Water Baptism, Acts 2:38

This article is part of a series responding to an article titled "THE BIBLE VERSUS THE CHURCH OF CHRIST" by James L. Melton. The original article is no longer available at av1611.org as it once was. Reading a response without access to the original writing can be frustrating. Having the context of quotes is important. You can download Mr. Melton's article here.

by William J. Stewart

Acts 2:38 reads, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

Those who teach salvation by faith only say the word “for” in Acts 2:38 means “because of.” Mr. Melton cites a Delton Haun tract which states “for” is rendered “in order to” or “unto” in some translations. Melton very quickly notes “…how the Church of Christ must refer to OTHER TRANSLATIONS in order to find support for their false teachings!” Melton, a staunch KJV only advocate, affirms, “We will stick with the Book that God uses, the King James Bible.”

The KJV came over 1,500 years after the original transmission of God’s word. It was not the first translation of Scripture into another language, nor is it the first English translation of the Bible. I know that King James authorized the King James Version, but where has God ever stated that the KJV exclusively is His word in the English language? Since it is a side issue, we’ll not take the time to address the fallacy of the KJV only position here, but I am happy to sit down and study with anyone who wants to dig into it further.

Returning to the discussion of Acts 2:38, Melton says, “…the term ‘for’ does not always mean ‘in order to’…” He gives Luke 5:14 as an example, where Jesus healed a leper and told him to go offer a sacrifice “for your cleansing.” From this, Melton concludes: “the word ‘for’ sometimes means ‘because of,’” since the man had already been cleansed of his leprosy. While it is true he’d been healed, he had not yet been cleansed. Jesus commanded him to go make sacrifice according to the Law (Leviticus 14:4, 20-21). According to the Law, he would not be clean until after the sacrifices were made. When Jesus sent him to make sacrifice “for your cleansing,” it was not because he was already cleansed; it was in order to be cleansed.

There is another problem with using Luke 5:14 to demonstrate “for” can mean “because of” in Acts 2:38. The texts don’t use the same Greek word for “for.” The word in Luke 5:14 is peri; the word in Acts 2:38 is eis. Allow me to give an example that uses the same word; not just the same word, but the exact same phrase in the Greek. Matthew 26:28 reads, “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.” The Lord’s blood was shed “for the remission of sins” (eis aphesis hamartia). Will Melton or anyone else affirm that Jesus blood was shed BECAUSE we already had the remission of sins? Everyone understands His blood was shed UNTO the remission of sins. Peter says we are baptized “for the remission of sins” (eis aphesis hamartia). There is no valid reason to make the phrase mean something different in Acts 2:38 than what it means in Matthew 26:28.

Melton tells us “At the time of Acts 2:38, Peter didn’t fully understand Salvation by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9).” I’m not sure what to make of that statement. Is Melton conceding that Acts 2:38 teaches baptism for the forgiveness of sins, but saying Peter was wrong? Jesus promised Peter and the other apostles that the Spirit would guide them into all truth (John 16:13). That being the case, it’s hard to believe that Peter would teach something erroneous in Acts 2:38, as Melton suggests. He points to Acts 15:11 as evidence that Peter spoke something very different, that he no longer taught baptism for the forgiveness of sins. He quotes Peter as saying “…through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved…” Friend, that is the epitome of dishonesty. Melton uses an ellipsis (…) to change the meaning of Peter’s statement. Here is the entire sentence: “But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they.” Who are “they”? A look at the context of Acts 15 shows it is a discussion about whether the Gentiles were subject to Moses’ Law. Peter said that “we” (the Jews) shall be saved in the same manner as “they” (the Gentiles). Neither Jew nor Gentile were subject to Moses’ Law; both were to obey the gospel of Christ. That is—there is only one gospel, and one plan to save people, whether Jew or Gentile, and it had nothing to do with adherence to the Mosaic law. Peter’s statement in Acts 15:11 does not negate the necessity of baptism which he taught is Acts 2:38. In fact, this same apostle would eventually write 1 Peter 3:21 (go take a peek).

Melton correctly states “there are NO GENTILES in Acts 2:38.” Somehow, this leads him to believe that Acts 2 was “a NATIONAL situation concerning Israel, not an individual situation dealing with lost sinners.” Yet, in the same paragraph he tells us they were told how to be saved in verse 21, “…whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” The “whoever” of verse 21 makes this an INDIVIDUAL, not a NATIONAL thing. How does one call on the name of the Lord? Mr. Melton didn’t tell us. In Acts 22:16, Ananias urged Saul of Tarsus to become a Christian. Notice what he said: “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.” Ananias, who was commissioned by the Lord to teach Saul (Acts 9:10-18), associated baptism with calling on the name of the Lord.

Melton confidently affirms, “No one in the chapter asks how to be saved.” He is careful to note the question in verse 37 was “what shall we do?” not “What must I do to be saved?” Semantics! In response to their inquiry, Peter said they needed to repent and be baptized. Since he doesn’t like the answer, Melton refuses to believe the question had anything to do with salvation. However, he does point us to Acts 16:31 for “the answer to THAT question.” OK, let’s go check it out. In Acts 16, there is a jailer in Philippi who is charged with keeping Paul and Silas secure. He fell asleep on the job, an earthquake happened which opened the doors and loosed their chains. When he woke up, he figured the prisoners had fled, and drew his sword to kill himself. Paul called out to stop him, for all the prisoners were accounted for. It is at this point the man asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). In verse 31, he was told, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Melton wants you to stop there. May I encourage you to keep reading? Verse 32, “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.” This man didn’t know who Jesus was—he was a Gentile jailer in Philippi. He needed to be taught. Verse 33, “And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and al his family were baptized.” Having learned about who Jesus was, the jailer did two things: 1) he washed their stripes (repentance, he was sorry for the role he had in their suffering), and 2) he was baptized. He did the same thing that Peter told the crowd in Acts 2 to do, repent and be baptized. Could it be that he heard the same message from Paul and Silas that the Jerusalem crowd heard from Peter?

Mr. Melton says “WE were told to be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost in Matthew 28:19,” and sets that against the baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ” in Acts 2:38. His conclusion? The latter is “obviously a special baptism for the first century Jews who had rejected Christ. They were told to be baptized in His name to show that they now RECEIVED Him.” Melton’s argument is nothing more than posturing. It is wild, baseless speculation to mislead the reader. Perhaps it would be helpful to acknowledge what “in the name of” means. It’s not that difficult. A police officer cries out, “Stop, in the name of the law.” He just cited his authority. James 5:10 speaks about the prophets “who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Colossians 3:17 reads, “…whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus…” It is a statement of authority. For more examples, look at Acts 4:7; 5:40; 1 Corinthians 5:4; 2 Thessalonians 3:6. Melton tries to make a WE (Gentiles) vs THEY (Jews) contrast between Matthew 28:19 and Acts 2:38. No such contrast exists. Whether one is baptized “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) or “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38) or “in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:48) or “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 19:5) doesn’t matter. They key is the acknowledgement of the authority of God. It is not about a baptismal formula to be recited, but an authority to be acknowledged.

Again, Melton sets God’s word against itself. This time, Acts 2:38 and Acts 10:44. He acknowledges in Acts 2 the Jews received the Holy Spirit AFTER they were baptized. He then jubilantly explains why the Spirit came upon the believing Gentiles BEFORE baptisms in Acts 10. Melton poses the question: “Why didn’t Peter tell the Gentiles in Acts 10:44 the same thing that he told the Jews in Acts 2:38? Answer: GOD DIDN’T GIVE HIM A CHANCE! God went ahead and sent the Holy Spirit before anything was said about baptism, because He didn’t want anyone confusing baptism with Salvation.” It’s sad that Melton wants us to believe that Peter, who was under the direction of the Holy Spirit, was actually working against God, and that God had to thwart the preacher before he said anything about baptism. What a sad and absolutely inaccurate explanation of what occurred in Acts 10.

The conversion of Cornelius and his family was special. This was the first time the gospel was preached to the Gentiles. Some miraculous things took place in order to bring it to fruition. Had the angel not appeared to Cornelius (Acts 10:3-6), he would never have known he wasn’t serving God faithfully, nor would he have known to send for Peter. Had Peter nor fallen into a trance and received the vision of the sheet let down from heaven (Acts 10:10-16), he’d not have learned at that time the Gentiles were not unclean (Acts 10:28, 34-35), and he would not have gone to Cornelius’ house. Had the Spirit not spoken to Peter and told him to go with them men at his door (Acts 10:19-20), his doubts may have caused him to refuse. The vision dealt with animals, not people, and Peter was still mulling over the meaning of it in his mind (Acts 10:17, 28). And had the Spirit not fallen upon the Gentiles, those who went with Peter (Acts 10:23, 45), who did not see the angel that appeared to Cornelius, nor the vision of the sheet seen by Peter, nor heard the voice of the Spirit which commanded Peter, may have remained in doubt whether the Gentiles truly could receive the gospel or not. The Spirit falling upon the Gentiles “astonished” those of the circumcision who believed, and now, they would be witnesses to the fact that God had received the Gentiles. It wasn’t just Peter’s word. Take any of these miraculous events away from Acts 10, and the gospel either doesn’t go to the Gentiles, or there is a huge cloud of doubt concerning it.

Melton would like us to believe that the Spirit coming upon the Gentiles in Acts 10 is evidence they were saved before being baptized. Again, the text reveals the purpose of the outpouring of the Spirit upon Cornelius’ household. It was not given to confirm that the Gentiles were already saved, it was given to convict the mind of the Jews who were present, so they would not stand in the way of the Gentiles receiving salvation. What the Gentiles received in Acts 10 was a miraculous measure of the Spirit, not the indwelling of the Spirit. The indwelling of the Spirit is given to those who have obeyed the gospel (Acts 5:32; Ephesians 1:13-14). Speaking in tongues is not evidence of salvation, as some assume. That is a common charismatic doctrine. Will Melton join the Pentecostals in affirming that we must speak in tongues to demonstrate we are saved? In Numbers 22:28, “…the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she…” spoke. God’s Spirit fell upon Balaam’s donkey, and it spoke in tongues! Does that mean it was a Christian donkey? Speaking in tongues is not necessarily proof of salvation.

Though there are some unique things in the conversion account in Acts 10, it still fits the pattern found elsewhere in the book of Acts. The gospel was preached to them, they believed it, and they responded in faithful obedience. In Acts 10:6, the angel to Cornelius that Peter “will tell you what you must do.” What did Peter tell Cornelius to do? The same thing he told the Jewish crowd at Pentecost, “…he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (Acts 10:48).

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