Acts 2:38—Not So Tough

Wayne Jackson
Another argument which denies the essential role baptism plays in our salvation is answered.

The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry maintains a website that operates out of southern California. It is under the oversight of author and webmaster, Matthew J. Slick, BA, MDiv. Mr. Slick is also an associate “pastor” and “elder” with the Wellspring Christian Fellowship in Escondido, California.

[Note: In the New Testament, the titles “pastor” and “elder” represent the same role (cf. 1 Peter 5:1-2, where the verb “feed” (v. 2) is a cognate form of the noun “pastors,” Ephesians 4:11).]

On his website, Mr. Slick has articles dealing with a variety of topics. Some of them are commendable. Many of them, however, dreadfully distort New Testament truth.

Consider, for example, a piece titled, “Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?” The author succinctly replies: “The answer is a simple, ‘No.’” He then addresses what he describes as “some of those verses that are commonly used to support the idea that baptism is necessary to salvation.”

We will not take the time at this point to review Mr. Slick’s entire article. Our attention will be confined to his discussion of Acts 2:38. He begins by quoting the passage:

Peter replied, “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.”

Our friend then muses: “This verse is a tough one.”

It’s not so “tough”—unless one already has his mind abused with the notion that baptism cannot be a condition in the plan of redemption.

The gentleman continues: “It seems to say that baptism is a part of salvation.” It doesn’t “seem” to say it; it actually says it. He opines that this cannot be the case, though, for such a conclusion would contradict other Scriptures. Our friend then seeks to employ a rather time-worn evasion in defense of his position—although his version of it may suggest that he really does not understand the nature of the original argument.

Mr. Slick attempts to sever the connection between the verbs “repent” and “be baptized” (even though they are connected by the coordinate “and”) on the ground that the former term is plural in number, while the latter is singular.

According to him the sense would seem to be: “Repent [plural] for the forgiveness of your [plural] sins, and [separate from the foregoing] each of you [singular] get baptized [as a now-saved person].”

The gentleman appears to think that simply because there is a change in grammatical number, this somehow has disassociated baptism from repentance, and therefore distanced it from the phrase, “for the forgiveness of sins.”

This is a debate quibble hoary with age. It was ineffectively employed by Ben N. Bogard in his discussion with N.B. Hardeman more than sixty years ago. The eloquent Hardeman demolished the argument!

First of all, let us focus again on the motive behind this argument. Here is the difficulty for Mr. Slick and others of his theological persuasion.

The two commands, “repent” and “be baptized,” are joined by the conjunction “and.” It follows that if repentance is essential to salvation, so also is baptism. On the other hand, if baptism may be dismissed, repentance may be as well.

Since Protestants have already determined in their minds that baptism cannot be a requisite for salvation but that repentance is essential, this passage obviously “troubles” them.

Their challenge, therefore, is this: how may one divorce the obligation to “repent” from the command “be baptized” in this passage? The above-stated grammatical contortion, based upon the differing verbal “numbers,” is their solution.

However, the argument is futile. It is a fundamental form of grammatical construction that a group may be addressed with a general command; and then, as a matter of emphasis, a second injunction may be issued to each individual within the group—both commands being equally obligatory.

Here is an example of this construction we hear frequently: “All who are departing for San Francisco, approach gate three; each of you must have his ticket available for the agent.”

Let me follow up on this in a couple of ways. Several years ago I wrote a letter to F.W. Gingrich, co-translator, along with William Arndt, of the highly-respected Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. This is the most authoritative Greek lexicon extant in the English language. The letter, dated February 12, 1968, inquired as follows:

Dear Professor Gingrich: Is it grammatically possible that the phrase “for the remission of sins,” in Acts 2:38, expresses the force of both verbs, “repent ye” and “be baptized each one of you,” even though these verbs differ in both person and number?

From Albright College, Reading, Pennsylvania (February 21, 1968), Gingrich replied:

Yes. The difference between metanoesate [repent] and baptistheto [be baptized] is simply that in the first instance, the people are viewed together in the plural, while in the second the emphasis is on each individual.

No credence can be given to the sort of argument made by Mr. Slick. But, as indicated above, some religionists—particularly our Baptist neighbors—have argued this position for years. In reality, though, they’ve been notoriously inconsistent.

I have before me at this moment a copy of the Church Manual Designed For The Use Of Baptist Churches, by J.M. Pendleton. In a segment which addresses the “subjects” who are appropriate candidates for baptism, Pendleton was attempting to explain why baptism may not be administered in the case of infants. In a consideration of Acts 2:38, he wrote:

The gospel was preached, the people were pierced to the heart, and cried out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you.” No man will say that the command “Repent,” is applicable to infants, and it is certain the same persons [emphasis added here] were called on to repent and be baptized (1955, 84).

Pendleton’s concession completely devastates the argument of his Baptist colleagues.

But consider this additional statement from Mr. Slick, the director of the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry:

Repentance is a mark of salvation because it is granted by God (2 Tim. 2:25) and is given to believers only. In this context, only the regenerated, repentant person is to be baptized.

A couple of observations must be made regarding this statement:

  1. Repentance is a “gift” from God only in the sense that the Lord grants man the opportunity to repent (cf. Acts 11:18). That the sinner has the obligation to personally do the repenting is evidenced by the fact that he is commanded to discharge the responsibility (Acts 2:38; 3:19).
  2. There is no biblical evidence whatever that “regeneration” is effected at the point of repentance. That is Mr. Slick’s unwarranted assertion. In the text under consideration, “forgiveness of sins” follows both repentance and immersion; it does not precede either of these commands. The gentleman is simply wrong about this matter.

Our friend’s desire to defend the integrity of the Scriptures in various areas of apologetics is commendable. However, his egregious perversion of the divine plan of salvation undermines an otherwise noble effort. We can only hope he will restudy his position on the plan of redemption.

  • Pendleton, J. M. 1955. Church Manual Designed For The Use of Baptist Churches. Philadelphia, PA: Judson Press.