’ Moses.
In Acts 2:38, there are two different kinds of verbs and pronouns:
Repent (second person plural) and be baptized (third person singular) every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your (second person plural) sinsActs 2:38
It is significant that ”’repent”’ and ”’for the forgiveness of your sins”’ use the second person plural, while ”’be baptized”’ is different and uses the third person singular. This strongly suggests that “repentance” and “the forgiveness of sins” are connected concepts, while “baptism” is separated from those two concepts in some way.
We can perhaps paraphrase Acts 2:38 in this way:
All of you repent for the forgiveness of all of your sins, and let each one of you be baptized.Paraphrase of Acts 2:38
Those who argue that Acts 2:38 teaches that baptism is necessary for salvation commit the Negative Inference fallacy, which states that just because a statement is true, that does not mean all opposites of that statement are true.
So, even if Acts 2:38 says that a person who is baptized receives the forgiveness of sins, that does not necessarily mean that people who are ”’not”’ baptized ”’have not”’ received the forgiveness of sins.
It is true that everyone who is truly saved through faith in Christ ”’should”’ be baptized, which is a public declaration of faith. Since baptism is a symbol of one’s faith, it is entirely possible that Peter is speaking of faith and baptism as one unit, so that a person who has faith, which becomes publicly declared through baptism, receives forgiveness of sins. In this case, it would be possible for someone who has faith and intends to be baptized soon, but has not yet been baptized, to have also received forgiveness of sins.
Later in Acts, in Acts 10:43, Peter says this:
To him all the prophets bear witness that ”’everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins”’ through his name.Acts 10:43
Here, Peter does not mention baptism at all, saying that “everyone who believes” receives forgiveness of sins. In light of this, it is very reasonable to believe that in Acts 2:38, Peter is using baptism interchangeably with the act of believing, since baptism is the public declaration, or symbol, of belief in Christ.
Immediately after Acts 10:43, Peter says this:
44 While Peter was still saying these things, ”’the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word”’… 46 …Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”Acts 10:44, 46-47
So, Cornelius and the Gentiles first believe, receive the forgiveness of sins, and receive the Holy Spirit, and then they are baptized, after Peter recognizes that they have already received all of those things.
There are clear passages that teach that salvation and justification is through faith alone. 1 Peter 3:21 is not entirely clear concerning whether baptism is necessary for salvation, so we must interpret 1 Peter 3:21 in light of Scripture’s clear teaching elsewhere concerning what ”’is”’ necessary for salvation.
To read more, see Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?