Those who suppose baptism is necessary for salvation frequently cite Peter’s words in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized,” as evidence that belief plus baptism results in salvation. Scripture clearly does not support this view.
First, as the book of Acts itself demonstrates, baptism is a sign of conversion, not the means of conversion. Indeed, Acts 10:47 describes believers who were indwelt by the Holy Spirit (and therefore saved—see Romans 8:9) prior to being baptized. Moreover, when the thief on the cross placed his faith in Christ, Jesus said to him, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), even though the dying thief had no chance to be baptized.
Furthermore, the Bible as a whole clearly communicates that we are saved by faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8–9). As Paul pointed out in Romans, our righteous standing before God is “by faith from first to last” (Romans 1:17). When the jailer asked the apostle Paul, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul responded, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:30–31).
Finally, although baptism is not the means by which we are saved, it is the means by which we are set apart. Through baptism we testify that we are no longer our own—we have been bought by Christ’s blood and have been brought into the community of faith. Thus in Acts 2:38 Peter was not suggesting that his hearers could not be saved apart from baptism; rather, he was saying that their genuine repentance would be evidenced by their baptism. As St. Augustine taught, it is not the absence of baptism but the despising of baptism that damns. Indeed, behind the symbol of baptism is the substance of baptism—the blood of Jesus Christ which cleanses from sin. As water cleanses the skin from soil and sweat, so the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses the soul from the stain of sin.
For further study, see Hank Hanegraaff,“Bringing Baptism into Biblical Balance,” Christian Research Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 (1996) available through the Christian Research Institute at www.equip.org.
“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”