What Does Acts 2:38 Really Mean?
Sometimes we read through the Bible without giving much thought to the meaning of the words that are written. We somehow assume that God’s message will benefit us even though we fail to carefully examine the specific terms and grammar of that message. However, the very words of Scripture are inspired and God intends for us to take them seriously, examine them carefully, and understand them accurately.
Again and again God tells us to hear, read, believe, and obey His divine revelation—a revelation given by means of inspired words. “Every word of God is tested” (Prov. 30:5). We must neither add to nor take from His authoritative words (Rev. 22:18-19). We must approach them with awesome fear (Isaiah 66:2) since we will meet them in Judgment (John 12:48). In truth, the words of Christ will never pass away (Matthew 24:35). With these thoughts in mind, let us examine one special scripture that we must all obey if we wish to be forgiven of our sins and receive the Holy Spirit.
The passage that we will examine is Acts 2:38. Amazingly, this verse has been largely neglected, avoided, misunderstood, explained away, or even distorted by large numbers of religious people (cf. 2 Peter 3:16). This verse records the inspired words of Peter as he answers the question of the guilty but convicted inquirers on the day of Pentecost: “What shall we do?” (v. 37). Peter proceeds to tell them what they “must do” if they would be forgiven of all their sins–especially the horrible sin of crucifying the Messiah Himself.
You and I have also sinned. We have disobeyed God times without number. We have done what we should not have done and failed to do what we should have done. We have committed sins in the moral realm and sins in the religious realm. Every person must come to the point in his life when he realizes that he is a sinner and is worthy of eternal banishment from the presence of God. Only then is one prepared to ask the question, “What shall I do?” And only then is he prepared to obey the answer that God gives in Scripture.
What is the Meaning of This Scripture?
Now let us simply look at this one verse, divided into its several parts, as recorded in various Bible translations. These versions attempt to make clear in our own language what Peter was saying in his language and what Luke recorded in the Greek language. (Remember that the New Testament was written in Greek.) This simple exercise should give us the meaning that we must see in the verse if we would believe and obey what Peter actually commanded. Surely if we obey what the apostle commanded we can be assured of the promise that he offered.
Most of the translations seek to give an accurate word-for-word rendering of the original, yet several attempt to give the thought of the Greek (as in the Amplified Version). And now, please consider this passage very, very carefully:
- Repent (NASB, NIV)
- Change your hearts (Simple English)
- Change your minds (Fenton)
- Turn away from your sins (TEV)
- Let your hearts be changed (Basic English)
- Repent what you have done (Cassirer)
- Repent ye (Rotherham)
- Reform (Living Oracles)
- You must change your minds and your way of living (Anderson)
- Change your views, and purpose to accept the will of God in your inner selves instead of rejecting it (Amplified)
” AND LET EACH OF YOU BE BAPTIZED”
- Be each of you immersed (ABUV)
- Each one of you must be immersed (Simple English)
- Be immersed (Renaissance)
- Let each one of you be immersed (Rotherham)
- Be immersed (Worrell)
- Let each of you be immersed (Original N.T.)
- Be each of you immersed (Living Oracles)
” IN THE NAME OF JESUS CHRIST”
In the name of Messiah Jesus (Original N.T.)
” FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF YOUR SINS”
- So that your sins may be forgiven (NIV)
- For the forgiveness of your sins (NASB)
- That you may have your sins forgiven (Williams)
- In order to have your sins forgiven (Goodspeed)
- For the remission of sins (KJV)
- So that your sins will be forgiven (TEV)
- For the forgiveness of your sins (NEB)
- For the forgiveness of your sins (JB)
- For the forgiveness of your sins (RSV)
- So that you may have your sins forgiven (Phillips)
- To have your sins forgiven (Knox)
- That your sins may be forgiven (NAB)
- So that your sins will be forgiven (Beck)
- So that your sins may be forgiven you (Cassirer)
- Into the remission of your sins (Rotherham)
- In order to the remission of sins (Living Oracles)
- For a release from your sins (Fenton)
- For the forgiveness of your sins (Basic English)
- For the forgiveness of and release from your sins (Amplified)
” AND YOU WILL RECEIVE THE GIFT OF THE HOLY SPIRIT”
- And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (NIV)
- And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (JB)
- And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (NEB)
- And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (NASB)
- And you will receive God’s gift, the Holy Spirit (TEV)
- And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (RSV)
- And ye shall receive the free-gift of the Holy Spirit (Rotherham)
As we can readily see, the passage that we have examined is plain. It is clear. And it is strong. In fact, it is too strong for most people! Perhaps this is one reason the verse has so often been neglected, avoided, and even distorted. God, through the words of Peter, commands you and me to do something and offers promises contingent on this obedience. The instruction of the apostle is something that contrasts with what some people have always been taught and what they have always believed. If a person takes seriously these inspired words, they will radically, decisively, and dramatically change his or her life. Let us examine the meaning of these words with an open heart and a receptive mind.
What is God Actually Saying Here?
In what way do people have trouble with this passage of Scripture? Consider these points:
(1) God says that we must “repent” or have a deep and radical change of mind, heart, and purpose so that we literally turn away from inward and outward sins and turn to God and His will (cf. Acts 3:18,26; 26:18; 1 Thess. 1:9). The implications of this command are far-reaching! One who repents will be radically changed because his heart and mind have been changed. The repentant believer will “bring forth fruits in keeping with [his] repentance” (Luke 3:8). He will perform “deeds appropriate to repentance” (Acts 26:20). True repentance is a life-changing principle with life-altering results!
(2) God says that we must be immersed (or buried momentarily in water, then raised from water). This runs counter to many deeply-held ecclesiastical traditions. It conflicts with the prevailing view of most established churches (such as the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal and Lutheran) which contend that sprinkling or pouring are just as acceptable as immersion.
Yet God specifically says that we must be immersed (the Greek term, baptizo, means to dip, immerse, plunge, submerge, overwhelm, or sink). One authority observes that it denotes, “to dip, sink” (NAS Exhaustive Concordance, p. 1638). Another points out that the noun, baptisma, consists of “the process of immersion, submersion and emergence” (Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, W.E. Vine, p. 88). Yet another says that baptizo means “dip, plunge” (A Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell & Scott, p. 305). Of course, the element that one is immersed into is water (cf. Acts 8:36-39; 10:47; John 3:23). The inescapable conclusion to Peter’s words is that one who has not obeyed God in this matter has actually not been baptized.
(3) God says that we must be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ.” It is Christ who has been given “all authority . . . in heaven and on earth” and who has commanded baptism (Matt. 28:18). He has also informed us of the meaning of the act–that it expresses faith in Him (Mark 16:16), is related to salvation (Mark 16:16), and through this means one is brought into a relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and is thereby enrolled as a disciple of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20).
(4) God says that we must be baptized “for the forgiveness of [our] sins.” Again, this conflicts with deeply-held theological views that separate baptism entirely from conversion and forgiveness. In fact, many religious leaders brazenly affirm that baptism is NOT for the forgiveness of sins but simply testifies to a forgiveness already granted in the past. Yet the Greek still denotes “purpose in order to” and means, “for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven”(A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Arndt and Gingrich, p. 229). A study of eighty-one (81) different Bible translations confirms this fact. Furthermore, one authority points out that of the 1,773 instances of the Greek eis (for, into) in the New Testament, not once is it translated “because of.”
Therefore, God says that unless our baptism is Scriptural baptism that has as its purpose the forgiveness of sins, it actually is no baptism at all in the New Testament sense of the term. Consequently, even though a given act may correctly be an immersion, if the meaning and purpose is not in harmony with what Peter stated, it cannot be considered Scriptural baptism.
(5) God says that He graciously gives “the gift of the Holy Spirit” to those who genuinely repent of their sins and who humbly respond in immersion (baptism). This, again, contrasts with many theological views today which affirm that one receives the Holy Spirit long before baptism or long after baptism. It is better to take Peter’s words seriously and understand that the gift of the Holy Spirit is coupled with His gracious gift of forgiveness of sins and both are contingent upon the repentant obedience we have already noticed. In short, the Holy Spirit is a gift “whom God [gives] to those who obey Him” (Acts 5:32). In numerous other passages we read that the Holy Spirit is given as a gift at the time one is born again or saved from sin (cf. John 3:5; 7:39; Eph. 1:13; Gal. 3:2-3,14; 4:6).
Do we now see what God wants us to know in these significant words of the apostle Peter? Let us summarize this passage so that we might not overlook its meaning:
Repent (or have a change of heart that leads to a change of life), and be immersed (or lowered and raised from water), in the name of Jesus Christ (by His authority and with reliance upon Him), for the purpose that your sins might be forgiven, and you will receive God’s gift, the Holy Spirit.
When we look at the passage in this manner, the meaning of Peter’s words is plain. No one should misunderstand these inspired words. However, this raises an entirely new problem. It is one thing to understand the Word of God, but it is another thing to believe it and obey it. The Lord Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God, and observe it” (Luke 11:28). What hindrances might arise regarding one’s obedience to this command?
Why Would Some Question or Reject Peter’s Command?
(1) One may think that he was saved and forgiven many years ago even though now he can see that he only repeated a simple “sinner’s prayer.” He really did not repent of all his sins at the time nor determine to live an entirely new life. He did not begin to love and serve God nor did he begin to hate the world and turn from it. In other words, he did not genuinely repent at the time he thought he was converted and saved. (Of course, he may have made many changes since the assumed time of his salvation.) The person may now think that to acknowledge this lack in what he thought was his conversion experience would be a sign of weakness or would deny that God was working in his life all of those years. Yet Scripture says that if he actually did not repent, he was not truly forgiven!
(2) One may have thought that he was baptized when he was a baby in his mother’s arms and was well content with this until now. It simply seems out of place to deny that God was using that infant rite to His glory. Yet Scripture is quite plain that one must first REPENT and then BE BAPTIZED. One must also first BELIEVE, and only then be BAPTIZED (cf. Mark 16:16; Acts 8:12; 18:8.) Therefore, his infant church ritual actually was not baptism in God’s sight!
(3) One may have thought that he was baptized when a preacher, pastor, or priest sprinkled or poured water on his head during a very meaningful church ceremony. He thinks that God has been working very strongly in his life since that time and he hesitates to deny this religious response in his past. After all, he thought it was baptism at the time–and wouldn’t God accept one’s good intentions even if they were incorrect? Yet Scripture is plain that one must be immersed (or lowered, then raised from water) in the name of Jesus Christ in order to obey this text of God’s Word.
(4) One may have thought that he had obeyed God when he was immersed many years ago as a “testimony” that he was already saved, to simply “follow Jesus in baptism,” or to become a member of a local church. This seemed entirely acceptable at the time and it is what the pastor or minister emphasized when the “convert” was instructed about baptism. After all, it was an actual immersion–and surely God would be satisfied with this. Yet Scripture is quite plain that repentance and baptism are “for the forgiveness of one’s sins.” Unless one was immersed as a part of conversion itself and for the proper purpose, it is not the baptism of the Bible. Difficult though it is, one must humbly acknowledge that if his baptism differs from Scriptural baptism, God does not consider him or her a genuinely baptized (immersed) person.
(5) One may have been entirely oblivious to the gift of the Holy Spirit at the time of his or her baptism. While some ignorance must be understandable when a person is baptized (and he will grow in understanding over the following years), surely we must not deny plain Scriptural passages in regard to the Spirit. Those who say that one receives the Holy Spirit a year or two before baptism and those who say that the Holy Spirit is given long after baptism are both incorrect. Scripture is plain that one receives the Holy Spirit at the time he or she is forgiven of sins, and this occurs when a sincerely repentant believer is baptized as we have described. (A supposed exception, such as Acts 10:44-48, is just that–an exception.) Scripture is clear that God grants the gift of the Holy Spirit when one believingly responds in repentance and immersion in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.
The Word of God—or Subjective Feelings?
The reader should notice that many of these objections are rooted in one’s own subjective feelings or personal experience. In other words, one may be willing to deny rather clear Scriptural teaching on the basis that it does not agree with certain meaningful and spiritual personal experiences that he has had in the past. One may deny what Scripture says because he is convinced that “God has spoken to him” about his salvation, or “the Holy Spirit has witnessed to his heart” about being a child of God, or “the Holy Spirit has given the gift of tongues” to him. In all of these cases we must notice that sometimes one is willing to trust assumed personal revelations, impressions, or experiences rather than humbly taking God’s Word for what it says.
We must never trust our own experiences above the authoritative Word of Almighty God. As Paul said, “Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar” (Romans 3:4). We must not be deceived into trusting our subjective spiritual experiences. “He who trusts in his own heart is a fool” (Prov. 28:26a). “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). We must be willing to lay aside what our own heart tells us and what our own understanding says is true and be willing to take God’s Word for what it says. If God has spoken on a matter or has given a promise in Scripture connected with certain conditions, let us believe God and respond in obedience to Him. With Paul, we must say, “I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told” (Acts 27:25).
How Should We Respond?
We have seen enough to know what God, through Peter, is commanding one in our own day who is convicted of sin and wishes to be forgiven or saved. It is so plain. It is so clear that it would take professional help to misunderstand it! Even if it were not this plain, there are other verses that would help us to understand the meaning of Acts 2:38.
The interested reader may wish to study carefully such passages as John 3:16-18,36; 5:24; 6:35; 20:30-31; Acts 3:19,26; 16:30-34; 20:21; Romans 4:4-5; 10:9-10; and Eph. 2:8-9 which discuss the meaning and importance of faith and repentance. This matter should be carefully considered since so few exercise genuine, heartfelt sorrow for sin and sincerely turn away from all that offends God. They continue to love and enjoy the things of the world and take no delight in the things of the Lord! True believing repentance is both negative (turning away from sin and the world) and positive (turning to God and His way of holiness).
Further passages speak of the meaning and importance of baptism (cf. Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16; Acts 8:12,35-39; 22:16; Romans 6:3-5; 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:26-27; Col. 2:11-13; 1 Peter 3:20-21) as well as the act of baptism as immersion (Matt. 3:13,16; John 3:23; Acts 8:36-39; Romans 6:3-5; Col. 2:12). Be willing to take these passages seriously just for what they say.
For instance, the Lord Jesus declared, “He that believes and is immersed shall be saved” (Mark 16:16; ABUV). Ananias commanded, “Arise, and get thyself immersed, and have thy sins bathed away, calling upon his [Christ’s] name” (Acts 22:16, Rotherham). Peter wrote, “Today, this is a picture of how immersion saves us through the raising of Jesus Christ from death” (1 Peter 3:21; Simple English). Paul asks, “Do you not know, that as many as have been immersed into Jesus Christ, have been immersed into his death?” (Romans 6:3; Living Oracles). Again, Paul explains: “Having been buried with Him in your immersion, in which ye were also raised with Him through faith in the working of God” (Col. 2:12; Worrell).
It is clear, therefore, how God calls upon us to respond to His command on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:38). The question is whether we are willing to set aside our past preconceptions, turn away from our former theological misunderstandings, renounce our ecclesiastical doctrinal formulations, and cease relying upon our own past religious experiences.
Very Sincere and Biblically-Oriented People Also Need to Obey
The verse of Scripture that we have examined (Acts 2:38) is not that difficult to understand. Neither are the others that confirm its meaning. But the realization that we have been a good, moral, sincere, religious, church-going, praying, Bible-reading, “holy” and “spiritual” person may well be one of the greatest stumbling blocks to accepting the truth of this passage.
If this could describe your own hesitancy in receiving the truth we have discovered, remember the case of Cornelius. He was a “devout man” who “feared God.” He was generous and “prayed to God continually.” He was a family man and is described as “righteous” (Acts 10:1,2,,4,22,24,35). Yet this sincere truth-seeker had to hear “words” by which he would be saved from sin (Acts 11:14; cf. 10:43-48). Consider also the Ethiopian official. He traveled many hundreds of miles to worship God, eagerly studied the Scriptures, and definitely was seeking truth (Acts 8:27,28-31). Yet he also needed to be forgiven (vv. 35-39). Paul himself had been zealous for the Lord and was “blameless” in “the righteousness which is in the Law” (Phil. 3:4-6), but he too needed to have his sins washed away (Acts 22:16; 1 Tim. 1:13-16).
Think also of Apollos who was “mighty in the Scriptures” and who “had been instructed in the way of the Lord.” He was “fervent in spirit” and “was speaking and teaching accurately the things concerning Jesus” (Acts 18:24-25). Moreover, he was so humble and valued the truth so much that he willingly received the instruction of Priscilla and Aquila, thereby changing his view on baptism (vv. 25-26). The twelve Ephesian disciples received Paul’s teaching on baptism and were willing to be immersed a second time, this rebaptism being “into the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 19:1-5).
All of these cases should be enough to convince us that there is no shame in admitting that we have been in Scriptural ignorance and even spiritual blindness regarding the subject of our investigation in this booklet. In fact, it is honorable to acknowledge error. Nothing delights the heart of God more than a sensitive conscience of one who readily acknowledges error and sin, then honestly seeks to obey God when he sees further light! We prove our humility, sincerity, honesty, and faith in God when we submit to His Word when we finally understand it (Acts 17:11; Isaiah 66:2; James 1:21-22,25). We must be like Saul (later Paul the apostle) who shockingly realized his error then humbly asked Jesus, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). On the day of Pentecost, “those who had received his word were baptized” (Acts 2:41). The point is that, although we may be deeply religious and love to pray and read God’s Word, it is the part of honesty to admit error and humble ourselves in obedience to God.
Perhaps this is one of the most difficult aspects of this entire matter: Are we willing to humbly admit that what we formerly understood about conversion and salvation was at least partially in error and that we ourselves have been gravely deceived about what we thought we experienced? This requires humility, embarrassment, denial of self, acknowledgment of wrong, and a realization that God has a right to command—while we have a responsibility to obey whatever the cost may be! It is far better to be embarrassed by our mistakes and denounced by dear but deceived friends now than to be unprepared to face the Judge of all the earth on that Great Day that is sure to come (Matthew 7:21-27).
I call upon you to think through what you have learned in this little study and consider it further. This additional research may be very helpful. But please do not pass it off as inconsequential. God means what He says and has said what He means in this verse—and in all of Scripture. Are you willing to believe Him? Are you willing to obey Him?