There are a few texts that seem to indicate that baptism saves an individual. A few churches even teach that baptism is the timing and place one receives God’s grace, meaning that without baptism, one cannot be saved. However, Christians recognize Ephesians 2:8-9 and that salvation is not dependent on works. This puts us in a bit of a quandry. Does baptism actually save us? Does everyone need to be saved to be baptized?
In order to work through the apparent contradiction in Scripture, many will cross reference other texts to explain away the passages which speak of the link between baptism and salvation. Although a noble effort, I have mentioned in the past that we need to be careful reading one passage over another. There is potential danger in cross-referencing. It can be helpful and should be utilized. But the key to understanding Scripture is identifying authorial intent.
The key to proper biblical interpretation involves knowing the author, the audience, the purpose of the passage, and the context. Knowing this information keeps us from injecting our own meaning or purpose into the text. It also helps us derive our theology from what the text means rather than conforming the text to our own theology.
The Test Case of Acts 2:38
I thought it would be helpful to use Acts 2:38 as a test case for a proper contextual interpretation. What follows is a brief response to our imaginary friend from a previous post who uses Acts 2:38 to support baptismal regeneration.
First, we need to look at the grammar of the passage in question. The Greek might give us a little bit of help here because the imperatives are different. The imperative to “repent” is directed to “you” (plural) and “be baptized” is individualized (“each”). It reads this way:
Peter said to them, “Repent [second person masculine plural, μετανοήσατε], and each of you be baptized [third person masculine singular, βαπτισθήτω] in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
The difference in imperatives likely indicates a distinction between repentance and baptism. In other words, he is not simply saying “Repent and be baptized…,” but saying “Repent, and let each of you be baptized….”
In addition to these grammatical considerations, we must understand another cultural element that helps make sense of this passage (as well as other baptism passages). In our culture, we tend to differentiate baptism from salvation. I was saved at an early age, and was baptized about three years after. Some people get saved and are baptized five, ten, or fifteen years later! We often have a significant chronological and theological separation between salvation and baptism.
The New Testament and Baptism
This was not the case in the New Testament. When the Apostles called people to repent and follow Christ, baptism was essential to that decision to follow Christ (cf. Acts 8:35-36). Baptism signified the union with Christ in death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:1-4). For the early church, baptism was intrinsically linked to repentance. I think it could be said that, to the early Christians, baptism was essentially a synecdoche (one part standing for the whole) of the whole salvation experience.
The cultural evidence for this can probably best be illustrated from another of Peter’s works. In 1 Peter 3:21 we read, “Baptism now saves you.” What is Peter saying? Is he talking about spiritual or water baptism? I think that is the wrong question. Unlike our culture, the first century reader likely would not have differentiated spirit or water baptism. Biblically, the symbol is linked with the reality. Baptism does save us because we are joined to Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Without being unified in that one baptism there is no salvation (cf. Eph 4:5).
The early church taught clearly that baptism was essential if you come to Christ. The reason is not that the washing of the body does anything significant (cf. 1 Pet 3:21). Rather, baptism is the physical symbol that is intrinsically linked to the theology of Christ’s vicarious death and resurrection. Additionally, being baptized was a significant step that showed you were identifying with Christ and His church. This was often met with serious repercussions. For example, if someone got baptized, they would likely be viewed with contempt by their family (Jew or Gentile) and possibly ostracized.
Unfortunately, we have lost sight of the significance of baptism in the church at large. We have differentiated salvation and baptism so much that baptism has become a secondary issue in many circles. For the early church, baptism was so important that it was intrinsically linked to salvation. It was the primary display of repentance, inherently symbolizing one’s union with Christ.
Returning to Acts 2:38, if we understand the cultural mindset concerning baptism, we can now better understand Peter linking Baptism to his discussion of repentance. We do more damage than good by simply saying, “This can’t mean salvation.” We need to ask, why is Peter saying this? What Luke is doing (by recording Peter’s speech) is stressing the fact that baptism is an essential part of one’s response to Christ. Joining oneself to Christ is essential to salvation. For Peter’s audience, rejecting baptism was rejecting Christ, but accepting baptism was submitting to Christ.